PALM SUNDAY/SUNDAY OF THE PASSION
Prayer of the Day: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” Luke 19:37-40.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, also authored by the apostle, takes a more favorable view of Pharisees than we find elsewhere in the gospels. A few weeks ago we find them warning Jesus that Herod is out to murder him and advises him to flee. Luke 13:31. It was the Pharisee Gamaliel who persuaded the ruling council in Jerusalem to refrain from punishing the apostles for preaching the gospel. Acts 5:33-39. Saint Paul was a Pharisee and the Pharisees sided with him when he was brought before the same Jerusalem council in connection with a riot at the Temple. Acts 23:1-10. Thus, it is entirely possible that the Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel were well meaning when they told Jesus to dial back his disciples’ enthusiasm. After all, their praises were charged with subversive political significance. In the Medeterranian world of the first century, there was only one “lord,” namely, Caesar. There was but one peace, namely, the peace of Rome imposed by raw power. Whoever dared assume the title of “king” made himself a rival to Caesar and a sure candidate for crucifixion.
But we have known since chapter nine of Luke’s gospel that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke 9:51. He is under no illusions about what awaits him there. Jesus is about to confront the death dealing power of empire armed only with God’s limitless, patient and suffering love for the world. The result is all to predictable. Were it not for the fact that God raised Jesus from death, the passion narrative we recite each year at this time would be just another story about the tragic end of an idealist. It would be a cautionary tale about what happens to people whose dreams run away with them. We might then end our telling of this story with a salutary admonition for our hearers to be “realistic,” to temper expectations, to understand that, however much we would like to believe otherwise, ours is a cruel, violent world where the good must give way to the achievable and “nice guys finish last.”
If that is not what we preach, it is too often reflective of what we believe. In my first parish, I was teaching an adult Bible Study group examining the Sermon on the Mount. A gentleman in that group, who I knew to be a sales executive for a pharmaceutical company, shook his head at one point and told me, “pastor, if I had to do my job the way Jesus says we should live, I’d be crucified.” I don’t remember what I said then. I am never as witty and articulate as I often wish I had been in retrospect. But I sometimes think I ought to have said, “No, my friend. You would not be crucified. You might lose an account or two. You might miss out on a promotion. You might even get fired. Yet even so, you would still be a long way from the cross Jesus calls us to bear with him.”
Years ago, in a similar setting, a career military man and dear friend told me to try and imagine the kind of world we would be living in had the world dealt with Hitler according to the Sermon on the Mount. Again, I do not recall exactly what I said. But I would have been tempted to tell my friend that I do not know what the world would have been like if the churches in Germany and, indeed, throughout the world stood up as one in solidarity with fascism’s victims. I don’t know what would have happened in the 1930s and 40s had pastors, priests, bishops and other church leaders throughout the world been demonstrating consistently through their actions and teachings that humanity is one single family made up of persons uniquely reflecting the image of their Creator and that there is no greater blasphemy than to desecrate that image through oppression, discrimination and violence. What I do know is that, after two bloody world wars that were supposed to eradicate evil from the face of the earth, we are on the brink of yet another one. So please do not lecture me from the terminus of the dead end to which your road has led us about the futility of the road not taken.
Perhaps it is better that I did not respond in the way I wish I had. The old adage holds true here: whenever you point a finger at someone else, three more are pointing back at you. I am no more successful than anyone else when it comes to taking up the cross. Like Judas, I am tempted to cash out and leave the church and its ministry when it looks like things are going south and my own needs are no longer being met. Like Peter, I sing hymns about following Jesus and bearing the cross. But when following puts my reputation, livelihood or safety in danger, I lose my nerve. Like the disciples as a whole, I desert Jesus when following becomes too dangerous. Though I would not express the views articulated by my past parishioners, I know that I often live by them. I am skeptical of Jesus’ way and I frequently devise in my own head any number of rational excuses for making end runs around the cross in my day to day life.
Perhaps that is the point of juxtaposing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with his passion and death in that self same city. This day of the Palms and the Passion compels us to reflect on the depth of our commitment to Jesus, the sincerity of our belief in the kingdom he proclaims and the price we are prepared to pay for our allegiance to God’s way of overcoming evil with limitless love and forgiveness. As I have often said before, there are no heroes in the passion narrative. We find only traitors, cowards and deserters. The first community of disciples, those closer to Jesus than any others, the earliest manifestation of the church failed miserably to take up the cross. Yet it is to these same people huddled together behind locked doors that the Resurrected Christ comes with the same call, the same mission, the same challenge to take up the cross.
We are invited to find ourselves reflected in the passion narrative. It isn’t a flattering picture. We find there a people that fail miserably to follow Jesus. But we are nonetheless people Jesus continues to follow, continues to seek out and continues to offer new opportunities for discipleship. Jesus refuses to give up on us. God means to make something beautiful out of the mess we’ve made of our lives. So we dare not give up on ourselves or our world.
Here is a poem by Beatrice Goldsmith about failure, brokenness and the slow work of redemption.
Lullaby for A Failure
Slumber till the last
Crushed tallus of your days,
The last of broken rock and mangled flower,
Turn seamless ground and smooth
Sweet soil for blossom.
Oh, sleep, sleep,
And let this scentless sleep,
This long slow sleep,
Solder the years wreckage, softly sew
The ragged edges of your patterns-
Your desperate design.
Source: Poetry, (September 1934). Beatrice Goldsmith (1915-1950) was born and raised in New York City. When she was young, she worked as a sales person in Brooklyn. During the 1930s she worked for the Federal Writers’ Project. Her first poems were written in Yiddish and published in a New York children’s magazine. Her later work, written in English, appeared in Poetry magazine. You can read more about Beatrice Goldsmith and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation Website.