This past Palm Sunday, I preached the sermon below. It wasn’t based on anything, really, in particular–just my distaste of most atonement theories, reading Susannah Heschel, listening to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, and talking on Twitter about the annual rise in casual anti-Semitic preaching due to Holy Week.
And then, after church, in a break from routine, a group of young adults from St. Paul’s and I decided that we’d like to try this great Mexican place for brunch, so let’s brave the suburbs, and head to Overland Park.
So we sat there, eating tacos, and talking, and the food was fantastic. We tried to convince the waitress that they really needed to open a branch closer to the heart of town.
I swung by Target, and as I stood in line to check out, I pulled out my phone, and checked Twitter out of habit.
Only to discover that half an hour earlier, a man had opened fire in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, then driven a few blocks to the Village Shalom retirement community, and opened fire there, before being caught by police. Three people were dead. He shouted Nazi slogans as he was loaded into the police car.
I drove home, mind racing. Parishioners, faculty, staff, students at St. Paul’s–fortunately all were safe, but the Kansas City community is a close-knit one. Everyone knows someone who knows someone.
It’s hard to say anything profound about hate crimes. What can you say about hatred so blind and all-consuming that it would lead you to shoot into a crowd of people?
Just this: hate, hate isn’t insanity. It’s a sickness, but it’s different. And so, to stop this from happening again, we can’t just pass this guy off as one bad actor.
We have to take seriously our role as leaders in how what we say and preach is taken. Words have power. How we tell stories have power. We need to use our power for love.
Oh, and here’s that sermon.
April 13, 2014
Palm Sunday, Year A
Palm Sunday is a day on which we tell a story.
A true story, and an old story.
This is an old, and this is a familiar story.
There’s the friend who gets disillusioned, panicks and goes to the powerful to save
himself. There’s the trial, for show. There are the buzzword accusations that are so
vague as to be meaningless.
There’s the mob that cries for vengeance, the politicians who insist there’s only one way
to restore security to society, the powerful who can’t see anything beyond the risk to their
All of it adding up to the death of Jesus, murdered publicly and shamefully on a cross.
In that time and place, crucifixion wasn’t unique and it wasn’t special. It was how the
Roman government dealt with political criminals—people it wanted to make an example
of. If you dared threaten the power and control of the empire, then you were hung on a
cross, along with your entire family, as a warning to anyone else who would think of
rising against the might of Rome.
And so, in our story, it happened to Jesus. Jesus, who threatened the Roman Empire quite
a lot, actually, what with his becoming popular, drawing a crowd, and claiming titles
reserved for Caesar Augustus like “Son of God”, and messing with the temple hierarchy
which supported Rome financially with their taxes. Oh yes, Jesus bothered Rome quite a
Pilate’s nonchalance is a bit of an act here. This guy was known in his time for
ordering the most crucifixions of any other Roman governor to date. He was notorious,
he wasn’t known for being nice, and his sole job was to preserve the security of the
empire. So while the The Temple authorities didn’t like Jesus, but you can bet Rome and
Pilate hated him too.
Really, the surprise is not that he died, not that he was killed, but that he lasted as long as
And that’s the way this story goes, this familiar story.
And it’s not just familiar, Not just because we hear it every year,
but because we see it repeated all the time. All.
The. Time. We see it repeated all around us.
We see it all the time, the dynamic that reveals itself here.
The powerful are threatened,
the power structure is threatened, society starts to feel insecure, and so to save itself,
society searches for a scapegoat, and convinces itself that all of its problems, all its
insecurity must stem from this! Let’s blame this person, let’s blame this group of people.
All of this must be their fault, because we, of course, are blameless! And so, the
scapegoat must die. One man must die for the people.
We see this everywhere.
In the pages of history books. We see it in the images of genocides throughout history.
From our own past, we see it reflected in the faces of those who were lynched in this
We see it today, as leaders casually attribute all sorts of problems we face to different
minorities without blinking an eye. Remember, famously, Jerry Falwell claiming that
9/11 had been caused by the confluence of gay rights, feminists, and the availability of
abortion. And whichever politician it was, I forget now, who blamed one of the school
shootings on single mothers.
We see it all the time, all around us.
This is a familiar story.
But what God does with this story, on Palm Sunday is not familiar, because what God
does with this story is enter into it in a new way. God flips it, God changes it.
In the person of Jesus, God enters into this familiar narrative, and God tells us to stop.
God tells us that this way of coping with the world does not work. We can scapegoat all
we want, we can kill each other all we want–that won’t solve the problems of this world.
The only thing that will is everything that Jesus spent his life teaching– living a life of
justice and peace, and building the world to reflect that. In the person of Jesus, God enters this story, to get us to stop once and for all. But not as
the powerful, not as the one in charge, but as the one who is cast out, as the one who
suffers, and dies.
And yet, God raises him up. Because God’s love is not defeated by our injustice. God’s
love is not defeated by our violence, or our blindness, or our need to blame someone.
God’s love for us is not defeated by anything. Not by our sin, not even by death.
So remember that, as we enter the darkness of this coming week. Remember that, when
you contemplate the violence of this world, We have a God who experienced this all for
love of us.
And that divine love triumphs in the end.