Palm Sunday

empty

“The people who come after us are not going to care about how hard we tried.  They’re not going to care if we were nice people.  They’re not going to care if we signed petitions.  They’re not going to care if we voted Democrat, Republican, or Green…  They’re not going to care if we did a whole bunch of preaching, no matter how wonderful the sermons are…

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“What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.  They’re going to care about whether the land can give them food that they can eat.”[1]

That’s from an interview with Derrick Jensen, author and ecological activist, conducted by Rev. Michael Dowd, who calls himself a “pro-future evangelist.”  (By the way, Dowd graduated from the same seminary Banu and I did, Eastern Baptist Seminary—now Palmer Seminary.)

The quote speaks to the efforts we engage in, which can be good and admirable endeavors.  We can excel in our labors; we can accomplish great things.  Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with that!  I myself have signed petitions.  I have voted.  I have preached!  Nevertheless, at the end of the day—a phrase I find with a disconcerting layer of meanings—the question is what we leave for the sake of our future sisters and brothers and for the sake of the earth.

The human race is conducting a chemistry experiment with our planet’s atmosphere.  How insane is that?  (As Jim Morrison of the Doors once sang, “People are strange.”)  We are altering the composition of our air.  We’re increasing the percentages of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.

I won’t go on forever, but here’s another pleasant tidbit: our oceans are drowning in plastic.  Approximately one garbage truck load of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute.[2]  It has a horrific effect on wildlife.  Plastic never really biodegrades; it just gets broken into smaller and smaller pieces.  A couple of faces in this rogues’ gallery are plastic bottles and plastic bags.

3 ph 2(Over the years, my wife and I have rationalized our use of plastic bags, saying we employ them as poop bags for our dogs.)

There is a passage from scripture which has prompted the way I’ve begun.  It is today’s epistle reading in Philippians 2.  Verses 6 to 11 contain some poetic language which the apostle Paul seems to have borrowed from an early hymn.  Verse 5 sets the stage: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

It sings of the willing humility—the setting aside of divine privilege—of Christ being born as Jesus, a human being.  Verse 7 speaks of the self-emptying necessary to do that.  Christ “emptied himself,” “made himself nothing.”  Nothing.  Nobody.  The Greek word for “the act of emptying” is κένωσις (kenōsis).  Christ underwent kenosis.  We are also called to undergo kenosis, not just for ourselves, but as suggested before, for the sake of all who come after us.

Imagine if the world’s population of 7 billion plus all lived our lifestyles.  What would happen to Mother Earth?  What in our lifestyles could do with being emptied?

What’s going on with the church in Philippi that requires “self-emptying”?

Let’s look at how the chapter starts.  “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…”  Need I go any further?  “…make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (vv. 1-2).

Paul has a warm relationship with the Philippians; there is plenty of mutual love between them.  Still, there is a problem, and it pains him all the more.  He pleads, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).

A little background might be helpful.  When Paul and his friends were still in Asia, he had a vision in the night of a man from Macedonia asking him to come and help them.  They crossed over into Europe, and came to Philippi, where they encountered Lydia.  She was their first European convert (Ac 16:9-15).

Paul addresses this beloved church while in prison.  (Incidentally, the epistle to the Philippians, as well as those to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon are called the “prison epistles.”)

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Despite his travails, the apostle is filled with joy and hope.  He lets them know that.  In fact, in chapter 3, he tells them whatever his achievements, whatever his accomplishments, he has “come to regard [them] as loss because of Christ” (v. 7).  He says that for the “sake [of Christ] I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish” (v. 8).

That word “rubbish” in Greek (σκυβαλον, skubalon) is a quite lovely one.  It’s the word for “refuse,” for “garbage.”  It can also have a less fragrant connotation, referring to the excrement of animals.  (So we come full circle to the plastic bags we use as poop bags for our dog!)

Returning to the problem the apostle has with the Philippians, he laments the self-promotion that’s occurring among them.  Instead of being concerned about the interests of others, many are thinking only of themselves.  They are ignoring the effect they have on others.  (And that brings us back to ourselves, ignoring what we leave for future generations.)

With that in mind, he gives them a new song to sing: the kenosis hymn, the hymn of Christ emptying himself.

