Palm Sunday: Lent 2015 B. “They brought the donkey to Jesus and they threw their clothes on it and he sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road and cut down branches of palm and spread them on the road. And those who went before him and those who followed cried out, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest’.” Mark 11:7-9
Mr. Packard’s old car sputtered and steamed as we travelled in the Dorchester Day Parade. It was one of my not so bright ideas to have a car in the parade that advertised the Dorchester Tenants Action Council. It was 1970 and Mr. Packard lived in a decrepit old mansion that had been subdivided and he had a car. I didn’t have a car and he offered. And like most of us in the Tenants Council, our homes and our cars, if we had one, were held together with wire and Duct tape.
The sign with the name DTAC was printed on a white poster and taped to the door of the car. Mr. Packard drove the car and I alone walked beside the old wreck of a car and the man who drove it. The car overheated within the first mile of the parade. I went to the side and asked for water for the radiator and kept the car going for another few miles. By the third mile we dropped out of the parade.
It was an early education into the art of humiliation which has a root, I suspect, in the word humility. But we were, the old man, the young one and the wreck of the car a kind of March into Jerusalem. We were on the way to confront the demons of poverty, racism, class and greed. Armed with nothing but the tenants who would join us in the months and years to follow, we would see some progress. We would bring together the races around a common effort, we would pass a rent control ordinance in the city of Boston and we would confront the abuses of certain absentee landlords. The maxim that the poor have the greatest weapon against injustice, their numbers, was a truth we lived with and experienced.
Thirty years later, we were in Jerusalem. A group of us clergy from the states, were on a tour of the region. Our group stood on a hill of Olive trees that overlooked the Golden Dome that stood on the site of the Second Temple. We were all familiar with the story of Jesus riding on the back of a donkey into the city. As we began our descent toward the old city I noticed a donkey tied to a tree. Later as we made our way down the hill I turned as I heard the clop of hooved feet. Atop and astride the donkey we had seen, a portly young man bounced and jostled and shook as he straddled the poor animal as it sped down the hill. The creature seemed eager to be relieved of his burden. It had crossed my mind to ride the burro down the hill. Mercifully, I had the experience to see in another’s embarrassment what could have been mine.
The road up to the Golden Gates of Jerusalem’s old city wall have been sealed. On that day many years ago it was the Eastern door into the city. Through those doors a man rode a donkey into the site of the Temple Mount while a few shouted Hosannas and waved branches of palm. And ever since that day we remember a man not on a warrior’s horse but astride a donkey as a sacrament of power in the raiment of powerlessness. The Golden gates have been sealed and the gold’s been stolen away. What has not been sealed or silenced are the voices of the poor. Indeed their cries now are daily televised. Even the powerful voices of greed can’t shut them up.
And yes we turn our faces away and shut off the tube or the internet feed. Their cries are hard to bear because even in our illusions of security we know that “there but for fortune go you or I.” That walk on the day of the Palms is a perfect sacrament of all those who before and since have lifted their hearts and voices and have sung Hosannas and “We shall overcome.” Those gates will not open of themselves. The powerful and well situated will sit behind walls of security and shut them out. And yet on that day, “even the stones will cry out.” And the God of merciful justice will come and dwell among us.
We will dwell together in a kind of relative peace, the kind of peace that the lamb might experience in the presence of the lion. It seems to me to be a peace much as that Palm Sunday long ago, that lives on as we remember and tell the story to those who have come to listen.
ADialogue between someone named “Me” and Jesus and John: Reflections on Jeremiah 31: 31-34, “I will write on their hearts”, and John 12: 20-33. “While you have light, believe in the light so that you may become children of the light.” The conversation begins with “Me’s” feelings and thoughts about why Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem, the connection thread of Lent. If Jesus sounds like James Carroll from his recent book, Christ Actually, Me’s” reading him now.
