A Passion Primer

Sermon for Sunday, April 13, 2014 || Passion/Palm Sunday, Year A || Matthew 26:31–27:54

Passion2014If you’ve spent any length of time in the Episcopal Church, you know the sermon comes after the Gospel reading. But because of the nature of our Gospel reading today, I hope you will allow me to flip that convention around. The Passion Gospel we will read in a few moments has the lyric substance of an epic poem; the depth of one of the works of a Russian master – Dostoyevsky, say; and the emotional weight of the entire book of Psalms: all in the space of an average magazine article. So rather than preaching after we listen to the performance of this momentous work of faith and story-telling, I thought I’d talk with you now, before we listen. I plan, in the next few minutes, to give you something of a listening guide: a few keys to listening faithfully, and a few things to listen for.

Before we begin the reading, I invite you (during the silence/hymn) to acknowledge all the things that are clamoring for attention in your mind: the sports practice after the service, the spring break vacation that needs packing for, the unpaid bills, the house that’s still on the market, the impending surgery, papers that are due, deadlines at work. Acknowledge each thing and then gently push it aside; breathe it away for the time being. Clear a space within; within your mind, within your heart. And invite God to fill that space with the truth of Christ’s Passion.

Also before we begin reading, just a note for our performance practice today. I will be narrating, Craig will be reading the parts of Jesus and Peter, and Sarah will be reading the parts of everyone else. That is, except for the place in the story when Pontius Pilate addresses the crowd. That part is yours. I know many people feel uncomfortable voicing this part. Saying, “Let him be crucified,” feels like the worst kind of betrayal. Speaking aloud those words always causes a deep sorrow to well up in me, and I bet many of you feel it, too.

Even so, I hope you will still say the words when it comes to your turn. I know they are hard to voice, painful to say aloud, but they are also necessary. Cathartic, even. Saying those words today – “Let him be crucified” – allows us to give voice to a year’s worth of our own sin, our own willful separations from God, both small and great. In those four words, we identify with the jealous leaders who brought Jesus to the Roman officials. We confess our complicity in this sad desire to separate ourselves from the source of grace and healing. We say those words today. We live with them rattling around in the hollowness inside us this week. As they reverberate within, their echo is like a mirror held up to our willful separation. We see ourselves for the lonely, despairing people our choices often make of us. For a week, we live with those words on our lips. Then, a week from today, we replace them with fresh words of praise, with shouts of triumph, with good news about God’s eternal embrace heralded by Christ’s resurrection.

Before we move on to our proclamation of Christ’s Passion, here are a few things I invite you to listen for. First, listen for things you might never have heard in this reading no matter how many times you’ve listened to it. Small things like Jesus’ own non-violence; Simon Peter’s weeping; Judas’s repentance; the warning of Pilate’s wife; the service of the unnamed person who gave Jesus wine to drink; the final witness of the Roman centurion.

Second, notice how often Matthew, our Gospel writer, puts truth on the lips of those in charge of Jesus’ execution. When Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ death, the rioting crowd responds, “His blood be on us and on our children!” And in a way, it is – not as evidence of murder, but as a cleansing agent, as a way of removing the very sin the rioting crowd is committing. We are “washed in the blood of the lamb.” Notice also the soldiers who hail Jesus as king. They do it in mocking, as a despicable game, but even so they speak the truth. Notice finally, the words of the chief priests as Jesus hangs from the cross, also said in cruel jest. These words include, “He trusts in God.” This trust is independent of their desire for corroboration of that trust. This trust is Jesus’ own brand, which goes well beyond saving his broken body and finds its home on the other side of Easter.

After you empty yourself to allow God to fill you with the witness of Christ’s passion, and while you are listening for those small details Matthew gives us, I invite you to enter the story yourself. Taste the tang of fear in the air. Feel the crush of bodies clamoring for blood. Listen to the jeers. See Jesus standing silently, absorbing the cruelty of the world in order to bring it with him to the cross in order for its power to die.

And as you stand with Jesus’ enemies, here them speak the truth unbeknownst to themselves. Allow that ironic truth to well up within you. And believe. Set your heart on the one who went willingly to torture and death. Set your heart on the one who suffered for us. Set your heart on the one who died on the cross. Because he has set his heart on you.

