Welcome his folly into our lives, Palm Sunday (B) – 2015

March 29, 2015

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 (40-47)

The story just proclaimed presents Jesus as mocked three times, by three different groups: first, the religious authorities; then the secular authorities; and finally, the ordinary people, the crowd.

These instances of mockery have unexpected results. The pretensions of each group are dismantled. The stage is cleared of rivals, and the true king is enthroned.

Jesus appears first before the religious authorities. What brings him there? He acts and speaks contrary to vested interests, against conventional claims. And so he is taken captive at night. He is identified by a false kiss, surrounded by an armed posse and deserted by his followers.

Once Jesus arrives at the high priest’s house, he stands alone before the religious authorities. They eagerly seek a reason to put him to death. But even their false witnesses cannot produce sufficient evidence against him. Jesus then indicates he is the Messiah. The authorities regard this as blasphemy. They hit him, spit at him and mock him. They ridicule his role as a prophet.

How ironic this scene is! These religious authorities blindfold someone who sees and speaks God’s truth and attack him. By doing so, they expose themselves as void of religious awareness. It is not Jesus who blasphemes; they are the blasphemers, abusing God’s name by their words and deeds.

Next Jesus appears before the secular authorities. As the religious leaders fail to recognize him as a prophet, so the secular authorities fail to see he is a king. The high priest led Jesus to declare his messiahship; now Pilate leads him to declare his kingship, but once again, Jesus is rejected.

Pilate treats him as a fraud. He turns Jesus over to soldiers who clothe him and crown him in a mock ritual, even striking him with his own scepter. And so these secular authorities expose themselves as unworthy. They mock the king in front of them.

Jesus appears before the crowd, and they call for his crucifixion. He appears before them again once he is crucified. These are people who welcomed him as a hero when he entered Jerusalem in triumph only a few days before.

He stands before them next to Pilate. A short time later, he appears before them helpless, hanging from a cross, suspended between earth and heaven, his blood seeping from his wounds, taking him down to death. Not far from his cross are the mockers, cowardly and cruel, who hurl abuse at him. They include casual passers-by, priests and scribes, and even those crucified with him. What they attack is his relationship with his Father. They call on him to rescue himself.

But Jesus refuses to abandon his trust in God. Those who mock him on the cross show that they are devoid of faith. They see the world solely in terms of brute power. They refuse to live as God’s children.

A triple mockery, and in each case, those who revile Jesus reveal their own bankruptcy. Thus the pretensions of each group are dismantled and the stage is cleared of rivals, in order that the true king can be enthroned.

In today’s story, Jesus is mocked three times. A series of ironies takes place as well, all of them pointing to a wisdom that stands in judgment on our folly.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd welcomes him as king, yet days later, they call for his crucifixion. They are disloyal to him and to their own best interests. Often enough, we also show ourselves disloyal – to him and to ourselves. In their lives and in ours, how ironic this turns out to be!

For a king to be enthroned, there must be an anointing. That happens to Jesus shortly before he goes to the cross. A woman pours expensive oil on his head as he sits at supper in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper. This woman serving as high priest, this anointing at the dinner table, this king consecrated in a leper’s house – all of this is ironic, a monarch set apart not to rule, but to be buried.

It is the high priest in Jerusalem whose words reveal Jesus as the Messiah, and it is the Roman governor there who proclaims him to the crowd as king. Despite themselves, these two speak the truth. That they run from this truth, that they drive Jesus on to his death – this also is ironic.

Irony reaches a climax when Jesus arrives at Golgotha. There he is announced as King of the Jews by a mocking sign attached to his cross. Ironically, the sign declares more truth than its maker intended.

Most ironically of all, the cross, an instrument of shameful death, becomes the throne for this king, that place from which he reigns, the center of his realm. The places of honor on right and left, once coveted by his disciples James and John, cannot be given away, for they are occupied already – by convicted criminals.

