Friday, 26 March 2010

MadPriest's sermon For Palm Sunday 2010

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”


So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”


They said, “The Lord needs it.”


Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.


As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”


Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”


He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

***

At first glance Lent and Passiontide might appear to people outside of the Church as just a huge chunk of monotonous sameness. They could easily conclude that all that happens is that Christians start being miserable and feeling guilty on Ash Wednesday, continue being miserable and feeling guilty for 42 days until Good Friday when they become even more miserable and feel even more guilty. Probably the only thing most non-Christians know about Lent is that it is a time of fasting, of not enjoying oneself.

Regrettably, for many Christians and for long periods during our faith's history, this was, and still is, what this part of the liturgical year is all about.This is due to the fact that at various times in the past the Church has been hijacked by holier than thou people who have somehow managed to convince most Christians that being miserable, feeling guilty and not enjoying oneself is the way to please God and get into heaven. I expect this assertion was made by some right at the beginning of the history of the Church, but it gained a major foothold in our thinking when the desert fathers started hiding themselves away, on their own, in the middle of nowhere and sometimes even spending their whole lives sitting on top of pillars or in holes in the ground. This extreme asceticism was popular during the 3rd Century but it has been carried through to our times in the monastic movement that based its rules of life on the practices of the desert fathers. It may appear to us that the three main rules of monastic life, celibacy, poverty and obedience were given to the Church by God written on stone tablets, but the truth is that they are purely accidents of time, place and culture decided upon by a small group of extremely antisocial men.

Being miserable has been a main defining part of the Christian mindset at other times during our history. It was particularly popular during the later Middle Ages. This was a time of war, pestilence and very short lives for most people. Many believed that they were living during the last days or that all the pain and suffering they were enduring was a punishment from God because they had sinned. Asceticism, fasting and self harm were regarded as being a sacrifice both the individual Christian and the Christian Church could make in order to appease this vengeful lawmaker of a god.

In some parts of the Church this idea that the pain of human beings pleases God has persisted into our modern era. That people outside of the Church regard Christians as a miserable lot is not an accident. It has to be admitted we appear to spend an inordinate of our time complaining about people enjoying themselves and trying to stop them doing so. There are many examples of even more bizarre practices. In some places men will literally nail themselves to a wooden cross in order to suffer like Christ did. And you can still come across such silliness right in the heart of the Church. I read the other week that the last pope used to regularly self-flagellate. He had a special implement for doing this hidden away in his closet.

Of course, none of this has any basis in the teaching of Jesus Christ. He advised us to live simple lives so that we could be generous to others less well off than ourselves but he never told us to cause ourselves harm and he didn't cause harm to himself either. Jesus fasted at one point in his life for a specific reason but for the rest of the time he eschewed such extreme actions. And the idea that Jesus would want people to suffer like he did is a bit sick if you ask me. It's like somebody going down with a bad case of the flu and saying to their friends and family, "I hope you all get this." If we, weak humans that we are, don't want others to go through the same pains we endure during our lives, why should we think that our merciful Lord would ask for us to endure his pain. Most humans will expend a lot of time, energy and money trying to make sure the people they love don't suffer from avoidable pain and distress. And, Christ did the same. He suffered and died so that we didn't have to. Deliberately embracing suffering when we don't have to is an insult to Jesus. Worse still, it is stating that the suffering of Christ was not sufficient for our salvation.

Lent is a time of simplicity not a time of misery. We get rid of the clutter from our lives so that we concentrate our thoughts on that which Christ achieved for us. Any dwelling on our sins and our guilt should be done fully in the constant awareness that God has graciously forgiven us. Lent should be a time of contemplative joy not a painful time.

And it should not be a dull, static time either. Lent celebrated in the English, Anglican, Catholic tradition is not monotonous, it contains light and shade, it is dynamic. We switch between times of sadness and times of joy. For a start every Sunday in the Church year is a festival and we are not supposed to fast on festivals because festival means feast. And there's Mothering Sunday at the beginning of the fourth week of Lent when we celebrate motherhood, our families, our communities and new birth. We say thank you to our mothers for giving us life by giving to them symbols of new life, flowers, the first new birth of spring. Mothering Sunday is a little Easter in the middle of Lent.

And then, of course, there's today, Palm Sunday. A day on which the Church emerges itself into the bittersweet joy of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Bittersweet because, although we feel the happiness of the crowd that cheers Jesus, we know what that same crowd will demand to be done to Jesus in just a few days time.

