Palm Sunday: Are you in Jesus’ Parade?

Take out your bulletins, and if you have a pen or a pencil, there may be some in your pews, I want you to find a particular word in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. You’ll find the word in the second line of our reading. The word you are looking for is “exploited.” I want you to cross that word out.

This is a dangerous thing to ask you to do, I know, so let me explain. The last thing I want you to do is to call the Bishop and say “Your grace, I know it is Holy Week, but our rector is re-writing the Bible.” I am asking you to cross out this particular word, because I think this is a BAD translation. In fact of all of the translation decisions in the New Revised Standard Version, our usual translation in the Episcopal Church, this one may irk me the most. So cross out “exploited.” And write in the margin a different word: “Grasped.” Now Paul’s words read “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 GRASPED.”

I quibble with words, because words are important. Yes exploitation is bad, but in this teaching, Paul wants us to avoid this GRASPING. The word we’ve just re-translated from Greek is harpadzo, it is the root for our word “Harpy,” those mythical creatures with great grasping claws. The imagery the word conjures is strong, and the word is significant on Palm Sunday.

The Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan postulated that Jesus’ little parade wasn’t the only show in town on that day before the Passover. Pontius Pilate was also on his way to Jerusalem. While Jesus and his rowdy crowd descended with branches and shouts, Pilate had a much more orchestrated arrival coming from the opposite direction. The Roman Governor was making his way up from Ceasaria on the sea, making his way up to the tumultuous Holy City of Jerusalem.

Pilate came with the full force of the Roman army. He marched with thousands of troops. Pilate rode a white armored horse. Pilate’s flags fluttered in the wind. Pilate was interested in power, grasped after power. His soldiers, their spears and shields glittering in the sun approached marched with precision through the city streets. Pilate was asserting himself with his grand parade. The Passover was coming, those nights when the Jewish people remember their liberation. Pilate made a mighty show of his arrival. He demonstrated that this pharaoh wasn’t letting go.

Against the backdrop of Pilate’s might Jesus also arrives at the Holy City, coming down the Mount of Olives from the other side of town. Jesus makes quite a spectacle. Whenever I hear that word “spectacle” I think of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant grandmother hissing through her teeth, “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.” That’s what Jesus was doing. Loud boisterous, practically falling down the mountain, his is no organized military parade. The crowd shouts “Hosanna,” a word from the Hebrew Bible that always accompanies a plea for help. In the Jewish liturgy, “hosanna” is used to commemorate the Exodus, God’s coming to liberate God’s people.

How does your church do Palm Sunday? #palmsunday #holyweek #secondline

A post shared by Holy Communion on Delmar (@holycommucity) on Apr 9, 2017 at 10:12am PDT

 

Pilate rode a white horse. Jesus is mounted on a donkey. Pilate’s men brandish weapons. Jesus’ followers are swinging branches. Pilate’s parade shows his grasp on power. Jesus is marching on coats in the mud. Do you see the contrast?

We are on the threshold of Holy Week. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem marks the beginning of the end. Even as we shout “Hosanna” we know what is coming. At the end of this service, we will hear the Passion Gospel (which is why this homily will be short. But don’t despair. There will be a great deal more preaching this week). This great Holy Week we mark the death of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. We remember his last supper, and the washing of feet. We watch and pray in the garden. We survey the wondrous cross.

As we prepare, a note of caution. The whole series of events on its face, look like failure. As an Easter People, we can forget the pain, the disillusion, the loss. What we remember looks like a failure. You could easily imagine a Roman Soldier watching Jesus’ strange arrival to the city. That soldier could easily say: “what a loser.” That is the irony of Holy Week.

If John Dominic Crossan is right and Jesus and Pilate arrived on the same day, the morning papers the NEXT day would have made it clear which arrival was more significant. Pilate’s parade would have been front page news, above the fold. The headline: “Pilate’s presence means Passover Celebrations to proceed with Public Safety in mind.” Jesus and his band MIGHT have made the end of the local section, page b37: “Goofy prophet from Nazareth rides in on a donkey, authorities are keeping an eye on him.” Jesus wasn’t the cover story.

This is the irony of Holy Week. On the face, God’s action looks like failure. Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Jesus does not show off God’s might. Rather, Jesus humbles himself. The way of Jesus is the way of the downtrodden, the laughed at, the left out. Jesus arrival, Jesus’ last days, Jesus death identifies God with the lowest of the low in human society.

