Monday, March 21, 2016

Worship Like Green Wood: A Palm Sunday Sermon

There is a curious scene, unique to Luke’s account of the Passion Narrative, in which the crowd is following Jesus as he is escorted to the location of his execution.  Among the crowd, which by now has become a lynch mob, there are a few women who are beating their breasts and wailing.  These brave women publicly express their sympathy for Jesus right in the middle of the blood-thirsty crowd.  The contrast between their compassion and the crowd’s blood lust is striking.

In response to their display of grief, Jesus counsels the women to weep for themselves and their children, prophesying that the wave of violence that is sweeping him up will soon consume the whole city.  He concludes his warning by quoting a proverb: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31).

Green wood is wet wood – it doesn’t make good kindling.  Jesus is making it clear that his movement was nonviolent.  He was not trying to spark a military uprising against the Romans.   If his nonviolent protest met with capital punishment, what will happen when the wood is dry?  The women of Jerusalem found out 40 years later, when a violent Jewish uprising brought down a Roman legion that raised the city to the ground. 

Implicit in Jesus’ comment is a recognition that his suffering isn’t unique, or even particularly horrific.  Plenty of people were executed by being crucified in Roman occupied Palestine. “You think this is bad?” asks Jesus.  “Wait until you see what’s next.”  Violence only enkindles more violence.  

There has been a strong tendency in Christian traditions to make a fetish of Jesus’ suffering, to treat it as uniquely awful and the fulfillment of God’s will at the same time.  Throughout his teaching career, however, Jesus makes two things perfectly clear.  First, that his suffering and death follows the pattern of all the prophets before him, including his cousin, John the Baptizer (and, we might add, those after him).  In other words, there is nothing new about the persecution and even execution of those who speak out for justice and peace. 

Second, Jesus maintains that the fate of such prophets is entirely due to the readiness of both leaders and people to marginalize and kill them.  Their deaths are the result of a very common pattern of human violence, and not the fulfillment of divine providence.  The pattern works like this.  A prophet comes along and points out the greed, exploitation, and violence that already is dividing and destroying people.  The prophet begins to get a hearing, and it starts to threaten those who benefit from the status quo.   The people begin to question the way things are, but are ambivalent about the prophet’s message and tactics.  They doubt that nonviolent resistance will have much affect. 

The authorities exploit this ambivalence, mounting a propaganda campaign against the prophet and the movement he or she is inspiring.  They accuse the prophet of blasphemy, immorality, treason, and insurrection.  The prophet becomes a scapegoat, the bearer of all the tensions and fears of the social body.  The community begins to unite in opposition to the scapegoat, discovering a renewed sense of social solidarity by directing their energies to destroy him or her.  The authorities arrange a show trial and the people become a lynch mob.  The scapegoat is sacrificed to restore social order, and everything returns to normal.  

This scapegoat mechanism, a kind of sacrifice or offering to the gods of race and nation, is given a theological or ideological veneer of legitimacy, diverting our attention from the everyday violence, the sacrifice of innocent victims that is simply the cost of doing business that the prophet tried to make us see in the first place.   What is genuinely unique about the passion narrative, and the prophetic arc of the biblical witness as whole, is not the violence it portrays, but rather its insistence that the victim is innocent.   The theological relevance of the passion narrative is the revelation that God is entirely identified with the mission of the prophets, and not with the perpetrators of unjust violence.  The theological veneer of legitimacy is stripped away, leaving nothing left but a pack of lies told to cover-up collective murder.

The execution of Jesus is just another sacrifice of an innocent victim to the gods of an unjust social order.  God, the One Jesus called Abba, does not desire the death of innocent victims.  This God reaches out to us through Jesus to become conscious of the violent patterning of our common life, to awaken a nonviolent, compassionate response.  In waking up to this consciousness, we find ourselves on the inside of God’s relentless love, empowered for service and participating already in a new creation, the kingdom of God, that builds social solidarity on the basis of compassion rather than rivalry.  

Jesus, in his walk toward death, shows us that the only bases for authentic human community is sacrificial love, self-giving service; not the sacrifice of others.  What is more, Jesus willingly becomes the Other whom we sacrifice, so that we might learn that our salvation lies in a change of consciousness that allows us to receive the Other as sister and brother, rather than as rival or scapegoat. 

Which brings me back to the women of Jerusalem following Jesus as he walks toward his death.  They share the consciousness of Jesus.  They are vulnerable to their own suffering and that of others, not denying it or displacing it.  They bear witness publicly to the innocence of the victim until the end – and beyond.  They refuse to be caught up in the frenzy of the lynch mob, seeking relief from the anxieties of life in the projection of guilt on to innocent victims.  In their refusal, the church is born, and the hope of the world is kindled anew – not with the dry wood of violent sacrifices, but with the green wood of compassion.

We are living through a season in which the frenzy of the lynch mob, the kindling of dry wood, is a very present temptation.  It is easy to be seduced by simple solutions, projecting all our anxieties on to some new – or old – scapegoats, and blaming them for all our problems.  Expel the immigrants, exclude the Muslims, beat up and arrest the Black Lives Matter protestors, and all our troubles will disappear!  There is nothing new about this scapegoating mechanism.  It is as old as the passion narrative, the oldest story in the book, going all the way back to Cain slaying his brother Abel.  Why do we continue to believe that setting brother against brother is the answer? 

It isn’t easy to go against the grain of what passes for normalcy and social conformity.  Even Peter denied Jesus when confronted with the pressure of the lynch mob, the ecstasy of sacrificial violence.  It isn’t easy to accept the vocation of the prophet, marching into the capital city to nonviolently protest the hidden, but real daily violence of poverty, inequality, and ecocide.   It takes real courage and faithfulness to God to march with the women of Jerusalem behind Jesus, fully in touch with the world’s sorrow, trusting that it is possible to experience real human communion without scapegoats. 

Yet that is where we are called to be, in the space between corrupt authorities and violent mobs: unyielding in our commitment to building bridges rather than walls, healing victims rather than sacrificing them, putting the common good above private gain.  When we occupy this space, we discover that God is no longer “out there;” or even “in here.”  Rather, we are all – everyone of us – on the inside of God and God’s project of reconciling the world.  When we live and worship like green wood, we discover that Easter already is here, even as we follow Jesus to the cross.    

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