Post-modern Palm Sunday 2008

There is a great deal of confusion about what it means to be Christian these days – perhaps this confusion has always been, or, it could be that I am just paying more attention – but it seems to me to be true. There are those, writes Frederick Buechner, who think:

That a Christian is one who necessarily believes certain things: that Jesus was the son of God… or that Mary was a virgin… or that the Pope is infallible or that all other religious are wrong. Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things: such as going to church, getting baptized, giving up liquor and tobacco, reading the bible and doing a good deed a day. And some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy. But Jesus tells us simply: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…” He did not say that any particular ethic, doctrine, denomination or religion was the way, the truth and the life – he said that he was. And he didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you would come into the Kingdom of God – he said that it was only by him – by living, participating and being caught up in the way of life that he embodied.

Thus it is possible (Buechner concludes) to be on Christ’s way and with his mark on you without ever having heard of Christ – and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God. So, at best all we can say is this: a Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. Because, you see, a Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else – just better informed.

And I believe that it is the Cross, more than any other reality in Christ’s way, that offers us truth and life in his Spirit. When Paul tried to distill the heart of Christ’s way for the early church, he spoke of the Cross: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

When the great 16th century reformer of the Western church, Martin Luther, addressed the core of Christ’s ministry in his day, he, too, went back to the via crucis – the way of the Cross – as the fount of all reliable information about Jesus. And as Douglas John Hall has noted in our own generation, it is the way of the Cross that gives us the truest sense of Christ our Lord:

“Against the image of a divine Jesus,” he writes, the Cross shows us one who “does not want to take us out of the world but to put us into it so that we might resist and even mend it!” Against the image of a judging Jesus, who blames the wounded and emphasizes sin, the Cross shows us one who “recruited reconcilers and stewards and poets of creation” – women and men set on building up rather than “gather about himself a ban of nihilists ready to push over what is falling a la Nietzsche.”

And against the image of the accepting Jesus, who with eyes cast on a distant shore pointing only to a reward in some other life, the one on the Cross exposes a God who “never accepts the violence, injustice, inequality and degradation of our social or natural environment.” “If we are serious about seeing Jesus here and now,” Hall concludes, “we shall have to jettison most of the other images of the Christ that circulate in our midst and prepare ourselves to meet the transforming Christ who calls us to participate in his transfiguration of the creation” from the Cross.

Even my dear friend, St. Briget of Tucson, post-modern feminist preacher, pastor and theologian extraordinaire, recently wrote to me that as she endured the collapse of her health, the destruction of her marriage and the chaos of her family in the court system, the love of God exposed on the Cross began to make more and more sense to her: This whole illness, my wife’s leaving, the insecurity of what is going on with the girls has so opened my eyes to this Jesus stuff. Phil has helped a lot too. He told me of a time when he nailed nails into Christ’s hands each day so that God would understand the pain he was in. I’ve gotten in touch with that myself. And since you’re my favorite atonement guy, I’m missing that conversation BIG time.

So on Palm Sunday, when the Christian Church is symbolically united in word and purpose, let me call you to give your attention to Christ and his Cross for a short time that together we might be of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus our Lord. Specifically I would like to call your attention to the Cross in relation to the palms, the passion and our post-modern American context.

The palms – an essential ingredient for this Sunday – always used to confuse me as a child. I loved getting them – and processing around the church while singing, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” was always a hoot, too. What confused me, however, was that it always felt as if Palm Sunday was more festive in our congregation than Easter – and even as a child that did not make sense to me. Palm Sunday was the start of the passion – the movement into Christ’s betrayal and death – so why did Easter – the feast of the resurrection – pale in comparison? I don’t know about your church, but there was always much more happening on Palm Sunday – from confirmation and new members to better music and more activity – so much so that Easter felt anti-climatic.

What’s more, for a long time Passion Sunday was celebrated the week before Palm Sunday which really didn’t make any sense to me. The whole rhythm of the story was thrown off so that we didn’t spend any time with the Cross on Palm Sunday – and therein lays the problem. You see, Palm Sundays growing up were all about the wonderful parade – the procession of Christ as Messiah – and it almost felt like a religious Fourth of July to me. It was a celebration – a proclamation – and my church used to do it up right! But we only spent time with the first part of the story – the Hosannas – it has only been in the last 20+ years that a new/old emphasis on the Passion has been fused back on to Palm Sunday – and that was the problem: if you just concentrate on the first part of the story, where the crowds are celebrating Jesus as Messiah, you miss the paradox and drama. In fact, if you just concentrate on shouting “Hosanna,” you miss the chance to also cry, “Crucify him” – and that is an essential ingredient we cannot forsake if we are to put on the mind of Christ.

