Our journey into the heart of God: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all.”

Palm Sunday is a rich, powerful, conflicted day in the life of the church. We begin with hosannas, palms, and praise, and end with silence and the cross. Each year, our hearts churn with emotion as we hear again the story of the last week of Jesus’ life and begin the journey that will pass through Maundy Thursday, lead to Good Friday, and the silence of Holy Saturday. We enter into the drama, participate as we wave our branches and shout, “Hosanna!” and a few minutes later, shout, just as loudly, “Crucify him.”

There is so much here, so much on which to reflect. And really, what might be best for us would be to be silent, to sit with our emotions, with the images that run through our minds, to sit with our memories, our faith, and our doubt, and not worry about words.

But among all those images, in the stories from Mark’s gospel that we heard, I want to draw your attention to one theme, one set of characters, one aspect of the drama, that might help us orient ourselves to this story and to the days that follow this one.

One of the dominant themes that runs through the Gospel of Mark, from its very beginning is that Jesus’ disciples are uncertain of who he is, unclear on what he is about, and misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and message. This portrayal intensifies as the gospel progresses, and in the passion narrative, we see a group of disciples who are fearful, forgetful, and abandon Jesus. He dies alone, on the cross, the cry of despair on his lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end, Jesus wonders whether he has been abandoned by God, as well as by his friends.

Even as this is Mark’s dominant theme, he writes into his gospel another theme, or contrasts the behavior of Jesus’ male disciples with another group of individuals, the group of women. So, at the beginning of today’s reading, we heard not only of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but of the wonderful story of the woman who anointed Jesus. Her behavior, and Jesus’ praise of her—“she has anointed my body beforehand for burial”—is Jesus’ acknowledgment that even if he is betrayed by Judas and the other male disciples don’t understand what is going to happen, this woman, this disciple does, and as he commends her he says, in one of those ironic twists Mark loves, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”—ironic, because the story is indeed told of her wherever the gospel is proclaimed, we don’t know her name.

So to at the end of today’s reading, Mark depicts Jesus’ death, the confession of the centurion, and then, “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”

There they were, watching silently, fearfully, full of grief. There they were standing afar off as their hopes and dreams were dashed, their teacher, killed. There they were as they watched his execution, his death, and watched as others they knew took his body down and buried it. Was it then that they made plans to come to the tomb after the Sabbath, to anoint his body with spices? To touch him once again, to perform the familiar and ancient rituals of burial?

As followers of Jesus, as seekers, the curious, Holy Week presents us with intense emotions, profound questions. It is a story that many of us know, and as we reenact it in the liturgy of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, we do more than go through motions, or play a part. We enter into the ancient story, and become characters in it ourselves. It is a story that asks us where we stand, what will we do?

And all of those characters, Judas the Betrayer, Peter the Denier, the disciples who fell asleep while Jesus prayed, the disciples who fled in fear from the scene and abandoned Jesus. We are at times, all of those characters. We have each at one time or another, acted like one of them, or of the others—the crowd who shouted “Crucify him” or the soldiers who executed him, or the bystanders who mocked.

Holy Week confronts us with profound questions, but none may be more pressing, more difficult, than the one that asks, “Where do you stand? Or “Are you walking with Jesus on his journey?” Are you staying with him, bearing witness?

Even as our very human emotions, our busy, complicated lives, our divided allegiances, encourage us or tempt us to flee, or keep silent, or deny, or betray, or simply to ignore, Mark is challenging us, as he always does, to go deeper, to plumb the depths of our own lives and experiences, and as we do that, to look for, to seek Jesus.

When we do that, when we dare to allow Mark’s story, the story of Jesus to enter deeply into our lives and world, we are confronted, not only with ourselves, but with the mystery of salvation, the mystery of Jesus, the mystery of love and sacrifice.

Earlier in the gospel, as Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, after he made his first prediction of what would happen when he got there, he told his disciples, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.”

When we do that, we enter into Jesus’ journey, going with him into the heart of God, where we will find love. It is not an easy journey, because as Mark insists, the journey to God, into God, is a journey into the suffering, oppression, and injustice of the world, where God is working transformation. It is there that we see God, there we find God, there we know and are loved by God.

Following Jesus to the cross, standing near the cross, we encounter God in Christ. We encounter the miracle of transformation as Mark tells us, even his executioner knew and saw, that truly “This man is the Son of God.” May this experience and transformation be yours this Holy Week, may this experience and transformation be everyone’s in the midst of our broken, suffering, unjust world.

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Protests, processions, Palm Sunday

One of those interesting confluences this week as the March for Our Lives took place in Madison today, a day after Madison Episcopalians walked the Stations of the Cross in Madison, a day before Palm Sunday and our re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Three consecutive days, and three very different scenes on the steps of Grace Church.

