Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palms, Power, Pain, Betrayal, Prayer

Our service started this morning on the lawn outside our church, with guitars and palms and a short Palm Sunday reading.
Triumphal Entry, Emmanuel Nsama, Zambia 1969

It was a cold morning, hovering on the edge of snow. Our voices sounded thin in the cold air. The waving of palms was half-hearted and the hosannas were more like murmurs than the robust shouts the occasion called for. As I said, it was cold. And we’re Episcopalians– not much given to shouting.

Even so, there was something in the observance, and the readings that followed, that opened a window to something unexpected.

I’d been talking in the church atrium just before, over coffee and bagel, with a fellow parishioner who had asked what I thought of the presidential election. He mentioned the 2014 Charles Marsh biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, and for a few minutes we wondered together how the German church had found itself supporting Adolph Hitler, why there were so few who joined Bonhoeffer in determined resistance.

Standing in the cold with a palm in my hand, I glimpsed, for just a moment, that emotion on the streets of Jerusalem, the cry of support for someone coming in power to smash the enemy and set things right.

It’s the same emotion that welcomed the Israelite kings, that cried out in praise of Caesar, that echoed through the Nuremburg parade grounds when Hitler held his rallies.

We all struggle with the voices inside us; we’re susceptible to that inner cry that wants to affix blame for the things that have gone wrong, that wants someone strong to come and take our side.

Demagogues, by definition, gain power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people. They promise to use that power to trample opponents and make life better for the people who support them.

And if we are the chosen ones, and they are the enemy, what’s to stop us from crying Hurrah! Hosanna! Heil!

Our service this morning led us back into church, where we followed the readings of Holy Week: the Passover meal in the upper room, the agonized prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ trial and beatings, Peter’s betrayal.

I’ve never understood Judas’ motivation: why sell out someone he’d followed for three years?

Yet this morning, listening to the familiar words, I suddenly felt Judas’ anger, his outrage, his own sense of betrayal: the one who was supposed to seize power and smash the Roman conquerors was kneeling to wash his followers’ feet. How dare he! As if Donald Trump, on Election Day, called time-out to make lunch for his campaign staff and quietly explained that he had no intention of winning. What a wasted opportunity!

Judas’ betrayal, I believe, was prompted by his own sense of betrayal, his anger that the story he envisioned was going wrong, that Jesus refused to grasp power and spoke of pain instead.

Peter’s betrayal was more from confusion, when he grabbed his sword and sliced at a soldier’s ear, and then from both confusion and fear, when he said, with mounting panic: “I don’t know him! I DON’T KNOW HIM!”

In one sense, he was right. He didn’t know him. Didn’t understand that Jesus would be the one to conquer power by choosing his own great pain instead.

The brief sermon this morning focused on the need to stay present in the story of Christ’s passion: to not rush to resurrection, to not run past the reality of Christ’s death on the cross.

We would all like to think the world is a mess because of those people over there. Immigrants, unions, Republicans, Obama. Refugees. Muslims. Terrorists. Christians!

We’d like them smashed, fixed, changed.


Whoever they are.

Whatever they’ve done.

But Jesus invites us to see our own complicity in the pain of the world.

Our own brokenness.

Our own sin.

Our own selfish refusal to listen or love.

And then he offers to take the consequence himself. To gather to himself our own death, our own darkness, our own outraged, outrageous anger.

That makes us angrier still.

How dare he.

In 1933, just days after Hitler's long-sought appointment as chancellor, Bonhoeffer preached a courageous sermon on Gideon and the inevitable attraction of power:
Gideon’s warriors must have been flabbergasted; they must have shuddered when he gave them the order to go home. The church is always astounded, and shudders, when it hears the voice of the One who commands it to renounce power and honor. To let go of all its calculations and let God alone do God’s work. We shake our heads and are scandalized as we watch many a Gideon among us going his way. But how can that confound us who see in the midst of our church the cross, which is the sign of powerlessness, dishonor, defenselessness, hopelessness, meaninglessness, and yet is also where we find divine power, honor, defense, hope, meaning, glory, life, victory. Do we now see the direct line from Gideon to the cross? Do we see that the name of this line, in a word, is “faith”?
Gideon conquers, the church conquers, we conquer, because faith alone conquers. But the victory belongs not to Gideon, the church, or ourselves, but to God. And God’s victory means our defeat, our humiliation. . . . It means the world and its shouting is silenced, that all our ideas and plans are frustrated; it means the cross. The cross over the world . . . .
The people approach the victorious Gideon with the final trial, the final temptation: “Be our lord, rule over us.” But Gideon has not forgotten his own history, nor the history of his people. . . . “The Lord will rule over you, and you shall have no other lord.” At this word, all the altars of gods and idols fall down, all worship of human beings and human self-idolization. They are all judged, condemned, cancelled out, crucified, and toppled into the dust before the One who alone is Lord. Beside us kneels Gideon, who was brought through fear and doubt to faith, before the altar of the one and only God, and with us Gideon prays, "Lord on the cross, be our only Lord. Amen.”
I listen to Christians explain why we should support Donald Trump and hear echoes of the cry for Gideon to gather his forces.

I listen to friends explain that Trump won’t win, we have nothing to fear, and think of the long years of German struggle, years of growing anger, of propaganda, of scapegoating, of longing for Germany to be great again, of feeding that voice that cries ‘let’s get rid of those who are causing the problem! We need someone strong who will make things right again!”

When we feel betrayed we are most at risk of betraying the one who invites us to the cross.
Christ's Crucifixion,  Master of
 Vyšší Brod, Bohemia, ca 1630

He invites us to set down our plans. Our swords.

Our rights. Our guns.

Our longing for privilege and power.

Our fear that the world we know and love has been ruined by forces we can't control.

Invites us to kneel with Gideon.

With Bonhoeffer.

With Peter, once he came to his senses.

Invites us to embrace the pain of betrayal.

Invites us to love our betrayers.

Invites us to kneel and pray:

Lord on the cross, be our only Lord. Amen.

An earlier Palm Sunday post: The Call of the Cross, April 1, 2012
For more about the cross and its significance: Thank You for the Cross