Killer Sermon


Okay, I’ve been absent for a bit. There have been some family health crises that wanted watching. And I’ve noticed, now that I’m employed by the church, Lent is rather a busy time – not, as I was used to as a layperson, a time to slow and be introspective. And now it’s Holy Week, and I’m thinking to myself, Well, Shit.

But I did need to put this up here, because my mentor so rocks the house, oh yes he does.

This is the culmination of a series of sermons thru lent, all about Re-inventing Christianity. If that idea intrugues you, please to check out his blog.

But here, my friends, is his Palm Sunday Sermon. I swear, I felt like Harry Potter wanting to form Dumbledore’s Army afterwards. It was long, but I think the message of it was the best I’ve heard yet, and he’s a damn fine preacher.

Palm Sunday 2007: Who Killed Jesus & Why

If, as the story is told in its four Gospel versions, Jesus had entered Jerusalem as a Prophet-King riding a donkey surrounded by thousands cheering him on, and in so doing calling for a return to Jewish sovereignty over Judah and the expulsion of the Roman legions…If he had done that as the various stories describe, or as our Palm Sunday liturgies re-enact…If he had…he would have been arrested on the spot. Then he would have been killed and that would have been that.

If Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem actually happened the way the stories describe we would have no Holy Week events like the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, or the riot in the Temple and turning over of the money-changer’s tables…

If he had entered Jerusalem with such a big public display of popular support then the whole thing would have played out right then and there and we would have almost none of our worship traditions that we have been re-enacting for the last 2000 years.

The Gospels, like the Bible itself, contain some historical events but they are not history…not history in the way we think of it today. They are not eyewitness accounts. They hold deep and abiding wisdom delivered on the wings of story but they are not fact-based news reports. I’ll be honest with you, we have no idea how it actually happened – Jesus’ first day in Jerusalem – but that story we told at the beginning of the worship today is more plausible than the versions from Luke, Mark, Matthew and John.

But being plausible does not make it factual. The facts simply are not available to us and we need to acknowledge that fact so that we can move on and finally hear and grasp the truth imbedded in this story. It’s not about palms or triumph.

We do know, for a fact, that Pontus Pilate was ruthless in the way he wielded Roman power. He was so ruthless, in fact, that his brutality finally instigated a rebellion and he was recalled in disgrace to Rome.

We do know, for a fact, that crucifixion was not just capital punishment – the 1st century equivalent of the Electric Chair or the Lethal Injection Gurney. It was a weapon of State Terrorism. The Romans once performed a mass crucifixion that lined both sides of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – some 20 miles of crucified bodies of those who dared to attempt an insurrection. Every crucifixion was a warning to any would-be insurrectionist that rebellion against the Roman occupation meant a torturous death.

We do know, for a fact, that contrary to popular art and every crucifix you have ever seen, that victims were executed completely naked to further the humiliation. Most of the crucifixes we see in churches today do not even depict any armpit hair!

Those are the facts – the historical ones we have some certainty about. After that it gets pretty dicey. Our stories about Jesus, the four Gospels, were edited 40, 50 even 70 years after his execution by people who never knew him. Why would they tell stories that seem so implausible and contain so many self-contradicting details? Because they were not reporting the news they were trying to make sense of his death through their ancient stories, and to tell their own story in the caste of those ancient stories.

They were trying to make sense of an event that simply did not make sense to them – just like we are. Here was their conundrum. Jesus, a prophet who was popular Galilee because of his reputation as an exorcist and healer, takes his show on the road to the urban center of Jerusalem. But instead of meeting with popular approval he is executed by the Roman forces of occupation as an insurrectionist. So Jesus is proclaimed by some as God’s own Messiah for Israel but then squashed like a bug on the windshield of the Space Shuttle.

Messiah’s do not get killed by invaders and ogres like the empire that was occupying their land, so if Jesus was the Messiah how could he have been executed? This is the historical circumstance that those Gospel-editors had to make sense of for their own generation. The problem for our generation is that their explanation does not make sense to us. If we take their explanation at face value, then we have to accept the idea of God manipulating the forces of history so that His only son suffers one of the most ignoble and painful deaths ever devised in the long history of human evil just so that God can then forgive all the sinister and trifling sins of human beings in the future. All this happened then, so that we can rest easy about our eternal Afterlife.

