Palm/Passion A: At The Gate

This week is a little different.  I did both the Palm Liturgy Gospel passage and the Passion Liturgy Old Testament and Epistle.  Rather than writing reflections for the Passion Gospel, I’ll post a separate post for the Holy Week lectionary.

Jerusalem Eastern Gate.pngLITURGY OF THE PALMS:

 

GOSPEL: Luke 19: 28-40

To read the Palm Sunday Gospel passage

It is interesting that half of this story is about getting the mode of transportation—where to go to find the animal, what to do, what to say. You can imagine what the disciples were thinking. For this we left our fishing nets? Surely they imagined a grander assignment. But this seems to be an important thing in every account of this story. Perhaps it is a reminder that sometimes following Jesus means doing mundane tasks that, alone, do not seem important, but in the grand scheme of things, are paramount to the story. There is some significance, though, to the idea of him riding a colt that has never been ridden. (Similar to coming into the world through a virgin womb.) Jesus is different. It has never been done this way before.

Here, though, Jesus is in the bustling capital city. He is no longer in the villages and open country of his home. The celebratory parade is also a protest march. The disciples should have known what was happening. Jesus had already laid it out for them. But they still did not comprehend what he had said. At this moment Jesus begins the sharp descent down the Mt. of Olives, winding his way toward Jerusalem. The road is a steep decline into the Garden of Gethsemane and then begins to ascend toward Mt. Moriah and the place of the temple.

At this moment, the crowd sees him as a king, as one who will get them out of where they are. So this is a parade that befits a king. “Hosanna”, “the Coming One”, the one who restores Jerusalem. He enters. This is the moment. This is it. What they didn’t recognize is that Jesus brought them something that they had never had before—peace, truth, justice, and love. What they didn’t recognize is that Jesus had indeed come to restore them not to what was but to what should’ve been all along.

But in this account, the ones who are the “religious ones”, the leaders, seem embarrassed at this show of affection. “Make them stop,” they order Jesus. (“Be quiet”, “mind your manners”, “act in a way befitting and acceptable of a rabbi”.) The response: “If they were silent, the stones themselves would shout out.” In other words, if we do not speak, if we do not change, the stones would bear marks of the result. (And they did. In the days when this Gospel would have been written, the stones of the temple and the courtyard would have borne the marks of its destruction.) It is a call to cry out, even when there are those in the world and those in the church who want to silence you.

The miracle of the Red Sea,” the rabbis taught, “is not the parting of the waters. The miracle of the Red Sea is that with a wall of water on each side of him, the first Jew walked through.” The implications are clear: God is not in this alone. Yes, God may be all-powerful and eternally unfailing, but that’s not the point. The real key to the coming of the reign of God on earth, the rabbis imply, is not God’s fidelity. The real determinant between what ought to be and what will be in this world is the mettle of our own unflagging faith that the God who leads us to a point of holy wakefulness stays with us through it to the end. The key to what happens on earth does not lie in God’s will. All God can do is part the waters. It lies in the courage we bring to the parting of them. It lies in deciding whether or not we will walk through the parting waters of our own lives today. Just as surely as there was need for courage at the Red Sea, just as surely as there was need for courage on Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem, there is need for it here and now, as well.

The Waters part all around us, too, now. The road to Jerusalem is clear. We are surrounded by situations that have solutions without solvers with the political will to resolve them: The old cannot afford their prescriptions. The young have no food. The middle-aged work two jobs and slip silently into poverty whatever their efforts. The globe turns warmer and more vulnerable by the day…Racism, sexism and homophobia destroy families and poison relationships. The mighty buy more guns. The powerful pay fewer taxes. The national infrastructure slips into disrepair. Fundamentalist groups and governments everywhere seek to suppress opposition, to deny questions, to resist change, to block development. We are all on the road to Jerusalem again; some of us dedicated to restoring a long lost past; others committed to creating a better future…

But there are those others who keep on shouting, who keep on telling the story even to those with no ears to hear. Over and over again they cry out. But is it worth it? And does it work? Did the disciples on the road to Jerusalem make any difference at all? Well, look at it this way: It got our attention, didn’t it? So whose turn is it to cry out this time? ( Sr. Joan Chittister, “The Road to Jerusalem is Clear: Meditations on Lent”, National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001, available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1141/is_22_37/ai_72960610/?tag=content;col1, accessed 24 March, 2010.)

 

  • What meaning does this hold for you?
  • Where would you have been in the parade?
  • What does Palm Sunday mean for you?
  • What do you think of the notion of this being a “protest march”?

