Saturday, March 15, 2008

The End That Is The End, Again and Again

When it comes to church, I'm a lifer. Outside of maybe my first couple of years of college (when I attended St. Mattress of the Springs), I can't remember a time when I didn't attend church. Our family moved to Charleston, West Virginia when I was Eli's age. Since my parents were from Ohio, we didn't know anybody, so going to Trinity UMC was a step in getting socially connected. I just kept getting dragged along, and eventually, with friends of my own, I just kinda became involved. I never really envisioned it becoming a career choice. But now, here I am, a rotund, middle-aged, pasty, midwestern pastor.

It just sorta happened.

Anyhow, when I was a kid I always looked forward to Palm Sunday. Each year all the kids would be herded into the narthex outside of the sanctuary, given a palm purchased from some local florist, and then led into the sanctuary - palms waving to and fro - we'd march from front to back and around the sides. The organist would play some triumphant kind of music as we did this, and I can still the smiles on the faces - particularly the older ones - as we did our palm thing.

Of course, the best part of the whole morning was after we processed out, because we finally got to do what we wanted to do the moment they put those palm leaves in our hands: wail on one another in an epic palm leaf battle royal! This would only last until either a) the last palm had disintegrated on someone's face or b) some wuss would cry because they got hit with a glorified leaf. But no matter... Palm Sunday was a good Sunday. Almost like a pre-Easter Easter, where the lordship of Christ was celebrated.

That's the image of Palm Sunday I've had most of my life. Jesus on the colt. People celebrating along the road, palms waving. It was the validation of a three year mission to spread his message across the countryside. Jesus is the people's king. That's the way I've always envisioned it. And that's what kids in churches across the country, even again today, are re-enacting that vision we've had of that day.

Jesus: The People's King.

It wasn't until I got older, and read the scripture more closely, that I began to wonder if "the end" I had always known and believed, was really "the end" the Jesus lived.

First, let's get a couple of things straight about that original Palm Sunday. First, there are few things easy to miss because unless you dig a little deeper to understand the time and place, you'll miss some important aspects of the scene. To help understand this, let me use this example... The Great Depression is, for me, a period in history. It is words in a book, and stories my Grandmother Bucher told. It was much different for those who lived through it. It isn't a movie or a graduate level class in some collegiate history department. It was part of your life. You smelled it, saw it, touched it, heard it, and tasted it. Whatever slang was used, whatever rumors circulated, or whatever music or movies were popular you knew. "Hooverville" for me was an answer on a multiple-guess test sheet. For many of you, "Hooverville" was a place you feared to live.... or was at one time your home.

Same with Jesus' day. Archaeologists, scholars, and historians are helping us to uncover the whole story of Palm Sunday. The story some people lived, which is now the story we just read about. They've helped us understand a few things about that day.

First, its no accident that Luke tells us that Jesus is coming over the Mount of Olives, down to the eastern gate of the city. Much legend had arisen around the coming of the Hebrew messiah. In Jesus day, and for many, many years thereafter, the legend, which was partially derived from OT scripture, partially derived from Apocryphal literature, and partially developed from wherever else legends came from, stated that one of the signs that people would know who the messiah was, was that he would come from the east over the Mount of Olives, and through the eastern gate into the city, and the Temple. It was at this time that as the messianic age began, the book of Zechariah states that on this Mount would begin the resurrection of the dead, available to the messiah as warriors that would fight the battles necessary to free Israel from occupation and captivity.

We know that people from this world took these legends to be true. How? Well, to this day, the Mount of Olives is covered with graves and tombs. Graves and tombs filled with the bones of people who want to be among the first resurrected... ready to serve God.
This is picture of ancient tombstones that have been vandalized on the side of the Mount of Olives. More than 150,000 people have been, and continue to be, entombed here anticipating Zechariah's prophecy. So Luke, letting us know that Jesus is coming over the Mount of Olives is very significant. He is treading, what we know as the reader, to be making his last trek into the city over the route the messiah is supposed to take.

We also know this prophecy was taken pretty seriously in that there is no more Eastern Gate to the city of Jerusalem

As you can see from this photo, the gate to the city has been blocked in. And in front of it is an Arab cemetery. Apparently, in the 16th century, when the city was in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who were Muslim, a sultan having heard this legend of the messiah coming into this gate one too many times, blocked in the gate so nobody could pass, and then put in an Islamic cemetery outside of the gate... presumably because, understanding Jewish ritual law, this made that ground unsuitable for a Jewish holy man to walk across. So, more than 1500 years after the death of Jesus, the legend has enough legs for a Islamic sultan to do everything in his power to quash it.

