I think we are doing the right thing when we don’t read the Passion of Jesus on Palm Sunday. The reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday began in 1954 when I was four years old. The church was concerned that the numbers of people attending services during Holy Week was dropping off and it was important that the faithful hear the story of Jesus’ suffering. So they changed the name of that Sunday from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday and made the principal gospel the reading of the Passion. For me, the impact of Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem is dwarfed into non-existence by the reading of the Passion. That is as it should be if this were not Palm Sunday.
I think Jesus and God and the church had a plan in mind when they structured the events of Holy Week the way they did. As a result, I like it when we “stick to the script” and follow the events of the week as they occurred. I think when we don’t stick to the script we run the risk of missing things as we rush to get it all out there. If you think about it, a week, well really four days, of nightly services in reliving Jesus’ final story on earth is not so much. Islam has a whole month of Ramadan in comparison. The Jewish Holiday of Passover is celebrated over eight day.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, a teacher and a monk, a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic respectively, were part of a movement undertaken in the middle to late 20th century to try to discover the historical Jesus. Together in 2006, Borg and Crossen produced a book called The Last Week in which they suggest, through scripture and historical record, the day by day, hour by hour activities of Jesus and his followers during the seven days leading to the death and resurrection of Jesus. A good deal of what I offer this morning comes from or is inspired by that book. It is a great read and raises some interesting considerations and I recommend it to you.
In order to experience Palm Sunday I think we need some background. When the Jewish people celebrate the Passover they do two things that are important to remember. First, they don’t just remember the Passover, they relive it in the actions of the celebration, much like we relive the washing of the disciples feet at the last supper on Maundy Thursday. Second, the Jewish celebration of Passover concludes with the words, “next year in Jerusalem”. A Haggadah is a book of the Jewish celebration of Passover. In the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with a new translation by Nathan Englander, Jeffery Goldberg says “Jerusalem is the symbol of peace, the destination of the Messiah, the holiest place on earth, the purest expression of the profound Jewish belief that the world will one day be a better place. It is this idea of Jerusalem for which we reach. When we reach it - and we will, for that is the core Jewish belief - there will be no more need for seders and Haggadot: We will live in a world in which the poor are fed and sheltered and the sick are healed; in which no one is persecuted or enslaved.”
Jerusalem, at the time of the crucifixion, was a city of about 30, to 40,000 people, pretty large for the period but only about the size of Northampton. At Passover the population of Jerusalem grew to somewhere between 80 and 120 thousand. Imagine packing the population of Springfield into Northampton. Normally only a cohort or 500 Roman soldiers were stationed in Jerusalem to keep order. During high holidays the crowd sizes really required a substantially larger contingency to maintain order and thwart any potential uprising.
Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and the bulk of the Roman soldiers assigned to the area of Judea were normally stationed in Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea Maritima was located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, west of Jerusalem. They were stationed there in part because it was cooled by the breezes of the Mediterranean Sea and made for much more comfortable living than in the near desert area of Jerusalem. During the high Jewish holidays, Pilate and two additional cohorts of Roman troops would travel to Jerusalem to insure Roman order. Pilate and his troops would be moving from the west toward Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith.
Off in the opposite direction, Jesus and his followers had been traveling toward Jerusalem from Galilee, east of Jerusalem. For most of the people traveling with Jesus, the goal of the journey was to arrive at Jerusalem in time for Passover. Jesus, however, had different plans. Jesus had been in Jerusalem for many Passovers beginning at least when he was twelve and gave his parents a scare by staying in the temple with the teachers after his parents had headed home. Jesus knew Jerusalem and how the population of the city swelled at Passover. He also knew that religious fervor swelled in the city at this time. He knew too that those who hoped to throw off the Roman yoke were at their highest number in the city at Passover and so tensions between the Romans and Jews were higher than usual.
