This sermon appears in video format on the trinitygeneva FaceBook page.
All I have to say,
is this is a really inconvenient time
for Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
I mean, who wants to hear about
and a gruesome execution
and huddled at home
in a pandemic?
Honestly, I do not know how to preach
Palm Sunday in the midst of pandemic.
I have preached it in the context of war –
there is a natural affinity
between this story
and our wars of colonialism
and economic imperialism.
And I have preached it in the midst of economic crisis
in which the story reminds us
of more essential truths,
with all those niggling issues
of justice and class
so deeply embedded in it.
But pandemic, a virus without allegiance
to any nation, class, race, or ethnicity?
A world class virus that is invisible, odorless,
and apparently asymptomatic in 25% of us –
so that some of us are carriers of death
and never even know it?
How does Palm Sunday preach
in that kind of a story?
Somebody asked me the other day
if I thought the pandemic is punishment –
as in a Sodom and Gomora kind of thing.
I was so surprised by my internal reaction.
I wanted to slap the person.
I was incredulous
at the obscenity of the suggestion
that God is the master of punishment and death –
that God is the distributor
of indiscriminate capital punishment
like Nazis machine-gunning
the sick and lame into open graves.
In normal times
I would have fielded the question
without any emotional response
other than perhaps, impatience.
And hopefully, the person on this occasion
did not notice the outrage I felt on the inside.
But the cruelty of the pandemic
in all of its awful dimensions,
made that question more than intellectual.
The Palm Sunday story agitates and chaffs on its own,
because of how Jesus’ death was interpreted
and how the story was used
as a weapon of anti-Semitism.
Frankly, that awful, obscene question I was asked
pokes at the heart
of how Palm Sunday has been interpreted –
not the story itself
but how we have corrupted it
I am talking about the idea of Atonement –
that God had Jesus tortured and sacrificed
as an offering for our sins.
That is exactly the same kind of thinking
behind a question like,
“Is the pandemic punishment?”
The problem of course,
is that we all know how the story ends
and that distorts how we hear and interpret it.
Our foot-of-the-cross perspective
from which we watch Jesus’ death
is like reading the last chapter
of The DiVinci Code
before reading the whole novel,
or the last chapter of the last Harry Potter story
before reading the first book.
In cheating ourselves
into the climax of a story,
without paying attention to how we got there,
we inevitably miss the larger story
and whatever goodness or truth
may be embedded in it.
An additional problem for us,
after all these years of preaching and teaching,
is that we read the betrayal,
through the filter of Christian doctrine
instead of just reading the story.
In other words, we have been given
all the official answers
before we have been allowed to actually
“Why did Jesus have to die?
“To save us from our sins?”
“How did Jesus save us from our sins?”
“By serving as a once and for all sacrifice.”
But let us take advantage
of our historical distance from the story
and ask about that traditional interpretation:
Why in the world
would anyone ever imagine
that one person’s life could be exchanged,
like foreign currency at the bank,
for all of humankind’s wrong-doing –
past, present and future?
That is a good question, doesn’t it?
It seems like something we should want to know
if we are going to take this story seriously.
Well, here is why early story-tellers
might have understood the death of Jesus
as an horric act of God.
In the world of that day,
in both Jewish religion and Roman culture,
sacrifice to the gods was an essential part of life.
the very balance of the universe,
the very future of every individual and family,
the very fate of cities and nations,
depended upon the right sacrifice to the right god.
But we have to go back to the very beginning
of our story – in the Book of Genesis
with the story of Abraham and Isaac.
God orders Abraham to take his only son,
the very son that it took an epic story
to give birth to,
and cut him open on an altar
as a blood sacrifice
to a blood-thirsty god.
Standing over his son
who was bound and gagged
upon the altar of sacrifice,
Abraham raises the knife over his head.
Just as he was about to thrust the knife
into the heart of his only son,
God yells, “STOP!”
God looks around the area
as Abraham is breathing hard,
heart pounding, and sweat
dripping down his face.
God says: “Hey, there is a ram over there in the bushes,
substitute the ram for Isaac
and we’ll call it even.”
That story of Abraham and Isaac
is the background behind God and Jesus.
Abraham demonstrated his total faith in God
by being willing to sacrifice his only son,
while God demonstrated
God’s total devotion to humankind
by going through with the sacrifice of Jesus.
We can see the symmetry and logic
between these two stories
told almost half a millennium apart.
It was a theological message to Jews
that what had taken place with Jesus
was even greater than the story of Abraham and Isaac.
To the Romans is was a political message
that God’s sacrifice of Jesus
was more powerful than any sacrifice
that could be offered to any of their gods.
I mean really, how could you top
God killing his only son
as a gift for you?
But you and I should have a problem with that interpretation of Jesus’ execution
because we do not perceive the universe
as balancing upon the magic of ritual sacrifices.