*Art: detail from “Christ Nailed to the Cross” by William Blake (c.1803)

These Things Last

 (Sermon for Sunday April 17, 2011 || Palm Sunday Year A || Psalm 118; Matthew 21:1-11)

You may or may not have noticed that we skipped sixteen verses of today’s psalm. We read verses one and two, and then we leapt to verse nineteen and read to the end. Now, I don’t know about you, but the lectionary prompting me to skip things just makes me more and more curious about what I’m being told not to read. Perhaps this is the rebellious streak that never manifested in my adolescence finally coming out in bouts of unruly biblical interpretation. If so, I invite you to join me in my insubordination for a few moments.

Steve McQueen's Capt. Hilts goes to the "cooler" for insubordination about once every half hour of the legendary film "The Great Escape" (1963).

The opening verse of the psalm, which we did read, says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.” Other translations render “mercy” as “loving kindness” and “faithful love,” as in “his faithful love lasts forever.” The psalmist then moves from this declaration of love to the verses we skipped, which tell of a difficult military campaign. The middle section reads: “All the nations surrounded me, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. Yes, they surrounded me on every single side, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. They surrounded me like bees, but they were extinguished like burning thorns. I cut them down in the Lord’s name!” The psalmist continues with a victory shout: “The Lord’s strong hand is victorious! The Lord’s strong hand is ready to strike! The Lord’s strong hand is victorious!”

With the bloody, militant verses through, the lectionary picks back up on safer terrain for the final ten verses of the psalm. Isolated as they are in this morning’s reading, these ten verses depict an innocuous procession to the temple for some sort of sacrifice of thanksgiving. But the militant verses show this psalm in a different light than we might have otherwise expected. This is no ordinary procession to the temple; this is a victory march. This is the triumphant rally following a hard-fought war. The victors parade into the city with verse 19 on their lips: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.”

A few verses later, we hear the chants of the crowd lining the streets as the troops pass: “Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Wait just a second. We heard these same words again this morning, again from a crowd, again during a parade. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the crowds chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Could we have just heard the same story twice in a row? We sure did, but you’ll notice some glaring differences, which show that the story in the Gospel will soon come to quite a different ending, which we will hear at the end of this service.

In the psalm, the ones who come in the name of the Lord are the ones who cut down their foes also in the name of the Lord. In the Gospel, the one who comes in the name of the Lord is the prince of peace.

In the psalm, the speaker shouts that the Lord’s strong hand is victorious and ready to strike. In the Gospel, Jesus offers no retaliation upon his arrest and reprimands the disciple who lashes out with the sword. Jesus shows his power not in victory, but in sacrifice.

In the psalm, the speaker declares: “I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” In the Gospel, Jesus gives up his life in order to declare what the Lord is doing.

In the psalm, the people call out for success. In the Gospel, Jesus knows that sacrifice, rather than success, is his calling.

In the psalm, the parade “form(s) a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar,” where the blood of the animal of the ritual sin offering will be smeared. In the Gospel, Jesus takes on the role of sin offering and sacrifices his own life for the sins of the whole world.

Whereas the psalm tells this story of a parade as the end of a triumphant military campaign, the Gospel tells this same story as the beginning of a defeat so great that the subject of the parade is put to death and his followers betray him, deny him, and desert him.

And yet, we are left to wonder: which one is the true victory? Which parade truly tells the story that the first and last verses of the psalm proclaim: “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.”

God’s faithful love lasts forever. The triumphant military campaign in Psalm 118 is fleeting. Those same victorious soldiers marching through the gates of the city will, sadly, march out into battle again. But the death of the one whose only crime was truth-telling, the defiance of the one who stands against the forces of darkness and domination, the sacrifice of the one who drew all the world to himself while being raised up on a cross – these things last.

Jesus says to his disciples, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Jesus modeled this commandment in his own magnificent defeat. But we know that this isn’t the end of the story.

Because God’s faithful love lasts forever.

