Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - April 13, 2014 ("Cry of the Whole Congregtion")

There was a point in college where I hit a wall in my studying. No matter how hard I tried, sitting at my desk or in the library, the equations and problems and the information we were supposed to memorize and solve were just too much for my brain. Others could take their class notes or their textbooks and somehow internalize all this stuff in some way that made it make sense to them. It didn’t work that way for me for some reason.

Thanks to a friend in the engineering school, I heard about this one classroom where all four walls were huge blackboards—those old-fashioned slate blackboards that professors don’t use anymore. On one night near the end of each semester, I would get into that room when it was vacant and take a piece of chalk and slowly write out the systems and processes my biochemistry professor had asked us to learn. Starting in the top left hand corner, with large, visible handwriting, I would slowly make my way around the room. It would take a while to get each system or process written out, but once it was done, I would go sit at a desk in the middle of the room and let myself be surrounded by the Kreb’s Cycle…or photosynthesis. I’d just look at it for a while and see how it all fit together. Others could take it apart on their index cards and notebook pages; I discovered I needed to see it writ large, in one big sweeping arc.

Jesus enters Jerusalem
Every year that’s what the church does with Holy Week. Every year, that’s what this congregation (and countless others) do on Palm Sunday, or the Sunday of the Passion. We let ourselves be surrounded by the story. We lay the whole process out there, in one sweeping arc—all the pieces of Jesus’ last semester put together so that we can see them as a whole. It starts with his spectacular entry into Jerusalem up there in the left hand corner, people waving palms and smiling, and then flows from there—the Last Supper in the Upper Room, the anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, and the trial before Pilate. As we move along we get the sentencing and then eventually the crucifixion and the soldiers casting lots for his clothing, Jesus’ final words and then his lifeless body taken off the cross. The rest of the year we get Jesus’ life on little index cards, each Sunday a small snippet that points, in some way, to the cross at the end. This week, however, we get to put it all together, see their undeniable connections, and arrive at their irrefutable result: Jesus comes to die.

The Last Supper (Coptic icon)
Yes, that’s the final solution to this giant process before us, the conclusion we must wrestle with for as long as we’re alive: Jesus comes to die. When we’re presented with the index cards of him—at Christmas, or at Epiphany, or when he tells his remarkable parables and preaches his confusing sermons—it’s easy to miss that fact. Jesus can give a lot of wisdom, and he can offer a lot of thoughts to ponder in times of worry or regret, and all of that is good and helpful.

However, seeing the events of Holy Week spread out all around us forces us to come to terms with what always happens when God’s love in Jesus Christ encounters the world on the world’s terms. When the world’s terms are involved, Jesus is going to die. When the world’s reality is taken into consideration, this is what’s it’s going to come to. And, despite all the pain and anguish it will cause Jesus, God isn’t going to encounter us in any other way than on the world’s terms because that’s where we are. This is where we live, enmeshed and intertwined with all the world’s evil and sin and brokenness. Jesus is the one who bears the brunt of this encounter, and Christians from the very beginning of our faith have gathered at this time of year to put this all together and hear it so that we don’t forget it.

He will not save humanity simply by dispensing wisdom or giving us inspirational stories to live by. Jesus will heal the world and begin to put it back together by submitting to its brokenness on our behalf. He will take the world seriously, which means he will enter into the darkest pain and isolation. But he will also do this by giving up any desire to defend himself or to use force in a way that would hurt anyone.

The Betrayal of Judas (Duccio)
If you stand back at this and still don’t quite understand, fear not: Jesus’ path has always been a very difficult conclusion to grasp, so don’t feel bad if it still leaves you speechless at some point. One 19th century theologian who wrote pages and pages of articles and sermons about God and faith would still contemplate the sum of Jesus’ life by saying simply, as if his hands were thrown up in the air in surrender: “A God on the cross! That is all my theology.”[1]

But there’s something strange about this horrifying conclusion that you’ve probably already suspected. As this story is playing out for us today—and as it plays out for us later in the week on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday—at some point we make the connection that we’re not really in the middle of some classroom, or in the middle of some sanctuary, letting it play out around us. We are not simply passive observers of the process, students who are cramming at the last minute and hoping that it all sinks in. The something strange involves you and it involves me. In reality, we’re in the equation. We’re part of the cycle, that system that leads to his demise. We are not innocently sitting back and taking it all in.

No, in fact, somewhere up on that giant chalkboard that contains the world’s sin, our names are squeezed in. We are there, in all our brokenness and orneriness, another part of the world’s terms that Jesus comes to address and to heal. And the death of Jesus? Well, we have somehow helped move it along to its inevitable conclusion, too.

Ecce Homo (Antonio Ciseri, 19th c.)
In this morning’s rendition of the final days of Jesus, you will be an undeniable part of the equation. Specifically, you will be lending your voices to this scene as the people in the crowd, as one of that horde that do nothing to stop the process and turn it around. But there are times we may appear throughout our lives as someone with one of these more prominent roles. Like Peter, we may deny our relationship to the Lord, especially when put on the spot. Or like Judas, we take the path of greed and false security rather than faithfulness to God. Or like Pilate, we shrug our shoulders and wash our hands rather than make any real decision about God and truth, and in so doing make a decision to align ourselves with the powers of the world that try to kill and silence goodness. Or maybe we’re one of the disciples who are asked simply to pray, but end up just falling asleep on the job.

Whatever role it ends up being, we’re in there somewhere. We’re up on that chalkboard, and we’re helping God reach that conclusion that only humility and love can save us all, even if it means death on a cross.

It will be important for us to remember and realize all of this, but let us also keep in mind something else. As it turns out, when our sinfulness and brokenness have had its way with Jesus, when once more we listen to the whole story with Peter and Judas and Pilate all playing their parts, there will still be one last section of blackboard with nothing on it. There will be one final result, one conclusion which, on our own, we’d never be able to figure out because as far as we can figure, our sin always ends in Jesus’ death. But there is one more blank section of blackboard God is saving for the end. And it’s a doozy. It’s a surprising, amazing doozy that will save it all, make it all make sense…make it all glorious. That little part of the blackboard won’t be filled in until, oh, until sometime next week.

May I suggest you come back?

You’ll have to see it to believe it.

Crucifixion (Georges Rouault, 1937)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jean Lacordaire

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