What does it mean to Live?

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
Palm Sunday, 2015
Mark 11:1-11

What does it mean to live?

That was one of the many, many insightful questions from last week’s sermon seminar, a practice of this congregation that I have come to love.

Last Sunday I argued that our salvation derives less from the death of Jesus and more from his life. If this is true, then what does it mean for him – and for us – to live?

It is the right question for this Palm Sunday, when our opening prayer asks God to help us “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby you have given us life”

So what are those mighty acts of life?

We could turn, of course, to the passion and death of Jesus — the final moments of his life, the completion of God’s en-fleshed revelation. But we will have more time to hear and struggle with those words in the coming days.

We can be so quick to turn our gaze to the cross that we miss the significance of the first mighty act, the first spectacle of salvation – the shouts of Hosanna, the so-called Triumphal Entry.

Look back with me again at the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11.

There are so many curious details. So many odd facts that we are prone to skip over – tuning them out – as we do with so much of the Bible.

We turn the page quickly on passages with confusing details –

Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Zephaniah, Zachariah, Nehemiah, and so much more … because these texts do not fit our shorthand version of Scripture, our simplified, and often simplistic telling of the story of God and God’s people.

The passion plays, the Christmas pageants, these neat, buttoned-up tales are not simply an insufficient statement of our faith. They are, quite often, a lie.

A lie of omission, for sure, but a lie no less; a mortal sin of theology, because they give us an atrophied version of our faith, a mockery of the good news. It is no wonder that so many of us struggle to believe, because the line we have been sold is not worthy of our devotion.

But if we will slow down and study, love God with our minds, read the Bible – and ask tough questions, we will find something more compelling. A faith for which we can, and should, give our lives.

And so what about this so-called Triumphal Entry? If we read the text closely, we will see it is neither triumphal, nor even an entry.

Jesus and his friends are on the Mount of Olives, a scrappy hilltop overlooking the Temple. Jesus sends his disciples for a colt, with the promise that he will bring it right back.

“Ah….Jesus needs to borrow it, just for a second” – you can imagine them stammering to a crowd giving them weird looks.

Jesus did not need this colt for any practical reason. The walk down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem’s temple mount would take you all of 10 minutes, tops.

And Jesus did not need the colt to ride through Jerusalem, in some kind of massive, messianic procession. Because – at least in Mark – he does not ride into Jerusalem at all.

If you read the text closely, you see that he enters Jerusalem after the crowds have stopped their Hosanna-shouting and palm-waving.   Then he looks around, checks out the temple, and heads back up the Mount of Olives, where this whole thing started.

It is a not-really-triumphal almost-entry into Jerusalem, at best.  So what really is going on here?

Jesus is staging a spectacle. An enactment of prophecy, a political statement, a bold challenge to the leaders of his day with a message – watch out, I’m here.

The inspiration for this spectacle is prophet Zechariah, who casts a vision for Jerusalem’s restoration at the end of the Babylonian exile.

Expecting the messiah to come soon, Zechariah offers this image in chapter 9: “See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt … and he shall speak peace to you, and his dominion shall be from sea to sea.”

And so we have Jesus, the new kind of Lord, not a warrior king, but the prince of peace, riding into town, as Zechariah predicted. But that’s the easy part.

Because all throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is telling his followers not to tell anyone else that he is the Messiah. Some scholars refer to this as the Messianic secret. So why come out now? Why step into the fray?

I have no idea. What was in the heart and mind of Jesus?

As another person in sermon seminar reminded me last week, it can be difficult to connect with Jesus, however human he may be.

Instead, we might look to the disciples, and the much more human crowds, to get a clue about faithfulness from there.

So let’s look at another curious detail – some spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the field. Had cut. Past perfect tense.

Why had they cut the branches already in the field? Just for fun? Or because Jesus had given them a heads up? We don’t know for sure.

But somehow, these crowds, the “many people” were prepared for this spectacle of salvation.

If you have not read it, I recommend to you a book by John Dominic Crossin and Marcus Borg called The Last Week. It is a fresh read on the final days of Jesus.

And one important point they make is this:
There was another Triumphal Entry that week in Jerusalem.

Each year, the Roman Governor would march from his seaside villa up to Jerusalem, to be on hand in case any riots broke out, as they often did during this volatile Passover feast. A Passover that recalls the Exodus from Egypt and brings with it hope for deliverance once again.

And so we have none other than Pontius Pilot himself, riding on a massive stallion, with the drumbeats and footsteps of the Roman legions inspiring fear in the crowds along their way.

But not only fear. Stirring deep in the soul of the crowds is a rebellious longing, a hope, a confidence that this oppressive regime, like Egypt, too, would have its end.

With his spectacle on the Mount of Olives, Jesus not only sets up a clash between two kingdoms – the kingdom of violence and the kingdom of peace; but he also re-activates the hope of his people … he energizes, with the very life of God, that Passover longing for freedom.