Perhaps that seems credible to you but there are many Christians in 2007 for which it does not make sense. To encounter the truths embedded in this Palm Sunday story – or any of the Gospel stories for that matter – we really need to understand the bigger stories that framed the Palm Sunday story for those first generations of Jesus-followers.

This story as it was told by those first Christians had a certain logic to it because the story-tellers and their audience were intimately connected to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Remember them? Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac but at the last minute God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice in the place of Isaac.

There was also another ancient story that created their sense of how God worked with Creation and it was the story of Noah and the Ark. Remember that one, in which one family was saved from a terrible God-inflicted flood that wiped out all other humans? Why would God do such a thing? In order to start all over again because human beings had made such a tangled mess of things.

Thought of in the context of those stories of sacrifice and God’s persistent efforts to help the hairless creatures that were made in God’s own image, then Jesus dying for our sins might makes more sense. You see? If we knew these stories and they were the stories that framed our world then God sacrificing his only son on a Roman cross might makes sense and even seem compelling.

In other words, Jesus’ untimely and surprising demise was God’s sacrifice to once again, and once and for all, make things right on Earth in the same way that the stories of Abraham and Noah were suppose to make things right.

But you and I know that things have not been made right – not then and not now. AND the idea that Jesus was killed as a human sacrifice for our sins does not makes sense in the light of all the wisdom we can mine from Jesus’ teachings.
The thing is story is still the key to understanding Palm Sunday.

We do not have the facts to tell us how this whole thing makes sense. We will never have those facts and in this case James Cameron cannot find the body of a Titanic that will bring those facts back to us.

So let me try a different story, a small one we bring back from El Salvador that I believe places Palm Sunday into its most meaningful context. If you have not been around for a few weeks or are visiting for the first time today, a medical team from Trinity worked with a Salvadoran organization to offer clinics in four rural communities this past week.

At one of those villages we met a young woman with Stage One uterine cancer and with no hope of treatment available to her. She had been to the Pubic hospital that made the diagnosis but she would have to wait three or four months for treatment from that hospital, and even then it was not a sure bet that she would receive care. A Private hospital could offer her timely treatment but she had no money or insurance to pay for it.

From the medical report she had been given by the hospital it was clear that under the circumstances it was a death diagnosis. Had the cards dealt her a birth in Buffalo instead of rural El Salvador she could receive treatment that might likely extend her life with good quality but as it is, she will die young.

One of our translators called for Gloria, a Salvadoran public health worker who specializes in women’s health and reproductive rights. “I can’t tell her” our translator told Gloria. “This woman does not understand her diagnosis, she doesn’t know it’s terminal and I can’t tell her.” The translator was not a medical professional and the attending physician didn’t speak Spanish so in desperation the translator told Gloria, “You tell her.”

In the pick up truck on the way home the next afternoon Gloria told me the story because I had not been there. She told it to me in that tone of story-telling that says, “This is an old story.” She described it with the matter-of-fact face of a 60 year old hardened professional who has been working on the front lines. But at 29, Gloria’s slightly moist eyes pooled in the corners and betrayed the torrent running below the surface.

Watching Gloria tell this story about how she gave a terminal diagnosis, reminded me of a story about Jesus – the one with him sitting on the pinnacle of Et Tur (the Mount of Olives) the night before his arrest. Jesus and his friends were on the hill overlooking Jerusalem and admiring the beauty and magnificence of the buildings. They marveled at the grasp toward greatness by human architecture and engineering, but then they began remembering all of the times in Israel’s history that the preaching of prophets like them had failed to convince the rulers to put an end to their practices of injustice and violence – especially against the poor.

Then they thought about all of their friends who had died on the cross or from other Roman brutality. They were hardened, Jesus and his friends, like Gloria and others who live with those that receive death diagnosis’ in the midst of poverty. They were hardened by a life-time of struggle, and years of public preaching and ministry to thousands of painfully impoverished and ill people.

Jesus and his friends were tough and angry, and they had learned to live with the chronic cancer of sadness isolated to a single tumor deep inside that all People of Struggle live with.

And yet…and yet, there that sadness was speaking silently from Jesus’ eyes. Like Gloria’s, the story tells us, Jesus’ eyes were misting over, welling up and draining down his cheeks. Above Jerusalem that day before he entered, the song of sadness leaked out from underneath that flat voice and the expressionless face that seeks to hide our pain in those moments.

