April 11, 2014

Reflections on Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11 (Liturgy of the Palms); Mathew 26:14-27:66 (Gospel Lection)

Today’s liturgy begs a question that has become a central driving issue for me over the past few years: how is it that we can be so close to the truth and yet so far from it, all at the same time? How can we be so utterly right and yet so completely wrong? How can we really call ourselves followers of Jesus if we acclaim him as Messiah in one instant as we sing loud Hosannahs to him on his way into town, and then turn around and crucify him in the next instant like some common thug? How can we love him for exactly who he is, yet punish him for what he is not?

See the problem? Today’s liturgy plainly says that we’re charlatans and traitors. It says we have no right to stand on our own. The only logical place that can take us is to our our knees, where we might remember the prayers we prayed all the way back on Ash Wednesday. Remember those prayers? How they nailed us to the wall? Remember all those things we confessed?

all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives ...
our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people ...
our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves ...
our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work ...
our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us ...
our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty ...
false judgments, uncharitable thoughts, and prejudice and contempt for those who differ from us ...
our waste and pollution of the creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us ...

Remember those confessions? How stunningly accurate they seemed at the time? Well, we have come full circle now, and all those collective sins are what’s getting us caught up in the crucifying crowd. Like Peter, we may feel the urge to run away and to hide, repress, and deny the truth.

The truth is that we were “with” Jesus. Maybe even for the past three years. The truth is that we traveled and ate and laughed with him, and we witnessed some amazing things together. We saw Jesus weep and we saw him bring things out of people no one could ever think possible. We saw him change lives and feed people and instill deep truth. We called him Teacher, and then Lord; and then, in a great fit of confession, we called him Messiah -- we believed him to be the light of the world. Only now the land is dark, the man is dead, and the body has been sealed away. And we helped put him there -- “his blood be on our hands!” -- those were the self-incriminating words we shouted when we got a thirst for something that could only be quenched through violence -- they were the words we needed to say in order for us to have the scapegoat for which we burned.

This is the truth, and it is unremitting, cold, and harsh. We may like to think we’d have done differently had we been there, but all we have is what’s on the page; and what’s on the page is the truth. People get crazy and they want vengeance as atonement for imagined crimes.       

So other than destitute (aka spiritually broke), where exactly does that leave us? We have to ponder this before we run on to the glories of Easter, or we’ll miss the point, as I’m afraid many Christians are doing these days.

But really: without Good Friday, Easter doesn’t make a lick of sense. Without Good Friday, Easter is in fact a cheap lie: something too good and too easy to pass up.

Today, though, we have to take a hard look in the mirror, both as individuals and as a people. We have to admit that we have handed over, desolated, betrayed, and denied Jesus. We have to admit that there’s a profiteer named Judas inside of us, and a denier named Peter, and a host of disciples and unnamed cohort inside us who have fled the scene in order to save our own skins. We are Pilate and soldier and Pharisee and bloodthirsty crowd all alike, all together in one body.

Yet we are also Simon of Cyrene, who is compelled to carry the cross a while. We are the women of Jerusalem whom Jesus stops to console. We are (if I may be very bold) Jesus’ mother Mary whom he meets along the way, and Veronica who wipes his face. We are “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who stands near the cross and weeps.

If we are party to the senseless ugliness of human experience, we are also party to its excellence and its beauty. If we are witnesses of the worst depravity of being human, we are also witnesses to some of the best of being human. Today reveals the split nature of our selves in its entirety. We’d go crazy trying to understand how they fit together, but that doesn’t keep it from being true.

Even as we clutch and tear at ourselves and beat our breasts for being so terrible, we can be thankful that the total truth is revealed. Our utter imperfection makes us the best candidates for redemption.

And it’s because of all this that we can embrace the cross, even as we spurn its cruelty.

It would not be uncommon or out of order to cry -- to spill hot tears -- on a day like today. One tear begs for compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, while the next says Thank You to God for revealing the depths of love in Jesus’ very body. What we think we kill, no man may put asunder.

Don’t rush on ahead. There’s time enough to ponder over these things all this coming week.

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