Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, 1 April
The Very Rev. Judith G. Dunlop, D.D., former Pastoral Associate
Sermon Passion Sunday All Saints 2012
On my altar at home there is a nail crusted with rust obviously forged by hand a very long time ago. It was given to me by a woman in her mid 90’s a dozen or so years ago. She found it on a trip to Jerusalem in about 1950 somewhere near Golgotha. Over the long years of her remarkable life, she grew into a deeply spiritual woman. Virginia was as close to being a mystic as any woman I have known. When I hold the nail, I think about it as a symbol or representation of injustice and suffering and ultimately, of hope.
The nail is the same as the bullets that kill the innocent in today’s world. It is the same as words and internet images that destroy lives. It is the same as the silence that ignores injustice of any kind. The nail is the same as indifferent attitudes and behaviors to violence and racism. It is the kiss of betrayal.
When I hold the nail, it reminds me that weakness can be strength. That suffering may lead to deeper insight and self-awareness .That death can lead to new life. That none of us has escaped pain – our own and the things we humans do to cause pain in others. Through suffering, we bond with all humanity – past, present, and future. The same way Jesus bonded with us as he cried out on the cross.
Patti Smith captured some of this meaning for humanity in the Passion narrative when she wrote these lyrics to her song, Easter.
I am the spring, the holy ground,
the endless seed of mystery,
the thorn, the veil, the face of grace,
the brazen image, the thief of sleep,
the ambassador of dreams, the prince of peace.
I am the sword, the wound, the stain.
I rend, I end, I return.
Jesus of Nazareth, was executed because he dared to call attention to the needs of all people including the marginalized, the poor, woman, and the sick. In so doing, he upset the status quo. The people in power were threatened enough to take action. It is an old and familiar human story.
To complicate matters, many people at that time believed that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, God’s beloved Son. The face of God on earth. Those in power regarded such belief as blasphemy. The Passion narrative leads us to imagine the fear and disbelief at such claims as they listened to Jesus’ persistent message for transformation and repentance.
Love God and neighbor. Forgiveness of sins. Equal Justice for all. Peace in the world. These were old theological and biblical commands. What was new was that these imperatives for a new way of life were emphasized and coupled with Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God had come near, believe in the good news of God in Christ. And his admission before the high priests that he was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.
The tragedy of that horrific event is not confined to the past. We relive it every time we settle for something less than the way of life Jesus taught. Every time we turn our backs on violence and cruelty. Every time we opt to preserve the status quo. We are all guilty.
Once a year in Holy Week we all need to hear the story of how the people refused to listen to Christ’s teaching, how some ran away in fear in spite of their love and faith, how some betrayed, and how weakness and fear led otherwise decent people to kill an innocent man. And Holy Week gives us an opportunity. An opportunity to do the hard inner work of turning ourselves around to God and to live into loving our neighbor. It can start by questioning to accept the status quo in our society. It can start by engaging in the conversations about racism that Trayvon Martin’s short life has sparked and to work with others to rid ourselves of this systemic national evil. It can start by opening our hearts to God’s love for us. A love so embracing and so totally enfolding that God sent us Jesus to walk with us on this often lonely path filled with the paradox of both suffering and joy and to lead us to newness of life.
Joan Chittister wrote “ When Jesus said, “Follow me”, Jesus was really saying that salvation is incomplete until it lives in us. The truth is that people put Jesus on the cross, God did not.”
One would think by now I would have gained greater knowledge of God. Some clarity, theologically speaking to explain the paradox of God’s love and the crucifixion and suffering in general. Something like the theory of gravity, for example, that one can so easily demonstrate.
All I know about God comes from living. I have felt the presence of God, but I know even less than I did 25 years ago about that great mystery.
But life, after all these years, is something I do know about.
The story of the Passion is filled with every conceivable emotion and experience of life. It resonates with life as I know it. There is not one character in this story that is not a recognizable part of the human experience. I imagine we all have a bit of Judas and Peter in us, and the weakness that comes from the seduction of power like Pilate, and the cynical prisoners and bystanders, as well as the forgiving peaceful nature of Jesus in our finer moments.
Although Jesus walked to his suffering and death with dignity and acceptance, it was not passive or without anguish. His death made the rising to come possible. It gives all of us hope for our own risings.
There was a trust in God so pure in Jesus that it sustained him throughout the ordeal of the arrest, the trial, the rejection and betrayal of friends, the people gathered to watch the way some people are attracted to fires and accidents, and the searing indescribable pain of the crucifixion itself.
In the courtyard at Holy Innocents in Corte Madera was a crucifix. The figure of Jesus slightly curled in agony was armless and legless. The wood scarred, the paint cracked and faded, the face of Christ worn by weather and wind.
It was beautiful because it compelled me to acknowledge human suffering in its rawest form and then look deeper to see the face of hope. And that Jesus’ suffering transformed so many hearts and minds over the centuries to this moment in time when the light of Christ’s redeeming love is so desperately needed in us and throughout the world.
When the Allied forces entered into Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 they found this Welcoming Prayer somewhere near the front gates. I am grateful to a friend who sent it to me this past week because it is an amazing tribute to the strength and love that resides in the human spirit and gives us direction and hope for the future.
O Lord, Remember not only the men and women
Of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;
Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to
This suffering–our comradeship,
Our loyalty, our humility, our courage,
Our generosity, the greatness of heart
Which has grown out of all this, and when
They come to judgment let all the fruits
Which we have borne be their forgiveness.