In my nine years at Grace, I have witnessed and participated in many marches and rallies. There were the Act 10 protests in 2011; the demonstrations after Tony Robinson’s death in 2015, the Women’s March in 2017. There were many others. Some passed unnoticed. Often, we open our doors and welcome protestors inside, even spontaneously, as we did on the Day without Latinos in 2016. Equally often, the protests pass barely unnoticed. It’s a rare day when the state legislature is in session when there aren’t a few people walking around the Capitol waving signs. Some days, the Solidarity Singers are loud; other times, they can barely be heard.

Walking the Stations of the Cross in this setting is always jarring to me. I encounter people whose faces I know. We pass by the food trucks where I often buy my lunch. But our route is also disorienting. There are blocks that we walk down that I rarely walk in my regular routine, and I have the opportunity to look around and contemplate the square from a different perspective than the one I have as I typically make my rounds.

Yesterday, we paused for one of the stations on N. Carroll St, just in front of Grace Church.  Across the street, on the Capitol sidewalk, the Solidarity Singers were in full voice. A few steps away from them, three police officers were talking with a homeless man. As we contemplated Jesus’ suffering and death, one of those little moments that occur regularly in downtown Madison was taking place. A man, likely intoxicated or high, possibly mentally ill, was dealing with police officers. As I watched, they called for additional assistance. EMT’s? I don’t know. We had to move on to the next station.

I wondered how many other incidents like that were taking place even as we were connecting the events of Jesus’ suffering and death with the violence, oppression, and inequality in our community and nation.

There were a handful of us yesterday–fifteen or so, who spent the hour tracing a path from Grace to the Dane County Jail, the City-County Building, and around Capitol Square. As we walked, bearing witness to injustice and oppression, remembering Jesus’ suffering and death, we passed by suffering that was occurring on the sidewalks beside us and the suffering  and oppression behind the walls of the jail, the courthouse. We walked past banks and law offices, and the museums that tell the official, sanitized version of Wisconsin history: The institutions that oppress, and in which we are enmeshed and implicated, the forces that oppress and marginalize vulnerable populations. All of these surround us and shape us. They are the air we breathe.

Today, there were thousands who marched from the Library Mall to the State Capitol to rally for gun control. As we do at Grace, we opened our doors on this cold day to offer  warmth and respite from the cold, rest for the weary. Before the march arrived at the Capitol, police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs made a round of the square and there was  a heavy visible presence of law enforcement.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will process through our courtyard to the very doors that were held open today. We will reenact Jesus’ protest march in the streets of Jerusalem, a march that proclaimed the coming of God’s reign, the overturning of the system of domination that crushed the poor, the outsider, the widow and orphan, the coming of a new way of being, a new world of justice and peace. I’m guessing that in terms of numbers, it looked more like the little group of us who walked the Stations of the Cross than the thousands that marched today. A small group of those men and women who had come with Jesus from Galilee, and perhaps a few locals who had heard about him.

On Good Friday, the whole weight of Rome’s imperial power fell on Jesus and his little band of followers. Many of us feel like an even more powerful weight of hatred and oppression looms over us and even now is crushing the most vulnerable in our society–people of color, LGBTQ persons, undocumented immigrants; the power of cynicism and the super-wealthy that have rigged the system in their favor.

But at the same time, the voices and energy of children have been raised to challenge one of the most powerful special interests in our land, and have mobilized millions across our country to cry out for justice and change.

Christians this Holy Week remember and re-enact the events of the last days of Jesus’ life; we remember the oppression and injustice that he fought with love. As Americans, we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his martyrdom for the cause of equality, justice, and freedom, and the hatred that opposed him and brought an end to his life. The forces arrayed against change are more powerful now than ever before.

Watching events unfold this week against a backdrop of oppression, injustice, and violence, fearful for those who speak out and remember the deaths of Jesus and MLK, despairing for the future of our nation and world, my faith is rekindled by the witness of school children who, having experienced the worst of humanity, are showing us the possibility of a new way, a new America.

We witness in many ways to the power of love and justice. In protests, in processions, as we walk the way of the cross. We witness in our words and in our actions, in worship and prayer. And we bear witness and offer support to the voices of those who cry out for justice and change. Through it all, my faith in God who is justice, peace, and love, sustains and strengthens me.

