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.

 

 

 

 

 

Godforsaken–A Homily for Palm Sunday, Year B

April 1, 2012

“Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As I reflect on Mark’s version of the passion narrative that we just heard, I marvel at the enigma with which Mark presents us. Mark gives us little to work with, and what he does give us is profoundly unsettling. In Mark, there is nothing of the familiar Christian understanding of the cross as Jesus dying for our sins, there is no mention of sacrifice, no substitutionary atonement. Instead, Mark challenges the careful reader and the thoughtful Christian to wrestle with the tragedy and the horror of the crucifixion.

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to understand what the crucifixion meant for Mark, we need to begin here, with this question. According to Mark, these are the last words Jesus spoke on the cross. How were they meant? Did Jesus speak them in anger, or resignation, fear or despair?

How are we to understand them? For Christians who know anything about the faith, interpreting these words literally is nonsensical. How can God forsake Jesus? After all, Jesus is God. Remember though, Mark was writing without the benefit of 2000 years of theological baggage, before the centuries of debate and speculation that eventually led to our understanding that Jesus was both human and divine.

Mark meant those words absolutely literally. They are the culmination of the passion narrative, because for Mark, Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by all of his disciples. Most of the disciples fled at his arrest, and Mark dramatizes their flight by a puzzling mention of a young man whose robe is torn him from as he tries to run, and he ends up fleeing naked. Peter made it to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house before deciding that “the better part of valor was discretion,” denied he knew Jesus and fled the scene. So at the cross, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was alone, surrounded only by his executioners. There were, according to Mark, women, female disciples, watching on from a distance, and they would be the first to return.

Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by his closest friends, and for Mark, that is precisely the point. Thus the question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” dares us to wonder whether Jesus felt abandoned by God.

But Mark answers that question immediately by giving to the centurion the famous line, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And again, Mark leaves no room for debate or discussion. He says quite clearly that the centurion was looking directly at Jesus and that it was because of the way in which Jesus died that led him to make that confession. By the way, it is the first time in Mark’s gospel that a human being confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.

A few weeks ago, we heard a passage from earlier in Mark’s gospel where Jesus told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified and that if they wanted to be his disciples, they needed to take up their cross and follow him. That’s the message of Mark’s gospel, that’s the meaning of the cross. For Mark, Jesus death is the awaits those who would follow him. It was a death brought about by Jesus’ challenge to the political and religious authorities of his day.

That message is hard to hear; it was hard to hear in the first century, and because of that when Matthew wrote his version of Jesus’ crucifixion, he toned it down considerably. But it has been hard to hear throughout the history of Christianity and for that reason we have over the centuries developed alternative interpretations, many of them.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We, the readers of Mark know the answer to the question Jesus asks God. God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead. But the resurrection for Mark did not lessen the power of Jesus’ death. It gave it meaning. If he had not been raised from the dead, Jesus would have been no different from the countless thousands of others that Rome crucified over the centuries.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Those words of despair and abandonment will accompany us this holiest of weeks. We will hear them again, on Maundy Thursday, as the altar is stripped. We will say them then, as we read together Psalm 22. And again, on Good Friday, we will say them together as we remember and reflect on the crucifixion.

Jesus’ question cries out to us across the centuries. It challenges our faith and devotion; it challenges our experience of Holy Week. We think we know what it all means. Christians have wrapped it all up in a tidy package to make sense of it. But that question, if asked seriously, challenges it all, turns our lives and our faith upside-down and inside out.

This week, we are invited to walk with Jesus as he walks toward the cross. He has bid us to take up our crosses and follow him. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to accept his vision for the world, his vision of the kingdom of God. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to be faithful to that vision, to reach out in love to all, come what may. As we make our way through Holy Week this year, I pray that all of us experience anew and with power Christ’s love for us and that we share that love with the world.