April 14, 2019: Palm Sunday
The Gospel According to Luke
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
We entered Jerusalem on a tour bus. Having just come from Capernaum to the house of Peter’s Mother-in-Law where Jesus healed the dying woman with nothing more than a loving word and a soft touch. Hosanna! And then to the synagogue where Jesus himself preached on the sabbath. Again, Hosanna! From there to Tabgha where Jesus is said to have turned two fish and five loaves of bread into a feast for five thousand. Hosanna! And from there to the place where Jesus offered his beatitudes, the eloquent assurance to all on the margins that they are at the center of God’s heart. On to Jerusalem.
We got there late in the afternoon. The road was lined with protestors. Not an exceptionally unruly crowd, but then they were well chaperoned by a solid contingent of military peacekeepers. The protestors were shouting at the passing vehicles and thrusting their picket signs in the air. The message on the placards, mostly hand written in Hebrew was….loosely translated….Crucify them! They are an abomination! They violate God’s law! Crucify them!
The March for Pride and Tolerance was just getting underway in the center of the ancient city where old and new converge as though time has both stopped and insisted its forward march. This was the local gay pride event that has happened every year since 2002. But it has been an international media event since 2015 when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed to death 16- year-old Shira Banki and wounded six others as they peacefully walked for human dignity and the right for every child of God to simply be who they are created to be.
2015 was the second violent occurrence marring this event in Jerusalem. The first was exactly ten years earlier in 2005 when several marchers were also attacked with seething hatred and knives wielded in the name of God.
We heard this story as our bus shuffled through the conflicted city streets, increasingly crowded with hordes of humanity – kept in check by a path of police officers in green berets carrying oozies slung over their disconcertingly young shoulders.
The Parade was just beginning to gather steam. The entrance to our hotel had been cordoned off by the military. And so the bus parked on a side street and we were shuttled on foot with our luggage past the crowd control barriers into the back door of the Tryp Bat Shevah Hotel.
The Jerusalem Post estimated that there were 25,000 marchers and 2,500 military – intent on preventing any more violence and death at the hands of an angry mob.
We watched from the lobby of the hotel as thousands of marchers waving pride flags boldly swept through the city – a torrent of human dignity of all ages and abilities and complexions – with the message that love is more powerful than……anything. And that not even the memory of a violent death can stop the truth of love’s power from marching straight down the middle of the main street for all the world to see…..and embrace.
Four of our contingent of fifteen clergy, felt the pride of this parade in our own bones. We all felt that we belonged there, if I can speak for all of us. We each expressed our encouragement and hopefulness and our sheer joy. And yet, we could not help but feel the shadow of Palm Sunday in the air. The passionate mob in Jerusalem. It was palpable.
After we had checked in to our hotel, the four of us wrenched our way into the crowd and marched side by side with all manner of pride-full people- Jews and Palestinians alike, some wearing t-shirts that said, “God created me this way” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” An international glob of humanity connected only and forever by our insistence on the validity of love. What a concept! Not separated by land rights or national affiliation or even religious tradition. We were connected, Christians and Jews and Muslims and folks of no religious affiliation at all, by our faith in love alone.
And so the story continues. The Pride Parade in Jerusalem as a contemporary splinter from the branch of the story that we celebrate this morning. The story that teaches us that the freedom to love is not even close to free.
The fantastically tall tale of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on his own tour bus of a donkey to be met by a thick crowd of folks who first support and adore him and then turn on him so quickly that the celebratory palm fronds are still waving in their hands as they call for his execution. We might think that this story is too far- fetched to believe, were it not for the 2000 years it has been told by millions of good and intelligent people of sound mind and body, as the Gospel truth. But as far-fetched as it may sound, it still feels all too familiar to those of us who are paying attention to the world around us.
I think most of us can see and hear and feel ourselves in at least a part of this story that we have heard this morning. We recognize, we re-cognize, literally we re-know this story in our own lives. We re-know this story in the ways that this passion feels like our passion. For me, the Pride parade in Jerusalem. The ways in which we are betrayed and betray each other. The ways in which we are denied and deny each other. The ways in which we are sold and sometimes sell each other down the river or up onto the cross, to protect our own ….well, whatever it is that we fear losing more than we fear losing our own personal power, as the Jewish elite did with Jesus.
And too, the ways in which we are tended and tend each other in the hour of need….like the woman who anointed Jesus. The ways in which our crosses are borne, and in which we bear each other’s crosses when the weight is simply too devastatingly heavy to bear ourselves….like Simon of Cyrene. And the way we can count on a few companions to go the distance with us, like the few who can count on us in that same way….as the women who followed Jesus from Galilee and waited for him at the foot of the cross. I dare say each of us has walked in all of these shoes at one time or another. And so it is not hard for us to hear this story as familiar…in our very bones.
Each year, we hear the denouement of this story on Good Friday from a different Gospel perspective, a different angle on the broad Gospel message.
Last year, we heard Mark’s version which calls out our human vulnerability. Most of us can relate to Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ last words on the cross: “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me!?”