 

 

LITURGY OF THE PASSION:

 

OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 50: 4-9

To read the Passion Liturgy Old Testament reading

Chapters 40-55 of the book that we know as Isaiah probably address a time late in the Babylonian exile, when the prophet proclaims that God wants the people to return to Jerusalem. Keep in mind, though, that it has been years since the beginning of the exile. Most of the older generation, those who remember the way it was before, are gone. The next generation had created a new life here. They were settled, comfortable, and many had established themselves and even grown their wealth. And now they’re being asked to return to a city that is in complete desolation. There is nothing there. There was really nothing to which they could return.

This passage is known as the third of the Servant Songs, declaring what the task of the servant should be. The servant speaks straight after God has made the claims that he has the power to deliver Israel from their unfaithfulness. In contradiction to the unfaithful and unhearing Israel, the servant declares that he is obedient and listens to the Lord. The servant is totally confident that God is with him despite all those who have been actively opposed to his ministry and the consequent adversity. This supreme confidence in the presence of God allows the servant to face any future adversity. The call of the servant is to make sense of what happened so that the people will again hear and return to faithfulness. There is a lot here about both teaching and hearing. They go together.

The prophet or servant has been faithful in teaching what has been transmitted to him and that teaching will sustain the weary. In spite of the fact that many insist that this is a precursor passage to the Christ event, we have no clear answers about the identity of the servant in Isaiah 40-55 and can only wonder if his message was so unpopular that he suffered because of it. Certainly other prophets, such as Jeremiah, suffered. His suffering and response is depicted in a different way – Jeremiah gets angry with God and wants his adversaries punished. Many Biblical scholars claim that the servant is the embodiment of Israel herself, both the land and the people; in other words, the servant is indicative of any servant of God (including, then, us). The servant, the people, in fact, WE, are called to confront the evil and suffering of the world rather than dismiss it as not “of God”. It is to these parts of Creation that we are called to help bring redemption and new life.

As we are celebrating Palm Sunday there is no doubt that we can identify Jesus with the words of the Isaiah 50:4-9 in which Jesus has had to face and will face his tormentors. He sets his face towards Jerusalem, riding in with the knowledge that the crowds could easily be fickle. Jesus has relied on God to sustain him and he continues to rely on the help of God. But even in the face of adversaries, God sustains him. It is not that God “fixes” it, but rather walks with us through it.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What vision of the future does that give for your own life?
  • How often do we really believe this or do we assume that God will “fix” it? What is the difference for our faith?
  • If you interpret the servant as the embodiment of all servants of God, what does that mean for you?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 2: 5-11

To read the Passion Liturgy Epistle reading

On the surface, being of the “same mind” as Jesus would mean to be like Jesus, or to think like Jesus. But it means more than that. It is a call, rather, to enter the very essence that is Jesus. It is a call to pattern our lives after Christ.

It appears here that “being in the form of God” may be opposite from “being in the form of a slave”. Essentially, Jesus emptied himself and became dependent upon God, fully surrendered, a servant of God. He became fully human. He surrendered self-advancement and instead became fully human, fully made in God’s image.

This passage is the story of salvation in three parts—emptying and incarnation, obedience and death, exaltation and resurrection. Jesus sees his equality with God not as Lordship to be used over others, but as an offering for others. We are to have the same mind of Christ the humbled, Christ the crucified, rather than the crucifiers. We are to, once again, walk through shame and suffering knowing that the Lord is with us. And we are to do it with a rhythm that is unfamiliar to the world.

Our main problem is that surrender is really pretty foreign to us. We tend to equate it with losing and we never want to do that in our world of win-win. The notion of “surrender” is uncomfortable for us. Literally, it means to give up one’s self, to resign or yield to another. It could even mean to suffer. That is against our grain. That doesn’t fit in with our dreams of pursuing security and success. That doesn’t reconcile with a society driven by competition and power and “getting ahead”. Surrender…doesn’t that mean to lose control? What will happen then?

Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote that “what God requires of the soul is the essence of self-surrender…[and] what the soul desires to do is done as in the sight of God.” The 18th century mystic understood that one’s physical being and one’s spiritual being, indeed one’s body and one’s soul, could not be separated. The two were interminably intertwined and, then, the essence and status of one affected the other directly.

So what does that mean? We sing the old song “I Surrender All” with all of the harmonic gesture we can muster. And we truly do want to surrender to God—as long as we can hold on to the grain of our own individualism, to that which we think makes us who we are. But de Caussade is claiming that it is our soul that truly makes us who we are and that in order to be whole, our soul desires God with all of its being. So, in all truth, that must mean that most of us live our lives with a certain dissonance between our physical and spiritual being. We want to be with God. We love God. We need God. But total surrender? But that is what our soul desires and in order for there to be that harmony in our lives, our physical beings must follow suit.