Me: “I would’ve said that (turning to Jesus and John), I would’ve said that I have to go up to Jerusalem whether they kill me or not. “
Jesus: “Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt. I had to go to the heart of the world machine. On that hill was the Temple, the center of my religious outlook. To its side stood the Antonia Fortress, the presence of Roman Occupation. I had to go and confront my fear and the fear of my people that you could destroy the life of the spirit, the justice of God, and God’s mercy and grace. I needed to live out the truth that we can refuse to live in fear and that death cannot destroy truth and love…that each life has a purpose and a meaning beyond suffering.”
Me: “So what are we to think about the cross? I’d say, I wonder if I speak out of pride. ‘God, I don’t need you to sacrifice your son for my sins.’ I’d say to God, ‘I’m not going to the cross to make you look bad or good. I’m going there because that is what is needed to change people’s heads and hearts. That you were not only willing to be born a human being, which must have been hard enough, but that you were willing to experience the full extent of human suffering.’ I needed to believe in a God who is totally with us in our suffering as I looked out over the last century and the beginning of this one.”
John: “So you think you can be responsible for your own sins?”
Me: Aren’t I? I’m the one who has to live with them and the people, creatures, creation that I have hurt or destroyed or collaborated in. I suspect that sacramentally every one of my sins is another nail in the cross of Christ. But I don’t want Him to suffer for me, all I want is to know he is willing to suffer with me.
Jesus: “Sure, I hear you both. I didn’t think of my crucifixion as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And yet such an unjust death, a death by the death machine, is often seen as a sacrifice of one for the sin of all. Look at the assassination of Martin, or the prophets, or the Jews and others in Auschwitz and Bergen –Belsen. The list is long and grows longer each day. The real sin is to turn our faces away from the sacrificial nature of these deaths. To turn our faces from the evil is, as Abraham Heschel said, even a greater sin than the evil itself.”
“The idea that my Father would need a sacrifice, once and for all, for the sin of humans is as outmoded as the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. I don’t know a Father like that. The Father I know was with me on the cross. It was God’s own blood that was spilled on that day and is so wherever there is bloodshed and violence. My cry from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me,” was an essential part of the experience of utter aloneness and abandonment. It was that experience that I needed to go through to live my life fully. But feelings aren’t always truth, they are signals. There is nowhere that you or I can go from God. Nowhere. Even as I experienced God’s absence, I lived in God’s presence. My mental state caused me to feel the separation. To experience abandonment is sometimes part of the human condition. It is the signal that we need to take responsibility for the life we are given, but when both the abandonment and responsibility grab you it seems absolute. You have to work through its clutches.
John: When I was writing the Gospel I had come to believe that God loved the world so much that God gave you to be his only begotten son so that all who believed in you would not perish but have eternal life. That was my honest experience of who you were to me and our community.
Jesus. “Yes, God gives us all things, God gives life to me and to you”. Looking at me with a smile on his face, “even ‘me’ here. And I don’t think it is possible for a Jew to truly believe that I was the son of God. Even the thought of being godly was a hindrance to my purpose which was to show forth the One God. I knew what Martin Buber called the “Eternal Thou” was not containable in the human body, but its humanity could be fully expressed and explored. I wanted to make what was human an image of the divine, but not the ultimate divine. I discovered by living that the divine could find birth in the human. I said many times: “No one but God is good.” Only as I fully lived out as an authentic human in the present, could I fulfill the purpose that I came in time to understand: To show the merciful God who is with us at all times, who is beyond our imagining and yet incarnate in all things. But belief is tricky. You may believe a hundred things or more that are wrong. One of the most egregious was that I was at war with the Jews. I am a Jew. I never even knew the word Christian in my lifetime. I went to Jerusalem to visit the temple. Some of the trading and practices in the courtyard were an abomination because they placed a barrier between the poor and their access to God’s mercy and grace. And I came to confront the fear that kept my people in servility and powerlessness. I went to confront my own fear of Herod and his sycophants’ and the Roman death machine. I didn’t go to Jerusalem to destroy faith in and love for the God of Israel.
My whole mission and purpose was to remove the veil that has closed us off from God. To show forth the love and mercy of God.
John said, “But we came in those days of terror, waiting for your promised return, under the persecution of the Romans and the continued killing of the Jews, to see you as the only son of God. We had to believe in you to face those times of persecution.