So, if you find yourself making a spectacle, if you are caught out making noise on behalf of those who are lost, and least, and left out. If you find yourself at a vigil for someone who died in the street, or in a protest march for immigrant rights. If you find yourself in the workplace questioning the salary gap between women and men, or challenging the mistreatment of a co-worker, even if your actions seem foolhardy, even if they seem like a failure. If you just find yourself bringing some laughter to a tense situation, helping your neighbor to relax. If you find yourself making a spectacle, well, join the parade. Shout hosanna. You’re with Jesus.

The way of Jesus is not a way that requires grasping. Jesus’ way is not a climb to the top. The way of Jesus is a downward descent, not grasping but letting go. Following the Christ means letting go, making a spectacle of yourself, being humble. Even knowing what is ahead we shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

May you have a blessed Holy Week.

Let go of your assumptions

You know what they say about assumptions? (If you don’t, I’ll let you look it up later. The words aren’t fit to come out of a pulpit). Today’s readings are full of assumptions. “Surely, this strong, tall, young man Eliab is the Lord’s anointed” thinks the prophet Samuel, but Samuel learns “the Lord does not see as mortals see, they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Samuel discovers the Lord has chosen the pipsqueak David. In Samuel’s defense, Goliath got it wrong too. Assumptions can get us into trouble. Assumptions keep us from seeing deeply.

Jesus’ disciples begin in today’s Gospel reading with an assumption: “Someone sinned, and this man had to be punished.” They assume a causal relationship between this man’s blindness and someone’s misstep, someone’s sin. That’s a big assumption. Jesus reframes. “This man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” Jesus calls into question the whole relationship of sight and blindness, darkness and light, clarity and obscurity. Do you really see? Do you see? Are you sure?

Now I know, John milks every last drop out of Jesus’ metaphor today. That Gospel is long. We all had to stand up quite awhile for this one. You didn’t have to hold a big brass book while it was read. That book is heavy. The story is long. But I think there is value in hearing this spiritual truth from Jesus again and again: let go of your assumptions. When you think you see things clearly, look again. Are you sure? Do you have the vision all worked out?

Assumptions are dangerous. When we think we hold the truth, to the exclusion of facts, stories, and compassionate listening, we can cause a world of hurt to others and to ourselves. We all know this to be true. Many of us can recall a time when an assumption was made about us, or about our family. Many of us can recall a moment when we made an assumption and it served us badly.

A particular set of assumptions loom large in our country today, those assumptions are about immigrants. In the town where I grew up, the Latinx population was booming. As a teenager, honestly, there were a lot of jokes made in my circle of acquaintances about Mexican immigrants. The jokes masked a fear. The city was changing. The language was changing. Even 20 years ago there was a fear that the arriving immigrants were “taking jobs away from Americans.”

Now, the question of racism and ethnocentrism wasn’t exactly black and white (it never really is). My circle of friends included Latinos. Sometimes a racist joke would be told by someone with a last name like Ortiz. I could try to unpack the nuances, but then my sermon might be longer than the Gospel. Suffice it to say, the power of these assumed narratives was really strong, and they definitely shaped the way my friends and I saw immigration.

In college, I joined the tiny LGBT Pride organization on campus. Coming out at 19 was pretty early back then, especially on a Catholic campus. Joining Pride plays into my discussion about immigration and assumptions because the Pride group met in the United Front Multicultural Center. Every other grouping was based on race, ethnicity, or culture. Black Student Union, Asian Student Association, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Latino groups all had a space in the multicultural center.

One afternoon in my sophomore year, I was hanging out with a few of the other Pride Members by the little desk we had in the center, while the Association of Chicana Activists were meeting nearby on a circle of couches. (Chicano or Chicana is a term that some Mexican-Americans choose to identify themselves. The name connects to indigenous Mexican culture, and to the movement for liberation). As the Chicana group was meeting, I overheard a student relating a story through tears. She talked about how hard it was to fit in at our college, a majority white, majority wealthy school. Nothing overwhelmingly traumatic had happened, but she talked about the daily small indignities she faced, when someone mocked her accent, or asked if her parents were “illegals.”