Mark invites us to relate to Jesus in the deepest suffering of our own being. This is Jesus giving us permission…you and me and all of humanity —in the depth of our own despair, in the dankest recesses of our most unmentionable pain, in the bowels of our darkest moment….to doubt. To feel abandoned. To question where God is in our lives. It is okay to feel for our own suffering. It is okay to wrestle with our own pain. It is okay to question where God is in our despair. Jesus did. Mark’s Passion story is abundantly pastoral – the greatest comfort that can be offered: because no matter how deep our suffering, we can be assured that our God has been there and felt that too. In Mark, Jesus’ final message is very much about his personal suffering.
But not in Luke. Luke’s last words on the cross are not pastoral, they are more…..political. And I mean political as in having to do with the realm of public affairs. That is, how we are in relationship to and with each other. As we have been hearing all year, Luke’s Gospel is the divine manual for love in action; how we are meant to treat each other when the rubber meets the road. And Luke’s passion narrative is true to that lens.
In the last words from the cross, Luke beckons us not to relate to Jesus’ anguish, but to realize the cold hard fact that the institutions of the day, the state and the religious elite and all of their explicit and complicit supporters have crucified an innocent man. Jesus says to us as he hangs on the cross: Father forgive them for they know not what they do. That is, they are executing a thoroughly innocent life. This is both the ultimate crime of humanity and the cost of a life lived according to love alone. I think Jesus’ innocence is the crux of Luke’s Passion Narrative.
In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus dies, the centurion says: this man truly was the Son of God. In Luke, after Jesus dies, the centurion says: this man truly was innocent. Even Pilate says that Jesus is innocent. Three times. He says to the crowd, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death.” If nothing else, everyone agrees that Jesus is an innocent man. And yet the crowd demands his demise.
It’s easy to pass right over this seemingly obvious detail. It is so front and center that it might be taken for granted. That Jesus was innocent. But I think it is at the heart of what Luke wants us to know about the caliber of love that Jesus has come to share and to demand in his disciples. And so it warrants some deeper consideration.
When we think of the innocent Jesus hanging on the cross, it is hard not to think about the families on the border whose only crime is that they seek a better life. It is hard not to think about the hundreds of thousands of captives (mostly men of color ) incarcerated for petty crimes that are grounded more often in their poverty than in their criminal character. It is hard not to think of the children in Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and Compton and Baltimore and Chicago and Dorchester and everywhere where our gun laws and our gun culture, not to mention our often underlying racism, permit the slaughter of children no less innocent than Jesus of Nazareth. And I have not even mentioned the wholesale slaughter of God’s innocent creation.
I think Luke calls us to make the connection between the execution of Jesus and the execution of equally innocent life in our own context. Holy Week seems the perfect time to ask whose innocent blood stains our own hands in this world in which we live?
Luke’s highlight of Jesus’ innocence is a double-edged sword. In one respect he asks us to check the blood on our own hands. And at the same time, he invites us to check the direction of our own feet.
Like Mark, Luke invites us to walk in Jesus’ shoes; to put ourselves in the shoes of our rejected, reviled, ready-to-accept the-cost-of-obedience-to-God rabbi who followed the commandment to love all ways, all the way to the cross. To be ready for the price that our discipleship may well exact. To be ready to be condemned and punished and even crucified without cause, as we say in the corporate vernacular.
It’s hard for people of privilege to get our arms around that. The notion that we might suffer without….wrong behavior. People on the margins are much more comfortable accepting that they might suffer without being at fault…..but then people on the margins have much more practice than do we.
Who among us here this morning could or would stand for even one minute before the Sanhedrin, with our lives at stake, and not demand that our innocence acquit us. Likewise, who among us could or would tolerate the injustices levied by our own systems of criminal so-called justice and immigration that are standard treatment for people of color and undocumented neighbors? But that is exactly what Luke calls us to do; exactly how Jesus calls us to follow. To love without any thought about the fairness with which we might be treated; without any retaliation whatsoever if and when our love puts us in harm’s way.
I wonder how long we would last with our own innocent lives on the line. And I wonder how many innocent lives are on our collective tab, just in the time we have been gathered here this morning? Even if the answer is only one, it is one too many. And we know this because the One whom we remember this morning confirms it for us with the gift of his life.
Father forgive them for they have no idea what they are doing.
That’s what Jesus said. That was then. But this is now. And now we do know what we are doing. We do know that we are complicit in the destruction of innocent lives. And we do know that someone apparently must be least and last in our temporal world.
And so we need to ask the question, why not us? Why must it always be someone else? Someone less innocent than we think ourselves to be.
And so as a community of faith, followers of Jesus, we are here to help each other keep that message front and center; to keep it real. To stand for and with each other; for and with all of our neighbors regardless of the cost, regardless of our own perception of our own innocence. Holy Week is a prime time to renew our commitment to God and to each other and to our own hearts.
Because in the end, as in the beginning, we are each and all God’s innocent beloved children. May this time between the bookends of Palm and Easter Sunday be our chance to begin again to act accordingly.
Welcome to Holy Week.