So Jesus is enthroned upon the hard wood of the cross. Israel’s messiah, the Son of God, becomes a victim to bring to an end all victimization. He drains the cup of our human experience to the last bitter drop. He even knows what it’s like to feel deserted by God.

Jesus dies, and only then does somebody get it right. This is the final irony of today’s story, and it appears in the last spoken sentence. For the one who gets it right is a most unlikely somebody. A Roman centurion is marking time until the death occurs. He is there to make sure that none of the crucified are rescued by their followers or friends. He is a gentile, an officer of the empire, one who looks as an outsider on the turbulent life of Jerusalem during Passover season. He is there simply to maintain order.

A criminal dying on a cross is something this centurion has often seen. He knows how contemptible it is, particularly for Romans. Yet death on a cross looks different on this day, with this prisoner. And so the tough soldier blurts out about Jesus, to no one and everyone, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” The centurion has for a moment glimpsed the supreme irony of enthronement on a cross of shame and death.

A couple decades later, St. Paul makes a similar point when writing to the Christians in Corinth. He tells them that the message of the cross is sheer folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is God’s power at work.

To the extent that we do not come to an awareness like that of the centurion and Paul, then we inevitably mock Christ and his cross, and thus reveal our own fatal folly. To the extent we do come to this awareness, we honor Christ and his cross, and show that we welcome God’s own foolishness, which is the most sublime wisdom.

Do we accept God’s folly for ourselves, or do we not? To refuse this folly is a terrible thing, even when done politely. It places those who refuse together with the characters in today’s story who mock Christ, who reject him as prophet, king, and son of God. Yet we remain free to make this refusal.

Today and always we can honor his cross and welcome his folly into our lives.

May we do this.

 

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Md. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Thy will be done, Palm Sunday (B) – 2012

April 1, 2012

By Katerina K. Whitley

(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47) 

What words can one utter after the reading of this gospel? The most dramatic events in all creation are recounted by Mark in his customary simplicity and minimal use of words, but both the telling and the hearing break the heart. We ask: How can people be so cruel? How could the disciples have been so blind? We cringe at the hypocrisy of the high priests of the time. We are repelled by the fickle crowd. We are shocked, astounded, and then we come to our senses and realize that had we been present we probably would have acted as they did.

Just a moment, you will say. Yes, we are surrounded by hypocrisy and meanness of heart and misery of spirit, but at least we are not dealing with the Son of God. They did not know who he was.

Most of the time, we act as if we don’t know who he is. All the foibles, sins, and vices presented here in such an understated manner persist in our society and plague our lives also.

Friendship and love are gifts of immeasurable value. The pain in Jesus when he speaks the words “one of you will betray me,” cuts us to the core. Betrayal of friendship is bitter and affects both the betrayer and the betrayed. Judas must have had good qualities when Jesus chose him. It was probably the sin of pride that brought him to the horrible act portrayed in this gospel. Even more so, betrayal of love leaves wounds that never quite heal. Poor Peter. How sure he was of his love for his friend and teacher and how bitterly he denied him during the course of this terrible night. After the resurrection, Jesus will spend precious hours teaching Peter about the meaning of love and forgiveness, and Peter will spend the rest of his life proving to himself that indeed his love and loyalty are beyond reproach. Cowardice will no longer be a part of his personality.

In all this heartbreak, the abandonment of the beloved in the hour of his greatest need hurts the most. “Watch and pray with me,” Jesus asks his closest friends. Nothing in the gospels shows as poignantly that Jesus, like each one of us, needs his friends as he walks through the valley of death and agony. We are not meant to go through the dreadful experience of death all alone. A loved one who remains with us to the end, a friend who continues to pray fervently even when all hope is extinguished, a hospice nurse who remains to sustain the family, all these offer a service that Jesus asked of his disciples but did not receive. Again, his full humanity with all its accompanying terror of abandonment is revealed in the loneliness of the Garden of Gethsemane, and before such agony we remain speechless. “Let this cup pass from me,” and the answer is No.

