041022 Palm/Passion Sunday

Being True to Ourselves amidst Threats

The sermon begins at minute 39:00 of the video

Isaiah 50:4-9; Phil 2:5-18; Luke 19:29-40

       The question that confronts us every Holy Week  comes with greater intensity this year is, “How do we remain true to ourselves and to our community when we are threatened on so many sides whenever we do so? Isaiah presents the suffering servant as one who refused to compromise under threat: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Psalmist sings, my foes find me disgraceful, my neighbors wag their heads; acquaintances all dread me; those in the street take flight. The Gospel describes Jesus’ response to the threat: in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

       Each week we see more horrors unfold in Ukraine. Even though Ukrainians are fighting back with military weapons, albeit far weaker than those used by the Russians, their primary weapon has been the unprovoked suffering inflicted on them,  accompanied by a refusal to surrender their identity. Their witness has unleashed a moral energy around the world. The spirit of remaining true to themselves is giving them surprising victories, though it must feel more like a loss to most Ukrainians as they endure the barbaric scenes in their neighborhoods.

       We have also witnessed what Judge Jackson, now Justice Jackson – Yay!, had to go through to be true to herself and to her community. She is the latest in a long line of marginalized individuals who have succeeded in a society where they were not expected to make it. Anita Hill, who had to go through similar disrespect in the same room, wrote about the parallels last week: It was obvious that no matter how composed, respectful or brilliant her responses, her critics’ only goal was to discredit her. I appeared as a witness before the committee and Jackson as the nominee, but in both situations Republican senators demonstrated their willingness to employ racist and sexist attacks. (Washington Post, 4/7/22) In the face of that, many have noted Judge Jackson’s remarkable judicial temperament. At all times, she has comported herself with grace and dignity. What did it cost Jackson to remain so composed? In a USA Today Sports o-ed, Mike Freeman argued that Jackson must always remain calm, or she would be portrayed as The Angry Black Woman. Time Magazine reported that at her hearings, America bore witness to its national tendency to demand that those whose lives have been defined by the country’s failings pretend that America has none. 

       Some have compared it to Jackie Robinson’s first season in Major League baseball. He once described his own inner dialogue when facing constant attack. He acknowledged being tempted to stop being so composed: To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all. I’d never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn’t been too much of a man. Gratefully, Jackie Robinson decided to keep fighting those impulses. But we must never forget the cost to him and all others who have had to succeed by resisting justifiable emotional outbursts.

       Being true to ourselves and to our community is never easy. But it’s easier for some than for others. It’s never dependent on military strength, political strength, or any other kind of strength outside ourselves. It is about allowing our true selves to be witnessed by others, even if they threaten us with death or other forms of suffering for expressing ourselves. The greatest external strength is the threat of death. Jesus went to Jerusalem to be true to himself, despite knowing that he faced death there. His willingness and ability to keep listening to the inner voice enabled him to renounce what belonged to him. As we read in Philippians, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.

        Holy Week shows us what it looks like to be true to ourselves by inviting us to be witnesses of Jesus’ consistent pattern in the face of threats from outside. In Nazareth he had described himself as God’s special servant; it alienated him from his community of origin. When he understood that he needed to renounce the rights that accompanied that vocation and mission it alienated him from his new community. He told his friends that he was going to be killed in Jerusalem. Peter, his closest follower, said, “Stop it.” Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me Satan!”

       Then the Gospel reveals an interesting twist on who is afraid. When Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, the Gospel reports that when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him. It is empowering to realize that threats are often an expression of fear. Jesus knew that. It cleared his head to confront his accusers. When asked, by what authority are you doing these things? he had the presence of mind to throw his accusers into disarray by asking them, did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? When he faced betrayal by one of his own, Jesus drew attention to the fate of the betrayer, rather than to himself: woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born. And when another disciple promised him he would remain true to the end, Jesus was willing to disrupt the comfortable moment by saying, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.

       The Gospel doesn’t invite us to sit back and applaud Jesus. It shows us the way that we are to live. The procession of palms shows that the changes Jesus sought in Israel were deeper than those that others wanted to introduce. Jesus knew these changes could not be achieved through violence. So he didn’t enter Jerusalem on a chariot as a conquering king. He went on a donkey as a servant king. And he began to involve the disciples in more of the ministry as they participated in the events of his final week. They found the donkey for Palm Sunday; they found the room and prepared the dinner on Maundy Thursday, and they wrapped Jesus’ body for burial on Good Friday.

       The Gospel shows again and again how difficult it is to follow the path deeper as disciples of Jesus. It’s riskier, slower, and less elegant than we imagine. It means spending more time in the kitchen than in the dining room, more time in the shop than in the store, more time looking for donkeys than singing Hosannas. In the Sundays following Easter the lessons explore what that looks like after the resurrection. There is so much more to learn.

       Parker Palmer said it clearly: the way of the cross is a way of absorbing the pain, not inflicting it on others; it is a path that transforms pain from being an impulse to destroy into a power to create. When we give our hearts to the world, our hearts will break. But they are broken to become channels for a greater love than ours. Only when the pain is transformed by love will the true revolution come, the one that promises to bring the peaceable kingdom. (Promise of Paradox, 39f)