“And Jesus wept” it says. He wept as he lamented over the city of Jerusalem and the tears sang their melancholy song that yearns for the world to be different than it is. “You tell them” he might have said to Peter or Mary or someone else standing there. “You tell them about the death sentence that faces them. Even those beautiful stones of the Temple will be torn down.” Prophets are like that you know, they do not relish telling people what they see or what they know.

So here is the punch line to all these stories, including the Palm Sunday story.

Jesus and those with him were like Gloria and the woman with Stage One cancer. They were poor and living at the margins of an empire. Even among the ruling class of their own people they were despised, neglected and anonymous, which is as true for Gloria and the woman as for Jesus and his friends. If the poor were so easily hated by their own Ruling Class imagine how the occupying forces of the empire saw them: as something unpleasant they had stepped in.

But there are important characters in this story that have not yet been noticed. Those who governed and managed the empire at home in Rome. Surely they never even thought about the existence of those at the margins of their empire unless there was civil unrest that disrupted the flow of the economy and drove up the price of gas…or whatever. It is the same way with us.

Gloria and the woman with Stage One cancer are Jesus and the followers of Jesus in the Palm Sunday story, while you and I are the citizens of Rome whose Pontus Pilate’s do our business for us and allow us to live in blissful ignorance. Jesus is alive and living all over the world at the margins of our economic empire and even here within it – even across the street and down the block.

Just as the citizen’s of Rome’s empire feasted from the spoils of its colonies so of course do we when our underwear and Kleenex and laptops are made in sweatshops that keep our prices down with poor wages.

Now please, I do not say such things to engender guilt because guilt is the most useless and counter-productive of emotions. Nor do I bring it up to make anyone angry, as if to call our baby ugly. I mention it today because that is our story and Palm Sunday confronts us with it. The question for us is not how do we become something that we are not – suddenly unload all we own and unlearn all the privilege and benefits we have been given.

The question for us is, how do we join the People of Struggle and get better and more effective at steering the ship of state in another direction? The question for us is, as we read the Palm Sunday story and remember the execution of Jesus, is to avoid thinking of it as spiritual suffering or trivialize it as about spiritual repentance for our little personal sins.

Our Christian story is about the transformation of human society and our part in it as agents of God’s love. Who killed Jesus and why? The Roman authorities killed Jesus because, for whatever reason, they saw him as a threat to their continued domination in that time and place. And that has happened countless times in the history of the human community whenever the agents of God’s love appear with power and organize for change.

But this story of ours makes us a Trojan Horse inside the belly of the beast that is capable of unleashing a torrent of change that can sweep across our moment in history and do something different this time. This time…it can be different.

But we have got to get moving because the poor are out there dropping like flies and so are those who work for them and advocate for them. For whatever reason, those who work for justice seem to threaten our empire, and they get put at risk. It can be different this time but you and I are the ones who have to make it different.

We do that with our money and how we use it. We do that with our words and influencing the people we know and those who are sent to represent us. We do that with our service and our hands and our prayers. We do it with our parenting and our teaching and our computers. We do it with our friends who haven’t woken up yet. We do it with our religion by telling our story as it is rather than how we wish it was. We do it with our lives, a little bit every day and then on some days, with a big chunk of our life.

Changing the world is not a secret recipe.

It is the accumulation of many small and even minute acts of love, advocacy and kindness, done over time and that finally reach the tipping point will cause what was once a ripple to be a tsunami. It takes thousands and millions of teeny tiny efforts, that finally reach that point of no return when the resistance is overwhelmed and God’s love is finally embodied more fully among us. That is our story and our part in it is very important and very specialized.

We are those Roman citizen’s who are never even mentioned in the Palm Sunday story but who are there between the lines and casting a shadow blocking the sun. We can make it a different story this time. You and I, we can make it different…this time.

So on this Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter, linger on how important you and I are in this story and how it is up to us, citizen’s of the empire, to make it different…this time.

Think about that woman with Stage One cancer and Gloria and Jesus and know they are one and the same. Think about them and know that they are counting on us to join them, the People of Struggle, to make it different…this time. Think about, and be encouraged and emboldened, by the fact that it is not all on your shoulders nor is there one solution that will all of a sudden make it better.

Rather, think about the accumulation of all your small acts of love that join in the confluence of millions of other small acts of love forming a river so mighty that no repressive levy or dam will long be able to hold it back. Think about these things this week as you go about doing what you can do to change the world. Amen.

-The Rev. R. Cameron Miller, Trinity Episcopal Church, Buffalo, NY

What say you, kind, intelligent people?

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