Something we should be aware of is the use of the word “you.”  It is always “you” as plural, not singular.  He is addressing the entire community.  Certainly, individuals can and should take a lesson from this.  Still, he has the whole church in mind.

Speaking of mind, how would we describe “the mind of Christ”?  What does it look like to have it together?  What self-emptying would be valuable for us?  As Dennis Bratcher puts it, “True servanthood empties self.”[3]

There’s a nice little meditation maybe we can relate to.  It deals with kenosis, emptying of self, and it has nothing to do with Greek words or lengthy theological discussions!  Valencia Jackson, minister in the AME Church, expounds on the “confessions of a shopaholic.”[4]

“I enjoy shopping,” she says.  “For me, shopping is therapeutic.  I like to call this type of therapy, ‘market therapy’ because I do not have to pay a licensed professional counselor…

“I enjoy shopping, but I have friends who love shopping a lot more than me.”  It looks like she’s about to “out” some people.  “They are shopaholics.  These friends know every time their favorite stores have sales.  They go and shop to their hearts’ content…  Many hide their purchases from their husbands.”

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(I can’t imagine such a thing.  But of course, if it’s hidden, how would I know?  In fairness, I am told, at least after the fact—or when the package arrives.)

Now, back to Jackson.  “They confess that they are shopaholics.  They seem unable to resist.”

We do accumulate.  We accumulate all manner of things.  Too often, we accumulate to bolster our ego.  We fear laying stuff aside.

When Christ emptied himself, what did that entail?  Not much really, just “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (vv. 7-8).  No big deal.

We’re told of something C.S. Lewis once wrote: “If you want to get the hang of the incarnation, just imagine how you’d feel if you woke up one morning to discover you had turned into a garden slug.”[5]  What about that bit about being obedient to the point of dying on a cross?  It should be noted that in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was considered to be the most degrading and humiliating form of execution.  It was reserved for the lowest of the low.

(So the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, by entering into flesh of the human named Jesus of Nazareth, gave up more than just a little bit.)

As suggested earlier, what would it look like for us here to have the mind of Christ, which leads to self-emptying for our own benefit and the benefit of everyone else?

During Holy Week, we’re inviting everyone to observe crossing thresholds.[6]  A threshold “can be a place, a moment, or a season in time.”  Our church’s website post, “Crossing the Threshold,” tells us, “During a threshold time, we have a sense of anticipation as what lies ahead for us is significant: we are aware God is preparing us—a deep work may be taking place in our life.”

It is that deep work which enables us to be unable.  It is that deep work which leads us to lay aside those things protecting our false ego.  It is that deep work which turns letting everything go to gaining all things.  It was that deep work that empowered Christ to lose power.

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It was after the ultimate humbling that he was highly exalted and given the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

[1] Michael Dowd, “Christ as the Future Incarnate,” first published in Oneing, “The Universal Christ,” 8:1 (Spring 2019), 2.

[2] www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/every-minute-one-garbage-truck-of-plastic-is-dumped-into-our-oceans

[3] www.crivoice.org/kenosis.html

[4] Valencia Jackson, “Confessions of a Shopaholic: Philippians 2:1-11,” Review and Expositor 107, Winter 2010, 75.

[5] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/palm-sunday-c/?type=lectionary_epistle

[6] www.auburnfirst.org/2019/04/crossing-the-threshold.html


the fox and the hen

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was talking about sermons.  (I confess, I don’t remember who it was!)  He was commenting on how the usual approach many people have is to make three points.  (There’s a saying some people quote on occasion: “three points and a poem.”)  He said he doesn’t bother with three points; he has enough to do with one point!  He figured if he could deliver a sermon with at least one thing to take away from it, then he did his job.

Our gospel reading in Luke has neither one nor three points; it has two points!  They involve a fox and a hen.  There’s another saying along the lines of a fox guarding the hen house.  (My inspiration for the sermon title.)  That would be an unfortunate scenario for those living in the house!

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{Foxy, our dog from long ago--not the "fox"}

As we begin with verse 31, we hear, “At that very hour some Pharisees” show up and give Jesus a warning.  What’s going on right before this?  According to Luke, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).  His theme is, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).

The stage is set.  The Pharisees accost him after he enters the city.  They tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Herod has been hearing things about him.  We’re told “he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’  And he tried to see him” (9:7-9).  I’m sure he has nothing but good intentions!

