The Winter of our Discontent

Introduction to the Scripture lesson:

Before we read the scripture lesson this morning, let me explain briefly why we’re reading what we are.

This year I want to take the bull by the horns. The bull I want to take by the horns is the one that claims Lent is properly a season of self-sacrifice and deprivation in preparation for an event that we ought to feel guilty about: God killing his own son for our salvation.  I want to take that bull by the horns because this medieval notion is not the gospel.

Yes, there were intimations in some of the later writings that God demanded human sacrifice in Jesus.  But the preponderance of evidence, and our own experience of the character of God suggests otherwise.

So for each of the 6 Sundays in Lent, we will focus on the final week of Jesus’ life to see if we can uncover a different Lenten experience, namely the experience of God who so loved the world that he placed Jesus in our midst that we might have his confidence in God’s loving purpose for us.I’m tired of the violence implied at the heart of Holy Week by the usual Lenten story.

Perhaps we can uncover something more constructive, more enduring, ultimately more inviting.  I think we can.

Mark 11:1-11

It was Palm Sunday but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Sam stayed home from church with a sitter. When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds. Sam asked them what they were for.

“People held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by,” his father told him.
“Wouldn’t you know it,” Sam fumed, “the one Sunday I miss church and Jesus shows up.”

It’s not Palm Sunday, and we’re not going to hold palm fronds over the heads of anyone today, but the question implied by Sam’s fuming is just the question we’re dealing with today: “Is Jesus gonna show up?”

When I first started thinking about dealing with Lent by walking through Holy Week one day at a time, I had no idea that we’d be watching in distress, videos of tsunamis wiping out whole towns in northern Japan.  And asking ourselves, as we inevitably do when a natural disaster strikes — Why?  Can anything be more sad?

I don’t want to trivialize Sam’s frustration by presuming that when we take it seriously we are thinking that Jesus should come and make things right with Japan.  But I do think that the tumultuous events of the past month pose an existential question.  If, during the events of the past month, the revolutions in Africa, the civil war in Libya, the bombing and straffing of nonviolent protesters in Bahrain, the eruption in Wisconsin, we do not presume that God intervenes, I think we do still pause to pray to God, sensing that this sadness is God’s sadness too.  Sensing that the way we honor the dead and show solidarity and support with and to those living in these places, is to not carry on with our usual, preoccupied self concerns, but to somehow extend ourselves so that we might be brother and sister one to the other.

II.

While the citizens of Jerusalem were not being bombed by the Romans, they had been living under the kind of oppression that many in the middle east have been living under  that led to the revolts.

I hove chosen to read Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem because it, more than Matthew’s or Luke’s or John’s reads like a protest march.

It is hard to read Mark accurately because we insert the details we have cherished since we first heard the story and waved the palm branches as a child. Matthew contributes the children to the story, John describes palms and not just “leafy branches,” and all of the gosples but Mark describe the festivities carrying on into the city streets.  But in Mark it’s stripped to a minimum.  Jesus goes from Bethany, a town just east of the Mount of Olives, to Jerusalem.  The march stops at the East Gate — the so called Horse Gate.  There Jesus walks alone into the city.  He enters the temple.  He looks around, and in the great anticlimatic moment of the Gospel of Mark, he leaves the temple, back through Horse Gate and back to Bethany.

But this is not to say that the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem is mundane. Jesus mysteriously commands the disciples to find the colt that has never been ridden. Gallons of ink has been spilled to interpret that moment.  And Mark describes large crowds making noise and chanting the text from Psalm 118 — Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In fact, it feels to me like Mark’s story of the first day of Holy Week is the bolder story, at least for us today.

I’d like to say why I think this is the case. It’s a story about why I show up for work.  And I hope it sheds some light on the reason you bother coming to church.

III.

When I graduated from High School, I graduated freed from a very comfortable and protective household and freed from the obligation I felt to attend church with the rest of my family.  For some time I attended enthusiastically.  But it wasn’t long before I was going through the motions.

Despite my professed non-theistic humanism, once in college, I began to help out a couple of good friends who had been leading worship at a small Unitarian Church in a nearby town to the college I was attending.  This was a small, small, small church.  We met every Sunday in a sanctuary about the size of our chapel and filled about 1/3 of it.  These were lovely, generous people.  And they looked like us.  And everyone of them told stories of despair.  Jobs lost, hearts broken, puppies dying, children being taken from them.  They were poor.  They were powerless. And they were beautiful.  We all fell in love with them.

As I reflect back on those Sunday mornings when we were given to preach or to lead a prayer or a song, I see how I grew more and more uncomfortable with the language of my church upbringing.  Prayers addressed to God the Father seemed offensive in the company of women who had been abused and who feared for their children’s safety in their presence of their father.  The creed which spoke of the God of power and might seemed offensive in the company of the mother of a 21 year old son in prison.  She’d had enough power and might.    The doctrine which suggested that Jesus was the only way to God, seemed silly in the light of the pluralistic setting that was Horton Unitarian Universalist Church on a Sunday morning.

I did not know it at the time,  but when I spoke of Jesus as my salvation or our salvation, or when I talked about his healing stories, I was beginning to see a different portrait of Jesus emerge.  Instead of a serenely divine Son of God, I saw Jesus struggling to set us free, even from himself, and from the messianic expectations we had for him.  I saw Jesus warning his followers away from the ever so tempting precipice of institutionalization and the cloaking of human desire for power in his ministry.

The entry into Jerusalem, as it was described by Mark, was a protest march to the gates of a city of power and might.  Jesus rode a donkey consistently with his vision of freedom.  He road a donkey to lampoon the idea of Zecharaiah 9:9 that what the world needed was another figure on a horse battling their enemies.  Emperors road on horses through the Eastern Gate.  Jesus walked in sandals, unaccompanied by a display of power or might or backing.

III.

It was with a great deal of despair that I accompanied our confirmation class to worship at the Islamic Society in Colchester last Friday.  In class the night before, we had spent some time talking about Islamophobia and the most current incarnation of it in the hearings held that day in the senate.  If you did not hear about it, it would be no surprise, for it seemed to be conducted on the hush.  It took some bit of digging to find news articles for the class to read.  Basically the hearings were conducted by the chair of the board for Homeland Security to inquire into the “radicalization of American Muslims.”  There was no equivalent inquiry, nor are their plans for one, into the radicalization of American Christians.  There were two muslims heard from during the day, both of them aghast at what they perceived as a witch hunt and the normalization of islamophobia in American culture.

The openings words of the lay preacher on Friday afternoon were words of anger mixed with sadness.

He moved immediately to a text in the Koran that recognizes and calls all Muslims to recognize that we need not think alike in order to love alike.   My heart thrilled.  Kneeling with that group of men in the mosque that afternoon, I heard the words of my tradition, and the kind of protest I hear Jesus calling me to live.

I believe that there is no higher religion than the religion of Jesus who dealt with the social problems which oppressed his kin by finding in love the power to be free.  In those moments,  I saw Jesus riding up to the great Horse gate on his donkey.  I saw crowds of anxious people who saw in him, not King David, but God; love victorious over fear; hope and life invincible no matter the powers arrayed against them.  I saw my friends, all scattered now, who worshipped a God of love and loved in return,  despite the terrible winter of discontent under which they lived in Horton, Michigan.

Here is Jesus.  Go and walk with him, for the path through Lent is a path of grace in the midst of the winter of our discontent.  Amen.

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