April 5, 2009
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Sixth Sunday of Lent
Palm / Passion Sunday
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
Our passage from Mark begins the Holy Week Journey. We did not read all of Mark’s narrative and so I want to read this from Mark, to join the parade with the outcome of that parade. (Mark 14:1-9)
In many ways we think we know what the narrative means because we hear it every Lent and Easter. Our hymns give us an image of a great parade; yet we forget that old hymn two gates to the city. Mark gave us an narrative about parades that challenged the power of Rome.
Every year, at Passover, the Roman army would come marching in. In the time of Jesus it would be Pilate at the head of the parade. It was a symbol of dominance and oppression. The parade would be full of soldiers and their weapons. It would be full of pomp and circumstance as a warning to the people. Think of those images where the invading army comes in with its might to tell the people they were nobodies. So this parade would not be looked forward to because the people knew it as a warning not to cause trouble during the Passover.
Like all military parades it would be full of banners and images of past victories. It would be led by horses and chariots. It would send terror through the city and it would be a warning for the authorities to keep the people in check.
So Mark turns this reality on its head. For here you have Jesus entering from another gate, not through the West Gate which is the symbolic gate - where all conquerors have come through, even in our modern area. Jesus comes in through the East gate on a donkey. Mark has children and peasants welcoming Jesus. Probably not a great number; yet waving palm branches. Mark suggests another image of royalty in his story. An image of humbleness and a king who is part of the people. Mark is saying the kingdom of God is found here in the people, in non violence and a rejection of power as force. It is a kingship of persuasive power.
Added to the story is where the parade ends - the cross. Mark knew where it ended so he reads the cross back in. The question we ask is why the cross?
The Cross was used by the Romans to destroy the identity of the one who was crucified. It was to wipe them out of history and experience. It was to make them a nobody. It was used on slaves, and those who were a threat to the power of Rome. It was never used, though, on those who were citizens, only on those who Rome considered a nobody. It was to wipe out the identity of the person. It was to destroy the person and the symbol for a group, for in doing so it would destroy hope. It was to crush the person and their group.
The cross was not a symbol that a community would want to follow. Yet here it is - a central symbol for the faith. A symbol of a nobody who is resurrected. For that also is in the background of Mark. No one would expect a nobody to be resurrected. Only heroes would be - not a nobody. No one who is on a cross would be resurrected.
Mark is offering a new understanding of hero or the noble death. The old idea of noble death would be, the hero would not be a crucified one. Yet this a nobody who is now the hero of the story.
A key to the idea is, ransomed for many. Now we can misunderstand that as payment, for have we not seen many movies - read many novels - of ransom being money. No the image is not payment. The image is the one who takes our place. It is not taking our place for sin but one who stands with us in our human situation. We have seen images of people who offer themselves for the sake of their people. There are actual stories where a leader says free my people and I take their place. The leader puts themselves in danger. This ransom is God standing with us in our reality and with its dangers. God in the midst of our experience.
If you have been part of a movement for non violence you will have experienced this. Suzanne was in the Philippians for a World Council of Churches event, and the church there asked her, and a Swedish woman, to join the leaders at the front of a march when they faced the army. The theory being the army would not fire on these blonds. Martin Luther King always lead the marches for civil rights as did Gandhi.
All these stories tell us that the image of the noble death, of the one who stands in our place, is to make us a noble people. The symbol of the cross is, we live in a dangerous world, and much will be asked of us. Yet the symbol of death has no power over us. We can be a noble people for we live in the light of the resurrection of a nobody. We can live with danger and with joy. We can overcome. The parade is told in light of this outcome. Mark is reminding his readers and us, that Jesus knew there was danger to speak his message that the kingdom of God is here, in this world if we but listen and see. Jesus knew that his message was a challenge to the status quo.
He did not think he was sent to die, for the prayer of the early church has Jesus say "I'd rather not die. Yet in the face of this real danger I will be faithful to this persuasive power of God as the real meaning of power. I will continue."
To put it in my terms: Jesus was saying God works with the world as it is to lure it to what it could become. This is a call to us to live out and in this image of standing in for those who need to be rescued. To act in ways that all enjoy what we enjoy. It is to stand with those who work for the common good even when it seems to be hopeless or dangerous.
The passage, the poor will always be with you, is not a statement of accepting poverty. It is a realistic assessment of our world that there will always be the needy in some form. The encounter is about misdirection. Mark knows the cry of "what about the poor," is really one of, "not in my neighborhood." It is to take real issues and raise them so we don’t have to challenge our self interest. Not in my neighborhood always raises good issues that misdirect us. It appears that our concerns are for the common good yet they really are to protect our interests and comfort. Embedded in the issue of the parole office in Ottawa is this misdirection, of raising, "what about safety for our children?" Of course that is a real concern and so is the need of the office for the rehabilitation of others. This story of woman asks us to examine our motives.
She is one who operates out of abundance. Mark says that is what is to be remembered. It is not a choice of how to use scarce and limited resources. For when the question is framed that way we know self interest will shape our decision. What the symbol of the excessive devotion tells us is we can risk for we live in the abundance of God’s love.
So we are back to the discipline of abundance. We are back to the practice of living out of the attitude of abundance not scarcity. We do know there will be some personal cost when we share, but that does not matter. We live for the common good for that is who we are. We are those who can stand as a ransom for others.