Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of an eight day period called Holy Week, which includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.

Although we separate it out into individual celebrations on different days, Christians tend to think of this all as one ongoing event - a single event with many parts. It is the most Holy time of the Christian year. It should be noted that Holy Week, like the week-long celebration of Passover, is shaped by reflecting on the Passover and Exodus event of the Hebrew people. So much so that Jesus is often referred to as the Paschal Lamb of the Pesach, the Passover, the blood of which saves the Hebrew people from the Angel of Death in Egypt. Jesus death on a Roman cross is believed to have been salvific for the whole world.

One Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem through one of its eight gates, The Golden Gate. According to Jewish tradition the Shekhinah or Divine Presence used to appear at this gate, and it was believed that the future messiah who would rescue Jerusalem from occupation by Rome would enter this gate. After 70ce, the gate, the Temple and all of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans quelling a rebellion of zealots.

It is interesting to note that the present gate may have been built in the 520s CE as part of Justinian’s re-building program, or perhaps in the 7th century by Byzantine artisans employed by the Umayyad khalifs. The Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed it in 1541, whether for defensive reasons or to prevent the messiah’s entrance into the city nobody will ever know.

In any event, Jesus chooses just this gate to enter to make a religious and political statement, and to begin his confrontation of the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem. Whether or not he was making a claim to be the messiah no one knows for sure, but it would be in people’s minds at the time that perhaps he was.

What unfolds, I believe, is a bit of political satire poking fun at the kinds of pomp and circumstance of the kind that the emperor and his functionary officials would demand whenever they entered a city in the empire. But instead of riding a mighty white steed, or the four-horse chariot of the emperor, we find Jesus on a donkey - similar to the one that brought his mother Mary, or Miriam, to Bethlehem back when he was born. A humble hard working beast of burden. The crowd, we can imagine, are the am ha’aretz, the People of the Land: farmers, fishermen, poor people, widows, orphans, and all those people who were walled out of cities and towns like Jerusalem as being unclean, but were the very people Jesus spent time with; the people he healed; the people he ate meals with; people who were without political or religious standing.

The am ha’aretz were in many ways like the dalits or untouchables in India. In America we simply call them street people, or homeless.

So this is the crowd shouting Hosanna as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. They are waving branches from trees and spreading them on the road. Since the most prevalent trees in Israel to this day are date palm trees, most likely these were branches of palm, thus the name Palm Sunday. It is believed by many that the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was a date palm tree. We can make of that what we will.

Some call this his triumphal entry, but in reality it begins a slowly unfolding but steady march to the scaffold that ends with crucifixion on a Roman cross - perhaps the cruelest of all punishments handed out by the Empire of Rome.

The people outside the Golden Gate are those people being crushed by the severe occupation of Rome, harsh taxation, and even discrimination by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who were on the payroll of the aristocracy and the Roman Empire. This was a desperate demonstration, one that all onlookers had to view as hopeless. And indeed, by Friday afternoon it would look just that - the mock prince who rode in on a donkey would be hanging dead on the cross. Little did anyone imagine the rest of the story - that one day his followers and their faith would take over the Empire. Jesus and the am ha’aretz literally changed the world with this tiny, non-violent demonstration of theirs.  

So I find Palm Sunday to be a time to meditate on just what sorts of small and hopeless gestures or demonstrations might we participate in to change the world. In June 1982 I took part in the largest demonstration ever to take place in New York City to call for an end to Nuclear Arms. Nearly a million people gathered in and around Central Park from all over the United States and around the world. Although we still live under the specter of Nuclear Holocaust, millions more were moved by this demonstration, and today we have people actively engaged in arms reduction treaties and agreements to begin to stop the manufacture of weapons grade radioactive materials.

As we reflect on this day, think of the people outside the gate to Jerusalem. Think of all those people today without hope and without resources, and no one to advocate on their behalf. And then think of one small gesture or activity or group you might work with to one day change the world. The change the people shouting Hosannah were hoping for did not come in their lifetimes, but the change did come. Each of us can be part of that change. Palm Sunday is a time to take this to heart and begin to think: what can I do to make the world a better place. Like the people outside the city of Jerusalem that Sunday morning long ago, you may set in motion a change that will indeed make the world a better and safer place for all people. Hosanna! Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord!


Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Poor You Always Have With You

“The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8

In a Palm Sunday Sermon (The Nation, April 19, 1980) Kurt Vonnegut once observed that “…being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by - and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. I t may be that music is the second good idea being born.”

He is commenting on John’s story about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with oil from the spikenard plant. The story ends with a much quoted line by Jesus - “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This often misunderstood response of Jesus to Judas has resulted in much un-Christian behavior. People think that Jesus is commenting on the poor. People say, “See, even Jesus admits the poor are a problem! We will never be rid of them.”  This then devolves into even worse statements like the poor are hopeless, lazy, drink too much, have too many children - the list of complaints is endless. Vonnegut, on the other hand, thinks it is meant to be a joke – a dark one at that – and a way of calling out Judas on his own hypocrisy.