Jesus: Even if I returned the destiny of the communities, both the Jews and the new Christian communities would not have discovered the presence of the holy in their very midst, even in times of persecution. Those early manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the sharing of all their goods, the generosity of the spirit and heart of the community of believers wouldn’t have been possible.
I was much less interested in right belief and more in right action. As I said, it’s all written in scripture and the prophets. But right belief is critical. Wrong belief leads to murder.
So you probably don’t know me as well as you think you do. Certainly most of our ideas about the Holy are by necessity of our humanity, limited.
Me: So are you the Son of God?
Jesus: What do you think?
Me: My head has doubts, my heart seems to know though.
Jesus: Tell me what you mean
Me: Everything is in God. I don’t have to figure it all out. I need to stay open, “in spite of” what’s going on. The violence, the cruelty the genocide, the weapons of mass destruction that can instantly eliminate most life. These talks with you will certainly be seen as ridiculous. I come down I think with you that the life of the heart and the imagination, to see the presence of the holy in just about everything is my purpose. I look to you as the key that helps unlock the door to the life of the spirit.
Jesus.” It’s always been hard. Even when there’s faith it doesn’t always see. The simple faith of being present in the ordinary acts of life; breaking bread, sharing a drink of water. I moved into God through simple acts of faith everyday…Choice by choice.” “Unless a grain of wheat dies it can’t produce new life.” And actually the grain does not die does it?”
Me: The cross is to me the crossing into eternal life, as is the birth of a child, or the song of the Robin as it returns after the long and cold winter. It’s filled with the possibilities for seeing into the eternal heart, the Eternal Thou.
Jesus: I resonate with Bonhoeffer who challenges your generation as he waited for his own death sentence. “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without a working hypothesis. God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. Before God and with God we choose to live as if God is in the uncertainty. I still make my stand for a divine mystery of love and compassion.
Me: So as we are caught in the jaws of the world death machine, subject to the system and imprisoned we make a break for freedom.
Jesus: “We make our own prisons. We are prisoners of the world machine only as we live out of fear and close out hearts and minds to compassion and love. We need to let go of our attachments to everything that is drawing us from living into the Oneness of all things. Like you have to let go of your attachment to the Red Sox.
Me: Now you’re treading on holy ground.
Jesus: I know, my father is a Red Sox fan.
Me: (Laughing) Boy how old is that joke?
Jesus: God loves two things: Change and a good joke. And God loves to dance.
You ask if I’m the son of God. John wants to know if I’m the only one. As much and as little as you are. It is a consciousness that grows. You become aware of your mothers heartbeat, the sound of her voice, her smile of utter approval and affirmation. Aware of your father’s knowing and skillful hands.
I come to know I know. I know that I am a person and loved, protected. In such a way I learn to understand that I am a part of creation, my existence is only partly my own, I am a part of my family and by extension the community and the world.
Then, my mentor, John the Baptist saw me. His knowing me opened to me the understanding that I know, and I know that I know, and that I am known. This process of seeing is common to all human beings. Too few avail themselves. Some call it enlightenment. I continue to be known through the open minds and hearts of the disciples. Through their seeing and not seeing, my life becomes an entry into the heart of God who I called Father, Abba. You call the knower God, I call the knower Abba. The relationship becomes that intimate and yet as Bonhoeffer says, even being known, I lived at times without that presence.
It is that knowing that one has been seen by what is the Eternal Thou that moved so many to see me as the Son of God.
If I asked you are you a child of God, how would you respond?
Me: “Me! Are you kidding?
Jesus: How would you answer?
Me: The list of my faults is too long, but I see what you’re getting at. I have been seen by a hundred even a thousand eyes who have held me up when I could no longer look at my own face in the mirror. I’ve always teased that I was neither one of God’s chosen, nor called God’s son. But I have learned that the God I know and love is a God who is merciful, full in delight in the creation, weeps over her wounds, and is present in the ordinary and commonplace. At times it is as if I am able to see through the heart and eyes of what you call the Eternal Thou.
