Palm Sunday: Poetry & Historical Fiction

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Easter is poetry
and Palm Sunday is historical fiction.

Don’t get mad yet, historical fiction
can be and is composed
of actual facts and real people
but told with a narrative
that is more interested
in story
than it is in accurate history.

I feel like I should issue some kind of warning
about this sermon, but not sure what I should say.

On the other hand, you already knew this was Palm Sunday
so it’s not like you walked in here
expecting Easter. Right?

This version of the Passion Story from Luke
makes it sound like a lynch mob took Jesus
from the feeble hands of Pilate and crucified him.
The mob is made up of “rulers,”
the “high priest,” and “others.”

Let’s be clear who Luke is talking about:
corresponding contemporary figures like the Pope,
College of Cardinals,
Archbishop of Canterbury,
Michael Curry, and
some underlings to add bulk.
A mob of men in high positions
turned petty, jealous, angry, and blood-thirsty.
Does that sound right?

Luke’s Pontus Pilate
is a hand-wringing, ambivalent,
worried about his image,
nice-guy-in-a-tough position.
This actual historic character
crucified participants in a messianic rebellion
along a twenty mile stretch of road
from Jerusalem to Jericho.

He was eventually recalled to Rome
because his administration
was even too ruthless for Rome.
Does Luke’s Pilate sound right?

The Passion Narrative taken from Luke’s Gospel
basically reports that impotent clergy
and a violently repressed population
forced a ruthless, cruel tyrant
into executing a poor undeserving Messiah.
Does that sound right?

I know I am a little ruthless, like Pilate,
when it comes to deconstructing this biblical narrative
we call The Passion.
I do it even though
it is such an integral focus of the tapestry
upon which the myth of Jesus is woven —
and by myth I don’t mean untrue
I mean the whole story of Jesus
and all the beliefs and doctrines that surround him.

Someone asked me recently
why I hate Scripture — by which she
meant it seems like I am always deconstructing it.
In fact I am as deeply devoted
and wrapped up in the Bible
as any fundamentalist preacher
who thumps the pulpit with it.
But I insist that Biblical wisdom
has to make sense through eyes
that view the world in 2022.
The reason I do, is that there is a war going on —
besides the one in Ukraine.

The war I am talking about
is a protracted one
waged against Christianity
and all religion —
a death served up by a thousand cuts.

Call it secularism
or scientific atheism
or capitalism
or all of the above and more,
but it is a war Christians have participated in
with amazing self-destructive resistance
to the facts on the ground
in the twenty-first century.

The Gospel narrative contains
many elements that are reasonable to assume
are historical in some way.
But like all of the bible,
it also contains elements that are clearly not factual
as well as meant to be metaphorical
or even strategic and instructive
in the battles of its own day.
Insisting that we swallow it whole
as if it is either all factual or all false
is part of what is killing us.

Let me explain.

I attended “real” church this week.
It had been a long time.
By real church, I mean
not the Trinity Place brand
of highly modified,
inclusive language church.
This liturgy was for an audience of clergy
and it had everything in it
that you might remember from former days.
Things you may even miss
like the Nicene Creed,
four or five readings,
lots of singing
and singing every verse.

In the back row was a young woman,
a layperson who I only know slightly.
She was sitting there
through the whole thing,
not saying the words in unison
as far as I could tell.

Thinking about her
and wondering what she saw and heard,
I all of a sudden had a vision of sorts.
It was AS IF

I was seeing and hearing the liturgy
for the first time ever
without any knowledge of Christianity.
What would an educated,
capitalist nurtured consumer
who had never been in church before
think about what she was hearing?

Those of us who have grown up in church
host so many words and ideas and stories
that just wash over us
or pass through us
when we hear or say them.

Think about these words
and what they could mean to people
who do not know anything about church.
”Hosanna in the highest”
”Sanctify this body and blood, the holy food and drink
of new and unending life…”
“Lamb of God”
”Angels and archangels”
”Blood of the new Covenant”

Those are mostly from our worship
not even the more formal and unadulterated liturgy
most Episcopal churches still use.

So I get a little crazy
about the stories we still tell
and how we tell them.

Because I know that Luke and the others
were telling their Jesus-story
generations later
to an audience made up of mostly Romans,
and I understand that those stories
were told to put the blame for how things turned out
on people other than the Romans.

