Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday, 2019

This one won't come around for three years, but I really wanted to get it out there. At best, I'm an Easter and Christmas Christian, so I went to church today. It was also a chance to catch up with a couple old friends.

Link to this week's text
Explanation of this series

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday, Last Sunday of Lent

The most important influence in my theological life has been Roger Lynn. I heard his Easter message in 1993 and it turned my head around on the meaning of the New Testament. In a way, that sermon was just doing what Paul did. He turned the cross, a symbol of torture and oppression, into a symbol of love and forgiveness and community. Roger also brought that message into the modern world and breathed new life into it. In 2016, I visited him in a small church where he is semi-retired and his message was just as powerful. He used the Luke passage from the liturgy of the Palms, and the Isaiah and Philipians passages from the liturgy of the passion.

He started by pointing out something that is easy to do, to see these stories as our memories of the stories handed down to us from Sunday School or TV specials. In those, Palm Sunday is a big parade and celebration and everyone is singing “Hosanna in the highest” as the King arrives. But we read the words in the Bible and it doesn't sound so ostentatious.

This story has palm fronds, and as far as I know, the history of why they were used is sketchy. It also has a donkey, not a great stallion. This symbolizes the opposite of self-aggrandizement. Instead of setting up shop and having others bring people to see his miracles, Jesus sends his disciples out to heal. He's saying we just need to open ourselves up to what we all already know. We don't need a big stick to prove we are powerful.

If we look into the historical context, we know that the people who would have been part of the community that is depicted in this story would have been people with no opportunities, no security about where their next meal was coming from. The people who owned the vineyards were not providing jobs, they were using the banking systems to confiscate more land from those who could barely make it to selling the next bushel. The people in this story are not middle class folks going to an Easter parade, they are protesters, staging a demonstration.

The other thing the TV shows depict is a world where no one has thought of these ideas of working together to build a just and peaceful world. However, in the Isaiah passage for today, we hear about turning the other cheek. The message of the New Testament is not unique in history. This is why it says if people were silenced, the stones themselves would talk. The message is that this is the nature of things.

Roger and I parted company a bit at this point. He differentiated people from stones and eventually led to the conclusion that we “need more Jesus”. That may not mean anything to you, but remember we are looking in to what it means to have stones sing Hosanna. If that can have meaning, then “more Jesus” can too.

We came from minerals and we return to dust, but that is not an end. We are not just our component parts. We are born of love and survive because we are loved. We endure the pain of child birth and the risk of raising children because we don't see ourselves as simply existing. We know there were many who came before us who made this a better place and we want to build on that foundation.

We want this even if we see the reality of pain all around us and see more people bent on destruction than working on creation. Even the feeling of loneliness tells us that we desire others, and from that feeling we infer that others desire us. If all of the beautiful poetry and music that speaks of friendship and togetherness were destroyed, we would still know this. If we were prisoners being beaten to work all day and barely given enough to eat or time to rest, we would still know this. We know that people who have endured such suffering did not give up hope. Some did, but not all.

Children do not intuitively know to hate people with different color skin or different abilities or different clothes or according to how much stuff they own. That has to be taught. Love on the other hand, comes completely naturally.

If you only look at the biology and theories of how we evolved into animals that have the ability to reflect on the past and consider the future, you miss part of the story, whether it is this Biblical story or the story from science. Even if you accept the theory that we are completely lacking free-will, that everything we do is a product of some chemical reaction, that does not lead to the conclusion that you should stop thinking and stop planning. Those chemical reactions are giving you the desires that call you to a brighter future. If you once thought there was some bearded man in the sky out there doing the calling, but now you think not, that doesn't change that the call is still coming in.

If you are someone who looks at all the facts, calculates the risks, and determines it is unlikely you will succeed, but then goes ahead and does it anyway, you have an evolutionary advantage over the one who is stopped by those calculations. Some people call overcoming the odds a miracle. If you understand probability, it's just overcoming the odds, but I kinda like giving it that another name.

According to probabilities, you don't really overcome the odds, it's just that some people make it and some don't. But if we knew exactly why some do and some don't, we wouldn't need probabilities, we would have certainty. Certainty is a good thing to have when you are thinking about jumping off from a high place. When you are a poor person speaking up against a powerful empire, expecting to be heard, we call that crazy, but fortunately, a few keep doing it. If you are living in a free society, where you can speak your mind with minimal consequences, it is because someone did that.

Philippians 2:5-11

In the Philipians passage, Roger said there is a feeling of it being a hymn, and it might have been, but was then incorporated into this letter. He said the Greeks had a sense of words forming from the essence of what was being said like the bouillon of a soup. I'll leave it up to you to look into that.

The feeling of it is included in the above. It draws on the symbolism we all know. That symbolism draws on Old Testament ideas of the messiah and from classic mythologies of dying and rising gods. I think this passage differentiates itself from those simple “corn gods”, the ones who arrived in spring, helped the crops grow, then died in the fall as a symbol of decay to be later reborn again. This is a son of a god that does not exploit his equality with his father god. A humble god who wants the poor to be fed and women to be recognized, who wants to see an end to war.

By the end of the passage, we've switched to him being exalted and bending our knees and confessing his glory, but I wonder how well that translation has held up. I wonder if we have lost the sense of the bouillon those words were simmered in. Certainly, in America, it seems we pay more heed to the one whose name is above every name and have forgotten that part about being a humble servant. People go to church to get to heaven, not to hear about the example set by the one who came from there. Well, some do, fortunately not all.

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