Palm / Passion Sunday (March 20, 2016)
Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:3-9
Today we conclude our Lenten sermon series on brokenness in conjunction with the Sanctuary Art’s Team’s work. We have two lessons today. I’m going to read the Palm Sunday part of the story before the Children’s Moment and the Passion-related piece after they’ve walked out.
When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”
They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”
In both of these stories, Jesus is moving toward the inevitable end of his ministry: the cross.
This first, the triumphant procession into Jerusalem, is one catalyst for his execution. This is an often-overlooked fact. Traditional interpretations of the story emphasize Jesus humility. The thinking goes that Jesus rides on a peaceful donkey, vs. an aggressive war horse. Have you heard that before? Well, nothing in the passage specifically suggests humility, per se. Actually, kings and generals in the ancient near east rode donkeys all the time, so what Jesus is doing here is claiming (or at least not denying) some form of kingship or Messianic status. Jesus has spent much of his time, up to this point, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This has political overtones and is a defiant gesture to the authorities! So when the crowds chant “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David,” these actions are directly defiant of the Roman occupation and their collaborators. This spectacle of riding into Jerusalem gets Jesus into trouble with the powers-at-be! No wonder he was executed via the Roman method.
Next, fast forward to Bethany. Here we have a story with yet another unnamed woman. But even if the writers don’t give her the dignity of a name, of her story, Jesus says, “wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.” And as with the procession into Jerusalem, along with the crowds, she is preparing Jesus for the cross. She anoints him with an exceedingly precious perfume, which carries several meanings.
- In that day, they prepared their dead for burial with perfume, like embalming.
- The woman anoints Jesus as prophets in the Hebrew Bible anointed kings.
- Her sacrifice of very, very costly oil mirrors Jesus own sacrifice. For her to “waste” a year’s worth of a man’s wages (not a woman’s; most women weren’t employed outside the home, meaning she gave absolutely everything) expressed the totality of Jesus’ own sacrifice.
Jesus does end up giving his all. He offers his own life as a costly sacrifice. Thus the cross points to the self-giving love of God.
But this is also an execution, an unjust death. How do we make sense of that? How do we reconcile those two realities, a profound sign of God’s love and human cruelty?
I have to confess I’ve struggled with this my whole life. Preachers I grew up with tried to tie my guilt to the death of a man 2000 years ago, which I never understood. When I did think of it, I think I walked away with even more self-loathing than I already had!
The death of Jesus is a mystery of faith. At its heart this mystery points to the brokenness of the world. All of our brokenness coalesces at the cross. At the cross, God absorbs this brokenness. If we take a walk around the sanctuary and mediate on what the Sanctuary Arts Team has crafted for us this Lent, I think we can understand a little more of what this might mean for us.
Prison: Think about it. Jesus was a prisoner. As our PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith says, he was “Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition.” He was a political prisoner, a leader of this Kingdom of God movement. His trial was a sham. He was tortured, put to death by the state.
The City: Take a look at this depiction of broken opportunity in Detroit. This whole saga takes place in a major city. Jesus took his movement from the countryside to the religious, political, and cultural heart of the nation. He spoke to the injustice of Jerusalem and the temple system. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Hunger: Jesus certainly tasted hunger and thirst on the cross. Remember, they fed him bitter wine in one of the versions of the story? How ironic: the one who fed thousands died hungry as so many innocent people do.
Conformity: Oh the crowds! As the beginning of the week they cried “hosanna!” At the end of the week,“crucify him!” Remember Peter’s betrayal and the disciples fleeing? They didn’t want to stand out with him, stand out with a social pariah. And Jesus didn’t conform to the world’s definitions of power. He was put to death for what he taught, how he lived, and who he welcomed to his table. Jesus conformed to God’s will, not society’s and not the establishment’s.
Borders: As we said this whole drama takes place in a land under imperial occupation. Israel was so war-weary at that point in their history. The same is true today. Maybe that’s true for us…
Abuse: Jesus suffers unspeakable violence. Soldiers strip him, beat him, hang a crown of thorns on his head. The crowds spit at him and mock him as he ascends the hill to Golgotha.
Greed: One connection here is Judas, selling his friend out for a mere 40 pieces of silver. But it goes deeper than that, of course. Again, Jesus called out a system for its abuses of the poor. His message of love, of abundance, of peace was a threat to people making money! If you threaten the bottom line, you will pay the price.
Death: It goes without saying, but he dies a very gruesome, very public, very awful death.
Cancer: This was a hard parallel for me to draw, but I couldn’t help but think of that verse in Matthew’s gospel that quotes Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
Self-doubt: Remember his struggle in the garden of Gethsemane and his pleading to get out of what he was about to go through? His prayer: “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” He sweated blood. I’ve thought of this scene often in my own moments of self-doubt, how this very human Jesus struggles, how he must have questioned himself. “Did I do the right thing? Am I really supposed to go through this?”
Coming back to the cross. You know, there was a time that respectable people in that day and time wouldn’t have even dared to look at a cross. It was so repulsive and offensive. Paul called it “a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Greeks.” The cross was an instrument of torture and capital punishment. It was a symbol of Roman terrorism. It meant to strike fear into the hearts of imperial subjects and quell any rebellions, under the threat of humiliation and obliteration.
All human brokenness coalesces at the cross. What does that say about who God is? What does that say about our calling to live as disciples of the crucified One?
This is a God who is present in suffering, who suffers with us, who has tastes human experience. This is a God whose heart breaks at injustice. This is a God who chooses to be in solidarity with all who are scared, excluded, oppressed, hurting, and ashamed. We don’t look at the cross and see a bloodthirsty God who needs to be appeased, who relishes the pain of God’s child out of some perverted sense of justice; we behold a God of compassion, literally “with-suffering.”
I don’t believe Jesus died for our sins in the sense that God required his life to earn love and forgiveness. The cross was an evil event. It was wrong. Jesus died by our sins–it’s the same preposition in Greek–by the choices we make, by the harmful behaviors we exhibit, by the corrupt systems in which we participate, and by the injustices which we perpetuate. Jesus is crucified again and again in the lives of those who suffer, especially those who suffer unjustly.
God in Christ claimed human suffering for himself. Jesus died in order to expose the all the injustices of other deaths. Jesus sacrificed his life so that all may know what it truly means to live a life in radical obedience to God, a life of lavish love. God absorbed all this brokenness in order to somehow transform it from the inside out. That is the paradox of the cross.
George McLeod, founder of the Iona community in Scotland, put it best when he said this:
I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek… and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, And that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s own ought to be, And that is what church people ought to be about.
May it be so…