Just to take stock of where we are then... this image of Jesus, coming over the Mount of Olives and through the Eastern Gate into the city is an explosive image in his day. It is not just a religious or spiritual image... it is a political one. That all of this is happening to as the Passover begins - as pilgrims come from all over the known world home to celebrate their most sacred holiday - simply raises the expectations and hysteria of people in the street, and fear among those in power - religious and temporal - about what trouble this might lead to.

Even the palm branches themselves add to the politically charged atmosphere.

About a 170 years before Christ's birth, before Israel was under Roman rule, it was ruled by a descendant of Alexander the Great. In 167 BC, this Greek ruler decreed that the practice of Judaism was no longer legal. Led by a Jewish priest, the Maccabean Revolt through the Hellenist Greeks out of Israel, and for a short time - only about 30 years - Israel was somewhat self-ruled. These are coins minted by the Maccabees. You can see on the left coin the picture of a palm tree. Remember that every movement needs symbols, slogans, and rallying cries. The palm was for the Maccabees was such a symbol. Native to their land, free to anyone who wanted to wave one, the palm came to represent the idea of freedom and independence for Israel.

This scene isn't the innocent kind of celebration we were taught as kids. I had always thought that this was Jesus, the people's king, recognized for who he actually was... the Son of the Living God. Because I believed this image, crafted outside of the world Jesus lived, thousands of years after he'd been crucified, it was hard for me to understand why in the world, if the people chose Jesus on this day, why did they choose to crucify him instead of Barabbas just a few days later.

Well, the short answer is, that the vision we've been given in our churches about Palm Sunday hasn't been all that accurate. This is not a peaceful celebration of a messiah chosen by the common man, only to be rejected by those in power and authority. This is the final culmination of what Jesus has been saying throughout his ministry..... the message of the Gospel - a message of peace, love, and forgiveness - has been rejected by all. People hate occupation more than they love God. The hate had become so palatable, that even though Jesus hasn't killed anybody, or formed an army, or courted those ready to fight for Israel's freedom, it covers over his message in a scene thick with political, war-like, imagery.

Jesus knows where this will end. It is the end that is the end, again and again. An end so final, so destructive, that he surveys the scene he begins to weep.

And here's what strikes me about his weeping - these are not tears shed because he is fearful of his own demise. Make no bones about it, he knows this scene has sealed his fate. He is, like it or not, a political figure, dangerous to the status quo, too controversial to not be dealt with by those with power. Jesus is going to die, and he knows it.

But the weeping... the weeping is for the very people chanting "hosannas", plotting his demise in the Temple, and the thousands of innocent people who just want to live a peaceful, blessed life. For they have chosen the end that is the end, again and again.

And that end will be they're own.

"I wish that even today", Jesus said, "you would find the way of peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from you. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you. They will crush you to the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you have rejected the opportunity God offered you."

It is the end that is the end, again and again.... the choice we make to destroy ourselves. Choosing tyranny and violence and oppression, all in the name of the "greater good". Governments repeatedly make this choice. Rebels repeatedly make this choice. Communities repeatedly make this choice. Families repeatedly make this choice. Individuals repeatedly make this choice. The choice that Jerusalem made that day. Rejecting a way of reconciliation, and instead the ultimate destruction of the city not more than 40 years later. A rebellion, led by leaders who undoubtedly came over the Mount of Olives, waving palm branches to repeated "hosannas", marching through the Eastern Gate into the Temple, proclaiming one, last, fateful time:

Zechariah's promise will be fulfilled this day!!!!

Jesus beacons us. Jesus begs us. Let us put our anger, aggression, pain, loneliness, sense of failure or frustration, on his back. Let it be put to rest on the Cross of Calvary. Let that be the end that is the end of such foolishness, and let us choose a new way for our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. A way of peace that doesn't compromise the dignity of many in the name of keeping things quiet.

That's one thing I heard as we struggle to hold the city together right now... that we can't mistake quiet, as peace. Most suffering is done in quiet. In silence. That's probably the place where most dysfunction and anger grows. In silence, shrouded in secrecy, only to be unleashed in all its fury on a surprised, unsuspecting world.

He always seemed nice... always kept to himself.

I can't believe something like this would happen in a community like ours.

The choice on Palm Sunday offered to us is whether or not Good Friday will be enough for us. If the death and destruction on that day will be enough. If Easter can truly be our Easter, our rebirth and renewal... our end.

Or will our end be the end that is the end, again and again?

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