Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It feels so good to be certain, doesn’t it? Clarity is a beautiful thing. Conviction is where it’s at! There is nothing more energizing than being able to see the lay of the land clearly. To see what is and what needs to be is to be in a place of power. And, having power feels good.
Ambiguity, ambivalence, uncertainty on the other hand? Not so much. Ambiguity, ambivalence, uncertainty drain energy, set us on shifting sands and make us feel powerless — helpless even. And who wants to feel like that? So it is no wonder we tend to gravitate to those who are so certain.
In this season in our national life, turn on the news and someone will be telling you in no uncertain terms what is and what needs to be. We have defined leadership by one’s capacity to be certain, clear, convicted. For those of us who may be feeling the shifting sands of uncertainty in our lives, it is a relief to step into the certainty of others. To get a bit of power even if it is by proxy is intoxicating.
So can you imagine how intoxicating it must have been that day on when that great crowd of disciples gathered around Jesus on the Mount of Olives? There was finally some certainty. Finally there was some shared conviction as to who Jesus was and what he was all about. Here was the King! The one who was to deliver Israel. The one who was to bring peace.
And if one was still uncertain? If one just happened upon the rally that day? If one had questions about this man Jesus? Well just look at the cloaks being laid down before him! Look at the palm branches paving his way. These were clear signs in a language of ritual that all would have understood that the one who was coming was being celebrated as one victorious in Battle, as a King! If ever that was uncertainty, ambiguity or ambivalence as to who Jesus was, well it has all been settled today. Today it is crystal clear!
And that clarity opened the door to exuberance! Here was finally one upon whom we could pin all of our hopes and expectations. Here was one who would finally deliver us from the captivity of our lives and bring about a new age where all would finally be as it should be.
The question of who Jesus was and is has been a central one not only for people in his age but across the ages. The question of “Who is Jesus” may have been answered that day by those who processed down the Mount of Olives with palms in their hands and Hosannas on their lips. But on this side of history we know that what unfolds this week is not what the crowd expected on that day. In fact their certainty and conviction about who Jesus is and what he will do for them will very quickly begin to evaporate. Very quickly they will find themselves in a very uncomfortable place of uncertainty where they will grasp at whatever they can to find sure footing again.
“Who is Jesus”, is a question that we continue to grapple with today. It the question, actually. And it is a question that takes on increased urgency and intensity during this week to come that we have come to call Holy.
I have said it here before that of all of the Sunday’s of the year, this is the Sunday I find most challenging to offer a word to you. This is the Sunday that I go through the crucible of faith each time. It is the Sunday for which I must plant a thousand trees for I go through so many drafts of what I will say that I fear a whole forest lies in the wake of my wonderings. This is a Sunday when I feel most challenged not to jump on another’s band wagon but to do the hard work of really trying to understand for myself who Jesus is and what this week means?
One way that we have come to answer the question of “who is Jesus” is to say that he is our Redeemer. This has always been my starting place. Yours too? And by that we traditionally understand the role of Redeemer to be one who solves the problem of fallen humanity. Jesus is our way back to the garden. The reason Jesus came into the world, and brought his ministry and movement to Jerusalem, the center of religious, political, and economic power was so that he could enact the corrective we need to reconcile humanity with God. Jesus needed to die so that we can live. Jesus’ death atones for fallen humanity, reverses the fall as it were and bring humanity home again to the garden, home again to eternal life. Jesus puts his body so to speak in the breach, in the break in our relationship with God and in doing so restores us to God.
Now while I find these machinations of atonement interesting and turned them over in my mind throughout the years, I am increasingly finding them a bit remote from what I need to try to make my way through the uncertainty in what feels like the increasing chaos of our days. I find I am needing a different or perhaps additional understanding of who Jesus is and what redemption means. An understanding that gives me more firm ground to stand on and to act from.
And so I have come to wonder, what if redemption is not so much about repairing the breach with God as it is about revealing what our relationship with God truly is. What if redemption is not so much about atonement as it is about clarity of vision as to who we are and who God is. What if what Jesus came to do and what this Holy week is all about is to reveal through his flesh and blood the truth of the old story, that seminal story of deliverance that freed God’s people from Pharaoh and that frees us now from all that enslaves us and all that holds us captive?
For it is not a coincidence that Jesus comes into Jerusalem during the festival of Passover. This is a ripe time. This is the time when the people remember their story of liberation. Their foundational story of identity. Passover is when the ancient story of the Exodus becomes new again. When the people enslaved to Pharaoh are delivered into new life. Set free and set down on the far side of the Red Sea, set down as children of God, entering new life not as Pharaoh’s slaves but as God’s sons and daughters. Not enslaved to earthly power, pawns in another’s power play but beautiful and beloved children of God, blessed and called to be a blessing to all. It is a great story of emergence, of coming out, of being made new, of liberation.
The revelation of that story of Exodus is one that Jesus stakes his life on and it is revealed so powerfully this week in Jesus’ confrontation with the center of the known world’s power. Jesus will not to be conformed by the powerful but instead he completely transforms our understanding of what power truly is and in his revelation, of who we truly are.
Jesus goes down the Mount of Olives, like the people who went down the shore of the Red Sea. Jesus moves through what will be death dealing waters and will emerge on the far side exposing the lies and power plays for what they are. That Empire does not define who we are, God does. And once we see that, Empire no longer has power over us. We are free.
For we too live amidst the trappings of empire. We hear the rhetoric of violence and witness its savage impact. We see those who struggle in a system that creates poverty, and oppression for many while opulence and privilege for some. We feel trapped by a deadening routine that feels hallow and meaningless. We find ourselves captive to pretense, pretending to be other than we truly are, suffering the shame that hides our true selves even from ourselves.
If Palm Sunday has any relevance to our lives today it is this: we do not need to accept this world that we find ourselves in as it is. We do not have to accept the thought that there is nothing we can do and so best do nothing. Just best to keep our heads down and try to get by. The great crowd that accompanied Jesus down the Mount of Olives, the ones taking the cloak from their shoulders and laying them down on the path, the ones calling Jesus King and proclaiming “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven” they were quite convinced that they knew who Jesus was and what he was capable of. But the mystery and miracle of what will happen this week is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he will reveal to us who we are and what we are capable of. We are not slaves of empire but children of God. Not banished but beloved.
Walter Brueggemann calls that day on the Mount of Olives an “either or moment.” Either we must have the courage to do something new, to use our energy and imagination to break through and out of the patterns of death or, he says “we fade once again into them.”
Holy week is the ritual of deliverance that we return to and practice over and over in order to awaken within ourselves the certainty, vision, and courage, to stand on the solid ground of our true identity in the midst of the machinations of empire we find ourselves in today. Our challenge, the gospel call to us is to listen not to rhetoric of fear or to jump on the band wagon of those who promise to be King to us, but to stand in the certainty of our identity of children of God and to act out freedom and liberation so that we as Paul says may not be conformed by the world but may be agents of transformation with in it. (Romans 12) May it be so! Amen.