Aaron’s story

Sermon for April 5, 2009 || Palm Sunday, Year B, RCL || Mark 11:1-11

Imagine with me the thoughts of a boy named Aaron whose family owns the donkey, which Jesus’ disciples borrow for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

They came up to our farm this morning — two of them — while I was doing my chores. I don’t like mucking out the stable, but Father says it builds character, whatever that means. Mother says when I turn twelve next year, I don’t have to do it anymore. Then mucking will be Benjamin’s job. He’s only eight. We live in Bethany, which is really close to Jerusalem, and Father does a lot of trading there and sometimes he takes me with him.

Anyways, these two strangers just walked right up to Stony – that’s what I call him because he’s gray and hard to move when he has a mind to stay put. They walked right up to him and started untying him. Well, I came out of the stable with my rake and started shaking it at them. And they backed off because they didn’t want to get splattered. I held the rake like a spear and said: “What are you doing with Stony?”

“The Lord needs Stony for a little while, son, but we’ll bring him back soon,” says the first one, and I say right back: “I’m not your son, and you can’t have Stony. He’s mine.”

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up and Father was standing there. “Actually, he’s mine,” he says. I gave the strangers my best smirk, but then Father says: “And you may borrow the colt for as long as you need.” I threw the rake on the ground: “But, but Father…”

“No buts, Aaron.” And I knew he meant it because he said it in his deep voice. I watched the two men lead Stony away. When they were gone, Father looked down at me: “And don’t ever let me catch you mouthing off to strangers again. You know the story of Abraham and the three men.”

“Yes, Father.” Then he walked back to our house and when he was out of sight I hopped the fence and started following the two strangers. I decided it would be a good idea to keep an eye on Stony, just in case.

They led Stony a little ways toward Jerusalem and met up with a group of people. Then they threw their shirts onto Stony’s back like a saddle and one of the other men got on him. I’ve tried to jump on Stony a lot, but he never let’s me stay on. He jumps and bucks and shakes until I fall off. It’s not fair, ’cause Stony let this total stranger ride him.

I followed the group while they walked to the city. I made it into a game, running from rock to rock and trying to keep out of sight. I ran ahead and beat them to Jerusalem. There was a big crowd lining the road leading up to one of the gates. The people spread more clothes and even some tree branches on the road. They were all shouting and cheering and waving, like at a parade. I didn’t know what was so special about this stranger…except that he could ride Stony without falling off.

I tried to push my way through the crowd to get to the front so I could see better, but there were too many people. I walked all the way down the crowd looking for an opening, and when I got close to the gate, I saw another group of people. They weren’t shouting or cheering or waving. They were in a tight little group talking to each other. They sounded really mad. I heard one of them say, “Who does he think he is, a king?” Then they all laughed, but it didn’t sound like they thought it was very funny.

Then I remembered something I heard from my Rabbi last week. He said something about a king riding a colt like Stony. I crawled under the legs of the crowd and pushed my way through the gate into the city. I ran all the way to my Rabbi’s house, and when he let me in, I asked to see the scroll we were using last week — the prophet Zechariah. He still had it open on the table, but first he made me wash my hands and feet because I was mucking out the stable earlier. Then he helped me find the right place, and I read the lines over and over until I had them by heart: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…”

If that’s right, then Stony is in good hands, I thought. I left my Rabbi’s, and when I got back to the gate, all the people were gone. The parade was over, and I was really hungry, so I walked home. When I got to the farm, Stony was tied back in his place. I tried to jump on him, but he shook me off. I guess only kings can ride Stony.

But what is that stranger king of? Why would a victorious king ride on a smelly donkey and not a chariot or a big warhorse? I guess it might be because the king is supposed to cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. He wouldn’t ride one if he got rid of them all. The chariots and warhorses the Roman soldiers ride scare me. I’m short, and they wouldn’t even see me if I was in front of them.

But if he is king, then doesn’t he need chariots and soldiers to fight all the people who don’t want him to be king – like the Romans and those other people at the parade? Doesn’t he need the battle bow? How can he become king without fighting? How can he command peace to the nations? The Romans always say they bring us peace, but Father says it’s not really peace. Father says we are like prisoners…only without a jail. If the stranger who rode on Stony isn’t going to fight the Romans, how will he bring us peace?

Maybe he’ll bring peace by not fighting.