We can guess that at least 3- 5,000 were traveling with Jesus based on our understanding of the feeding of the crowd not long before Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem. These were people who had followed his teachings for quite a while, and many were convinced he was the Chosen One who was going to liberate Israel. Word of what he was doing was well known in Jerusalem. It had motivated religious leaders from the temple to go out into the desert country to challenge Jesus’ teachings.
We also know that Jesus has been telling his closest friends that he is going to Jerusalem to die. If they had understood him clearly, he was telling them that he is going to die in a very unpleasant way.
When I got to this point in my exploration of the last week before the resurrection, with the help of Borg and Crossen, I began to see some pieces fall together. Somehow, even though I had heard all of the gospel readings about Jesus foretelling his death, I got the impression that this was something that was happening to him from outside. He was an unresisting victim. Then it started to dawn on me that Jesus had this all planned out. He knew how he was going to die, at least in part, because he was planning it. Some would say the donkey being ready for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem was a miracle or the hand of God. I think you could also conclude that Jesus had arranged for the donkey to be there. It was where he said it would be and the owners had no problem with it being taken away. A donkey was a pretty valuable possession and an owner would not easily let it be taken away. It makes sense that Jesus had already arranged with the donkey’s owner to allow his disciples to borrow it.
With that in mind, I think that if you approach Holy Week with an expectation that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and what would happen it offers a different way of looking at the events of that week. I think that the possibility is great that the last week was well planned by Jesus. But why?
Let’s go back to that Sunday the week before the Passover. It is about mid-morning. If we sent a drone up over the city we would see Pilate on a great horse, in full battle regalia, a thousand troops marching behind him also in regalia and the standards of the rule of Rome entering the west gate of the city. The occupants of the city are cowed and seeking shelter in doorways. Some of the children are trying to get outside to see what is going on as adults try to pull them back inside to safety avoiding the horse hooves and marching soldiers. No one speaks. The only sound is the tramp, tramp, tramp of the soldiers feet.
On the eastern side of the city, at the eastern gate, there are throngs of people lining the road into the city waving branches and cheering. They are cheering a young man on small donkey who seems to stand out from the crowd with a crowd surging behind him shouting cheers and dancing. They are jubilant. Mothers and fathers are hoisting their children on their shoulders so they can see this teacher from the wilderness. What a difference the west is from the east. What a 1 juxtaposition between the oppression of the existing order and the promise of a new order. And they are on a collision course. As Borg and Crossen say, this has all the earmarks of a pre-planned political demonstration. What clearer choice can there be between 2 preserving the oppressive political and religious establishment and the new world Jesus talks about where all are equal and all have free access to God.
Interestingly, Mark’s gospel says that after entering Jerusalem, Jesus walked through the city, looked around, then left to spend the night at his friend Lazarus’ house. It isn’t until Monday that Jesus returns, goes to the temple and causes quite a disturbance with the money changers. Luke and Matthew have Jesus going to the temple that same Palm Sunday and overturning tables. John says nothing about going to the temple at this time. I guess I rely on Mark in large part because his detail of that week is the greatest and because Mark’s account is the lead for Borg and Crossen. Which ever way you lean it is clear that not long after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem he is challenging the authority of the existing system. I think the bottom line in all three is that Jesus is in control of what is happening. Pilate, the chief priests and the established order are all reacting to what Jesus does. So what the heck is Jesus up to? That, I think, is the beauty of this week. We get to struggle along side Jesus’ followers in discovering what he is truly trying to say to us.
Kelly Brown Douglas in her article for Sojourners magazine entitled “A Christian Call for Reparations” says “That Jesus was crucified, and refused to save himself from being crucified, reveals that he emptied himself of all privilege that might separate him from the victims of the deadly political, cultural, and religious realities of his day.” Is that the lesson of this week? Is that the reality that Jesus was trying to lay down in a way that we would never forget it? How many lessons might there be in his actions?