Lent teaches us that. This season of emptying, of fasting, of stripping away those things that separate us from God, this season of turning around is the season that teaches us how to finally listen to our soul. It is the season that teaches us that surrendering to God is not out of weakness or last resignation, but out of desire for God and the realization that it is there that we belong. In an article entitled “Moving From Solitude to Community to Ministry”, Henri Nouwen tells the story of a river:

The little river said, “I can become a big river.” It worked hard, but there was a big rock. The river said, “I’m going to get around this rock.” The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock. Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall. Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through. The growing river said, “I can do it. I can push it. I am not going to let down for anything.” Then there was an enormous forest. The river said, “I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.” And the river did. The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down. The river said, “I’m going to go through this desert.” But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river. The river said, “Oh, no. I’m going to do it. I’m going to get myself through this desert.” But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool. Then the river heard a voice from above: “Just surrender. Let me lift you up. Let me take over.” The river said, “Here I am.” The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud. He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and made the fields far away fruitful and rich.

There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves. But there is the voice that comes, “Let go. Surrender. I will make you fruitful. Yes, trust me. Give yourself to me.”  

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What, for you, does it mean to assume the mind of Jesus?
  • What does it mean to surrender to God? Why is that so difficult for us?
  • What does this passage say to you about humility?
  • What does this passage say to you about power?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose. (Bishop Desmond Tutu)

 

Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander. (Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C.)

 

Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be equally outraged by silence. (Henri-Frederic Amiel, 19th cent.)

 

He drew a circle that shut me out, Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win, We drew a circle that took him in. (Edward Markham)

 

Closing

 

We’re good at planning! Give us a task force and a project and we’re off and running! No trouble at all! Going to the village and finding the colt, even negotiating with the owners is right down our alley. And how we love a parade! In a frenzy of celebration we gladly focus on Jesus and generously throw our coats and palms in his path. And we can shout praise loudly enough to make the Pharisees complain. It’s all so good!

 

It’s between parades that we don’t do we well. From Sunday to Sunday we forget our hosannas. Between parades the stones will have to shout because we don’t. (“Between Parades”, Ann Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.), 69.)

 

Lord, forgive. Amen.

Lent 5C: Meeting Jesus Now

mary-anoints-jesusOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 43: 16-21

To read the Old Testament passage

This passage centers on the promise that God is going to do a new thing and calls Israel (and us) to be on the lookout for the fulfillment of that promise. In our culture, we are continually bombarded with predictions of the “end of the world”, warning of a time to come that is filled with gloom and despair. But, really, how can you read this text and fall into such a look at the future? The crux is that God is indeed going to do a new thing. It will be a time when the former things will not be considered, a time when all of Creation will come together and finally be the Creation that God had formed from the beginning. It is a message of hope, rather than gloom and despair.

But implicit in this passage is the call to look for these things, to make oneself aware of what is to come. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann reminds us (when talking of this message to Israel) that “they will have no joy, no public justice, no corporate repentance, and no family humaneness until the community received a newness it cannot generate for itself.” It is a call, then, to look to God, to look to what God promises and what God is doing and not try to “fix” it ourselves.

Here, the passage begins with a reminder of what God has done and then, as if immediately, the hearer is told to forget about those things, to not dwell on what did or did not happen, to let it go. Perhaps what is about to come will be so much better than what we presently see that it will indeed make us forget the “former things”.

Remember the background of the context of this passage. This chapter is the fourth chapter in what we have come to call “Second Isaiah”. The time is probably the end of the exile, the end of a time of great communal loss and despair and one that is definitely shaping their identity and how they see God. At this point, they had lost everything—homes, land, their way of making a living, even their very sense of who they were before God and as a people. They couldn’t help but ask questions that still reverberate for us today: Where was God? Why had God let this happen? What kind of future did we really have waiting? But into this despair, God comes and promises hope. It is a reminder to them and to us that God is always there, whether or not we are in a position to be aware of God’s presence. In Feasting on the Word, Kristin Johnson Largen says that “From this verse, we know that Isaiah’s message to God’s people will be a word of encouragement, a word of consolation, and, most importantly, a word of hope, and from the thirty-nine chapters that preceded [Second Isaiah], we know that it comes to a people in dire need of a good word from the Lord. No wonder the great Hebrew scholar Abraham Heschel calls the proclamation of Second Isaiah ageless, saying “No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.”” (Kristen Johnston Largen, Feasting on the Word, Year C., Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Fifth Sunday in Lent” (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 122-124.)

