032821 Palm Sunday
The sermon begins at minute 26:40 of the video
Is. 50:4-9a, Marcos 15:1-39
Every year, Christians rehearse the events of Jesus’ life during his last week. This year, I find myself starting Holy Week with a serious question about the prophetic path that Jesus walked to the cross: Are prophets the only ones who get the timing right? Are the rest of us predisposed to ignore their message until it’s too late? I enter this week with many news stories from around the world bouncing around my brain – Echo Park, the U.S. Southern border, Atlanta and Boulder, Georgia and Washington, and Myanmar. In each case, if leaders had acted on the challenges those regions represent when prophets were saying what should be done, we would be facing a better situation than we are facing now. I also find those stories in my own life: actions I didn’t take when I first knew I needed to; issues I didn’t confront with my children in time; the church’s failure to face uncomfortable situations head-on when they arose.
As I reflect on each of those stories in light of today’s Passion Sunday texts, I find myself both encouraged and discouraged about joining Jesus on the prophetic path. It’s encouraging to recognize that there are prophets who speak up about the truth in time to do something about challenging situations. But it’s discouraging to see that the world never acts on those truths in time, and that the prophets keep getting killed. Is it because people don’t think the difficult actions called for by prophets are urgent enough to carry out? Do they/we believe they know a better way? Or do they/we just hope that the problem will go away if they ignore it? Whatever the reason, the result is a crisis that could have been avoided, but now only offers options between bad and worse.
- Echo Park has been front page news this week, as government forces have cleared it of the unhoused residents who have occupied it for the last 18 months, amid protests from neighbors and advocates. Prophets spoke up years ago, saying that housing and income inequalities had to be addressed to avoid greater crises in the future. But the world always found it more convenient to postpone those conversations.
- The stories of our migrant siblings charting a course from Central America and flooding our southern border pit humane policies of welcome against harsher policies of effective deterrence. Decades ago, prophetic voices calling for justice in Central America were blown out of earshot by the dominant political winds of the day.
- Back-to-back mass shootings in the last two weeks reawakened familiar debates about gun safety that arise after each one of the thousands of mass shootings that have occurred in the last 25 years. Money and power have thwarted even the will of the majority of citizens to protect people from gun violence.
- Last week’s changes in voting laws in Georgia, against the backdrop of recent electoral upsets and blatant expressions of racism around the country reveal that the arc of racial justice in this country keeps getting pushed back. Prophets who addressed blatant racism in voting laws have lost their lives.
- The ongoing conflict in Myanmar has become a surrogate battle ground for the U.S. and Russia, with the people being the ones who suffer. Prophetic voices, in the form of students, Buddhist monks, and an ousted Nobel Peace Prize winning civilian leader have all called for systemic change in that country. The current generation wants to protect small advances won through those efforts.
A similar dynamic took place under Isaiah’s prophetic leadership. Isaiah kept offering hope to the exiles in Babylon. But they had become “weary” of his constant predictions of deliverance, which never materialized. So they rejected his prophetic message. But Isaiah was undeterred. God had given him the word and he must deliver it, even at the cost of personal suffering. And suffer he did. Gospel writers later used the same images he used to describe his own suffering to describe what Jesus experienced centuries later. Isaiah was confident that God would eventually prove him right. In the same way, Jesus’ passion was the outcome of his obedient delivery of the message of the kingdom despite his people’s rejection, and his constant reliance that God would prove him right.
Of course, many in our country claim the mantle of prophecy. The Q Anon phenomenon may be the most significant. It is the loss of a sense of history that makes people believe false prophets. Isaiah uses a phrase that can be translated in several ways: “the tongue of a teacher”, “those who are taught”, or as the Message translates it, “a well-taught tongue.” As is often true in biblical texts like that, the ambiguity enriches, rather than obscures, the meaning. In this case, it emphasizes that the only way to teach is to learn, and the only way to lead is to be able to follow. Either way, it’s the ability to speak from hard -won ideals derived not from scattered dreams of starry nights but in the full light of morning. That is one difference
between prophetic wisdom and conspiracy theories.
Both Isaiah and Jesus understood that sometimes we have to go deeper than a person wants to go to sustain the weary with a word. Isaiah knew how to “sustain the weary with a word”, even the ones who were weary of his message. Isaiah didn’t say comfort the weary. Comfort doesn’t always sustain. It may help the weary to cope, which may be necessary, but is never enough. To sustain the weary, it’s not enough to help them avoid getting in trouble, or even to avoid getting overwhelmed with sadness or anger or grief. We must help them embrace the trouble, sadness and anger, and support them through them.
That’s where Isaiah’s and Jesus’ examples offer encouragement for our discouragement. When we or our leaders fail to act in time, and let crises get out of hand, we can seek the one Isaiah calls The Servant to sustain us with a word. The Gospel writers saw Jesus with the spirit of the Servant. That’s why they quoted this section of Isaiah so often. That spirit sustains and encourages us whether we’re lamenting the impact of the delay in finding answers for the unhoused in Echo Park, sustenance for the weary travelers at the U.S. Mexico border, hope for the grieving and frightened communities of Atlanta and Boulder, or strength for our family, friends and neighbors, weary from the demands and anxieties of a culture that feels more and more alien, and from keeping so much inside because they don’t think anyone will understand them.
We must first receive that word for the weary from God to offer it to others. Together we might find what we need to stand up to the challenges of today, rather than clean up after they become crises tomorrow. By listening to those issues and bringing them into the light, a deeper healing can come, and a more effective sustenance can result. Weary people won’t always appreciate sustenance when they want comfort. Jesus’ contemporaries certainly didn’t. When he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they expected comfort. When what they got was sustenance, their Hosanna turned into Crucify Him.
The ability to walk in obedience, and the gifting to teach and sustain those who are tired of the long road ahead, sometimes produce not reward but derision from fellow travelers. That may be what it means for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. So I repeat the questions from the beginning: Are prophets the only ones who get the timing right? Are the rest of us predisposed to ignore the message until it’s too late? Jesus’ sustaining word might encourage us enough to pay attention when we can bring healing rather than violence. May it be so.