And we who pray for healing, for deliverance, for reprieve from pain, for a miracle even, go back to this painful story and learn from Jesus to say, “Thy will be done.”

Outside the circle of love and friendship, the fickleness of the crowd surprises us. A few days before, they were clamoring for him because he had fed them with both bread and stories, and he had healed their sick. Now they are appalled by his weakness and, together with the mob, cry out for his blood. We like for our leaders to be invincible. Even in the church we have too little patience for any weakness we see in others, especially our clergy. We are too easily swayed and seduced by gossip, innuendo, and all the lies that slip through the airwaves. But we in the church are asked to remain faithful, careful, and not to be judgmental. Let us not be arrogant in thinking that we would have acted with more decorum and loyalty as Palm Sunday ends and the fear slips through.

Palm Sunday, so filled with triumph and hope, is already forgotten. The darkness of the events of Holy Week is beginning to cast its shadow over us all. In remembering the events of this crucial week in the long unfolding of humanity’s history, we are filled with sorrow and then with gratitude. We will not be abandoned to remain in the darkness. The light will break forth again after the fear and the loneliness of that horrible death in Golgotha. We will be pulled out of the abyss. And all because Jesus accepted the will of his Father even unto death and, remembering all of us in the hour of his death, he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

In this forgiveness we trust as we continue moving toward the light.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of Biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina.

In Christ crucified we begin to experience authentic life, Palm Sunday (B) – 2009

April 5, 2009

The Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39, (40-47)

It is often questioned why Palm Sunday is also the Sunday of the Passion. What starts off as what is sometimes called the “Triumphal Entry” to Jerusalem at the beginning of the Liturgy seems to race all the way forward to Good Friday by the end of the liturgy of the Word.

The stock answer, of course, is that it’s because so few people make it their business to go to church on Good Friday to hear Saint John’s Passion. This way at least a Passion narrative is read and heard by those who only come on Sundays.

It has also been observed that Mark, which is our gospel for Year B, can be viewed primarily as a Passion narrative with an extended introduction. That is, to understand Mark at all, one must look at the cross. The whole narrative in Mark moves us toward the cross. As one reads the full version of the Passion, we immediately sense how the Passion events seem to play themselves out in horrifying slow motion.

As much as we would like to have Jesus not go to Gethsemane, as much as we might wish to stop Judas, as much as we would like to get after Peter for his three denials of Jesus, in Mark, the cross is not to be avoided. As we will see and hear on Easter, even the young man sitting in the empty tomb will say, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified. He was raised.” For Mark, Jesus is the Crucified One more than the Risen One.

Also, on this question of why the Passion seemingly intrudes upon Palm Sunday – “It never did when we were younger!” the people cry – it is the Passion that places the entry into Jerusalem in some sort of understandable context.

We may as well face it, Jesus and his rag-tag parade of the poor, the halt and the lame, sinners and outcasts, and he himself riding into town not on regal horseback but on a pathetic little donkey, does not a particularly triumphal entry make. It is at best, in the midst of Passover, Jerusalem’s busiest week of the year, it was an annoying little demonstration that symbolically challenged the occupation of Rome and the authority of the religious professionals, the Pharisees, the priests, and the Herodians.

We are to remember that all the way back in Chapter 3 of Mark, we read, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians were those Jews who were already conspiring with the ruling party of the successive Herods, who in turn were in a political alliance with Rome. They were considered by the people to be collaborators with the occupying enemy, Rome.

That is, we must recognize that the little demonstration we call Palm Sunday was, in at least one dimension, a political demonstration. Taken together with the next event in Mark, which is the episode at the Temple with the animals and money changers, it is easy to see how once word got to Pilate, whose primary responsibility was to maintain public order, something would have to be done to calm things down so that the Passover celebration could come off without any further disruption.

Also, given the fact that people in the streets wanted nothing more than to get rid of the yoke of Rome, Barabbas – which curiously translates as “son of the father” – a known insurrectionist, becomes a more attractive captive to liberate since he at least was willing to take to the streets and kill as many Romans and collaborators as necessary to inspire some sort of wider scale insurrection or civil war.