What the whole story of Palm Sunday shows is that everybody – not just one group or another – but everybody turns on Jesus. Gil Baile, one of America’s leading peace preachers, notes that Jews, Romans, the Sanhedrin, disciples, friends and enemies alike – women and men, young and old – are all to blame here. “It’s not just this person or that person needing forgiveness. It’s about all of us needing forgiveness – not just the persons there on that fateful Good Friday, but also every crowd of persons throughout the ages who have ever needed or used scapegoats” to make themselves feel better. The palms – which we wave in joy today but burn into the ash of repentance later – point us to the crowd on Palm Sunday, reminding us how scapegoats and the Cross, hosanna and crucify him are inseparable whenever fear drives our religion. And lest we forget what a horrible, unholy mess we make whenever we pretend otherwise, think Golgotha, think Abu Grahib, Auschwitz or My Lai. To put on the mind of Christ, we begin with the palms and their fullness in the Cross – this is the first blessing.

Second, the passion, which the late Henri Nouwen speaks of as the time when Jesus gave up his activity in the world so that he could be handed over to the others: to be sure, he was arrested, but the scriptures tell us that he was literally “handed over.” Nouwen writes:

So this word, “to be handed over,” plays a central role in the life of Christ. Indeed, this drama of being handed over divides the life of Jesus radically in two. The first part of his life is filled with activity: Jesus takes all sorts of initiatives. He speaks, he preaches, he heals and he travels. But immediately after Jesus is handed over, he becomes the one to whom things are being done. He’s being arrested; he’s being led to the high priest; he’s being taken before Pilate; he’s being crowned with thorns; he’s being nailed to a cross. Things are being done to him over which he has no control – and that is the meaning of the passion: being the recipient o9f other people’s initiatives.

Interestingly, Nouwen came to this insight while caring for a dear friend who once had been a social activist, but now was bed ridden and moving towards death with cancer. He pleaded with Henri to “help me to think about this situation in a new way. Help me to think about my not being able to do anything anymore so that I won’t be driven to despair. Help me to understand what it means that now all sorts of people are doing things to me over which I have no control.” To which Nouwen replied, once again we must go to the Cross – the passion – the handing over which also brings new life, yes?

In this setting, you see, the passion becomes a kind of waiting – waiting for “what other people are going to do… and all action ends in this kind of waiting… it is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship and the mystery of community – for in life there is always waiting” – and always the passion. Sometimes we wait for healing, sometimes for death; sometimes we wait for our children to mature, or wars to cease, or fears to end or addictions to abate or simply time to pass – sometimes we wait for love to fill our lonely lives or even God to join us in our agony. How did Christ put it from the Cross: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” In this realm, there is always waiting and so… there is always the passion of our Lord.

Now what’s really interesting to me is that Nouwen went on to tell his dying friend that it is only when Jesus is living into the passion – waiting for the fullness of God’s love to be revealed on the cross – that we see the heart of God shine through him most clearly. He prays: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He assures the thief beside him on the Cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

New life, therefore, becomes visible in Jesus not only in the resurrection on the third day, but already in the passion, in the being handed over…it is in the passion when Christ is a helpless victim on a symbol of desolation that the divinity of God bursts forth through him most clearly…exposing to the world a love that does not seek to control.

And that is the second blessing: a love that does not seek to control. Nouwen came to realize – and subsequently teach his old friend – that as Jesus made peace with the waiting – as he embraced being handed over – new life shone through him from God. And that new life did not end on the Cross, but is available to us always. To put on the full mind of Christ is to enter the passion and let that love that does not seek to control shine brightly from within.

In post-modern America, where truth is mistrusted as relative and the eternal presence of God in acts of justice and beauty are often discarded for the grim, hip cynicism that passes for wisdom, the Cross is rarely valued as a viable alternative to the status quo. War seems relentless, the prescient cry of economic insecurity persistent and the logic of bottom-line ethics essential. Heroes become zeroes, hypocrisy trumps integrity and fear and loathing are epidemic. Nevertheless, the Cross of our Lord continues to stand as a bold antithesis to the chaos and pain we create in spite of ourselves – and it promises to help us put on the mind of Christ so that we might live as agents of healing and hope in this broken and sin-filled world with patient compassion.

Today we gaze upon the Cross, as St. Paul reminds us, as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. But even now, on this side of the resurrection, the passion illuminates faith, hope and love showing that the greatest is that love that does not seek to control. Beloved, this is the good news for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see; Lord, may it be so among us.


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