This Herod, Herod Antipas, is the son of Herod the Great.  This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the slain little boys of Bethlehem, in his mad attempt to stamp out the young Jesus.

Herod Antipas first had John the Baptist arrested because he denounced his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (3:19-20).  That was a big no-no.  Later at his birthday party, when the daughter of Herodias was dancing, he drunkenly asked what she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mt 14:6-8).

It appears that bloodlust runs in the family!

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We don’t know if the Pharisees are giving Jesus a good faith warning.  Are they sincerely concerned about his safety?  Or do they want him to get the heck out of Dodge because, to put it lightly, they just don’t like him?  Herod having put Jesus on his hit list would be a convenient excuse.  Either way, that should be enough for Jesus to heed their warning, “Hit the road, Jack.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  Jesus is undaunted.  He wants the Pharisees to give “that fox” a message.  Herod is a fox.  He is cunning and sly.  He’s one slippery devil.  He’s a sneaky one.  But calling someone a fox can also mean that they’re unimportant, not worth getting all hot and bothered.  It is not a compliment!

Jesus wants them to tell him he’s going to be “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32).  I’m going to keep doing what I do.  Jesus refuses to be diverted, even though he probably knows this won’t end well.

The late Bruce Prewer said, “This is no pretty-boy Jesus, no sentimental dreamer.  Jesus knew the score.  He mourned the bloody death of cousin John.  But he was not going to be intimidated.  He was a man in charge of his own destiny.  A tough Jesus.  ‘Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready.  Not before.’”[1]

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul in Philippi when he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail (Ac 16:35-40).  When the officials found out he was a Roman citizen, they were scared because they didn’t give him his due process.  As a citizen, he had rights they violated.  They sent word to have him released, but Paul demanded they come and tell him to his face.

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Maybe that’s enough about the fox.  Let’s move on to the hen!

In this section, Jesus begins by lamenting the history of Jerusalem—how it has seen the murder of so many prophets.  Here’s a little sample: Uriah (Jr 26:23), Zechariah (2 Ch 24:20-22), those killed by King Manasseh (2 Kg 21:16), and we could go on.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem” (v. 33).

The heart of Jesus is broken.  He pours out his soul in sorrow.  He has longed to gather the people of Jerusalem; he has ached.  He has wanted to protect them under his wing.  Applying feminine imagery to himself, Jesus has wanted to be their mother hen.  To continue the metaphor, the people have been wayward chicks, refusing the care of mother.  This is a true picture of anguish.

A moment ago, I mentioned how I was reminded of the apostle Paul.  Now the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  He has been called “the weeping prophet.”

He cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?  O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:22-9:1).

Jesus finishes by telling the disobedient people “your house is left to you” (v. 35).  There’s the suggestion that it’s been left desolate, in a state of disorder.  Some say he’s referring to the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans.

It’s a picture of abandonment.  That’s what happens to us when we choose, so to speak, to reject the protection of the mother hen.  We are left at the mercy of the fox.

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{"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo}

I don’t know about you, but to me this scripture passage sounds rather grim.  We have threats, a city with a dark side, warnings of destruction, and oh yes, murder.  It might not be the best bedtime reading!

Luke has one more nugget of misfortune.  He ends the chapter with a dire prediction by Jesus.  He says they won’t see him “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  This is the line from Psalm 118 which the crowds cry out as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  That verse chanted on the first Palm Sunday is part of our liturgy.  Luke is giving us a little preview of things to come.

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday.  It has so much praising, and if you didn’t know what would unfold in the coming days, it would be a time of genuine celebration.

Still, Jesus’ pronouncement is about more than Palm Sunday.  It’s about a more fundamental reality.  It goes back to the rejection of the Lord in general.  I trust I’m not overstating this, but there is a very real sense of not being able to see the Lord until and unless our lives say, “Blessed is the one.”

Regarding this scripture reading, as you see, this is one that is used during Lent.  I described it as grim.  Many folks think of Lent as grim.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has a different take on it.  “Lent is the time for trimming the soul,” she says, “and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod…  Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord, we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope…  Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”[2]

More than any one single theme, the Lenten journey is about repentance.  We all need to repent.  The need for repentance doesn’t mean we’re bad.  The word “repentance” in Greek (μετανοια, metanoia) means “a change of mind” or “a turning around.”  It’s a turning from death to life.

