Homily at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, April 9th
The old bait and switch! A bait and switch, as you may know, is a classic scam whereby customers are lured into something – usually a store – through some sort of promotion or advertisement of an item at an exceptionally low price. When the potential customer discovers that the item is “sold out” and no longer available, he or she is alerted to the availability of a comparable yet more expensive product. The goal of the bait-and-switch is to take advantage of the buyer’s psychology – a combination of disappointment and readiness to buy – resulting in the likelihood of purchasing the more expensive, higher margin products.
I have often thought of Palm Sunday as the liturgical version of bait and switch. We gather in a public space and begin the service with the blessing of the palms and the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We, well at least I, feel that sense of excitement and joy of those crowds who long ago shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven.” Hosanna – which means, “God saves” is a beautiful sounding word – a prayer in and of itself. We process, waving palms, sometimes to the dismay of onlookers and embarrassment to ourselves, around or through the building and into the church for the rest of the service. Palms in hand, we are left with a vision of Jesus entering Jerusalem and climbing up steps and disappearing into the Temple. This is the bait.
The switch is flipped with a jolt; Psalm 22 begins – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? – and continues and intensifies through the reading of Mark’s account of how Jesus is betrayal, deserted and crucified at the place of the skull. Here, through the blurred eyes of a group of women disciples, we are left seeing a tomb sealed with a giant stone. A classic bait and switch. From Temple to Tomb. We have been baited with images of glory and switched to the numbness of death. However, unlike a regular bait and switch, we do not have a choice whether to choose or purchase the crucified Jesus. Jesus is crucified, and he is ours, whether we like it or not.
And also unlike a regular bait and switch, Jesus is ours to behold in both triumph and defeat. You can’t have one without the other. We keep a steady eye on the massive expanse of the Temple, and with the other eye, the still, hard sealed tomb. The defining link between the two visions is ironically a time of utter darkness, where there is no vision. “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.”
With Palm Sunday, we begin the last and most intense period of Lent. This Holy Week, as it is called, is a time of prayer and deep emotion for the church and the world, and here at St. Mark’s we will participate in this with a service each day of the week, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil on Saturday night, and a week from today, Easter Sunday. Today’s Palm Sunday gives us the vision – the 20/20 of head and heart to experience the fullness and depth of this weeklong journey. But it is also the 20/20 to face our lives and faith, not just for one week for but a lifetime; the lesson that we must at all times remember is the importance of holding in tension competing and conflicting facts, emotions, stories, images, attitudes, theologies and practices. Such dualities, trialities, quadralities are the stuff of our faith and scriptures. For example, it is St. Paul who wrestles with the meaning of faith and works, not to mention Luther and Bonhoeffer. Attempts to separate and isolate works from faith or faith from works are fraught with ethical and practical peril. It is our church fathers and mothers who included four Gospels in our official scriptures – each with its own unique message and perspective on Jesus. They could have taken a different approach by eliminating three Gospels for the sake of having “one story” or “one Truth.” Another place of duality is our liturgy where we break two breads – the bread of Scripture, which nourishes our minds, and the bread of the Table, which nourishes our bodies and souls. It is this fundamental principle of holding things in tension that makes a direct strike at fundamentalism, which seeks one vision and one way – and is willing to ransom depth for clarity. It is a direct strike at those who divide truth and unity, law and righteousness, life and death. It is a strike at monolithic images of God. Consider the reflections ofWangari Maathai, a Roman Catholic and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and assistant minister for environment and natural resources of the Republic of Kenya. As deforestation and climate change have plunged Africa into the worst drought in decades, her Green Belt Movement has planted 30 million trees to restore the environment. As an African, her image of God is one in tension — holding both the Christian God who is depicted in paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lives on Mount Kenya. She says, “Now where is God? I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain.”
Palm Sunday – or as it is officially called, “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday” – is to us like having two eyes – with one eye on the Temple and one eye on the Tomb. Two eyes with two visions gives us depth and perspective. May this vision and wisdom of duality – that we find in Palm Sunday – this Passion Sunday, guide us for this Holy Week and always.