The idea of Atonement –
the belief that God substituted Jesus
as a sacrifice for our sins
in the same way that the ram
was substituted for Isaac –
makes perfect sense
in a cosmos orbiting around the logic of sacrifice.
But the meaning of Atonement is problematic
in a world of indiscriminate pandemic
and Christian participation in the holocaust,
and any number of genocides and crimes
wreaked upon the powerless
by those with more power.
Has all the unspeakable savagery
been wiped clean
because Jesus was executed –
but only for Christians?
And if so, why haven’t our many other sacrifices
protected us from pandemics,
wars and terrorism,
and just plain human ugliness?
The problem of course,
is the Atonement has been our only lens
through which to read this story
for many centuries.
But it is NOT the required Christians lens.
We are allowed to take off those glasses –
we can always put them back on later if we want.
But right now, it is time
to read the Palm Sunday story
as if from the beginning
without knowing how it ends.
I think that is how it relates to our social exile
in this time of pandemic:
we have the time, if we have the will,
to stop and read the story
as if we did not know the ending,
and to ask it questions
that we may not have asked before.
We also have the time to work on different answers
unrelated to Atonement and sacrifice.
If we come to this story
at the beginning
instead of from the end,
I can almost guarantee
we will walk away astounded
with new insights
and with flashes of the holy
we have never seen before.
First of all, the story of the last week in the life of Jesus
is an epic poem rather than history.
There are historic references in it
and historic details
that reflect actual events,
but it is not a factual or verbatim account
of what took place.
Even if it were,
there is a whole lot missing
from a week of 24 hour days,
and what is missing
would utterly change the way
we interpret what is told.
No, this is a poem.
It is every bit as much a poem
as the Suffering Servant poems
from the prophet Isaiah.
(Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:12).
like paintings or sculptures,
must be construed
rather than dissected and squeezed
for exact, literal,
and once-and-for-all meanings.
So here are a few things we might want to know
that have the potential to free us
from the answers we have been given
before we were allowed to ask the questions.
Holy week is a great time
to open ourselves to see and hear
the Palm Sunday story all over again.
So first of all, it was not blasphemy
to be proclaimed or to proclaim oneself
as “Messiah” or “Christ”.
Lots of people did it.
In the gospel story as told
fifty years after Jesus’ death,
Jesus’ claiming to be the Messiah
is supposedly the big offense
that gets him killed.
But that doesn’t hold up.
Secondly, “the Jews” didn’t kill Jesus.
The gospels often blame the Jewish authorities
in particular, and the Jewish crowds in general,
for the execution of Jesus.
But ordinary Jews and Jewish authorities
had no power.
who the Gospels paint as a decent guy
put in a tough position,
was actually a cruel, viscous tyrant.
We know this because historical records
show he was later demoted
and sent into administrative oblivion
for being such a repressive governor.
Pontus Pilate and the colonial Roman Military system
ground Jesus into jackal meat,
not ordinary Jews and ruling clergy.
Jesus was executed by the Romans
as punishment for a crime.
The crime that fits that punishment is insurrection.
So if historical conjecture is our lens
instead of Atonement,
Jesus was found guilty of insurrection
against the authority of the Roman Empire.
He was executed as any political prisoner
proven to be guilty would be executed:
publicly and with maximum humiliation.
Now if that is true,
one of the questions we might ask the story
is why, as clever and wise as Jesus was,
did he find it necessary to risk such an outcome
by leaving Galilee and going to Jerusalem?
What opportunity did he imagine
was available in the city of Jerusalem
when he was most popular and safest in Galilee?
Knowing the dangers –
as clearly as he would have seen the dangers
since others had suffered his fate before him –
what opportunity made the risk worth it?
What dangerous opportunity did Jesus reach for
against such a risk?
I invite us to take this story home
and to come to it
from the beginning
not the end,
and read it anew.
If you have someone to read it with,
take turns reading it to each other out loud,
the way most people back then would have
encountered it – orally.
If you don’t have someone in the house,
make a phone or video conference date
with a friend or family member
to read the story.
Heck, convene a book club online
or via zoom or google
and read it again
and ask it questions
you have never asked it before.
Allow all the pre-conceived Christian notions surrounding the story to fall away.
Allow your questions to lead you
deeper and deeper into the story,
evoking and provoking
more questions and wonder.
None of that, I am sorry to say,
really helps us with the pandemic.
But here are a couple of great metaphors
connecting Palm Sunday and pandemic
that I received in an email this week
(Thank you, Shelley).
They are great puzzles to work with:
- Rolling out the palm leaves and coats as Confusion rides into town.
- Welcoming something we don’t understand and might even fear,
because Hope rides into town in the middle of our needing a Savior.
So I invite you to read this story again:
argue with it
move it around and wrestle it
ask it questions that have always bothered you about it
forget the answers you were given and challenge it
be open to it and allow it to speak to you
re-write it in a way that makes more sense to you
Treat it like a story that truly matters, because it does.