Liturgy of the Palms | Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16
We know the story. The image is iconic, even to those who have only a passing familiarity with Christianity: Jesus riding a donkey, palms and cloaks covering the ground, a crowd calling out his name and welcoming him to Jerusalem.
The trouble is that the crowd were expecting someone else. They did not see the man they welcomed, the one riding the colt and accepting—perhaps tolerating—their accolades. Instead, they saw the person they had been expecting, a savior, a deliverer, a king.
To be sure, there were many ideas in the minds of those people, just as there were many ideas swirling in the minds of Jesus’ closest followers. The inner circle had heard Jesus pronounce enough strange and dark predictions that they were not certain what lay ahead of them in the great city. The crowd along the side of the road expected a great deal, though little of what they expected would come to pass.
They were blind to what was before them, seeing only what they wanted to see. They believed that God was going to deliver them from the Romans and restore the monarchy, and they thought this man Jesus had come to accomplish it. It is what they wanted to believe, and which of us will question our own beliefs?
There is our problem. People of faith have certain understandings of God, certain beliefs that we hold as true, even though we may be just as wrong as those people shouting on the side of the road two thousand years ago. Like them, we make the mistake of holding blindly to our expectations of God, regardless of what God intends, regardless of what God might do right in front of us.
We confuse our expectations of God with our faith in God.
It is a paradox. Rather than consider that we might, in some particular or major way, be wrong, we hold blindly to our belief system, thinking that it is the same as faith. We substitute our beliefs about God for our faith in God.
We are happier with a belief system that does not change than we are with a God who might not meet our expectations. Questioning our beliefs feels like questioning God.
That is why there are so many angry religious people, why there are always people who will shout and strut and do great harm, physical or otherwise, rather than question their own ideas. Their beliefs give them certainty. Doubt fills them with fear, and fear too often is expressed as anger.
Here’s the thing. If God is God, then we may lay aside our entire religious framework and rest certain that when we put our thoughts back together, God will still be there. If God is God, our opinion of the matter changes nothing.
It is another paradox of faith—we may feel undone by our doubts and still pray to a God about whom we feel we know very little, or in whom we have little faith remaining.
We think that prayer is a request, a petition, and perhaps it is. We say that in prayer we offer thanks, praise, love, as we communicate our thoughts and feelings to God, and perhaps we do. At its base, prayer is a confession of faith. We pray because on some level, beyond our doubts, we still believe God exists. We still believe that God hears us. We still hope that God responds, though it may be in ways that do not meet our expectations.
They stood by the road and shouted to Jesus. Few, if any, believed that they were welcoming God into their midst: they thought they were welcoming a king. Nevertheless, like other blind men who sat by the road and called out for help, Jesus heard them. He knew what they wanted, and he knew that in a few days he would disappoint them. He also knew that despite their mistaken beliefs, regardless of their misinformed shouts, he would far exceed their expectations.
Here is a link to a blog post by Steven R. Harmon, a theologian in the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He often helps the rest of us to see the things that matter.
Aretha Franklin sang of a chain of fools. John writes of a chain of voices.
This chain begins or ends—since chains run both ways—with unnamed strangers, and ends or begins with God. Strangers from some Greek speaking place approach Philip, maybe because he has a Greek name. They ask for an introduction to Jesus. Philip first goes to his brother Andrew, and together they take the request to Jesus. It seems a long path to ask a simple question.
The answer is strange. Jesus begins talking about his own impending death, a disconcerting shift in the storyline. Then another voice breaks over them. Some say it was thunder, others say that an angel spoke, but the Gospel claims God spoke directly to Jesus within the hearing of the crowd.
It’s interesting that John includes the alternative explanations. Thunder, some say. An angel, others say, and they are nearer the orthodox answer. Something happened, some sound heard by believer and skeptic alike, but the understanding is so very different.
Today, suppose there is a phone call, or perhaps a letter or email, with good news. Some would call it an answer to prayer. Others, receiving the same timely communication, would see it as luck, or chance, or the result of benevolent human planning. What’s the difference between an ordinary chain of events and a miracle except the matter of perception?
What is faith, if not a choice of how to view our world?
Faith can’t be proven. It isn’t science, but neither is it the opposite of science. Faith does not set aside reason. Science is the method by which we learn how our universe works. Faith is how we listen for the meaning.
So many voices reach us in a day. Some words are from the people who surround us, others are from the crowd inside us. Some voices can only be heard with the ears of faith.