However, Lent is not a season of isolated celebrations. It is also a season during which there is constant linear movement. During Lent we hear the story of Jesus' journey towards the climax of his ministry in Jerusalem. And we not only engage with this story we actually become actors in it. To some extent, in this Lenten journey, we are Jesus and Jesus is us. If you remember, the other week, we looked at how we all face our own Jerusalem at different times in our lives. But mainly we identify ourselves with Christ's disciples as they accompany their Lord towards and into Jerusalem. We identify with the disciples because they were as we are. Human beings capable of acts of great altruism and bravery but also capable of being fearful to the point of betraying that which they love most.

This year I have ditched the Passion reading from our Palm Sunday service so that we can concentrate on the events that should be celebrated today. The Passion should be comemorated on Good Friday and we have a service on that day during which the Passion will be read. The details are on the news sheet. As Common Worship has given in to modernity by celebrating Good Friday on the previous Sunday so that people don't have to go to church more than once a week, I had to go back to the Book of Common Prayer for a correct liturgical reading for today.

The reading in the Prayer Book is taken from the Gospel of Luke which is useful as the account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem is subtly different in Luke's gospel to the accounts in the other gospels, which gives us the opportunity to learn something from our reading that is not obvious in the other gospels. You see, there are two things missing in Luke's account that most people would probably assume are in all the gospels. Firstly, there are no palms. In fact there are not even branches cut from trees. The only things that are placed in front of Jesus as he makes his way into Jerusalem are the cloaks off the disciples' backs. Secondly, the crowd that greets and cheers Jesus does not come out of Jerusalem to meet him. The cheering crowd in Luke's account is made up entirely of of Christ's disciples who had journeyed with him, at least some of the way. And bear in mind we are not talking about just the twelve disciples, we are talking about a much larger group of followers, men and women, that had become part of Christ's entourage during his ministry.

This restriction of the crowd to members of Christ's community only, makes the whole episode a lot more intimate and personal from our point of view. It makes the entry into Jerusalem an action of the people of the Church. It also emphasises the pilgrimage aspect of Lent - the journey that Christ and his disciples make at the end of his earthly ministry. A journey, that through our observance of Lent, we have become very much a part of. Our identification with the disciples places us in that crowd at the gates to Jerusalem, cheering our Lord and placing our coats on the ground in front of him.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this. By restricting the crowd at this point of the story to just the disciples, Luke places everyone who is not a disciple of Christ at some distance. The only outsiders mentioned by Luke at this point are some Pharisees who are shown, by the words they utter, to be definitely not followers of Christ. This emphasis on Christ's disciples at this point carries on in Luke's gospel into his Passion narrative. John, in his gospel, includes non-disciples in the crowd that greets Jesus and so he is able to subtlety shift a lot of blame for Christ's execution onto the general mass of people in Jerusalem. I think Luke wants to make the point that, although outsiders were part of Christ's story at the end of his life, they were involved more as onlookers and actors and maybe not even in control of the parts they play in the drama.

For Luke, it was Christ and his followers, the precursor of the Church, who were centre stage a place they would maintain throughout the rest of his gospel and which the disciples of Christ would continue to occupy into the Acts of the Apostles. I think Luke sees the story of Peter denying Christ before the cock crowed three times and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as being of far more importance in his account of Christ's Passion than the role played by Pilate and the people of Jerusalem. Luke wants his readers to identify with the disciples not with Pilate and the Roman soldiers and, if we accept that we are one with the disciples in the narrative at Christ's entry into Jerusalem, we will remain one with disciples throughout the rest of the story and view the action through the eyes of the disciples, not through the eyes of the crowd.

The downside then is that we become identified with the disciples who fled when things got too hot for them, with Peter who denied his Lord and even with Judas who betrayed his friend.

So, by celebrating Palm Sunday correctly and not ignoring it just so that we can celebrate Good Friday at our convenience, we place ourselves alongside Jesus as he journeys towards his destiny on Calvary Hill. And, if we are to understand why we are Christians, we have to make that journey with him. We have to be with him as he ministers to the people of Jerusalem. We have to be with him at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane. We must stand by him at his trial and watch at the foot of the cross as he dies. We also have to betray him and deny him and run away in fear as the time of his brutal execution approaches. We have to endure all this so that we can know, not only what Christ endured, but also what his endurance meant, and still means, to his disciples, his people, his Church. Our pilgrimage must include Holy Week, it must include our identification with those weak, fearful disciples, so that, on Easter morning, we know in our hearts, not only that we are raised with Christ but why we need to be raised with Christ. Because then, still as one with the disciples, we can move as they did out of fear and weakness towards their and our true vocation of proclaimers of Christ's gospel and builders of Christ's Church and God's kingdom on earth.