Back then we didn’t have the term “micro-aggressions” to name this sort of thing, but I couldn’t stop myself listening in as she talked. On one level, I resonated. As an openly gay theology major, I often felt out of place at the Catholic college. I sometimes was made to feel out of place, by a professor saying something seemingly small and off-hand, or by a fellow student intentionally using homophobic language. Our experience was somewhat similar. But on another horrifying level, as she spoke I was becoming aware of all those jokes for which I’d laughed. I had said things similar to the anecdotes she shared, or at least I’d had similar thoughts. It was like the scales had fallen from my eyes, and I could see simultaneously that this young woman was my sister and that I had participated in causing her suffering.

That young woman and I later marched together on our campus as part of a student movement which created a new policy against hate crimes and bias motivated incidents on campus. We still talk every now and again on Facebook, when she has time. She graduated with honors and these days she’s a very busy organizer and activist in the Labor movement in Southern California. Many of you know that my experiences standing alongside Latinx people didn’t end in college. I continue to work against the narrative I inherited, but my working on my own interpersonal assumptions alone won’t cure our cultural blindness.

As a matter of policy, the United States government makes an assumption about migrants from Latin America. Unless they can prove otherwise, every person hoping to come to the United States from these regions are considered “economic migrants.” We assume, as a matter of policy, that they are coming to take a job. In 2014, a major wave of unaccompanied children and youth arrived at our Southern Border fleeing intensifying violence in their neighborhoods especially in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Our policy automatically considers these young people as economic migrants. Officially, we assume they are lying to get into this country for a job. We make that assumption of little kids. The fastest growing group of people being apprehended at our Southern Border are children under age 12.

Back in September in this pulpit, Noah Bullock from Cristosal, an organization in El Salvador told the stories of families fleeing death threats. Not long after Noah spoke, one of my favorite students from the year I taught English and Music with the Episcopal Church in Honduras, Charly, was killed by a gang. Charly once told me he’d like to come to the US, but he knew he’d never be able to get here legally, and he was too scared to come without documents. The gangs regularly threaten and extort migrants making their way up through Mexico. Hundreds are killed every year en route to the US. Charly feared for his safety. A group of gang members killed him and his girlfriend for his cell phone and motorcycle. Our national assumptions are wrong, and lives are at stake.

The Episcopal Church is running an Underground Railroad in response. Right now. In El Salvador the church has safe houses to get people out of harms way. Cristosal petitions for refugee and asylum statuses for those who are fleeing violence. It is clear to me that the Episcopal Church in the United States should be one of the final terminals of that railroad. We should be able to welcome those who flee violence. What isn’t clear is how we can make that happen. Politically we seem unable to shake our assumptions. In the 1980s pastors were driving across the Mexican border to pick up Salvadoran refugees without papers. A lot has changed since those days. As I said, the road through Mexico has become much more violent, and our immigration enforcement has intensified. I don’t know the solution. It’s not clear to me how we connect this railroad to safety here in the US, but I think we have to ask the questions.

As an aside, I don’t want to make you nervous about the trip we are taking to El Salvador this Spring. Sometimes assumptions can work in favor of our safety as North Americans. The gangs assume that groups coming from the United States are good for tourism, a growing industry in Latin America. The violence is directed at their neighbors. They go out of their way to ensure the safety of North American travelers. Cristosal has been hosting groups for more than a decade and has never had a more serious incident than pickpocketing occur to one of their visitors. I say this, not to help my point, but to reassure our group and their families.

Yes, El Salvador is a violent place. Holy Communion is sending a group to El Salvador, in part, because we want to ask: “teach us to see.” The way to move beyond assumptions is to listen, to look, as Samuel heard, “not at the outward appearance, but [at the] heart.” We are going to spend time with our sisters and brothers. We will break bread together. We will talk about the realities we face. We are considering this relationship with El Salvador, because as Christians we believe that we can only see the whole picture when we include diverse perspectives. When we can ask another human being: “how do you perceive this situation?” and we take the time to listen deeply, to get to the heart of matters.

Can I share with you a slightly irreverent reflection on this story? I was once talking about this section of John with a youth group, and a young woman stopped the whole group by saying, “That’s disgusting. Jesus took dirt and spit, and put it in that guy’s eyes?” It helps to slow down and listen to how a young person sees the Gospel at times. Admittedly, this story of healing, of receiving sight, is a little gross.

But somehow it strikes me, that this too may hold some wisdom. If we are to learn to see the world as Jesus sees the world, if we are to see one another as sisters and brothers, if we are to let go of our assumptions about sin, about status, about race, religion, orientation and creed. If we are going to make a real change to our nations immigration policies, to become a more welcoming nation. If we are to approach one another with a little more grace, the process is likely to be messy, like mud from spit and dirt.

