Saturday, April 13, 2013

Last Homiletics Assignment: Palm Sunday—Cycle C

For my last homiletics assignment, I drew Palm Sunday, which means I got a double dose of gospelly goodness! And it worked out pretty well. Because I had four readings with which to work, I decided to focus on the gospel accounts, and added only a passing reference to the epistle: Luke 19:28–40; Philippians 2:6–11; Luke 22:14–23:56.

Jesus has a one-way ticket to the cross, and He is selling seats for the tour. That is the story that we hear in these two gospel accounts from Luke.

As Jesus makes His way into Jerusalem, the people proclaim Him king and even the stones apparently recognize who He is. Yet in one week, many of these same people will call for Jesus to be crucified. When we place these two Gospel passages side by side, we sense a bit of funny business here. The rocks know who Jesus is, but the people who were expecting an earthly king, don’t. Even Peter, whose very nickname means “stone” or “rock,” doesn’t fully recognize who Jesus is, even after he, John, and James saw Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor. I think Luke is putting us on, showing us that Jesus’ closest apostles are dumber than rocks when it comes to Jesus’ true identity.

Now, we can’t really blame them or the people of Jerusalem. Jewish tradition had conditioned  them to expect a political, military savior who would throw out the Romans and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Even Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is itself an allusion back to Solomon’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an allusion everyone would have instantly recognized. The people were expecting an earthly king in the line of David. No one told them that the Messiah would be a Heavenly King, much less the Son of God. In a way, you can almost understand why so many in Jerusalem then turned on Jesus. Judas, one of the Twelve, was so disenchanted that he betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities. Maybe he thought he was doing his part? Maybe he thought, yes, then Jesus will reveal who He truly is.
And Peter, the rock who says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the one we think gets it, he still denies Jesus three times. He has an idea of who Jesus is, but somehow he misses the mark. He only gets part of the story. He doesn’t see the big picture.

But we know the rest of the story. We know the greatest tragedy that befalls the God Incarnate and humanity—His crucifixion.  We also know the greatest triumph that comes through the cross. We know that He dies and is resurrected and will come again. We know Jesus as the Son of God, the one through whom all creation was made, the one whose sacrifice atoned for our sins. We know Jesus better than the stones did, right?

Don’t we?

Sometimes, I’m not so sure. I think our idea of Jesus, and of God, is far too small. We forget about what He can do with a few measly loaves of bread and two fish, of what He can do with a jar of water, of what He can do with spittle and mud, or with bread and wine—which He transforms into His body and Blood. He is the God of surprises. He is the God of transformations. But we still act as if He can’t heal or multiply or unify.

Jesus prayed that we may be one (John 17:21). But we’re a church divided, both physically and spiritually. We divide ourselves and align ourselves with one faction or another. I suppose that is simply human nature:

• boys vs. girls
• sophomores vs. freshmen
• Boise State vs. Idaho
• gay vs. straight
• black vs. white
• left vs. right

We come up with these divisions, these reasons why we’re right and they’re wrong, and naturally, Jesus sides with us. We project onto Jesus all of our preferences, our thinking, our desires, our world view, and our biases.

We remake Jesus in our own image and fashion for ourselves a god, a false idol, that looks and thinks just like us.

When scripture talks of idolatry, it may be talking about worship of a god fashioned out of wood or stone, or maybe a god we have fashioned of some other material good like money or fame. But the idols that can be most harmful to us are the false images that we create of God. These false idols are the ones that lead us to point our fingers at that sinner over there—that ominous “them” that constantly threatens our peace of mind.

Do you ever wonder who “they” are? “They say this,” or “they say that,” and whatever it is that they say, it doesn’t fit with our image of Jesus. And so we divide. We build our little fortresses. We cast out the sinner so that we can be pure. But if our first response is to point the finger at them, we don’t really get Jesus’ point, do we?

We’re so fixated on that speck in our brother’s eye that we miss the plank in our own, and neither of us sees any better for it.

We’re so busy dividing up this earthly pie that none of us will ever be filled or satisfied.

We fail to see that when we point our finger at them, three fingers are pointing back at us.

But fortunately Jesus is not like us, and thank God for that. Jesus forgave and said, “Go and sin no more.” He accepted people where they were, then said, “Come with me and have life more abundantly.” He came to heal the sick, not those who were well. He dined with sinners and tax collectors.

In other words, Jesus came and lived and ate with people just like us. I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t hold an objective moral law, or that we shouldn’t call sin what it is, but He saw that the law was a guide, and that we have to be willing to travel with each other and bear each other up on the way.

Sometimes the crosses we bear are each other.

The two gospels today tell us that the road ahead is not without struggle. Jesus promised us that we would find suffering on that road. Jesus showed us that there is only one way to the Father, and that is through the cross.

Oddly enough, He called this burden light and this yoke easy. How do we make sense of this? The cross—the scandalous, shameful, humiliating implement of His death—is light and easy? It’s no wonder we have a hard time knowing Him. He stands our expectations on their heads and tells us exactly the opposite of what we want to hear. As Paul’s letter to the Philippians says, He emptied Himself to suffer death, even death on a cross, and the Father highly exalted Him for it. If we believe only in the image of Jesus that we fashion in our imaginations, we have made Him too small…

…just like the people of Jerusalem.

We have to empty ourselves to be open to who He truly is.

And we have to embrace the cross. We have to put away our desire for ritual purity and be willing to do the hard work needed to build the Church. We need to accept that not all of us live ideal lives, and we need to exhort each other to keep going, to keep striving for holiness, to keep traveling with Christ, and to be uniters rather than dividers.

If we want to make it to Easter, then we have to reckon with Good Friday.

If we want to have it all, we only get it by way of the cross.