Palm Sunday C, 2019: Palliative – to relieve without curing

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I’m just saying, Palm Sunday
is the hardest sermon to preach all year long.
Just remember that when you’re tempted
to throw your prayer stone.

When Easter arrives, we can dream again.
But for now, standing below the cross
on Palm Sunday,
we cannot dream.
Standing at anyone’s grave
we cannot dream.

In the shadow of death
the only dreaming is denial.
Instead of dreams, it is our memories
that areactivated in the aftermath of death.

Death pulls us into our memory.
By remembering
we stay close to the one who has died.

We stand around
and we remember the one who has died
and we laugh
and cry
and grow thoughtful
and reflective,
and we want to stay in that remembering zone
because it feels almost like a drug.
When the only other thing we feel
is the exhaustion of grief,
the “memory zone” is palliative.

If death has ever been a visitor in your life
then you know that channel of remembering
that feels so good
because it keeps us hanging
in the nether world
of the person who has died.
It is the remembering
that keeps the loved one from slipping away.
Remembering is not quite a palliative
but close enough
when we are standing in the shadow
of a loved one’s death.

…to relieve without curing; to mitigate;
to alleviate.”

“Palliative care,” is medical care not intended to cure
but rather, to address the emotional, social, spiritual, and pain management needs of the terminal.

I am going to ask us to do a hard thing.
I am going to ask us to slip into the memory
of this Palm Sunday story
without the palliative
that was placed in it.

First, I will draw out the palliative
and then leave us at the heart of this story
so we can use it for contemplation during Holy Week.
Then, on to Easter, we can dream again.

Here is the palliative of the Passion story,
it is nothing new if you have heard me preach
that last three years:
Pontius Pilate,
the Roman military governor of Judea,
stands before the blood-thirsty crowd
and complains about the innocence of Jesus.
“Please don’t make me do this,” he pleads.

We used an abbreviated and modified version
this morning,
but here is a verbatim of Luke’s version
of the Pilate Palliative:

“Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!”

Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.

So, Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.”

Luke has made it so clear and blatant
who is at fault, that unlike John’s version,
Pilate doesn’t even have to wash his hands.

In Luke’s version the crowd purifies Pilate of blame.

We can guess why it was palliative
for Luke to tell the story this way,
but since Pilate is whitewashed in all four gospels
with varying shades of emphasis,
why suspect the historicity of it?
Here is why:
We know that Pontius Pilate was ruthless.
He was a blood-thirsty, cruel,
and tyrannical manager.
He was so repressive and violent,
crucifying so many local peasants,
that the not-so-squeamish Caesar
yanked him from duty
just a couple of years after he crucified Jesus.
Pilate’s violent, repressive administration
fueled riots and rebellion by the locals.

That is not the picture the gospels painted of Pilate
when they were telling the tale
forty to eighty years after the crucifixion,
but Pilate’s recall, based upon his ruthlessness,
is in Rome’s historical record.
Pontus Pilate did not need a palliative,
no excuses were necessary for him.
He apparently just loved to kill peasants.
We also know that the ranking priests and elders
who formed the small establishment
around the Temple,
governed their little fiefdom
with a rigid, stingy hierarchy.

We know too, that they were greatly disliked
and disrespected by ordinary people
who were marginalized by these Temple clergy
and their privileged status.

At the same time, we also know this temple clergy,
beyond the temple courtyards and inner sanctuaries,
were impotent.

They were a powerless paper aristocracy
with no influence over Pilate.
In the scheme of things
they had even less power over the direction
of Roman governing authority
than immigrant laborers in Finger Lakes dairies
have over what the New York State legislator does.

That Temple hierarchy was hated to be sure,
bloated with self-importance
and perhaps even acting with malevolence
toward the peasants of their own religion,
but beyond the walls of the temple
they were also impotent –
and as history would show,
even in the Temple
they were powerless without Roman backing.
To tell the story with a nice-guy Pilate
put into a bad situation
by the bad-guy Jews,
was a palliative
for that second generation of Christians
who wrote down and disseminated the story.

So, who were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John comforting with this palliative story that blamed
‘the Jews’ for the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus?
And why should WE care?

