Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
The Palm Sunday Liturgy features two readings from the gospel instead of the usual one. The first relates Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem just before Passover. He enters on a donkey, just the way Hebrew Scripture had foretold the Messiah would arrive and, as a result, the streets are lined with cheering crowds, waving leaves of palm and proclaiming him the ‘One Who is to Come’, actions we ourselves enact as we make of ourselves a parade, waving palms and singing. The second reading, which closes the service, tells the story of Jesus’ last meal with his friends, his arrest, public trial, and eventual death on the cross. In this second reading, the congregation replaces ‘Hosannas’ and happy palm-waving for the deathly cry of the crowd just two days later: “What shall I do with Jesus the Anointed One?” Pilate asks after having publicly flogged and mocked the one they had hoped would save them. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the crowd responds. “Are you certain of his guilt?” Pilate prevaricates, to which the crowd – which is to say we ourselves – reply only, and again: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
The Weak Messiah
I often find it overwhelming, Palm Sunday’s wild swing from triumph and joy and life together as one, to rejection and rage and death alone on the cross. The turn from one to the other almost causes me whip lash. I’ve taken a couple of walks this week, trying to get my head and my heart around the scope and the range of the emotions it entails, and finally ended up sitting in the prayer corner in my room, looking at an image I often pray with – the photo you hopefully now see printed up above.
Several years ago a photographer friend made and then gave me this photo, and I was stopped by it immediately. Was it an image of Christ crucified, or of Christ risen? Christ at the moment of failure and death, or Christ at the moment of triumph and life? In part I think because I’ve never been able to answer these questions, I have sat and prayed with the image almost every day since, and through it have been led to a truth that I never had access to before — the truth that the crucifixion isn’t, in the end, some kind of door through which we have to pass in order to be swept up in the resurrection, but rather that it is at one with it. That it is…
…When I first starting writing these words, something made me stop right there: “That it is” And in some ways I still think this is the best and clearest thing I can say. Thus revealed, the image IS, the way Christ IS, the way God IS. Liberated from the partial truth of death, or the partial truth of resurrection, Jesus here is revealed as the completeness of being itself – embracing both death and resurrection, both vulnerability and strength, both failure and triumph simultaneously — and all of it through love; with love; as love.
This is important to remember as we enter Holy Week, and even more as – through this one arm of our week-long liturgy — we turn ourselves from adoring supporters to enraged and bitter demanders of Jesus’ death. Just a few minutes ago we were waving palms in a jubilant parade as if the kind of victory Jesus teaches us about really were something to cheer about. As if we didn’t know how the week plays out. As if our God really were a wielder of worldly power, a messianic figure now – finally – on the verge of liberating the world from oppression and injustice. Surely this is what the men and women of Jerusalem believed that long ago day when they saw Jesus so clearly bringing the ancient prophesies to life by riding on a colt through the gates of Jerusalem. They’d seen the signs. And they’d heard the stories: he’d raised people from the dead, given the blind their sight. Surely he was ‘the One who was to come”?
Only instead of leading his people to overthrow and liberation and triumph, Jesus would himself soon be arrested and draped not in a royal cloak of glory, but in a mocking costume of shame. Shunning power for what must have looked like abject powerlessness, he would be arrested, beaten, and publically humiliated by the very ones his presence now seemed to challenge. And worse, he would accept it all without a peep! Without lifting so much as a finger to defend himself or to protect his dignity!
It must have been terrible to watch – almost impossible for the people to bear. How could the longed for Messiah be so easily defeated, so quickly humiliated? He couldn’t be, they must have thought. He wouldn’t be – not if he were really the one they believed him to be. So they turned on him. Angry and humiliated themselves, they no longer wanted to be associated with a weak messiah like Jesus.
And who can blame them?
Isn’t it true after all that we many of us prefer a Jesus of our own imagination to the flesh and blood Jesus of the gospels – even now? That 2000 years after all this occurred, we too, often slip into following a fictional messiah who props up our certitudes and sustains our agendas rather than calling us ever deeper into his — which is, always and every time, love? A Jesus, most of all, who rights the world’s wrongs, avenges the abused and rains down terror on the abusers, instead of confronting us with a different kind of power all together, a power which – every time – meets hatred with love and violence with peace.
Look at him. Up there.
Do we dare let the strange power of his wide-open vulnerability enter into us today as we begin another Holy Week? Do we dare try to drop for even a few minutes our frantic demand for strength, and more strength, in the face of his all-encompassing gentleness? Do we dare embrace a king who only accepts the title – the title of King — when he is arrested and beaten and bound with chains?
It’s so hard for us not to be on the winning side, that’s the thing. And, most of the time, many of us would still opt for power and triumph over the gentle and steadfast love of this Man who is God on the cross. There is triumph with him, of course. There is. But it’s the triumph not of the conqueror, but of the conquered, of the one who has lost everything and still remains… still holds true….still loves…
I don’t know about you, but like the crowd back in Jerusalem, I too sometimes find this difficult. Much of the time – when we are watching the news about the Ukraine for example, or about the killings in the Middle East, or about the shooting death of a wonderful young man in Pittsfield, we also want to shun our gentle and wounded king and to replace him with some kind of enhanced version — more muscular, more active, more bold. ‘Crucify him! Crucify him and bring us another!’ we shout, angry and frustrated by what looks like his weakness.
And even this is ok, in the end. Because, just like Peter, and like who knows how many in the crowd that day, our betrayal sits heavy with us. You’ll see in a few minutes. It is hard to cry: ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ and from this realization we begin again to grow, freshly aware of our deep love and inexpressible need for the one we are right now condemning, and so we are drawn close to him once more, and he becomes our friend again, and our brother, and ultimately, of course, our savior, which is to say the one who shows us the way out, and the way forward, and the way through our own fear and rage and weakness …
Christ humiliated, Christ condemned, Christ liberated, Christ completed, Christ most deeply and truly and entirely revealed – suffused with light, suffused with life, suffused with love – even, perhaps especially – at the moment of his greatest weakness and loss. Christ the King, hung on a cross by the rest of us in our terrified need for power and control. When will it end? When will we learn in our own bodies, in our own bones, what Paul tried to explain to his friends in Philippi almost exactly 2000 years ago: “Let the same mind be in you that was in 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 into human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord….”