Think of it this way.
Imagine if the Jesus-story took place
in modern day Afghanistan
and he had been tortured for information
by American CIA agents
and left for dead in a ditch,
only to be killed by a landmine.
Then, fifty or sixty years later,
the agents of a fledgling religion
with that long dead Afghan Jesus as Messiah,
brought their story to the United States.
How might they modify their story
to make it more palatable to us?

Maybe the landmine was an old Soviet one
left over for generations.
Maybe their Jesus had been turned into the CIA
by bad guys who wanted him dead.
Modifications like that,
that don’t really matter
because they aren’t about Jesus.

Rather, they are about other people in the story.
But those things have a way of mattering
in unpredictable ways —
like a millennium of antisemitism
that culminates with a Holocaust.

So why do we keep telling the story
of Jews killing Jesus
when we know
it could not have happened that way?

Why don’t we unwrap the story
and talk about what it is really about,
and talk about it in terms
that make sense in 2022?

So I am a ruthless de-mythologizer
because I think we are losing the war.
I think we are losing the war
because we cling to the wrong things,
and because some of the things we cling to
have caused horrendous violence and hatred
throughout history.

An unreconstructed Passion Narrative
is one of the worst things
we cling to
and yet it is smack dab
in the middle of the tapestry
we have woven.

So this is a great opportunity we have in 2022.
We do not know what happened
between the moment
Jesus gathered his friends for a last meal together,
and him hanging nailed on a cross.

We DO know
the Romans arrested him
because that is who had the power and authority
to police the locals.

We DO know
Jesus was charged with insurrection
because crucifixion is the punishment
that fits the crime —

besides, that is also what
Pilate supposedly posted on the cross,
that he claimed to be King.

We DO know
that Jesus was crucified
because it is corroborated by other,
even non-Christian sources
that mention it in passing
decades later.

So we do NOT know
how and why
he got from the Last Supper with friends
to the cross by enemies.
It is a blank.
We know what the gospel-editors
filled in, and that it was from their own perspective
and editorial bias.
Remember, none of the four gospel authors
knew Jesus or were there in Jerusalem.

When you and I stand at a grave
and cannot understand
why someone so young, so vital,
so beloved
has died,
the grief makes us even crazier.
We have no answers for death
any time,
but when death comes
and rips our heart out
we reach for explanations.
We reach for anything
that will staunch the bleeding
of our hearts.

2022 gives us an opportunity
to back up a few paces
and wonder again
or for the first time,
what this story is really about.
Without filling in the gaps
of what we do not know,
what is this story really about?

IF we do not fill the gap
with things we do not know
what does the story tell us?

Jesus was executed by the state
for insurrection.
We have no idea if he was guilty or not
but whatever he did
he got on the wrong side of Roman authority.
The only evidence we have
is what he taught,
and what it said he did.
Let’s look at it.

He didn’t teach people
not to pay taxes…not exactly.
He offered an ambiguous proverb:
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
and to God what is God’s.

If you’re a Roman hearing that,
you know that the taxes belong to Caesar. No issue.
But if your a zealous Jew hearing it,
you know that everything belongs to God. Big issue.

Jesus taught his followers
to turn the other cheek when a soldier strikes you,
and to carry the soldiers stuff an extra mile
when impressed into duty.

There was subtlety here too, that I won’t go into
but suffice it to say,
he was being subversive
right under Roman noses.

When we get to Jesus causing a riot in the temple
is when we see actions that might have
immediate and violent consequences for Jesus.

Something Jesus could not have controlled
is what his followers claimed.
If they went around chanting that Jesus was Messiah
then Pilate would not have liked that too much.
It wasn’t against Jewish law
to claim messianic authority, in fact
there were quite a few who did.
But that claim would have included being King
who would return Israel to the Promise Land
of national independence, so well Pilate
would have been more than uncomfortable there…

We know that Jesus lived in a time of heightened
expectations for a messiah to appear
and kick the Roman legions
back across the Mediterranean.
We know there had been a long series of rebellions
in Judah and Galilee and
it was a bitter, hostile, angry, and violent
atmosphere the Romans were trying to control.
If Jesus was seen
as another one of those crazy messiahs
then it would not have gone well.

So I do not think we need to fill the gap
between the Last Supper
and Jesus hanging on a cross
with all the stuff that
Matthew, and
filled it in with.

I think we know why Jesus was arrested,
tortured, and executed.
It is the same reason
it would happen today.

What is not clear
is where you and I would stand.