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How do we make sense of life? That seems a rather broad question for a Sunday morning in spring, and almost impossible to answer in a sermon as short as this one hopefully is – right? But in the face of very scary and heartbreaking news locally, nationally, globally…how do we make sense when life gets so off the rails? When we are handed incompletes, quandaries, when the numbers don’t add up? So often we just draw conclusions and make sides, knowing with certainty what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is, being very sure about what makes for daylight and what makes for the darkness of night. Until, that is, it’s not so clear.
Holy Week is all about the telling of a story where the distance between day and night and day is a little murky. It is a week about dusk, or dawn, or the times in between the noonday sun and the deep blues of midnight. Only we often skip parts of the story. As a pastor, it is an annual challenge to see how to present Holy Week for a one day a week crowd. How do you squeeze the whole week into Sunday? How do you effectively show people the whole story – because it’s not just life and resurrection, there is death in the middle of that equation. Please note that we don’t even hold a Good Friday service, we join up with other churches hoping to build up enough mass between us to mark that day with some drama. After all, it is the remembrance of Jesus’ death, an equal and crucial part of the equation that teaches us through our trust that God is greater than fear and death, which might be the best description of salvation in the first place. God is greater than our limitations. God is greater than our fear or even our death. Be ye, therefore, saved from the illusion that the world depends on you and saved into the idea that you are free to act in the world without the fear of failure. For God saves us from that…but we don’t get that story if we don’t read the whole thing, and we don’t get it if we aren’t willing to change our expectations.
We’ve had an extra reading today, because this is Palm Sunday, but it is also Passion Sunday in the church calendar. See pastors have to choose on this Sunday which story to tell today – the beginning of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem or the end. The idea is that this day sets up Holy Week and, well, if you don’t have much going on in Holy Week, then you might tell the story that gets Jesus into the tomb now before you spring him, pun intended, from that tomb on Easter next Sunday. But today we’re getting a little of both, sort of a “passionate palm” Sunday. We began with the procession, like a parade with Richard’s telling of the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem like a coronation. The chances are high that maybe not on the exact day, but at some other time the main gates of the city were hosting the arrival of Pontius Pilate, lead by a garrison of Roman soldiers come to Jerusalem during the high holy days of Passover to make sure the Roman subjects, these Judeans, didn’t get out of hand. Pilate arrives with military force , banners and flags, royal cloth and golden chariots – a show of Roman power. Jesus arrives on a borrowed donkey with palm leaves taken from the trees around them to decorate his journey in – a show of solidarity and a very different kind of power.
The people shout, “Hosanna – here is the messiah!” But they do not know what they are saying.
They expect, like we still expect, the night to be cast out by the day, good to defeat evil with a mighty blast, power come as the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun – a good guy with a gun. Only Jesus doesn’t have a gun. And he teaches that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And when asked to show his power as the “Son of God”, he gives it away. We still don’t know what that means, either. Actually, we probably DO know what it means, but it is so challenging…so convicting…that we just walk away.
By the time we get to Palm Sunday, the messiah business isn’t going to go well for Jesus, which is perhaps why he denies the title almost every time the gospels say he is given it.“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, Matthew has Jesus ask his disciples in chapter sixteen. And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven…then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah, the Christ.
Jesus knew how people would take it. They would misunderstand completely what this whole messiah business was all about and make him into the next great Davidic king, here to overthrow the Romans with armed force and setup a new caliphate on the earth. But he was not to be the leader of some new theocracy, for his work is deeper than that. Theocracies can be built, but they don’t last because they are rarely about God…they are about power. And the things we call power are precisely what God asks us to give up to be faithful people.
There were others, of course, some who were very close to him, who wanted Jesus to be that kind of messiah, and were ready to take up arms beside him in a holy war. There was Judas, the man without whom we wouldn’t have an Easter, who when he saw that what Jesus taught would not bring him the victory he wanted but would instead ask him to surrender, turned away. In his heart, the premeditated part of Jesus’ murder began. And there were those still so afraid of authorities that they would deny Jesus at the first sign of tension. One was called Peter, who Jesus said was the rock on which the church would be built…a “rock” that denied him at the first opportunity.
Our story is not one of purity and certainty. Even Jesus, hanging on a cross, shouts, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani”, which means, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” This cry does not make it into all the gospels, maybe because the writers were as uncomfortable with the dusk as we are, as uncertain as all of us about what to do with the gray areas, the mix of good and evil, the dichotomies with which we live. As much as we’d sometimes like it to be, life is not just evil versus good, with us surrounded by light and the deep indigo of evil safely ensconced on the other side of where we stand. It is the battle that lives inside of us. We must ask ourselves – did Judas think he was doing evil or good? Did Peter think he was good only to find out that the same weakness lived in him in a different form?
We, as human beings, are subject to the same conditions that the apostle Paul called, “seeing through a glass but dimly”, where we get partials, and often distorted or blurry partials at that. Sometimes our most well-intentioned things cause great suffering and chaos over the long run. And sometimes there are no easy or good answers. And how, we might ask as we celebrate our own kinds of parades, cheering and praising the only good we can see, the only one for which we have eyes – how do we make space for the good that God may bring from the directions we aren’t expecting?
What is Easter without Judas? Where are we as a church without the rock on which we are forged being one of doubt and weakness? Without the darkness, what is light?
As we head into Holy Week and the stories are told again with their familiar plots and wrote characters, there is space for us to hear that the great joy of Easter morning is born from the deepest betrayal and darkness. There is space for us to hear that God works in the gray areas, moving with us, improvising as we change directions and make decisions, some of which we think are so good at the time, some of which aren’t good to begin with…there God moves and molds and re-calibrates, seeking to let some light shine through.
This week is not easy. It comes with last meals and snuffed candles, with dirges, with blood, sweat and tears and the hammering of nails. It comes with a tomb shut tightly and the death of a dream. It comes with mourning and heavy grief.
But it does not end there.