The Silence of Jesus: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

 

“But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:14)

Some of us were joking with Michael Covey earlier this week when he told us that he was going to read the part of Jesus in today’s reading of Matthew’s passion narrative. Michael is a criminal defense attorney. He travels across the state to defend clients in all sorts of cases, including murder trials. One week he might be up in Bayfield, another week he’s in La Crosse. His is an important, but often unappreciated, even vilified job, because he represents people accused of sometimes horrific crimes. He advocates for them, gives them voice, protects their rights. It’s ironic, though fitting, that he read Jesus’ role, because in this trial, Jesus stood alone, abandoned by his friends, confronting the most powerful authority in the known world, without rights or hope. And as Matthew tells the story, from his arrest through his execution, Jesus remained silent for the most part in the face of his accusers.

It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to understand how enormous a problem it was for early Christians that the person they regarded as the Son of God, risen from the dead, had been executed by the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was, as one scholar has called it, “execution by torture.” It was used against those Rome regarded as its worst offenders, especially revolutionaries. Crucifixion was a public display. The upright posts were permanent fixtures on roads coming into important towns and cities—the condemned would often carry the crossbeams themselves, as the gospels say Jesus did. And the deaths were prolonged as well as excruciating. It could take days to die. The corpses would be left hanging as mute witnesses to the fate of those who opposed Rome. For Jesus to have been crucified was to mark him, and his followers, as enemies of Rome.

It’s hard for us, in twenty-first century America to comprehend the ignominy, the disgust with which those condemned to crucifixion were regarded by the good people of the Roman Empire, the fine upstanding citizens of Jerusalem, or Rome, or any other prosperous Roman city. The best comparison for us might be to understand crucifixion for the Roman empire and culture as we regard someone branded, and prosecuted, as a terrorist—an enemy of the state, an enemy of everything we hold dear, all of our cultural values.

That’s how Rome regarded Jesus. That’s why he was executed, because he was fomenting rebellion against the state, because he was advocating an alternative to the Roman Empire, to Roman cultural values.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t just a rabble-rouser, nor was he a terrorist, although it is likely that the two men who were executed with him were something of the sort. As bandits, they were involved in some sort of armed resistance against Roman authority. What brought Rome’s attention to Jesus, and what finally resulted in his execution, was his proclamation of the coming reign of God, a realm in which values diametrically opposed to Rome were proclaimed, experienced, and shared.

We heard those values announced and explicated in the Sermon on the Mount. The vision laid out by Jesus there and throughout his public ministry is a vision of a transformed world, transformed relationships, where the poor, outcasts, outsiders are welcome; where enemies as well as neighbors are loved, where violence and oppression give way to peace. It is a vision of self-giving love, for individuals and for the whole people of God. Most of all, it is a vision of a world in which the values held dear by the wider culture—celebrity, success, wealth, and power give way to a different set of values—where the first will be last and the last first.

We see something of that vision expressed by Paul in today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians. It is the Christ hymn that sings of Christ emptying himself to become human, humbly and obediently living in such a way to show us God’s love incarnate; living in such a way that he aroused the hatred and enmity of Rome, and died on the cross.

We may want to focus on the cross today and in the days to come, but the important point to remember is that death is not the end of the story, either for us or for Jesus. As Paul argues here, Christ’s obedience, humility, his incarnating of God’s love that ended in the cross was vindicated. The gory, painful, ignominious death transformed into life, a victory over the forces of evil and death.

Jesus’ silence comes to an end on the cross with his final, despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry of despair, doubt, and pain, at a moment when all seems lost, when the reign of God seems farther away than ever before, when the message of love proclaimed and lived by Jesus seems to be refuted completely by the power of the Roman state.

But in that moment we see the power of God; we see God suffering with us in all of our struggles, suffering, and pain, we see God with us, in the struggle for justice and peace, we see God breaking open the gates of hell and conquering evil.

Many of us struggle; we are disheartened by the world in which live; horrified by the fate of refugees and immigrants, fearful for the future of human life and our planet, crushed by the weight of injustice, our hearts breaking for the victims of oppression and violence, including those who were gassed this week in Syria and the US’s knee-jerk military response to that carnage.

The cross offers no escape from any of this. The cross is a symbol of the reality of our world, the depths of human evil and depravity. But in its horror, in the horrors of our world, the cross also symbolizes the presence of God in all of those places, suffering with us, suffering with victims of injustice, violence, and oppression.

The cross is a symbol that even when things seem darkest, when it seems that evil has triumphed, the story is not over. God hears the cries of the suffering and the oppressed. Sometimes, we cry with them, sometimes we cry on their behalf. Sometimes, God cries with those who are suffering and in pain. The cross is a symbol of hope, of our hope that ultimately God will prevail. God does prevail.