5 lk 13How does the image of the fox and the hen figure into that?  Earlier I said a fox guarding the hen house would be unfortunate—at least for the chickens!

Between the fox and the hen, the fox is clearly the strong one.  The hen is the weak one.  The hen is no match for the fox.  And yet, despite the determination (and the hunger) of the fox, the mother hen still defends her young as best she can.  The odds are seriously stacked against her.

The mother hen is the picture of weakness and sorrow.  It’s kind of like Jesus surveying Jerusalem.  He is helpless in the face of intransigence.

If he wanted to, Jesus could have chosen a different image to represent himself.  Instead of a mother hen, he could have been a dread warrior, wielding a battle axe—I dare you to defy me!  But that isn’t the way of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Lent calls us to lay down our arms, to be unguarded, vulnerable, to indeed, repent.  I’m not saying to forswear certain physical things during these forty days, but allowing ourselves to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, to lower our defenses—that really is a challenge.

Still, remember who our Lord is.  He reigns in weakness.  He is the lamb upon the throne.  (Sure, that’s the image we all have of a king: a helpless lamb on a throne!)  He upends our usual expectations.  He is the very picture of vulnerability.  He ignores the fox, be it Herod or anyone else.  He is the mother hen, willing to sacrifice himself (or herself?) to protect the baby chicks.

That is the challenge of Lent.  That is the reward of Lent.  If you haven’t already fully entered into the Lenten season, it isn’t too late.  Remember, it “is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C21lent2.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


herd mentality

On Palm Sunday, we remember an ancient practice.  When the conquering hero would ride into town, people would welcome him by carpeting his path with palm leaves.  In the case of Jesus, the people are expressing their hopes.  He’s there to lead them against the Romans!

Of course, he’s not mounted on a mighty stallion; he’s riding a lowly donkey.  Connection has been made to the book of Zechariah, which says in chapter 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 9).

In his gospel, St. Mark tells us, as Jesus rides a colt into town, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:8-9).

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Are the people cheering really interested in being his disciples?  What would that mean for them?

I’m not the first to point out how the crowd on Palm Sunday bears little resemblance to the crowd on Good Friday.  Or does it?  In neither case is the spirit of discipleship demonstrated.  Jesus shows how fleeting and fickle fame really is.  In a matter of days, the people go from calling for a crown on his head—to calling for his head.  In doing this, the crowd has a mind of its own.

Our reading in the book of Isaiah has an interesting Hebrew word.  In verse 4, we hear, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”  The word used for “teacher” (לׅמֻּד, limmud) can also mean “disciple,” one who is taught.  God has given me the tongue of a disciple.  That word is also at the end of the verse.  “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”  Those who are taught:  to listen as disciples.

According to the prophet, the teacher is a disciple.  The disciple is a teacher.  This is a person who always wants to learn, and who always wants to share what has been learned.  We’re reminded that “the speaker is aware of his need to learn, and has the humility to confess that need.”[1]

The path of discipleship is one of endless training.  It is one of endless training of others.  That’s a calling that we share with the prophet, the Servant of the Lord.  Being a disciple of Christ means wanting to be like Christ.  That requires both meekness and courage.

On the point of the crowd having a mind of its own, I have a story to tell, one I’m not too happy about.  It involves the Texas state Capitol, the KKK, some hardened clumps of dirt, and a moment about which I’m not terribly proud.

In 1983, during my freshman year of college, I went with a friend (and more than a thousand other people) to watch the Ku Klux Klan as they marched on the Capitol building in Austin.  Police and news helicopters were flying all over the place.  It felt almost like we were about to be occupied by an army!

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Among the crowds were people carrying signs, people yelling at the Klansmen, and others (like me) who were just curious and wanted to see what was going on.  As the marchers made their way toward the Capitol building, they moved through thicker and thicker crowds along the road.  You could feel the hatred in the air.  It was just a matter of time before someone got bored with hurling insults and decided to hurl something else.

It began with a couple of small stones and quickly escalated into a barrage of rocks.  Even though the Klansmen came equipped with plexiglass shields (maybe they expected this kind of reception!), some projectiles managed to hit home.  There was more than one bloody face among them.  (I should say they were wearing their pointy hoods, but they were unmasked).

