Sunday, March 20, 2005

Palm Sunday

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year A – Palm Sunday
March 20, 2005

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I want to begin by admitting that I have been feeling a little discouraged lately. It seems like everywhere I turn I see misery and suffering and loss. I think we could all agree that the world is an absolute mess – war, poverty, even a string of heartbreaking, brutal murders right here in our own city. In this messy and broken world of ours I find myself sitting in class over at the seminary learning about long-ago monks and prophets. And I sometimes ask, what is the point of all this? The world is such an absolute mess, what difference can I possibly make? What difference can the church make in a broken world that opposes, hates and mocks what Christianity teaches?

This is a good day to ask these difficult questions because today we have come very close to the heart of Christianity. We are powerfully reminded that two thousand years ago, right here on our messy and broken earth, God revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ. Human beings, not very different from you or me, heard his message of love, saw his miracles, listened to his teaching – and killed him. Despite all of the images of the cross that surround us, that dangle from necks and decorate our churches, I think we often forget this profound, terrible and terrifying truth. Human beings killed the revelation of God.

He was killed not because he was a mystic, or a healer, or a prophet, or a teacher – although he was all of those things. He was killed because in a messy and broken world he called for justice, reaching out to people on the margins of society – the poor and the despised – the disposable people – people not really needed or wanted. He offered a vision of a different kind of world, one built on the foundation of love. He was killed because he spoke the truth to power and power did not like it one bit.

But, you and I, we’re not powerful religious or political officials, so what about the ordinary people back in Jesus’ time - you know, people like us? Well, it seems at least some of them wanted to welcome and accept Jesus, after all we heard them today, didn’t we, singing “Hosanna” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. But in the end, even the average person didn’t want to hear the truth and it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of these same Palm Sunday folks are in the crowd just a few days later crying out for the criminal Barabbas. People not so different from us killed him. Another unhappy story in a world full of unhappy stories.

But part of what makes the Christian story so powerful is this fact that it really does take place in the dirty, messy, painful, real world, involving ordinary people like us in extraordinary events. Sure we try to clean it up and gloss over some of the more difficult parts, but the truth close to the heart of our story is a brutal execution. The earliest followers of Jesus understood this. I mean, isn’t it surprising that the writers of the Gospels – writing decades after the events they were describing – didn’t try to clean things up a bit?

In an age that glorified the noble death – death with calmness and dignity or death on a battlefield, the Evangelists must have cringed, must have been embarrassed, by what happens to Jesus - and they certainly must have been embarrassed by the behavior of his closest followers – and yet they kept it all in the Gospel. There’s the big strong fisherman Peter, the Rock Jesus called him, cowardly denying Jesus three times and then being overcome with shame when he hears the cock crow the third time. We even see Jesus, praying in the garden to God that this cup might pass, and later crying out from the Cross, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There’s the account of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus, stripping him, jamming a crown of thorns on his head, casting lots for his clothes. Finally, we have Jesus dying the shameful death of a criminal on the cross – his terrified apostles off in hiding, but with some brave women looking on from a distance, surely devastated and heartbroken.

Now, we have all seen enough movies and TV shows, that I think we could easily come up with a better story – maybe something like Jesus as some kind of a superhero who only pretends to die on the Cross, and when no one is looking pulls out the nails, jumps down from the Cross and gets his revenge using his superpower strength on the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders who thought they had finished him off for good. Later he gathers with his apostles and has a good laugh about those stupid Romans and priests and plans his next adventure. Now, if you don’t like that story, I’m sure you could come up with an even better one of your own. There’s only one problem, none of our stories would be real. Our stories wouldn’t take place in the real – messy and broken world.

What gives the Christian story its power is its authenticity, its realness. The Christian story doesn’t take place up in heaven, but right here in the messy and broken world that we recognize and experience every day.

I recently read a magazine article about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which sits on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. Now you would expect that this church at this very holy site would be something beautiful and spectacular – along the lines of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Instead, I was shocked to read, this church at this very holy place, is an absolute, falling-apart, mess. Part of it is a burned out ruin. Part of it has been covered in scaffolding for decades. The walls are blackened by soot. The floor stones are dangerously uneven. The railings are loose. The only entrance is a little doorway that you have to crouch under to enter and exit. It’s a disaster.

Even worse than that, the different branches of the Christian family all bicker and feud over their rights to use the church. There are little chapels and altars throughout this not very large church, set aside for different denominations. The Coptic chapel is large enough for exactly one person at a time. And yes, in case you’re wondering, we Anglicans have our chapel too. The author of the article describes a fight that recently broke out between Roman Catholic Franciscans and Greek Orthodox priests that had to be broken up by Israeli police. Oh, and there’s a group of Ethiopian monks who camp out on the roof of the church and live there as squatters. So, there you have it, one of the holiest sights in all of Christianity is a complete mess.

My first reaction in reading this was shock and disgust. How pathetic that such a special place was in such bad shape and how embarrassing that Christians behave there in such petty and childish ways. In fact, the Christians behave so badly that it’s a Muslim family that keeps the keys to the church! Yet, the more I reflected on this sad situation the more I thought that this broken and divided church building in Jerusalem is actually a very powerful symbol of the broken and divided Christian church and our own broken and divided world. And it’s also a reminder that Jesus came into this same broken and divided world – and it was here that he showed us another way. It was here that he lived, and loved, and taught, and prayed, and healed, and forgave, and died, and three days later…

So, if we claim Christ then we need to take up his work of redeeming this world of ours. Faced with a broken and divided world and a broken and divided church, we can’t retreat into our own little worlds and say I have no need of you. Like Jesus, we need to reach out to the oppressed, the disposable people, the people who are despised by the world. We need to speak the truth to power and to speak the truth with love. And we need to do all of this right here, like Jesus, in the real world.

This is frightening stuff. We don’t know what the future will bring. There may very well be painful consequences. There’s real risk involved in following Christ. And it would be so much easier to just mind our own business. But each week, also here in the real world, we are strengthened by the Word of God, fed by the Eucharist, and loved by our little Christian community right here at St. Paul’s.

And unlike Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who, for now, we leave sitting at the tomb in mourning and in fear, we know how the story ends.

Today we are now very close to the heart of Christianity. God is revealed in Jesus Christ, right here, right now, in our broken and divided world. Jesus shows us the way to a world built on love. What happens next is up to us.