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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures:
Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 188:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16
Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

For the coming Sunday, the lectionary offers scriptures for two alternative liturgies—one celebrating Palm Sunday (i.e., Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem); the other, Passion Sunday (i.e., Jesus’ crucifixion and the events immediately leading up to it).

What strikes me is the contrast of moods between the two foci.  One seems to be a downer, a tragedy ending with the death of the hero.  The other is a celebrative parade with the hero center stage.  Preachers often focus on the fact that the crowd cheering Jesus that day did not understand what this entry into Jerusalem was about.  Surely they weren’t cheering an impending crucifixion, although a few days later there was, in fact, a crowd shouting for such a death.

What if, however, we do think of the crucifixion as something to sing about?  Song has often been born of tragedy.  Consider the tradition of Gospel music coming out of the experience of slavery, or the history of “singing the blues.”  If we talk about singing, though, in the context of this week’s scriptural moods, I suggest we think of it as something more than singing the blues.  Rather than seeing Jesus’ crucifixion merely as an occasion for weeping, it becomes an occasion for joyous dancing, because in it we find hope and life.

The reading from Philippians 2:5-11 is just such a hymn of celebration.  F. Dean Lueking, writing in The Christian Century, says, “This monumental summary of the human Jesus as the exalted Lord was not a lecture or a textbook but a hymn sung by first-century Christians.  The truth of the living God is singable truth—and if not singable, then suspect.”

As I reflected on the moods of this week’s texts, several phrases and images came to my mind.  I thought of the title of Walker Percy’s book, Love in the Ruins.  I find it suggestive of the notion that, even in the midst of the collapse of whole civilizations, we can still love one another.  In this week’s Passion Liturgy, speaking of ruins may be one way to reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion.  It certainly seemed to many that all they had given themselves to had come to ruin.  Yet, for those who could see, love and hope were found in the ruins.

Maya Angelou, in her autobiography, speaks of the caged bird singing.  I grew up with a mentally ill mother who could identify with that image.  Even in the midst of suffering, it is possible to sing a new song, to be a “wounded healer,” to see in the wounded Jesus the possibility of healing.

All three readings for the Liturgy of the Palms, depict parades.  Psalm 118 gives us a procession into the temple for worship, full of song and praise.  Its reference to gates might cause us to think about the openings that come our way in life, the places we are invited to enter, etc.  “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.”  (Psalm 118:19-20)   The Psalm is traditionally associated with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, some of its words and images being part of that Gospel story.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord . . . Bind the festal procession with branches . . .”  (vss. 26-27)

We have two versions of the parade in this week’s Gospel readings from Mark and John.  The story appears in all four gospels with some of the details differing.  It is not just an isolated parade occasioned by the appearance of Jesus.  It is the expression of a clamoring crowd entering the city to observe Passover.  One might compare it to Mardi Gras, an occasion in our day when we see a tension of moods.  The problem with Mardi Gras, however, is that it is one last blast of celebration before weeks of somber penitence.  My sense is that the two moods in this week’s readings call for both feasting and fasting.  They cannot be separated into seasons.  The feasting and celebration arise out of the tragedy.

The central image of the cross is that of self-giving.  However one interprets it in terms of the salvation of humanity, it is a constant invitation to consider self-giving love as the central truth about how the cosmos functions, about how we are called to function.  Such truth elicits both tears and laughter.

The first two readings in the Liturgy of the Passion contain images of humility and self-sacrifice that came to be applied to Jesus.  “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.  I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  (Isaiah 50:5-6)   In Psalm 31, the depths of agony are such that “my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also,” (Psalm 31:9) but in the midst of it there is appeal  to God’s graciousness, a declaration of trust, a prayer for deliverance.  (vss. 9, 14 & 15)  “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”  (vs. 16)   The Psalmist knows that even in the pit, love is available.

The image that I went with in the title for this week’s blog comes from a Broadway musical, Singing in the Rain.   It’s way too light and airy to be an adequate metaphor for something as serious as the crucifixion.  It’s power comes, however, from the human experience that rain often seems to ruin our fun times.  We sometimes think of rain as a negative intrusion.  I added the dancing to pick up the parade imagery.  I think of those people on their way into Jerusalem as dancing down the street.  We have an expression, “Don’t rain on my parade,” meaning don’t spoil my fun.

What if we thought of rain not as a spoiler, but as life giving.  Instead of ruining the parade, it becomes an occasion for singing.  I grew up in northwest Washington state.  I sort of enjoy being out in the rain.  It certainly never stopped me from fishing, so why should it stop me from singing?  How much more then might we look at the crucifixion not as a spoiler but as a source of life—the ultimate source of life, pointing to the kind of love that empowers us and invites us.

The long reading from Mark’s Gospel begins with a story which perhaps brings all these thoughts together.  Jesus, on his way to the Passover celebration, stops in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper.  (Mark 14:1-3)   When a woman anoints his head with an entire jar of nard, some of those present were indignant.  The “ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.”  (vss. 3-5)   Many discussions of this passage center on the suggestion that the money might better have been given to the poor.  Some are appalled with Jesus’ response the “you always have the poor with you.”  Notice that he doesn’t say, “Ignore the poor,” just that you will have plenty of opportunities to “show kindness to them.”  (vss. 5 & 7)   Still other interpreters focus upon this act as preparation for Jesus’ burial, noting this words in verse 8, “ . . . she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”

F. Dean Lueking, whose reflections on the lectionary readings have fed me the past couple of weeks, takes us to verse six as the center of the passage.  “ . . . Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.”  Lueking suggests that a better translation would be, “She has done a lovely thing,” noting the Greek word for “good” here does not mean “utility and moral correctness, but lovely, gracefully winsome in its uniqueness.”  “Blessed is the believer, the congregation, the church,” Lueking adds, “that can adorn the gospel with ‘lovely things.’”  Might we say, even the congregation that can see “a lovely thing,” a healing truth, in the crucifixion.  Might singing and dancing in the rain, chanting praises in a parade, singing hymns of hope and good news, be lovely things to include in our celebration of “Holy Week”?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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