When they reached the spot where their cars and vans were parked, demonstrators started smashing the windows.  It was the final angry act of the day.

There’s one moment, though, in that afternoon of violence that remains with me.  At one point, when the Klansmen had circled around behind the Capitol, people were running in all directions.  I had stopped and was surveying the scene (being careful to avoid the crossfire of rocks!).  Suddenly, a young black man who was about my age stopped running and knelt about ten yards from me.  He was gathering some hard, dry clumps of dirt to fire at our white-robed friends.

He must have noticed out of the corner of his eye someone was standing there; he just froze and looked up at me.  There we were—two young guys, one white and one black—the black one probably wondering what the white one would do.  And what the white one did was to give the black one a little smile, as if to say, “Go for it!”  He returned the smile, picked up his weapons, and disappeared into the crowd.

I believe now, as I did then, that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is vitally important.  Even a group I find as repugnant as the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express its opinion, as long as they’re not advocating violence.  (Admittedly, that’s a tough sell with a group like the Klan.)

The irony on that day was the KKK was being peaceful, if it’s possible for them.  Still, wearing those bedsheets stirs up the legacy of terrorism.  At the very least, they were just walking; they weren’t shouting or shaking their fists.  It was the onlookers who were violent.  And I was a part of that violence.  In my own way, I became a contributor to mob mentality.  That’s not a good feeling.  I allowed the crowd to do my thinking for me.

For those interested in being interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires two weeks of training, at least six months apart.  One of the main things we looked at was the congregation as a system: a family system, an emotional system, and so on.  We also looked at how systems get stuck—how they get paralyzed and can’t seem to progress.

There are a number of reasons, but one of them is something I’ve been talking about.  It’s the mentality of the mob, the herd mentality.  Maybe some of us have had an experience of church like this.  There can be a group dynamic in which the congregation bands together and shames those who have questions.  There can be cult-like behavior.  Compulsion is used to whip people into shape.

Many studies have been done about herd mentality.  As individuals, we can feel anonymous in a crowd—or sometimes on the internet.  No one knows who we are.  Sometimes it leads us to do things, that if we were by ourselves, we would never dream of doing.

This doesn’t have to work for the bad.  When the community of faith works in a healthy way, those things we would never dream of doing are awesome and beautiful.

For example, by ourselves, it takes added courage to protest for justice.  With others, we are heartened in an amazing way.  By ourselves, singing and praising the Lord is definitely a beautiful and soul-enriching thing.  But with others, singing and praising becomes a powerful and magnificent wave.

In the Palm Sunday story, along with the sincere adoration of Jesus, can’t we also sense an element of desperation—the desperation of a people who feel beaten down?  When these desperate people realize that Jesus won’t comply with their wishes, things get ugly.  They get anxious, with a vengeance.  (But that’s the story of Good Friday!)

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When we’re anxious, we become reactive, as opposed to responsive.  A good way to think of it is to compare “reacting” to a knee-jerk “reaction.”  It’s automatic.  It doesn’t take any thought.  When we respond, we’re taking a moment to actually think things through, to weigh the options.

Being reactive is often a good thing; it can save our lives.  If our hand is on a hot stove, that’s probably not the time to think and weigh our options.  Get your hand off the stove!

Getting back to my story about the Klan, we see an extreme example of reactivity.  (I would say that throwing rocks at people qualifies as “extreme.”)  Of course, it helps if there’s a group that is easy to hate, like the KKK.

Going along with this, we see violence cloaked with righteousness.  Too often it seems like justice has to be served by wiping out somebody else.  If I disagree with you, then you’re my enemy.  Forget for a moment what Jesus says about loving our enemies.

Church consultant Speed Leas has done a lot of work on congregational conflict.  He says that situations sometimes get to the point where people “won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.”

At our interim pastor training, a story was told of a minister who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

As we can see, giving in to the herd mentality can lead to some unpleasant, even fishy, outcomes.

So, today on this Palm Sunday, where are we?  (Presumably, not gathering up rocks or thawing out fish!)

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, “Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is ‘attend.’  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.”[2]

Sometimes we’ve been swept along with the herd; we’ve disappeared into the crowd.  At such times, we have lost ourselves; we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  Sadly (and speaking for myself), we might have chosen the path of cowardice.