God’s grace is in the mess. God’s vision, it’s for those of us who often feel stuck in the mud. In fact, according to today’s Gospel, if you have been feeling a little frustrated, a little stuck, a little blind lately, well that’s good news. You’re on the right track. We are the people who believe in the God who is with us through the valley of shadow and death.  God already sees you, and loves you, better than you can love yourself. God’s works will be revealed. Let go of your assumptions.

Talk about sin.

In today’s sermon, I’m going to talk about sin, but right up front, by way of disclaimer: I’m not really going to talk about sex. Talk of sin often goes straight to sex, either directly or by implication. You know the old joke: “Why don’t Mennonites have sex standing up? Because it might lead to dancing.” Don’t get me wrong, we do need to talk about sex in church, partly because the church has gotten sex so wrong. That’s true whether your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or so-called straight. We’ve equated sex and sinfulness too much. Apart from giving birth, sex is the most physically intimate interaction that humans can have, and so sex is powerful. Power can be used wisely and unwisely. So we’ll talk about sex another day. I’m going to ask you, just today, as best you can, to set aside the sex=sin equation.

It’s useful for a pastor to say the word sex on the morning of the time change. It assures me that you’re awake. Today I want to talk about sin.

Even with my disclaimer, I know that sin isn’t a popular topic. That’s okay. We Episcopalians often avoid talking about sin, because we want our church to be welcoming. We want our church to express the deep loving welcome of God to ALL people. We don’t want folks to feel labeled as “sinners” or “unworthy” so we don’t talk about sin. I identify with this feeling. I want you all to feel deeply welcome. I want to feel welcome.

Here’s my worry: if we don’t talk about sin, then we’re not really welcoming. The literal definition of sin is simple: “missing the mark.” The word “sin” comes from archery. You literally sin when you miss the center of the target. We’re all a little off target at times. We are. If you don’t think you miss sometimes, we should talk.

As I said, I worry that if we don’t acknowledge that we all, all of us, are imperfect, that we all sin, we risk presenting ourselves inauthentically. We risk presenting a version of ourself that appears to have it all together. We might walk around trying to look like we’re in control. A group of people who want to look like they have everything in control has a hard time welcoming someone who appears to be a little off kilter. If we’re trying to maintain the appearance of balance, then we might not welcome in someone who looks like they can disrupt the facade.

Trying to look like you have it all together is nothing new. Take a look at our gospel. Our presiding bishop has a nickname for this story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He calls this episode: “Nick at Night.” Nicodemus wants to ask Jesus some questions. He’s wondering. He might have a bit of a “holy hunch.” He’s thinking, “there’s something to this Jesus. There’s something about the way he talks about God, talks about the the beloved community, the kingdom of God.” But Nicodemus is not ready to bring his questions out into the light. He’s not ready for his friends to comment on these questions.

Jesus is a little evasive. “You must be born from above.” I think Jesus is trying to get a response here, trying to get a rise from the religious leader. It becomes really clear at the end of their interaction. Unfortunately the church decided to leave off the last couple of verses from this episode in our reading this week. These are the last words Jesus says to Nicodemus that night:

“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

Jesus calls Nicodemus out. He doesn’t say it specifically, but Nicodemus knows Jesus is talking about him. The Gospel moves on to other topics, other stories. These words leave us wanting more, and that’s on purpose. We’ll come back to Nicodemus. We don’t just leave him there in the dark.

Sin is a tricky topic. I tried to diffuse one of the big bombs at the beginning of my sermon. We talk about sin and sex too automatically together. But I’m really not going to give you a whole list of sins. Because even without a list, I get the sense that when I mention sin most of the congregation tunes me out a little bit.

Often the most important sermon that gets preached in a church on any Sunday morning isn’t what the person in the robes up front has to say. The sermon that counts is the sermon that you preach to yourself, as you pick up a thread or two of what I said, or better yet, as you mull over something from Scripture, or a prayer. The sermon you preach to yourself counts more.

When I talk about sin, I get the sense that a lot of folks start preaching their own sermons. I get the sense that many of us often start picking at a particularly well worn thread, something we’ve done or left undone that we return to again and again. When sin is mentioned, we return to that sense of guilt. We return to whatever story or circumstance  makes us wonder, “if people knew this about me, if this was out in the light, would I still be welcome.” When sin is mentioned, many of us go there.

