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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures
Liturgy of the Palms:  Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Liturgy of the Passion:  Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66

We have come again to the Sunday where we can choose to wave the palm branches and cheer for a strange looking king entering Jerusalem on a donkey or take on the somber mood of the events that follow.  There’s a rapid change from an exuberant crowd shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9) to a less celebrative crowd crying out for Jesus to be crucified (Matthew 27:15-23).  We move from a crowd eager to support a revolutionary king to a story line of betrayal and denial and death on a cross.  Even if we stick with the so-called “triumphal entry” we have to note that the very next verse has Jesus entering the temple and driving out the money-changers.

All these images don’t seem to fit together very well.  When it comes to Jesus, he never quite fits what we expect.  We see it in the birth in a manger surrounded by shepherds, along with the fact that the Christmas stories we tell also include wise men from the East.  We see it in the people with whom Jesus chooses to associate, including the rough fishermen and the tax man who become his closest disciples.

Nowhere is the jarring contrast more apparent than on this parade into Jerusalem.  The hope was for a king who would overthrow the oppressive powers of the day.  Instead they got a humble man on a donkey.  (Matthew 21:5)  One of the readings for the “Passion” emphasis speaks of “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2:5-8)  A king who goes willingly to crucifixion?  Who would have thought?  Almost nobody!

Yet we have images from Isaiah of one who gives his back to those who strike him, who suffers “insult and suffering.”  (Isaiah 50:6)  Psalms portrays one whose eyes waste away from grief, whose life is “spent with sorrow.”  (Psalm 31:9-10)  Even Psalm 118 (often read on Palm Sunday) beloved for its poetic description of a king entering the city contains a hint of darkness when it speaks of “the stone that the builders rejected . . .”  (Psalm 118:22)

We could talk about how some of the imagery had a history of association with kings, not to mention the long-awaited Messiah.  We could note Matthew’s attempt to see the story as a fulfillment of prophesy.  “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet . . .”  (Matthew 21:4---See also Matthew 26:54 & 56, 27:9)  We could make our way through the long Gospel reading for Passion Sunday looking in on Jesus’ intimate celebration of the Passover with his friends, living through tales of betrayal and denial, watching Jesus praying in Gethsemane with disciples who can’t stay awake.  Arrest, questioning, the familiar figure of Pilate and crowds crying out for crucifixion follow, and, finally, death between two thieves, and burial.

Which stories do you want to unpack?  What lessons might we learn if we took the stories one by one?  I found myself a bit overwhelmed this week as I read through this seemingly tragic narrative.  We were expecting a revolution and this is what we get?

I could note that the form of Jesus’ entry was probably a deliberate contrast (a bit of street theater) with that of Pilate who came leading Roman soldiers into the city, representing Roman strength.  I have not found any definitive answer to who used what gates, just informed (or not so informed) speculation.  It makes a tempting narrative to associate Jesus or Pilate with the symbolism of various gates, Jesus coming in, for instance, from the east, the direction from which Messiah is to come and Pilate coming from the west through a gate associated with King David.  It’s even more interesting to consider the possibility of Jesus entering through the Dung Gate, the smallest of the gates of Jerusalem, possessing the lowest archway.  The Dung Gate only allows foot traffic. It derives its name from the fact that refuse and ash were escorted out of the city through this gate and dumped in the Hinnom Valley.  He probably didn’t come in that way, but it would have been rich (I think there’s a pun lurking I in there somewhere) with symbolism if he had.

It’s impossible to take on all those stories and images at once.  I found myself coming back repeatedly to the fact that Jesus just didn’t fit, and doesn’t fit, expectations.  That observation was intensified during our Tuesday morning lectionary discussion at Breakfast Club.

In my Palm Sunday sermons I’ve often noted that the people cheering along that entry route weren’t going to get what they wanted.  I have commented on how we are often looking for Jesus’ to bring a peace and prosperity that have more to do with glittering human hopes than the sacrificial service in the fight for justice that seemed to be his forte.  The former can lead to empty lives devoted to power; the latter can lead to death, but, perhaps, a lasting legacy.

The thing is there are many images one or another group of humans treasure.  Forty or fifty years ago I read a book that set forth a variety of portraits of Jesus.  Among those I remember were Christ, the harlequin, and Christ, the revolutionary.  I tried to find the book on the internet, although that’s difficult when I can’t remember the title.  I thought the book was by Alvin C. Porteous, one of my professors at Linfield College, who went on the teach at Central Baptist Seminary then located in Kansas City.  Even with that information, nothing turns up.  Am I just imagining things again?

Someone at breakfast commented that Jesus becomes who we need him to be.  It’s true that no one of the images catches the fullness of Jesus, but we tend sometimes to treat our favorite image as if it were somehow superior, or the final word.  Popular in circles where I move is the image of Jesus as a revolutionary, and it’s an image that I find has its attractions.

If the events in this week’s readings teach us anything, though, it is that Jesus somehow escapes, refuses to fit into, all of our images.  Even our images of revolution are challenged, as were those of the people who saw Jesus entering Jerusalem that day.  Just as Jesus was not the kind of king the people expected, neither was he the kind of revolutionary some hoped, or hope, for.

The major tool of his revolution was his refusal to fit in, his willingness to pursue the ideals of love and justice at all cost.  Maybe the call to us is to do the same.  We do not have to fit in and go along!  Now, if we acted on that, wouldn’t that be revolutionary?


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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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