But much more importantly, we have also experienced communion, the solidarity of the saints.  We have discovered and welcomed the courage of Christ.

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So, regardless of what the herd says or does, be it the cheering and joy of Palm Sunday or the jeering and rage of Good Friday, we take hold of Christ and confidently say with the prophet in Isaiah 50, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7).

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1965), 201.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 276.


striking a pose

I want to begin by reading something from a journal.

“I managed one hour of sleep last night.  Trent and I have made arrangements to stay at the homeless shelter tonight.  I have noticed a distinct loss of freedom as a street person.  Because of my appearance, there are many places I cannot appropriately go.  I sense the contempt others have for me.  My hair is dirty and uncombed, my pants are torn and grimy, my face is three days unshaven, and I imagine I don’t smell like a breath of fresh air.  I want to brush my teeth.

“The world can be an unfriendly place if you are homeless.  You lack an address, an identity, personhood, a bathroom, water!  The day drags on.”

1 striking

That journal entry was written by me.  It comes from an experience I had with Food for the Hungry, a Christian relief and development agency based, at the time, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (They later relocated to Phoenix.)

I was there for ten days during the month of June, participating in a hunger awareness program.  We had lectures, readings, Bible studies, worship, and a number of other activities—including playing basketball under the blazing desert sun.  (The game didn’t last very long!)

We also watched the movie The Elephant Man, starring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt.  This was meant to help us identify with the marginalized and outcast.  But the most dramatic component was the immersion experience.  We were paired up and put on the street in Phoenix for 48 hours.  (Trent, who was from Oregon, was my partner.)  We were allowed $2, one source of identification (in case the cops stopped us), a Bible, and a notebook.

We were told to disperse, but we were given certain geographic boundaries beyond which we weren’t supposed to go.  Besides that, we had little instruction.  We were simply to blend into the environment and be street people from noon on Friday to noon on Sunday.  We couldn’t tell anyone who we were, but we didn’t want to lie, either.  So we decided to say that some friends had dropped us off in Phoenix and were supposed to return some time and pick us up.  I soon discovered how very realistic that was.  We met several people with similar stories.

I’ve told you this to show how I was given just a taste of what it means to be on the street.  To be marginalized.  To be an outcast.  To be “the other.”

Central to our identity, as people called to live the gospel of Christ, is this matter of identifying with the marginalized, with “the least of these,” as Jesus says.  There are probably as many ways to do this as there are people.

Our epistle reading for Palm Sunday is a hymn quoted by the apostle Paul for the benefit of the Philippian church.  It may be hard for us think of it as a hymn, since we don’t sing it, though our hymnal has some songs based on it.  It can be a beautiful and powerful part of worship.  The problem comes when words and rituals of praise aren’t acted upon.  When worship isn’t reflected in our lives, it becomes hollow.  We’re simply striking a pose; we’re posturing.

2 strikingIt seems that we spend much of our time striking a pose.  We spend a lot of time wearing masks.  But we hear that Jesus was unwilling to strike a pose.  On that first Palm Sunday, as he entered Jerusalem, he was a king without a crown.  Instead of riding a mighty stallion, as conquering heroes would do, he rode on a lowly donkey.

Jesus let all the masks fall.  The choice of Jesus to identify with the other has unleashed in our world a power that cannot be tamed.  It is a strange power, a power that overturns our tidy world as only Jesus the God-slave can.

But surely this sense of break with the familiar—of rupture within our comfortable little world—is a sign of God’s presence.  It’s only our idols that remain predictable and easy to control.  God calls us into an uncomfortable, untested zone, in which faith really comes alive.

And indeed, as share the viewpoint of the outcast, as we take the form of a slave, things take on new clarity.  So let us return to downtown Phoenix, to the parched avenues of that desert city, and maybe we can catch a glimpse, as I did for a brief moment, the reality of those on the margins.  We might even see a clean toilet as a bearer of God’s grace.

The search for a place to relieve oneself can be a humbling experience.  Finding myself in that predicament, and not finding any public restrooms, I leave Trent sleeping in the shade of a tree and wander into a McDonald’s next to the state Capitol.  I think, “Okay, I can use the bathroom here.”  However, a locked door stops me in my tracks.  I know I’ll have to go to the counter and ask for the key.  But remember my appearance at the time.  I’m too proud to just ask to use the restroom.  After all, I’m not really a street person.  I’m better than that!