The gift of this Holy Week is that we each get to struggle with what Jesus and God are trying to burn into our minds through Jesus’ actions during this week. As we walk with Jesus through Thursday, Friday, Saturday evening and Sunday morning we have the chance to listen and dwell on the words of scripture as individuals, and then collectively, to try to hear God’s messages. Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer who died far too young wrote “Inspiration is not about some disembodied ethereal voice dictating words or notes to a catatonic host. It’s a collaborative process, a holy give-and-take, a partnership between Creator and creator . . . . God is still breathing. The Bible is both inspired and inspiring. Our job is to ready the sails and gather the embers, to discuss and debate, and like the biblical character Jacob, to wrestle with the mystery until God gives us a blessing.” My wish for all of us this Holy Week is that we all take the 3 opportunity to wrestle with the mystery and on Easter Day find we have received a God given blessing.
1 Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (NewYork, HarperCollins,2007) 2-3
2 Ibid, 4
3 Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible 3 Again(Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2018), xxiiii-xxiv
I see a theme in this mornings readings and it has to do with us and our tendency to look at everything through the lens of how we fit into the world and society around us. Sometimes that blinds us.
In our first reading from 2 Samuel this morning we find David unifying the tribes of Judah and all the tribes of Israel under his leadership as king. Saul has been killed and there has been a considerable amount of political intrigue and assassination in arriving at this time. The elders of the tribes of Israel came to David to tell him they wanted him as their king and at the ripe old age of 30 David became king of all of Israel.
We then skip over the conquest of Jerusalem and arrive at David’s triumphant entry into the city. David declares the name of the city to be the City of David. In these times, naming something declared ownership over it and I find it interesting that although David has relied on the Lord for every move he has made on the battlefield and his ministration over the tribes of Judah, he now claims Jerusalem in his name and not the name of the Lord. I see David becoming more interested in his stature beginning at this point as you might expect a king would do. After conquering the city, a house of cedar is built for David and he continues the conquest of the lands around him, with the Lord’s blessing and guidance. He has risen to a pinnacle of power.
It is said that 2 Samuel marks David’s success and struggles. The book is divided almost in half, at Chapter 11 between his successes and struggles. At Chapter 11 David’s lust for Bathsheba sends him down the torturous road of actions against the Lord. All of that is a story for another day. The importance I see in our reading this morning is that David puts a whole lot more of David into his own story at this point, foreshadowing his path into struggles.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians follows on the heels of the still young church in Corinth struggling with men Paul identifies as false teachers and an undermining of Paul’s authority to speak for God. Paul had gotten the church in Corinth established and had sent three letters to them one of which has been lost to history. His first letter in our bible is actually Paul’s second letter and is addressing questions that have risen among the faithful. Between what we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians some voices Paul identified as false teachers rose up to say Paul was too strict, he had no real authority, his teachings were bogus and there were better, easier ways to God.
When we catch up with Paul in this morning’s reading at Chapter 12, he is in the precarious position of having to boast about himself in order to show his authority. Keep in mind he does not want to boast about himself as he believes he should only boast in the Lord. He said that in 1 Corinthians and earlier in this letter.
In Acts14:19-20, “Jews from Antioch and Iconium” attempt to stone Paul and leave him for dead but he regains consciousness and escapes the area. In our reading this morning Paul recounts the testimony of “a man in Christ” who had an encounter with heaven. Many theologians think it is evident Paul is talking about himself here. Some also believe that the event that precipitated this vision was Paul’s attempted stoning. He had a near death experience. The point I think is important this morning is that Paul did all he could to boast about himself, having had a heavenly experience, but not appear boastful and thus un-Christlike by speaking about himself in the third person.
Paul further demonstrates his humility in saying that he was given a thorn in his side. That thorn in his side has been interpreted in recent times as some sort of sickness or weakness. He prayed “three times” for the thorn to be removed but the answer he received was that there is strength in weakness. Don’t get too big for your britches Paul, you are stronger when your ego is small.
And how does this all connect with our Gospel this morning? I am glad you asked. Jesus goes to his hometown, Nazareth, and attempts to carry out his ministry there. It’s not working. Some come to him believing he can cure them and they are cured. Most do not believe and Jesus is dumbfound by their failure to believe. As a result no great works are accomplished. So what the heck can be happening here?