And this, my friends, is what it means to live.

In this donkey-ride outside the city, Jesus speaks to those on the margins, mobilizes the neglected, inspires the oppressed – those who had long-ago cut their palm branches, hoping against hope that someone would come to deliver them.

They needed, more than anything, to shout Hosanna – Literally, “God, save us!”

They needed, more than anything, to let loose their cry, to release their hope, to dare to dream again – to dream that life could be different – that the kingdom of God might rule this world, at last, that love and peace and joy and justice can reign. And they found in Jesus the embodiment of that hope, the messenger of life.

Today we, too, must shout Hosanna. For the good of our souls. For the good of the world.

However crazy and violent and Good-Friday-like this world may be, we cannot let our spirits be crushed. We cannot lose hope.

For this hope is the first mighty act of salvation.

That is what it means to live, and for this hope, we give everything.

Hosanna, in the highest heaven. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

For more on Palm Sunday: http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/07/holy-week-two-different-meanings/

When Things Go Wrong

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Washington, DC

Lent 5 2015
Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Hebrews 5:5-10 / John 12:20-33

Earlier this week, a friend added me to a brand new Facebook group: Wyoming Valley West High School, Class of 1996. In an instant, I was transported back in time to an era of really, really bad fashion – and was reconnected with people I hadn’t seen or heard from or even thought about in nearly twenty years.

The unpredictable path of human life had unfolded differently for each of us.

Bryan* still lives in our hometown of Plymouth; he’s the fire chief now.

Sarah is one of those rare people who actually became a marine biologist, studying mammals off the coast of California.

Many, many of my classmates are married; with many, many cute babies.

And then, in a wonderful turn of fate that makes this previously un-cool nerd grin with guilty pleasure, all but one of the previously-cocky football jocks are looking a lot less buff than they used to.

But what struck me most in this Facebook group were the obituaries for classmates who had died.

Tiffany faced breast cancer, and then brain cancer. Sean was killed in a tragic accident. And for nearly a dozen men, most military veterans, depression, drug abuse, and suicide brought their lives to an end.

As a relatively healthy 37 year-old, I don’t think about death very often. I see most of my life still ahead of me – challenges to overcome, successes to achieve, friendships to nurture, a legacy to build, a world to enjoy, a church pension to collect … and so much more.

But what do we do when things go wrong?

…when life’s path doesn’t unfold as planned. When classmates offer prayers for your memory, instead of ooh-ing and ahh-ing over your cute toddler, or laughing at prom pics on Throwback Thursday (#tbt). What happens when things go wrong?

As we turn the corner on this last Sunday of Lent, we have a gloomy foreshadowing of the final days of the life of Jesus – when everything goes wrong, or right, depending on your perspective.

Over the centuries, we have been trained to think that the death and resurrection of Jesus, the passion and glory of one so-called Holy Week, is the most important part of the Christian story.

Washed in the blood, born again, saved by the sacrifice of the perfect lamb, the blameless victim, offered by the great high priest. We have been taught to see one act of Jesus, his suffering, death and miraculous resurrection, as the source of our salvation.

Theologians have concocted elaborate atonement theologies to explain why Jesus had to die – for us and for our salvation.

Penal substitutionary atonement – the perfect one taking on the punishment of the guilty.

Satisfaction of feudal duty – the perfect one offering infinite obedience to pay the sinner’s debts.

Over and over we have tried to show why God needed Jesus to die – to craft some convincing explanation for this tragic end to the life of the Son of God.

But what if this is the wrong question altogether?

Instead of asking why God needed Jesus to die, what if we asked why God wanted Jesus to live.

But first, we turn to the prophet Jeremiah –

He was, by all accounts, a miserable failure as a prophet. Despite his dire warnings, predictions of doom and miscellaneous antics, Jeremiah was not able to get God’s chosen people to change their ways

God’s chosen people – and their leaders in particular – would not care for the poor, the orphan, the widow; would not show mercy to the marginalized and oppressed; would not prioritize the justice of God over their own security and pleasure … and while they thought they were living large and in charge, the seeds of their undoing had been sown.

And then, courtesy of an invading Babylonian empire, God’s people found themselves in shambles. Their temple destroyed, their nation, eradicated; their leading citizens in exile for what seemed like an eternity. The promises of God were nowhere to be found. And God seemed absent, too. Life for God’s people had become an un-mitigated disaster – just as Jeremiah predicted.

I wonder, what do you do when things go wrong?

Yesterday, my partner and I hopped into our little red Honda for the drive to DC from North Carolina. We were excited about a final day of apartment hunting, making the tough choice between two final contenders to be our DC home.

About halfway through the normally 3.5 hour drive, the highway started turning yellow on Google Maps – an accident on I-95, a bit outside DC. We kept going, in confident hope that it would clear up before we got that far.