So I decide to buy something first.  I will be a legitimate customer.  I select the cheapest thing on the menu, a hot fudge sundae.  It costs me almost a dollar.  (I was there in the 90s; I’m not sure what their price is now.)  Remember that we’re only allowed two dollars—so I’m spending almost half my amount right here.

After finishing the sundae, I return to the counter and request the key that will end my torture.  Just a few more seconds, and I can lock myself into a world of privacy…of refreshment…of relief…of cool water from the faucet to splash on my sunburned face.  I can quench my ever-recurring thirst.  Just a few more seconds, and…THE RESTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER…what?…THE RESTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER.

I stumble back out into the blast furnace of that June day in Arizona.  I wander across the Capitol grounds and leave before I attract the attention of security.  I think of the guy at the counter.  The look of disgust he had given me is still in my mind.  I wanted to say, “This isn’t who I really am.  I’m just playing a role.  I’m just striking a pose.  I’m not really a street person.”

3 strikingI have endured that humiliation.  I have wasted my money on something not terribly nutritious, and now I have to use the bathroom more than ever.  I keep walking in that 115 degree heat and finally come to a park with a nasty old building with a smelly old restroom with a filthy old toilet where I thank God and end my agony.

We sing the hymn of praise to Christ.  We join with the crowds on Palm Sunday, who sang their praises.  We sing, but we’re not always sure what to do next.

That isn’t entirely surprising.  It’s been noted, “We become accustomed to employing the [language] of…love.  In our very verbal faith, words easily become a substitute for reality.  And there is an odd sense of satisfaction we can gain by seriously talking about issues such as poverty [or world hunger] without ever doing anything about it…

“We need to get real and help [others] to get real.  We need to get off the band wagon of being deserving or undeserving.  Our opportunity is to…be real and loving as we are.  It is OK to be who I am…  All else is a running away from reality.  I am not going to do anyone any good by retreating into the ‘comfort’ of feeling guilty.  Guilt is a useful place to be only because it is a place from which to move on; it is not a place to live.”[1]

It might sound strange to speak of finding comfort in feeling guilty.  But sometimes it can serve as an escape, or at least a way of procrastinating.  “I’m no better than anyone else,” we might think, “so who am I to speak out?  Who am I to offer my gifts?”

I’ve talked about this before.  Of the seven deadly sins of the medieval church—envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath—in my humble opinion, sloth is the deadliest.  (I know others have their favorites!)

One image that typically comes to mind when we hear the word “sloth” is the couch potato—one who conserves body energy by lying on the sofa, using remote control gadgets, or voice command, for everything.

Still, mere laziness is not the deadly sin of sloth.  Rather, sloth is a spiritual problem, one that causes us to resist the movement of God in our life.  Sloth is what causes us, when we sense the Spirit leading us to do something—or when we see someone in need—to say: “Oh, I don’t feel like it!  It’s just too much bother!”

Notice that I said, “when we sense the Spirit leading us.”  A lot of Christians don’t know, or they’ve forgotten, what that means.  They’ve hardened themselves; they’re set in their ways.  They don’t sincerely pray for God’s guidance.  This is probably a case in which laziness is a good definition of sloth.  I know what I’m talking about.  There are days when I don’t feel like seeking divine guidance—and I don’t do it!

In 1 Timothy, St. Paul calls himself “the foremost” of sinners (1:15).  He understands his weakness.  Maybe that’s why he says in verse 12, right after our hymn, that we have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”  It takes discipline.  It takes work.  We must recognize our own weakness and the power of temptation.

4 striking

So, what would it mean to have the mind of Christ, which includes looking first to the interests of others, and not merely to our own?  How can we love with unconditional love, not with the conditional love of the Palm Sunday crowds?

We sing the hymn of praise to Christ, and we hear the good news that the Lordship of Jesus is confessed throughout the cosmos.  And we are invited to share the mind of one who takes the place of a slave, an outcast—who suffers humiliation and disgust.  He is the one who is exalted and who calls us friends.  We are called to join in that grand parade.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPent19.htm