God is indeed a God of new life. It is our own call to look beyond the past and dare to hope, dare to believe in the restoration of life and of Creation that God has promised. We Christians sort of have a “hind sight” view of the recreation that God can do. We Lenten journeyers who walk toward the cross this season know how the story turns out. It is our own call to let the past go and to open the tombs of our lives…if nothing else, just to see what God can do, just to see what wonderful surprises God has in store for us. It is a call to open our eyes so that we don’t miss the signs of resurrection that are everywhere. It is a call to “come and see this thing that has happened”.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What things in our lives make it difficult to be hopeful?
  • In this Season of Lent, when we walk to journey to the Cross, what message of personal hope does that mean for us?
  • What signs of recreation, of “resurrection”, if you will, do you see in Creation when you allow yourselves?
  • How does this speak to you in the midst of this Lenten journey?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 3:4b-14

To read the Epistle passage

This passage begins with Paul boasting about his own life and his own self. In fact, he sort of presents his resume’, as if he is quashing any readers or onlookers who might consider themselves above him. And then, just as quickly, he deflates himself. He essentially now claims that whatever good (or bad) that he’s done in the past is nothing in terms of his knowing Christ. We need to understand that Paul is not tossing away his past. He still claims it—good and bad. It is part of who he is. But he uses it to put it all in perspective. For him, the things that he valued in the past are no longer as important to him. (And the things that he regretted in his past are no longer in his way either.)

Paul now realizes that whoever and whatever he claims to be is because of God through Christ. The promise of new life is what now urges him forward in his journey. He, admittedly, is not there but he sees his journey as one of faith and one of life with Christ. This also sort of disputes those who claim that the “prize”, the “goal”, the “reward”—whatever they choose to call it—is because of who they are or what they’ve done. According to Paul, it is nothing WE do; rather, it is something that God does for us. Our journey, then, is a journey of faithfulness in the hope that God has promised.

This is also a treatise on faith itself. Paul would claim that blindly following rules of the religion is not what brings one closer to God. That would be a belief that loses perspective, that lets the rules and the understandings get in the way of one’s faith. Paul is not claiming that he is better than others because he is better-versed in the faith; if anything, he is disputing that very claim.

In this Lenten season, we are called to strip ourselves of those things that get in the way of our faith, that impede us on our journey toward that oneness with God. Paul is reminding us that included in that is a call to let go of our past, let go of the “I” that we’ve built ourselves up to be, and let go of the understandings that frame how we view God. It is a call to open ourselves to God’s movement in our lives and God’s guidance on this journey that we call faith. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same, journeying toward God, guided by God, thirsting for God. Tony Campolo tells this story in one of his online sermons:

Where do you meet Jesus? Well, first of all I contend you meet Jesus in suffering people. If you look deeply into the eyes of suffering people, you will have this eerie awareness that the same Jesus that died on the cross is staring back at you. Mother Teresa learned that, and I’m learning that.

I was walking down the street in Philadelphia and a bum came towards me. I mean a dirty, filthy guy. He was covered with soot from head to toe. You couldn’t believe how messed up he was. He had this huge beard and there was rotted food stuck in the beard. As he approached me, he held out a cup of McDonald’s coffee and said, “Hey mister, want some of my coffee?” I looked at his dirty, filthy personhood and said, “Thanks, but that’s okay,” and I walked by him. The minute I passed him, I knew I was doing the wrong thing, so I turned around and said, “Excuse me. I would like some of your coffee.” I took some of the coffee and sipped it and gave it back to him. I said, “You’re being generous. How come you’re being so generous today?” And this bum looked at me and he said, “Because the coffee was especially delicious today and I think that when God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people.” I didn’t know how to handle that, so I said, “Can I give you anything?” I thought that he would hit me for five dollars. He said, “No.” Then he said, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve changed my mind, there is something you can give me. You can give me a hug.” As I looked at him, I was hoping for the five dollars! He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. And as I in my establishment dress and he in his filthy garb hugged each other on the street, I had the strange awareness that I wasn’t hugging a bum, I was hugging Jesus. I found Jesus in that suffering man.

Whenever you meet a suffering person, you will find that Jesus is there waiting to be loved in that individual. That’s why Jesus said, “In as much as ye do it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” You cannot reach out to a person in need, you cannot embrace somebody who’s hurting, you cannot minister to somebody who is in desperate straits without having that eerie and wonderful awareness that Jesus is coming back at you right through that person. If there is anything that Mother Teresa would have taught us, that’s what she would have taught us. (Tony Campolo, “Knowing God”, 30 Good Minutes, October 26, 1997, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/campolo_4104.htm, accessed 17 March, 2010.)

