Thursday, March 31, 2016

It's hard to do the right thing

My sermon for this Palm Sunday was based on Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 22:14-23:56.

Palm Sunday always caused me some tension, and I guess it is supposed to do that.  The tension for me is between doing the right thing and doing what I want to do.

The problem is that I am as human as anyone else, and I have all these instincts: pride, self-preservation, fear, greed.  On the one hand, one could argue that some or all of these instincts all arose out of the need for survival...where would we be without a sense of self-preservation or a sense of fear that told us we were in danger?

One could also argue that in many cases, these instincts are no longer viable because we as a species have surpassed many of the obstacles we had when we were living in caves: there is no need for greed anymore, for example, an instinct that once told us to hoard what we could in order to survive.  We can produce enough food and shelter for everyone on the planet, and greed is in fact now harmful to us as a species as it tells the ultra-wealthy to hoard far more than they will ever need while others starve or live without shelter.

Once could say that these instincts, otherwise known as vices, are indicative of the baser side of human nature, and it is indeed these vices that we see in spades in the second Gospel passage for today, the Crucifixion Narrative.

Taken as a whole, the Crucifixion Narrative illustrates at every turn a failure of human nature.  From Judas' betrayal to Peter's denial to the Pharisees plotting to Herod's capriciousness to Pilate's cowardice, every single person in this passage fails utterly to be a decent human being.  The only exceptions are Jesus himself and possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who collected Jesus' body and provided his tomb.

Taken as a whole, the Crucifixion Narrative demonstrates a wholesale failure on the part of its participants to understand what Jesus was up to, what he was about and what he was trying to accomplish.  This is nowhere made more evident that the first Gospel passage that gets read on Palm Sunday, the portrayal of Jesus entering Jerusalem.

Visually, I think most of use are familiar with the scene: Jesus comes into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to cries of "Hosannah!" as people wave palm fronds and lay their cloaks on the road for Jesus' steed to walk on.

What this scene represents is a clash of symbolism which I think perfectly represents the clash that Jesus and followers had, the clash between what Jesus wanted to be about and what his followers wanted him to be about.

Palms were and still are symbols of royalty, majesty and victory.  Add to the the cries of "Hosannah" (a word that had its roots in the Hebrew for 'save me') and the likelihood that many people living with messianic hopes expected the messiah to be a great warrior-king who would deliver his people from slavery and oppression, and it becomes fairly clear that the crowds were welcoming Jesus in the same way they would a conquering and/or victorious king.

And yet Jesus comes riding on a donkey.  A donkey is not a majestic animal, and it is not suited for war.  The donkey was a symbol of servitude, peace and humility.  There was apparently a custom in the ancient Middle East that if a ruler was coming to make war, he would come into a city on a horse, but if he was coming to make peace, he would ride on a donkey to demonstrate his peaceful intent.  And this is the way Jesus rode into Jerusalem.

The conflict is palpable, and it echoes the conflicts that Jesus had with some of his closest followers throughout the Gospels: they wanted him to be a certain way, but it was not the way he wanted to be.  They wanted him to be as the world would have had him, he wanted to be as God would have had him.

Servitude and humility are not concepts that have much currency in our world, much like in Jesus' time, and yet these are the concepts towards which every action, word and deed of Christ draws us to.  Over the course of this Holy Week, I will be fleshing out these concepts a little more, but I think we need to try to avoid making the mistake that so many churches and religions have made and continue to make: twisting our greatest prophets' words and deeds to meet our own selfish needs.

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