 

Weeping in and for Jerusalem: A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, 2016

There’s an abrupt, shocking transition in our liturgy this morning. We begin in excitement, joy, and celebration with the liturgy of the palms as we re-enact what is called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Then suddenly, at the doors of the nave, our mood changes as I recited the powerful words of the collect:

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Holy Week is a time of intense emotions for many of us as we find ourselves thrown into the midst of a familiar story nearly two thousand years old. As liturgy, as ritual does, the movement of our bodies this week, the familiar words and hymns evoke not only the events that took place in Jerusalem that year, they also evoke all of the other year that we have participated in this story and in a way evoke all of the countless other Christians who over the millennia and across the globe this week, participate in the same story.

There are so many ways to approach this week, the story which we have heard and in which we are participating. There are characters to whom we might pay close attention and with whom we might identify. There is the portrayal of Jesus himself—so rich in this gospel, a portrayal shaped profoundly by the gospel writer’s concern. We experience his calmness in the face of arrest and execution; his forgiveness, his healing power in the midst of the chaos of arrest; his final words, and the way he dies. Jesus is in control of everything around him, even while the violence surrounds him, the turbulent chaos of crowds and injustice impinge upon him, and from him flows love and mercy.

Of all the things I’ve noticed while reflecting on the text this week, the repeated presence of one emotion has caught my attention. Perhaps it was triggered by the gospel we heard a couple of weeks ago in which Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Lk 13:34-35):

34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’,

Those verses foreshadow what we do today. Both in the acclamation during the liturgy of the palms: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and in the repetition of Jesus’ lament for the daughters of Jerusalem as he carries his cross to Golgotha. It’s an incident that only Luke records, and it’s worth repeating:

A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.”

But it may also be that Friday’s Downtown Stations of the Cross attuned me to the theme of weeping. This little episode is the theme of one of the stations in the traditional devotion of the Stations of the Cross, and it was one in ours as well which bring the traditional stations to life on the streets of our city and connect Jesus’ experiences and our devotions with the struggling and suffering in Madison. To think about the weeping women of Jerusalem in Madison is to be reminded of the plight of single mothers, of victims of domestic violence, of mothers who mourn the premature deaths of their children to the violence of the streets.

But that is not the only place in Luke’s passion narrative where weeping is present. After Peter denies Jesus, Luke tells us that he “wept bitterly.” And Luke adds that after Jesus’ death, the crowds who had watched his crucifixion went home, beating their breasts.

Weeping appears elsewhere in traditional devotions connected with the crucifixion. One of the most famous hymns to Mary, the stabat mater has as its first stanza:

At the Cross her station keeping,

stood the mournful Mother weeping,

close to her Son to the last.

Our liturgy may move us. As we wave our palms and shout hosanna, as we listen to the dramatic story of Jesus betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, as we sing the hymns connected with this day, we may find our emotions overwhelming us. For some, those depth of those feelings may have a great deal to do with things that are going on in our lives, or the lives of our friends and families. Some of us are grieving the death of a loved one, some of us are facing illness or the illness of a loved one. We may be struggling with work, or with difficult or broken relationships.

We bring all of that with us today. Some of us may be near tears, but those tears are for ourselves, or a loved one, and have little to do with the drama that is taking place here in our worship. For some of us, the emotions that are welling up in us are a product of our own brokenness, our sins, our personal shortcomings, our feelings of guilt. Some of us cannot name, cannot identify what in us is causing our pain. Others may be unmoved by all of this. We’ve enclosed our pain and suffering behind an impenetrable wall. Our hearts have grown cold and stony.

Whatever we feel, wherever we are today, the story we’ve heard invites us in. It draws us in, makes us participate. Whether or not we are weeping today, the story of the cross confronts us with our own brokenness and pain. It confronts us with the suffering, pain, and evil of the world. It shows us the oppressive power and might of imperial injustice, as well as the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by his closest friends. It is a story that encompasses the human drama at its most grandiose and evil and yet, in some ways, at its most petty and small.

And still, through it all, we see Jesus, calm, peaceful, forgiving. In the midst of it all, the pain and suffering, the injustice and evil, Jesus offers his love to the world, and his forgiving word to his executioners. Through it all, Jesus offers his love to us and his forgiving word to us. May this day, this week, be for all of us a time when we experience that love and forgiveness in all its depth and power, that our brokenness might be healed, our tears wiped dry, and our joy complete.

 

 

 

 

 

The Collect for Palm Sunday

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Way of the Cross is the Way of Justice: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2015

On Friday, a group of us from Madison’s Episcopal churches walked the stations of the cross in the downtown. The Stations of the Cross are a traditional Roman Catholic devotion, consisting of prayers and meditations commemorating Jesus’ journey from his condemnation to death to his burial. Traditionally there were fourteen stations, and they are a common fixture in most Roman Catholic, and many Episcopal churches, with images depicting each of the stations mounted on the walls of naves.

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Palm Sunday

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.