We were wrong. After missing the one precious exit that could have taken us on a different route (my fault), we found ourselves stuck in the left lane in miles and miles of traffic that was not going anywhere – and neither were we.

Our 3.5 hour drive turned into an excruciating seven. We missed one of our apartment tour appointments and arrived very, very late to the other. We probably wasted an entire weekend that could have been spent in a more efficient, productive and/or fun way. And we will probably need to come back and do this whole saga over again.

On its face, this is a silly example of things going wrong. In the grand scheme of life, this is no big deal. A few hours late. A lost day. Some missed opportunities.

But perspective was not my strength while I was behind the wheel, and this ill-fated drive brought out in me raw feelings that I have not experienced in a very long time.

Penetrating guilt for one wrong choice. Brooding regret about things done and left undone – what if we had come down on Friday, what if I packed my bags the night before, what if we took the train – “should have’s” and “could have’s” and “would have’s” galore. Sadness about time lost and choices sacrificed. And pure, unadulterated rage at the impatient drivers whose dangerous shenanigans were making the already bad situation worse.

What do you do when things go wrong?

Dig in your heels? Give up and run away? Tear yourself apart in regret and guilt? Close your eyes in denial? Blame someone else? No need to raise your hands….

In today’s lessons, we catch a glimpse of God’s preferred approach to a colossal failure:

And it is this. To start again.

Wherever you are, whatever has happened … God is prepared to start again, from there.

Poor Jeremiah, probably voted least likely to succeed by his high school class – even he has one more word for his people.

Despite all the bad choices of Israel and Judah, God remained faithful and undeterred.   Despite the most disastrous outcome for a chosen nation, God had a word of good news: they are not abandoned, and out of exile will come a new beginning.

Jeremiah offers a “New Covenant” that does not depend on stone tablets or even prophets and teachers to show the way. This “New Covenant” will be within us. We will know God. The least and the greatest; the weak and the strong.

Rabbinic teachers have argued that Jeremiah’s new covenant is the Word of the Law itself, literally breathed into us – as an internalized Torah written on our hearts and minds. A covenant symbolized by the restoration of the chosen people to their promised land, courtesy of another invading empire.

We Christians, of course, have seen Jeremiah’s “New Covenant” in Jesus, the source of eternal salvation.

But how exactly does this new covenant work?

Here we are back to our first question for today: Instead of asking why God needed Jesus to die, what if we asked why God wanted Jesus to live.

God wanted Jesus to live, to show us what human life is really about. And here we find a different view of the atonement, another perspective on the final days of Jesus that lie ahead of us.

Our lessons today locate salvation not so much in the death of Jesus, nor even in his miraculous resurrection, but instead in the completion of his human life of faithfulness, even to the very end.

It is what the second century Bishop Irenaeus called recapitulation:

“Christ was in these last days … united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as he became a man liable to suffering … he commenced afresh [in Latin, seipso recapitulavit – he summed up in himself] the long line of human beings and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam – namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God – that we might recover in Christ Jesus.”

Or, to put it briefly, Jesus “became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.”

Eastern Orthodox theologians call this theosis, the process of becoming divine: where the new covenant written on our hearts and minds becomes the defining reality of our lives, as it was for Jesus.

And so when the world had again become a colossal failure, when everything had gone wrong, God took another step – to show us in Jesus what human life is supposed to be like. A human life infused with the power of God, but a true human life, no less –

Not a pristine, unblemished supermodel life, but an honest one, a real one – filled with joy and friendship and courage and commitment – confronting betrayal, and loneliness, and ridicule and fear … in the days of his flesh the writer of Hebrews says, Jesus offered loud cries and tears; and John’s Gospel tells us of his troubled soul.

This recapitulation is a massive do-over of humanity, a new path charted by a new forerunner of our faith, one whose faithfulness is greater than ours but who, in every other way is the same – the same humanity as us, the same flesh as us, the same image of God as us, the same new covenant dwelling deep within Him and us. The same seed of faith, ready to bear fruit.

As we turn this final corner of Lent, we face a gloomy foreshadowing that everything is starting to go wrong. How will we respond? Dig in our heels? Give up and run away? Tear ourselves apart in regret and guilt? Close our eyes in denial? The disciples will do all these things.

And yet, in the midst of it all, is a memory and a word. That just as before, there will be a new beginning. A seed that falls to the ground is not dead, but the start a new life.

And that life starts in the most unlikely of places. The humanity, the en-fleshed life of Jesus … the new covenant nestled in our own souls.

There is still much to say. There are still so many things that go wrong. Classmates whose lives are now a memory. Best-laid plans undone by a traffic jam. Wars and rumors of war. Poverty and neglect. Famine and disaster. Jeremiah would weep over us again.

But as the life of Jesus moves to completion, with it comes the promise of new life.

When things go wrong, God’s answer is to begin again.