The key to this whole story very well may be that Jesus refuses to fight the pain that has been inflicted on him by inflicting pain. He refuses to overcome injustice with an easy, optimistic plan for progress. He refuses to fight back against the shame poured out upon him by a mighty, flashy display of Rome’s imperial power: crucifixion.

As we pray at Station Five of the stations of the cross:

“Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Service. We speak of a service economy, and businesses looking eager to “serve” the public. But such service comes of self-interest. It is not service in terms of laying down one’s life for the customers’ sake, but rather it is service intended to impress – like Pilate, whom we are told wished “to please the crowd.” Jesus does not serve to impress or please, to win the favor and sympathy of those whom he helps, let alone those whom he confronts. Jesus is the chosen one of God who has displayed his power over demons and disease, who chose to serve and refused to avoid suffering and even death on a cross.

Why?

Because all those things that we decry as the power of sin in our world and in our lives, even death itself, will not be overcome by force. They will only be overcome by the service and ransom of the very one, the only one, who needs neither to serve nor to pay off any debt.

Could this have been done any other way? Perhaps it could have, if we could live lives without suffering and sin and death; which, of course, is another way of saying, “No.”

What we see in Mark’s version of this narrative is a Jesus who does not so much defeat death but rather refuses to avoid it. His forsaken cry from the cross should not be tempered into anything but a true cry of desperation that echoes the truth of the pains we experience in our lives – individually, as well as collectively as the church, as a community, and as a nation.

Make no mistake about it, this entire narrative takes place within the context of an international military and political occupation and conflict. Jesus rises above the petty political, religious, and military background noise. He literally is raised above it all on the cross. He defeats sin through bearing sin. He defeats death by dying on a cross.

In Christ crucified we begin to experience authentic life. Such life is not easy in a world still mad with power and prestige, a world that wants to sell a path of service to others as a commodity to be purchased rather than as a life lived like Jesus lived his. It’s a good thing the good news can only be given away!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

Were you there?, Palm Sunday (B) – 2006

April 9, 2006

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-47

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Some day St. Paul’s beautiful, prophetic words to the Christian community in Philippi will be fulfilled. Some day – but not yet.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem in the days surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Barely a week earlier, on this day known as Palm Sunday, he had been welcomed into the city, ushered in with great fanfare. Jesus may have been riding on a humble donkey, but the crowds greeted him as their king. They walked with him. They threw palm branches in his path. They shouted their approval. At last they would have a leader to occupy the throne of Israel who would be a powerful voice in dealing with other tribes and nations. This man of God with his healing powers and his promise of equality and justice for all people was an answer to prayer.

But that was not why Jesus had come. That was not his mission, and as the crowds began to realize this, the cheering stopped. First came disappointment; then came intense anger. As smoothly as the celebratory Palm Sunday hymn, “All glory, laud and honor” segues into that other Palm Sunday hymn with the ominous words, “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die,” that is how seamlessly the atmosphere changed. A palm-carpeted passageway leading to a royal throne, became instead a desolate path to a cross.

The journey that begins today is not a long one in terms of distance. Calvary, the place of crucifixion, stands just outside Jerusalem. But every moment of this week will widen the gap between acceptance and rejection. Each succeeding day will leave Jesus with fewer supporters and make their voices less audible amid the growing clamor of the opposition. By week’s end, the leaders who see Jesus as a threat to their power and who want to be rid of him will have their way, and Jesus’ allies will be frightened into silence.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem that week for Jesus’ followers. Imagine the fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and being labeled an enemy of Rome – with ominous consequences. Imagine the growing tension in the city,
as those opposed to Jesus firmed up their plans. Imagine the rampant gossip that simply added fuel to the tinderbox situation.