We hear thunder, and the power and range of it restores our sense of perspective. Is that human insight? Recognition of natural cause and effect? Certainly. Is it the voice of God speaking to someone choosing to hear it? Maybe.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the people to consider the flowers of the fields. There is something of God to be seen in them, he says, something of God to be heard in the wind that blows across them.
Faith hears the voice of the Other resonate in everything. Physics demonstrates vibration within an atom, and people of faith hear that and something more, something that ties the universe together. Unscientific? Certainly. An act of self-delusion? Perhaps.
B.B.King sang, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too.” We choose to love, and we choose to believe that certain people love us. Sometimes it is even true, though we cannot control the other side of the equation.
We may choose to believe the Gospel message that God is love. One day it may even prove to be true. Meanwhile, what is lost by choosing to love, choosing to hear the voice of God whisper or thunder through the people and life around us? What is lost by choosing to believe that there is such love in the universe?
Biology explains why insects find flowers irresistible. It takes something else to explain why we humans find them beautiful. As winter gives way to spring, consider the flowers of the field, the stars, the laughter of a child. Perhaps such things are only natural. Perhaps, if we choose to listen, we might hear the voice of God.
John 3:16 must be the most famous verse in the Bible. To tell the truth, I can barely stand to hear anyone recite it anymore.
Everything that may be thought or said about it already has been, or nearly so, and yet the Lectionary guides us here for the fourth Sunday of this Lenten season.
There are those who claim that this one verse contains the entirety of the Gospel message. It doesn’t, of course. It does not tell us who this son of God might be, nor how or what we might believe about him, nor why, nor how God gave this son, nor who God might be or much of what God might be like, nor how or when the world is perishing, nor what it means to have everlasting life, nor what it means that this son of God is the only begotten—an odd term.
What is more, the verse lacks all context. Upon hearing it, a Buddhist goat herder raised in remote Tibet and unfamiliar with western religions will be mystified as to the meaning. Western non- or ex-Christians hearing it, though familiar with this Christian confession of faith, are likely dismayed at being preached to once again. Christians themselves hear it repeated until, like words mumbled over and over by a child, the phrases lose all meaning, become strange, uncanny, unheimlich.
Take the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles’ Creed, or a Mother Goose rhyme—any of them, repeated often enough, become nothing but meaningless sounds.
That is the catch.
There is another word in this passage, a little further along in verse 19, “…and this is the judgment…” The word rendered ‘judgment’ is literally ‘crisis’, and the crisis is found in deeds not words—whether one wishes one’s deeds to be seen in the light or not. It is no longer about the words. It was never about the words. It is about what we do, who we are. It is about being not seeming.
And there we are, between scylla and charybdis, a rock and a hard place—between familiarity and cliché, between our words and our choices.
We strain to see the truest things: that our lives are about what we are, not what we say or claim; that our success or failure as humans rests upon the person we choose to be each day; that there is only one ongoing crisis encompassing the entirety of our lives, the struggle to be and not to seem. The Zen expression is presence, the notion of being fully present in each moment, not distracted from the substance of our lives by the insubstantiality of our notions.
If there is a devil, it doesn’t have to tempt us toward choosing evil things. All it has to do is distract us long enough for our lives to pass.
We explain too much. That’s one of the best ways to ruin a good story.
Maybe that is why so many people turn away from faith. They’re sick of the explanations, the admonitions, the rules of religion. Who can blame them?
They want a story that helps them imagine their world. They are looking for something true, something that is meaningful as only a story can be.
The four gospels do not offer much explanation. Instead, they tell stories about this man Jesus. Even the teaching passages are held as a narrative, and much of what Jesus says is itself in story form, parables throwing the truth alongside the audience.
We are hardwired for story. So long as there have been humans, we have told stories. There have also always been folk who tried to turn the stories into rules, but it was the stories that lasted.
Storytellers are more powerful than rule makers.
With that in mind, I don’t wish to try to explain the story of Jesus clearing the animals, merchants, and the coin exchangers from the temple. The story is important. That much is clear from the way the Gospels place the event at such differing but important points in the narrative—Mark, Matthew and Luke place the clearing of the temple at the end of Jesus’ career, showing how it contributes to his arrest and crucifixion, while John places the event close to the beginning of Jesus’ public life, as a pivotal point of departure for his career. Despite such ambivalence among the four as to the significance of what Jesus does—step into a new prophetic role or trigger his own death—all four gospels tell the story at length. All four gospels point out Jesus’ passion, intensity, and anger. Not one of them offers much explanation.