I suspect it is an evolution in consciousness. I guess the story of the Prodigal Son is one of the great hearts of the writings: “Holy One I am not worthy to be called your son, but say the word and I shall be healed.” If I partake in the divinity of the Eternal One, it is in and through that divinity that my life as a son will be recognized or not.
Jesus: And so we try to stay open to the promptings of the divine, working from love to love, from choice to choice, from encounter to encounter to learn our true meaning. We take in the sense of being known in stages, the love of the mother, the approval of the father, the companionship of friends, the passionate love of the lover, the wise knowing look of wise ones and mentors. We finally come to see in the progression what has been taking place all along. We are held by the knowing and compassionate gaze of the God. It is the One I called father, the God of my ancestors who I learned to know through my community and the stories. And then I let go and entered as fully as I humanly was able into manifesting the living presence in the twists and turns of my one life.
And my mother. If you really want to know if I am the son of God, you better talk with her. Other than that I hope that has left you as murky and muddled as you were when you started.
Talk to you later.
4th Lent: “For God so loved the world that God gave the Son so that all that believe in Him shall have eternal life.” John 3
You don’t have to wait until you die to have eternal life. And you don’t have to swear a blood oath to Jesus to get it. Eternal Life is available to every human being. For Christian’s the catch is we have to walk the way of Jesus the Christ. It is through the way of Jesus that we can see the unfolding of eternal life for us.
John’s Gospel and I have an ongoing argument. My take on belief in Jesus as the Christ and the son of God is in walking the way and the truth and the life. It’s not just believing about it, it’s living it now. Faith in the Christ is manifested in living compassion, love, justice, forgiveness, humility and letting go of that which keeps me from the presence of God. Jesus is always pointing away from himself to God. As I look at him, and how he acts, he heals, raises the dead to life, he prays and he teaches, I gaze into the eyes of the divine.
In Jesus I see the incarnation of the divine. He faces squarely into the jaws of the Roman war machine and he remains faithful to his Jewish birth and roots. Indeed, it is for the following of that tradition that he goes freely to the cross.
God doesn’t stand apart from Jesus as he suffers on the cross. For me the greatest insight into God for our time and all time is that God in God’s love for the world is there on the cross for us with Jesus, his Son. From that time to this God becomes an intimate of human suffering. God does not turn away for God hangs on the gallows. God doesn’t stand above his child with a sacrificial knife. Abraham turned away from such acts after he traumatized his son Isaac. The nature of God is to stay with us in our suffering, not leave us alone. The Psalms over and over cry out: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” “If I make the grave my bed, even there you will find me.” And even though we may feel abandoned, I suspect the greater abandonment is God’s, the One who is witness to our cruelty to each other and our lack of care for ourselves.
Eternal life begins with birth. Birth itself is the sacrament. Through a human mother we are alive in the world to discover how the incarnation of God can be manifested in our particular, shabby, limited bodies and minds and hearts.
In such a way the children of God, the sons and daughters of the divine are invited into the re-membering of who we were born to be and living that call as best we can.
Eternal life comes when the cross is no longer a cause for fear and our refusal of our sacred identity. We have heard and watched and learned that the cross is not the final answer to life. That new life comes as surely as the winter is over and the rains come and the songs of the Robins return. We live in the constant flow of Birth, death and re-birth.
James Carroll in his latest book entitiled, Christ Actually, quotes Camus: “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” Carroll goes on to say that “we needed to move from a longed for future to living responsibly in the present.”
I’ve always been partial to Kazantzakis in his “Report to Greco”. He describes the stages of life as a bow in God’s hand.
The prayer of the young: “I am a bow in your hand, draw me lest I rot.
The prayer of mid-life: “I am a bow in your hand, do not overdraw me lest I break.”
To the freedom of mature life: “I am a bow in your hand. Overdraw me. I don’t care if I break.”
Such freedom to be who we are called to be is the beginning of eternal life. The rest for me is to know whose hand holds the bow of my life. There are ultimately few that I trust to hold me in such a tension except the One who has gone before and seems to be showing up the more I invite Him in. For some time now the one who visits has a decidedly feminine quality.