It probably would be comforting to think that in spite of all this, if modern Christians – today’s churchgoers, for example – had been there in Jerusalem, they would have been among the brave souls who continued to support Jesus openly. Surely, they would have spoken up in his defense. Surely, they would have encouraged the others to be brave and stand with him.

From the vantage point of today, that sounds quite reasonable. But it is not realistic, given that they would have been functioning without the benefit of hindsight – without the Resurrection, without the Apostles’ teaching, without the Gospels. At that point in Jerusalem, confusion and fear were the order of the day.

On the night before he died, just after the supper they had shared, Jesus and the Disciples sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus told them they would all desert him. Then he cited the prophet Zechariah, who said, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Sure enough, as the night wore on, especially after Jesus was arrested, his followers did fall away.

Plenty of people witnessed Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and they had a host of reasons for participating, or at least for allowing it to happen. All were in some sense accomplices, because of things they either did, or failed to do: sins of commission or sins of omission. These were real people with homes, families, and jobs. They had personal concerns and ambitions. They had their own political and religious beliefs. Some are known by name, although most are unnamed.

Consider those described in Mark’s Gospel as “the crowd.” Artists painting the crucifixion have traditionally shown a diverse collection of people scattered around the landscape. Many were there simply to watch a happening, the same way curious drivers today cause traffic jams on one side of a highway, as they strain to glimpse an accident being cleared away on the other side. Many of the bystanders probably had no strong feelings one way or the other about what was taking place. They may not even have known who was being crucified. The Gospel says the chief priests stirred up the crowd to call for Jesus’ death, and the release of a murderer named Barabbas.

Those chief priests, along with the scribes and the elders – the ruling party – had a vested interest in what was taking place. Seeing Jesus arrested and put to death had long been their goal, so they made sure that once he was in custody, a death sentence would follow – even if it had to be based on false testimony.

Then there were the soldiers. One could say they were just following orders. They mocked Jesus. They spat on him. They beat him. They nailed him to the cross. It was the soldiers who had brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the governor, for questioning.

Pontius Pilate wielded a lot of authority, but he lacked courage. Even after admitting to the crowd that he did not find Jesus guilty of any crime, he still went along with their demand for Jesus’ death.

And what about the Disciples? Most were in hiding, fearing for their own lives. Peter had assured Jesus that even if everyone else fled, he would remain by his side. But in the face of armed soldiers and jeering crowds, Peter could not maintain his resolve, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus. .

There were, however, men and women whose courage did not fail them. It took courage for John, known as the Beloved Disciple, to be so visible that Jesus could speak to him from the cross. It took courage for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women who had followed him during his ministry, to be present and openly supportive at the cross. It took courage for Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and respected official, to go to Pontius Pilate at dusk and get permission to take Jesus down from the cross and bury him.

The people gathered that day in Jerusalem looked on with different perspectives and a variety of motivations. One thing they did share was a limited field of vision. For them, Jesus’ crucifixion marked an ending, with no possibility of anything beyond. His life that had held so much promise was over, and their hopes for the future died with him. And yet, not many hours later, some of the women would discover the empty tomb, and the story would be changed forever.

From commonplace to extraordinary; from narrow boundaries to limitless horizons; from utter despair to endless hope – everything turned upside down, because God was present at the cross. God was on the cross and all around it, and God’s presence transforms the crucifixion from a finite event in time to an event transcending time. All those negative forces and emotions that led to Jesus’ death came together on that cross where they were transformed and reflected back to the people as love, because that is what God does.

The drama of Palm Sunday involves Christians in a journey they have to take, uncomfortable though it may be. Christians have to arrive at the cross in order to get beyond it. Christians have to see themselves among the bystanders in order to understand their participation with them. Christians have to see how God transforms the cross from an instrument of death into a symbol of eternal life.

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not yet, but some day.

— The Rev. Jane Rockman is rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. She also served as curate at The Church of the Ascension in New York City. A graduate of Smith College, she holds a Master’s Degree in History from New York University and an M. Div. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a journalist, she had a variety of articles published on urban issues.