That’s okay. It’s important. It’s part of the journey. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Don’t get stuck on the first step. It’s not enough to agonize in the silence of your pew. It’s not enough to struggle silently while presenting a brave face to the world. There is too much pretending in our society, too much pretending that everything is alright, too much pretending that our lives are under control, too much pretending that our leaders aren’t in over their heads. We try to keep whole parts of ourselves in the darkness, and only show the polished bits off in the light.

I’m not going to list out a bunch of sins today, but I do want to talk about one in particular: pride. It’s a sin I know well, a lot of pastors do. I get the sense pride is at the heart of Nicodemus’ interaction with Jesus.

Pride is a tricky vice. If we’re not able to say out loud that we are sinners, if we aren’t able to look at the arrows in the target and admit, “yeah that one off the the right, that one is mine. Oh, and that one back in the grass behind the target, that’s mine too.” If we’re not able to claim, “yes, I’m a sinner,” then it makes it really very hard figure out how the Gospel is good news.

There’s a word for those who can’t bear their faults: hubris. When you put yourself at the center of your universe. When you can’t admit any flaws, you’re in danger. That kind of pride has been feeding the great playwrites from Sophocles on down. History bears it out. “Pride goeth before the fall.”

In my estimation the best theological definition of sin in the human community is this: “sin is whatever diminishes the humanity of another, or my own humanity.” God intends life and life in abundance for creation. We all miss that goal at times. We all participate in activity, personal and social, that diminishes life. We all hurt one another. All of us have some patterns that are self-destructive. We all miss the point. So what do you do about sin?

Amidst all Jesus’ mysterious language there’s a moment that was probably very clear to the religious leader. Nicodemus knew his Torah. Jesus says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In the book of Numbers, while the people Israel are wandering through the wilderness, they encounter poisonous snakes. God tells Moses to make a brazen serpent and to raise it up on a pole. When the people are bitten, they simply look on the snake, and they will be healed. Still, some of the people refuse the help. They don’t look up.

Jesus says that likewise “The Son of Man must be lifted up.” If Nicodemus is going to understand what Jesus means for our world, if he is going to answer his questions, satisfy his hunch, he’s going to have to lift up his eyes. He’s going to have to let go of his need to appear as if he has everything under control. Nicodemus needs to let go of his pride. Unless he can let go of his sense that he’s already “got it” he will never “get” Jesus.

Now, as you read on in the Gospel of John you’ll notice that Nicodemus returns. First in chapter seven he comes to Jesus’ defense in front of the other religious authorities. Then in chapter 19, Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, to help with Jesus’ burial. The Gospel reminds us this was the man who “first came to Jesus by night.” In the end Nicodemus helps Joseph to wrap Jesus’ body in linen with spices. Something shifted.

I started off by saying that I don’t like talking about sin because I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re unwelcome. Jesus didn’t share my qualms. Jesus knew better. When Nicodemus appeared, Jesus welcomed him, but Jesus’ welcome also challenged Nicodemus.

“Yes Nicodemus, you are welcome” Jesus is saying, “but you don’t have to hang out in the dark.” Here, you don’t have to have all the right answers. You don’t have to present only the parts of yourself that are ready for the spotlight. All of you is welcome: aLL of you, everything you have done and left undone is welcome. When Jesus was lifted up his arms were outstretched, as St. Anselm said: “so that all the world might be able to come within his saving embrace.” Jesus arms are wide enough for ALL of your story. Do you believe that?

Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey, you don’t need to hang out in the shadows. You don’t need to let your pride keep you from sharing your wounds. You have come to a fellowship of sinners. Everyone who comes up to this table at Holy Communion is a sinner. We all miss the target, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. We all hurt our fellow creatures. From time to time, we also hurt ourselves. That’s why we need this church. It’s why we need this table. Sin is why we need Jesus. Friends, this is good news. We come here looking for healing, looking for love. We find a welcome that embraces us and challenges us. God’s welcome is challenging. It challenges us to step out of the shadows. God’s welcome challenges us to quit pretending, and to see our fellow sinners, and to say: “If this Jesus welcomed me, he can welcome you, yes even you.” My prayer this Lent is that each of us, like Nicodemus, can know Jesus’ challenging welcome a bit more fully.