 

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What are the things that we today hold out as “better”, those things that make up who we are and perhaps get in the way of our relationship with God?
  • The first century “boundary marker” for faith was circumcision? What is our twenty-first century “boundary marker for our faith?
  • Are there things on your “resume’” that make faith a challenge for you?
  • What happens to us and our relationships when we let things like that come into play?
  • How does this speak to you in the midst of this Lenten journey?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 12: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The Gospel passage occurs in all four canonical Gospels. But it is never told the same way twice, illustrating once again that the Bible was not written as an historical narrative but rather a way to connect us to God and to each other. The Gospel writers place the event at different times and the woman herself is not always named. But the fact that costly perfume is extravagantly poured on Jesus is always the same.

This passage from the writer that we know as John (which is also read on Monday of Holy Week every year) follows the raising of Lazarus in Chapter 11. Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, had died and Jesus raised him. It marks a turning point of the Gospel. This would be the last straw. It is the event that marks Jesus for death. It’s really unclear whether or not Lazarus and his family knew that. It’s probable that neither they nor the disciples did. But Martha and Mary are so grateful for what Jesus has done and so glad to have Lazarus back, that they invite him to dinner. They pull out all the stops—best dishes, best linens, and cook up a feast. In the midst of the celebration, Mary rises and gathers a jar of expensive oil. Pure nard WOULD have been worth an awful lot of money in that time. It was hard to come by and was reserved to anoint the deceased. You could speculate that the oil has been purchased for the preparation of Lazarus’ body. She breaks the seal and pours it out extravagantly over Jesus’ feet. The fragrance filled the house. She then, of all things, unbinds her hair (improper in mixed company) and wipes her hair over Jesus’ feet.

Well, it was too much for the disciples. They claim that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In other words, it is as if they were claiming that Mary was wasting the oil by pouring it on Jesus’ feet! The truth was that Mary got it. With deep gratefulness and deep love, she anointed Jesus for his death. Perhaps she knew what was to come. Perhaps she understood it as a distinct possibility. And in the anointing, she, too, enters the Passion narrative. She understood what it meant for Jesus to be sitting there. She did not worry about rules, or what was right, or what was proper. She gave herself over to being truly present in this moment with Jesus.

I’ve often thought that some of the language used or implied here is telling. Mary took…and poured…and wiped…(Sound familiar? Later, Jesus would take the bread, pour the wine, and wipe the feet of the disciples.) Her act was not, of course, a sacrament; but it WAS sacramental. She understood and entered the love that was Christ. She made that love visible (an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”, so to speak).   She became part of Jesus’ journey to the cross. And in that moment, the house becomes a cathedral and the meal becomes a Eucharist in memory of the living Christ.

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Jesus has begun the walk to the cross. Are we standing on the sidelines watching the events unfold as if it is some sort of prepared video stream? Are we holding back those things we have because the cost is just too great? Or are we waiting to see what the person next to us will do? Each of us is called to take, to pour, and to wipe. Each of us is called to become a living sacrament of Christ’s love. Each of us is called to walk with Christ to the cross. Each of us is called to embody that close a relationship with the living Christ. Each of us is called to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to feel, to laugh, and to love with the depth and passion of Christ. Because, you see, that is the only way to experience that lingering fragrance of Christ that is still in the air.

 

  • What meaning does this hold for you?
  • What does it mean for you to live a sacramental life or be a living sacrament of Christ’s love?
  • What does being “truly present” mean to you?
  • What does this mean for you on your Lenten journey?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

“Theologically, I don’t think you can see the future. Traditional Judaism sees that as arrogance—it’s like picking God’s pocket.” (Dan Wakefield, Creating From the Spirit)

 

If you own something you cannot give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you. (Albert Schweitzer)

 

All action ends in passion because the response to our action is out of our hands. That is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community…And that is the mystery of Jesus’ love. God reveals [Godself] in Jesus as the one who waits for our response. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, ”From Action to Passion”)

 

Closing

 

There is a long list of threats around us: terror, cancer, falling markets, killing, others unlike us in all their variety, loneliness, shame, death—the list goes on and we know it well. And in the midst of threats of every kind, you appear among us in your full power, in your deep fidelity, in your amazing compassion. You speak among us the one word that could matter: “Do not fear.”

 

And we, in our several fearfulnesses, are jarred by your utterance. On a good day, we know that your sovereign word is true. So give us good days by your rule, free enough to rejoice, open enough to change, trusting enough to move out of new obedience, grace enough to be forgiven and then to forgive.

 

We live by your word. Speak it to us through the night, that we may have many good days through your gift. Amen. (Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 83.)