The people in the village can’t figure out how this carpenter got the authority to say the things he is saying. He’s a carpenter! He has lived here with us all of his life and now he comes to the synagogue and spouts all this stuff! Who the heck does he think he is? He’s just Mary’s son and we know all his brothers and sisters. Who the heck does he think he is?
Maybe the question really is “What makes him think he’s so much better than I am? I have lived in the same place he has and heard the same things he has. Where does he get off thinking he’s better than me?” There’s that darned ego we saw rising up in David and trying to be beat down by Paul. The obstacle to Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth is the inability of the villagers to put aside their egos and accept that maybe this guy they always knew might have something worthwhile to share. Jealousy? Maybe. Hurt pride? Yeah that fits. Perhaps for some, they would have had to swallow an earlier statement that “at least I’m not a carpenter” when talking about their position in the community of Nazareth. In a village or a town or a state or a country, standing is a hard thing to obtain and an even harder thing to lose.
I think the important thing to see here is that no great thing was accomplished because the people of Nazareth didn’t join with Jesus. Let me say that again. No great thing was accomplished because no one joined with Jesus.
So I think the common theme in this morning’s readings is ego and how it can get in the way of great works. And what does that have to do with the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . “ As we read, hear, or speak those words on the fourth of July, don’t they sound a little hollow? I read recently about a woman making a presentation concerning race and racism and if we were in person today I would do what she did. Instead I will tell you what she did. She asked the people in her white audience to stand if they would like to trade places with a person of color. No one stood. She asked the question again. No one stood. She asked the question a third time saying come on now someone out there must want to trade places. No one stood. Then she said that the fact that no one stood made it pretty darn clear that all of them know what racial prejudice is and the pain that is born of it. She did not need to speak about that because they all, every one of them, knew. And in knowing they bore responsibility to make things change.
My wife Charlie and I are taking part in the program Sacred Ground in Franklin County here at Sts. James and Andrew. I think the hardest part of the program is coming to grips with the things that have been done in our names for our benefit. I think it is the hardest thing because the place where we white people are standing, our place in our community is supported by benefits we have or had, that came at the expense of others and most often of others of color. And to make it even more difficult the history of those benefits have been very carefully hidden in the history we were fed as we were growing up. I think very little of the writing of that history was done with malice toward anyone. I think it was done because we could make ourselves a little better off or a little better thought of if we white people could just hide that little piece of history.
My parents didn’t own slaves and as far as I can trace my ancestry none of my ancestors owned slaves but they certainly benefitted from slavery. My grandfather had a really good job as a bus driver because many of the people who worked in the cotton mills in my home town and county took the bus to get to work. Those mills existed because of the cheap labor and before that the slave labor in the cotton fields. My other grandfather had a really good job building transformers for the industry that rose to prominence as a result of cheap and before that, slave labor. My parents got off to a good start because of those good jobs, because of cheap labor. And I got off to a good start because my parents got off to a good start. That is my thorn, sort of like Paul’s, keeping me humble. Interestingly this thorn in my side only exists because I made an effort to educate myself about racism in America and how it came about. I had to put in some effort to uncover my advantage as a white male and come to grips with it. I have to want to participate with Jesus to make this the kind of world God wants it to be, to paraphrase our Presiding Bishop.
I firmly believe that we can accomplish “great works” if we can put aside our egos and fears and join together in believing the things that Jesus taught. I believe we can make the phrase “all people are created equal” ring true if we all join together to make all people equal in our actions and in our voices and in our votes. Like the people in Nazareth, I believe we white people might have to swallow a little bit of our pride, accept our past words, disparaging people of color, as being racist, accept that we have benefited from white privilege and begin working with our brothers and sisters of color to achieve equality.
Most especially I believe that we can do these things because of the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to be released from the his thorn, “My grace is sufficient for you, My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Amen
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