Confession time: In the run-up to my first Sunday at St. John’s, I was feeling pretty good. I had finished my sermon, I had begun to unpack my mountain of boxes, I had figured out where Wegman’s was–life looked great.
When I arrived at church on Sunday morning, I could not get my sermon to print (for complicated, uninteresting reasons having to do with the cloud). Could not do it.
“Huh.” I thought. “This may be interesting.”
So I wrote a page of notes on what I thought I had written, and preached on that.
Of course, several people came up to me later in great excitement, that I had preached entirely without notes! Such talent!
I am sorry to disappoint you, St. John’s, especially so early on in our relationship, but that was entirely unintentional. 🙂
Here’s what I said (or wanted to say, or meant to say, or something.)
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 25, 2018
Palm Sunday, Year B
Passion According to Mark
Hi, St. John’s! It is so good to finally see you all in person. It is so good to finally be here with you, and it is so very good to finally begin our journey together in ministry.
Now, I want to tell you up front—this sermon will not be about me—there will be plenty of time for that later, and goodness knows, I’m not all that interesting anyway. So if you came to church today expecting a break from the bipolar nature of Palm Sunday because the new rector was appearing—sorry, I can’t get you out of that one. As my liturgics professor said, the liturgy always wins. Don’t fight it.
I may still be trying to find all the light switches, but it’s still the first day in Holy Week, and Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph, by cheering crowds. He has asked the disciples to basically steal a donkey for him (which is pretty great, if you think about it. Not too often the Lord tells someone to swipe livestock) and he enters the city.
To the first hearers of the gospel, this would have sounded somewhat familiar. Jesus coming on a donkey being greeted like this would have sounded like the messianic prophecies from Micah and the other Hebrew scripture prophets—where the true king arrives in quiet fashion, not in a military parade with troops and arms, but by himself, accompanied only by the flimsiest of weapons—some palm leaves. Not imposing at all. To them, it would have sounded like Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to be the true king, the true leader—one so beloved by the people he didn’t need the military might that Rome’s occupation depended on.
But then something happens. It’s not clear precisely what—but somehow the authorities of Jerusalem become alarmed at this unassuming rabbi. The temple leaders, already anxious about their own tenuous hold on power, see in Jesus someone who could sway the people’s loyalty, and Rome sees yet another upstart traitor to the emperor. So, in they come with their own story, and their own crowd to challenge the story Jesus tells: “This is not a king,” they say. “A king has power, and might, and rules in triumph. We have no king but Caesar.”
It’s easy to assume that the crowd that greets Jesus upon his entry to Jerusalem is the same crowd that condemns him at his trial—that’s the way we’ve told the story for many years—sort of the way we tell the Christmas story with wise men showing up with shepherds. But there’s nothing in the text that suggests that’s the case. In fact, they were probably two entirely different groups of people. The crowd that greeted Jesus when he entered was probably his followers—Jewish folks from all over Galilee and Judea coming in for the festival. But at the trial before Pilate, remember that Rome feared a Jewish uprising above all things (because they happened about every twenty minutes) so the likelihood that Pilate would have allowed a group of random Galileans into his fortress to watch a trail seems….small. This crowd is probably a small, vetted group of Roman-friendly authorities. No wonder they seem so fond of Caesar all of a sudden!
So there are two crowds in this story, each with their own view of who Jesus is, and with their own view of what should happen to him. Two crowds, two versions of the story. Jesus is either the true King of Israel or a threat to Rome. He is either the messiah, or a dangerous blasphemer. And it all depends on whose story you listen to—which crowd you join.
That’s the thing about stories. As humans, we make meaning by telling stories, and particularly as people of faith, we find our relationship with God tracked through the stories of the scriptures. And yet, the brilliant thing about stories is also what makes them tricky—they are never unequivocal. They contain multitudes, they never give you just one answer—and so it is up to us to tell them wisely and for good purpose.
For example, the passion story. For us, it is our most beloved story. It is the record of Jesus Christ’s last days on earth, his suffering and death. The culmination of his earthly life, and his glorification and death at the hands of an oppressive empire. We see in this story the record of a God who loved us so much that he became one of us and endured some of the worst we could do to each other to prove that nothing could separate us from God’s presence and love. And so this story is uniquely powerful and moving.
Yet, for many, many years, beginning in the Middle Ages, this story of the Passion was told as a way to stir up anger and hatred towards our Jewish brothers and sisters. Preachers in medieval Europe would hold passion plays, rife with anti-semitic stereotypes, and then send the furious crowd out to commit violence against the local Jewish population. This story, so precious to us, was also the flashpoint for some heinous crimes. This story which speaks to us of life and love so amazing speaks to others of pain and suffering.
Yet, we know that this history of misuse does not mean that the story of Christ’s passion is-itself-bad. Only that it has been abused. That there were times when we, in our brokenness, have told the wrong story.
We joined the wrong crowd.
That choice is always before us, whenever we recount the stories of our faith, the stories of our relationship with the Divine. Are we telling the stories in such a way as to give life or to repress it? Are we telling our stories to reflect the truth we know about God? To accurately reflect the God that loves us and loves the whole world so much as to come to be one of us? Because that is the story that needs to be told. That is the story that is so powerful. Right now, so many other stories are flying around out there—stories of hatred and division and oppression. Stories that use the Christ we love as an excuse for bias and discrimination and persecution. So we have to tell our story, and we have to tell it well. Because when we tell it, that is the story that gives life to the world. That is the story sets it alight.
So let’s tell it together.