In the text from John, it is the night before Palm Sunday when Jesus will enter Jerusalem in a brilliantly choreographed satire of the sorts of pomp and circumstance accorded to the Emperor and all high officials of the Roman empire. The result is his crucifixion on a Roman Cross.

He is visiting his close friends in Bethany, Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. He is having supper with them. His table companions are unusual: Judas who will betray him for 30 pieces of silver and who is already identified in the story as a thief who steals from the common purse, and Lazarus who was recently dead for four days. So dead that when Jesus ordered his tomb to be opened Martha exclaimed, “But there will be a stench!” Vonnegut suspects Lazarus to still be somewhat dazed and confused, not much of a conversationalist, and we never learn if he is grateful for being alive again. It can be a mixed blessing to be brought back from the dead.

Indeed, read a little further in the text and discover that there was a crowd outside wanting to see Lazarus so they could kill him. How dare he allow Jesus to bring him back to life! It ain’t natural. Kill them both! Vonnegut’s take on it: “Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”

Mary and Martha appear to be sympathetic and wanting to be helpful. Mary begins to massage Jesus’ feet and anoint them with perfumed ointment from the spikenard plant - a costly ointment we are told. Jesus is a man, with the blood, flesh and bones of a man, and has walked a long way from Nazareth to Bethany outside of Jerusalem - so we can assume this feels really good. Perhaps we might imagine Jesus closing his eyes and truly enjoying one last moment of peace and comfort before his march to the scaffold begins the next day.

It is obviously too much for the thief, traitor and hypocrite Judas. Evidently trying to be more catholic than the Pope he cries foul. “Hey- this is very un-Christian of you to be wasting this expensive nard on your feet when it could be sold and given to the poor.” Parenthetically, the text observes, “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and, as he had the money box, he used to take what was in it.”

So what Judas is really saying is, “Sell the ointment so the money can go into this box and I can then steal more of it!”

To which Jesus replies in Aramaic, translated into Koine Greek, then into Latin and eventually into ancient English something like, “You always have the poor with you, you do not always have me.”

Vonnegut contends that this is the joke, and that when one translates from Greek to Latin to old English jokes are the first thing to go!  If Jesus in fact said this, it is a kind of black humor that says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a kind of inside Christian joke which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him about his hypocrisy. “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I am gone.”

No doubt Jesus’ response is lost on Judas, as it has been on countless Christians ever since. But it is in the spirit of his pronouncements in the Sermon on the Mount which suggests a mercifulness that never wavers or fades. It says that every day in every way we have limitless opportunities to serve and help the poor in our midst, either directly or as advocates on their behalf. Just ask Dorothy Day, Phil and Daniel Berrigan, Elizabeth McCalister, Saint Francis of Assisi and countless other Christians who got the joke and the profound truth that lies within it.

For people like Judas this does not compute. For those of us who meditate on these words and these stories it can mean all the difference in the world for the world. Who knows if we will not turn out to be a part of the second good idea being born?

This is why it is so important to continue, as the Psalmist asserts, to sing to the Lord a new song. Then we will be like those who dream, our mouths full of laughter and our tongues with shouts of Joy as we join ourselves with the Love of God that surrounds us on all sides all the time. At the end of the day we are those people who know that we come from Love, return to Love, and Love is all around. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lent 3B - Exodus 20: 1-17 (The Ten Commandments)

Turn, Turn, Turn
I am not sure if it is the Neo-Platonism that crept into the early church, or the cult of individualism that accompanied the Reformation, but the Church and Christians seem to misconstrue a number of things about what I will call Biblical Religion. Thus we find ourselves conspiring with temptation, the Devil, evil, “the other side,” or whatever else we call it – aided of course by our free will or free choice. All of which may lead to some misunderstandings about Lent – which I will claim is a time of Shabbat/Sabbath and Repentance.

Shabbat, we may have noticed, is the longest of the original 10 Commandments, and together with the command against idolatry they make up approximately two-thirds of the entire passage in Exodus. I think that is meant to get our attention – idolatry is the one sin YHWH the God of Israel and Jesus is most concerned with, and Sabbath time, time off, is of utmost importance in being the people of God – or one might say, living into our being created imago Dei, in the image of God, a God who takes time out.

We might also notice that only one commandment is repeated twice: the tenth – “Thou shalt not covet…and [perhaps you did not hear me the first time] thou shalt not covet.” Such repetition in Biblical Hebrew and ancient rhetoric is another form of emphasis: pay attention, underlined, bolded and in italics!!! Desire, observed the Buddha some six hundred years before Jesus, is the root of all human suffering – call it what you will: desire, greed, consumption, envy – you can take your pick of the seven deadly sins. We want what we ain’t got = covetousness. Or, we refuse to dare to think we may in fact have enough of what we really need.  Covetousness leads to love of self over others, self-reliance, say the Hebrew Prophets also some six hundred years earlier than Jesus, and is why we end up in exile, even when we are at home under the military occupation of Rome. No wonder Jesus is so upset in John 2:13-22!