They were protecting Rome.
It was Roman rule being whitewashed.
Pontius Pilate represents Rome
and the effort to conceal its guilt
by casting blame on the Jews
was done for a very good first century reason.
After that first generation of Jesus-followers,
Christians were no longer Judeans or Galileans,
they were mostly Roman –
in other words,
they were no longer Jews but Gentiles.

So, our passion story as it has come down to us,
like all remembering at the graveside,
was told partly as a palliative –
to relieve and alleviate the pain of loss.
That second generation of Evangelists
who we have to thank even for Trinity Place,
were telling the story in a way
that was more palatable to Romans and Gentiles,
and with little or no concern
about the Jews of Judea and Galilee.

The palliative in Luke’s Gospel
is that impotent clergy
and a violently repressed population
forced a ruthless, cruel tyrant
into executing a poor, undeserving Messiah.

There are two problems with this palliative for us.

The first and most awful one
is that it has been the source of Christian
anti-Semitism for more than a millennium.
With this palliative
Christians and the Church itself
have participated in inquisitions, pogroms,
and genocide against Jews and Judaism
for centuries and centuries.

That alone
means we cannot allow this ancient palliative
in our most sacred story,
to go unnoticed or unmentioned.
That is why I bother to address it each year.

But here is the other reason
this palliative may have shaped our story:
We do not know what really happened
between the Last Supper
when Jesus gathered his friends for Passover,
and his crucifixion on the cross.

We doknow
the Romans arrested him,
because that is who had the power and authority
to police locals.
We do know
Jesus was charged with insurrection
because crucifixion is the punishment
that fits that crime.

We do know
that Pontius Pilate was the one who condemned him
to be executed because he was the only one
with the authority to do so.

We do know
that Jesus was crucified
because it is corroborated by other,
even non-Christian
sources of the period.

But we do NOT know
how and why
he got from Passover with his friends,
to the cross with his enemies.
We do not know,
it is a blank, except for
what is written in the gospels.

When we stand at the grave
and cannot understand
why someone so young,
so vital, so close,
so beloved has died,
it makes us even crazier with grief
because we do not understand “WHY!”
We have no answers to death, and so
we reach for palliatives.
We reach for answers
whether we know they are true or not,
because they make us feel better in the moment.

But making the death of Jesus
seem more palatable
may relieve our anxiety and fear
but it will not cure them.

Making this sacred story go down easier
does not lead to dreaming again.
Only Easter leads to dreaming again. Only Easter.
At the heart of this sacred story
there are questions and mysteries we cannot answer,
and pretending that we can
is to engage in hospice spirituality
that presumes we will never get well
so let’s just make one another comfortable.

The story of Jesus,
the sacred story of the Passion,
is not supposed to make us comfortable.
It holds a truth not a palliative.

The sacred story of the Passion
is about the power of God’s love
coming face-to-face
with OUR use of coercive power,
and how we always try to kill the love of God.
Human coercion
always tries to kill the love of God.

That is what this story is about
if we take away the palliative myth about Pilate
being forced into killing Jesus
by the marginalize citizens of Judea.
Jesus was not the first
and he sure wasn’t the last,
but he shows us in excruciating detail
that our response to God’s love
is the use of coercive power
that seeks to kill.

Power in our hands can kill,
not only Jesus, but the love of God
as it makes itself known among us.
Or so it would seem until we can dream again.

On Palm Sunday 2019,
in the coming days of Holy Week,
we are challenged to confront
our participation in coercive power
and how we contribute to the death
of God’s ever-present love.

Not the Jews.
Not the Temple clergy.
Not even Pontius Pilate – because really,
he is only an agent of OUR bidding.

This story,
this sacred story told without a palliative,
asks how you and I
try to kill the love of God in our midst
with the misuse and neglect
of our power.

For some of us – like me, a large, straight male –
that will mean reflecting
on what our power actually is,
because we live in denial of it.

For others, whose power is more immediate
and obvious,
it will mean reflecting on
how we might use our power differently.

But either way,
this sacred story of ours,
without the palliative,
challenges us to consider our participation
in the attempted murder of God’s love
by the misuse and neglect of our power –
not just then…but now.

How do we participate
in trying to kill the love of God
with the misuse or neglect
of our power?

Next week we try to dream again.