Taking their lead, let’s trust in the power of story. Sometimes, simply hearing a thing told in a different way is enough to help us find something new. That being said, here is a retelling of this story from the Gospel—an excerpt from my novel I,John, narrated by John himself. I hope you enjoy it.
The Temple was magnificent. It was huge to my eyes, with enormous walls and smooth paved courtyards. So many stones, so much space. Then there were the uniforms of the guards, the robes of the priests, the movement of people and of animals. Our synagogue was one thing, but this was a dwelling place of the almighty God, and I had carried a sense of awe about the Temple ever since I was a small child.
I was a fisherman’s son, and entering the Temple made me feel a little light headed, with that odd sensation of watching one’s self from above one’s own body. It was unsettling, but we were with Jesus after all. What better way to visit the Temple?
Jesus was too quiet this time. After we walked inside the walls to the first great court, Jesus stopped and stood still for what seemed to be hours. He was looking at the tables for the doves, the stands with the livestock for sacrifices, tables where people exchanged foreign coins for proper ones. I remember as a child hearing my father and others say to one another that there was more money made in the court of the Temple than a fisherman would see in a lifetime. Peter was standing beside Jesus, that great hairy head turning from side to side as though he, too, were taking stock. The difference was that Peter was smiling. He still believed that we were simply here as part of our observance of Passover. I, on the other hand, had already seen enough of Jesus’ face to know that we were in for something different.
Jesus walked nearer the animals and picked up a length of rope that was left near a stall. He began looping it back and forth, making a whip. Peter was walking with him, nodding his enormous head at people and holding up a hand in greeting, as though these people had some interest in talking to any of us. Then Jesus just walked over to the first stall of livestock and threw down the wooden bar closing in the sheep. Seeing it, I couldn’t move. Peter looked around at the sound of the wood on the stone floor and took a step toward Jesus.
“Here, master, let me get that,” he said. He didn’t know Jesus had thrown it down purposefully.
Jesus didn’t say a word, just headed to the next stall full of oxen. When the stall keeper tried to stop him, Jesus began beating the man with the cords, driving him out of the way. The man fell back to the stones, astonished, but no more so than we. Jesus again threw the wooden beam aside that held back the animals and began driving them toward the gate.
The next few minutes were filled with shouting, animals bleating and lowing, dust rising up from the paving stones, pandemonium. Then Jesus walked straight to a table where moneychangers sat with their piles and bags of coins. I still had not moved from where I stood, horrified at the disturbance Jesus was causing, unable to believe what he was doing. The disturbing light-headedness was growing stronger, so that I stood still in the middle of the swirl of animals and men, the sounds of language that should not be heard in the temple, Jesus flailing with the rope and beating anyone who approached him. I was sure I would faint, and I may have blacked out for a moment, for suddenly there was the sound of coins striking the stones, a great cacophony of coins, curses shouted by the merchants, priests yelling for calm. I looked across the open way to see the Roman soldiers in a watchtower from which they could look down over the temple walls at the commotion.
Angry priests, angry merchants, Jesus beating people with the rope, and the Romans were watching. It was a scene difficult to improve upon, though the terrified animals dashing through the crowds managed as they found open gateways and made their escape into the streets around the Temple grounds. I could hear people shouting from beyond the Temple walls now. Looking behind us at the gate, I considered leaving quietly, unnoticed, but I could not leave Jesus, my brother, the others. James was standing with his mouth open, as unmoving as I except for the twitching of his hands and his eyes following Jesus’ movements.
That’s when I heard Jesus yelling about his father’s house and thieves. I had never seen him angry before this, and it was impressive. The priests were yielding, some even looked embarrassed, though most of them were angry, outraged. Meanwhile, the merchants were either chasing the livestock down the adjoining streets or on their knees gathering coins, all too busy to enter a dialogue with Jesus about his motives.
I thought they would kill us all. They would arrest us, beat us, and maybe even crucify us for all I knew. What was the punishment for disrupting the temple? I did not know. The last man who had done it had used an army, had destroyed the city before hauling slaves away into Babylon. We had no army. The Temple had guards, though, and there were the Romans who did not enjoy disturbances. At the least they would throw us into prison. I thought of my father, of word reaching him that his sons were in a Roman prison.
No one tried to arrest us. I kept watching the faces around us, waiting to see who would think of it. Surely the idea would occur to someone very soon.
Finally, Jesus threw the rope back into the empty oxen stall and walked out of the temple grounds. I was glad to follow. As we walked, Jesus a few steps ahead of the rest of us, we kept looking back to see whether we were being chased by the merchants and ahead to see if the Romans were coming to arrest us. Neither happened.