These three commands combine to keep us focused on the primary lessons gleaned from the 40 years in the wilderness, which were years of spiritual formation, and from Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which are cast as a return to where the important lessons are to be learned. We are mistaken if we see the wilderness as a bad place – whether the metaphor is about being literally in the Sinai wilderness, or enslaved in Egypt, or captive in Babylon, or enslaved to sins like idolatry and covetousness does not matter. The lessons learned in the wilderness are summarized in Deuteronomy as a choice: choose life, or choose death.  If we choose life it is to be a life in which we love God with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength (Deut 6), and to love our neighbor as our self (Lev 19).

So covetousness leads to idolatry of gods, things, people, even money and what not. We place some thing or things as more important than God. Note the fact that idols in the Bible are gods cast in silver and gold – that is, religion cast as money, or money cast as religion. (Psalm 115) We are so upfront about this in our culture that we actually name and tune-in weekly to a show called American Idol! God knows we need time, then, to turn away from our many idolatries.

Enter Shabbat – Shabbat is not a religious observance, but rather a political and economic declaration that we are no longer slaves working 24/7, 365 days of the year and 366 days in Leap Year. What Sabbath represents is a gift of God from God of a day – a day to turn away from all that distracts our attention the other six days of the week and to turn our attention, or literally re-turn, to God, family and neighbor. Biblical religion is community oriented – that is, it is not to be construed as just another self-help program to be worked on individually. The religion of the Bible, and therefore the religion of Jesus, is about the overall health of the whole community. And it is YHWH’s contention that once a week (at least!) we need to unplug, un-attach as the Buddha would say, and do something like the Tao Te Ching commands, wei wu wei  - doing -not -doing, which as I emphasize with my students who think that sounds just great, does not mean doing nothing. The phrase begins with “doing.” Lao T’zu, the author of the world’s second most published book next to the Bible, sees value in doing whatever it is one needs to do to re-connect with the Tao – which is as inscrutable as YHWH on top of Mount Sinai. “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” proclaims the Tao Te Ching.

What I am suggesting then is that Lent is a kind of 40-day Sabbath time to Repent – which in the Biblical Hebrew is represented by a word pronounced shuve – shuve means to turn, or to re-turn. It is as the Shaker Hymn popularized by Aaron Copeland puts it: we are to turn, turn ‘til we come down right.

We would do well to note that the Gospel of Mark begins with John the baptizer down at the River Jordan calling people to repent – to turn away from Rome, to turn away from covetousness and idolatry of all kinds, and to re-turn to God. We do even better to note that Jesus arrives at this communal act of repentance and joins in. This is how the story begins. It is a time to turn back to love of God and love of neighbor. Love of neighbor does not mean that you even have to like your neighbor. As the Bible defines it love of neighbor means to do something helpful or beneficial for others – all others, even the strangers sojourning in your land, or as the Bible likes to call them, “resident aliens.”

So Lent is a time to shake off all covetousness, all idolatries and all the temptations of the Devil that separate us from the love of God and love of neighbor. Which requires us to shuve – to turn, turn and return, which as the Shakers proclaim will be to our ultimate delight!

We are so addicted to so many temptations – coal, oil, motor cars, agro-business, markets, you name it – that we need to go back to Ash Wednesday’s liturgy and read and pray and re-pray the litany of all our multitude of sins that make life in the greater community so terribly compromised. We also need time out – Sabbath, wei wu wei, time for doing-not-doing, whatever shape that needs to take to un-attach our selves from our desires. For the Tao Te Ching that means things like endless wandering, creative quietude, or simply sitting in silence like the Quakers. The other side of wei wu wei, Sabbath time, is altruism, and altruism is also the other side of egoism, and egoism is the road-block to community and leads us into all those things we confessed on Ash Wednesday (BCP 267).

To begin this work I un-attach from talk-radio in car – 105.7 The Fan, and yes, NPR – and listen to nothing but classical music, beginning with the eleven symphonies of Mahler as I ride to and from work, on errands, etc. And this year I have been reading the poetry and essays of Wendell Berry who has a lot to say about our myriad addictions which damage not only our souls and our communities, but the very earth itself.

And finally, I like to begin with this adaptation of a song by the outstanding gospel singer, Dorothy Norwood, Shake the Devil Off.

Shake, shake, shake, shake the devil off (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, shake the devil off

When he says forget about God, shake the devil off (3X)
In the Name of Jesus, shake the devil off
When you idolize, covet and desire, shake the devil off (3X)

Shuve, shuve, shuve, turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about

Love the Lord with all your heart and turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about
Love your neighbor as yourself and turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about