Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Palm Sunday Sermon


Building Up and Tearing Down
Margaret M. Sequeira, MTS
UU Fellowship of the Rappahannock, March 24, 2013


Reading Luke 19:28-40


I begin with a heartfelt thank-you for once again welcoming me and my family here today. It is such a joy to return to you and once again share my thoughts and reflections.  When I talk to people about coming to preach here, I always tell them what a warm and welcoming community you are and what a joy it is to come here.

Today is Palm Sunday.  It marks the beginning of the most sacred week in the Western Christian calendar and is known by Holy Week. The Orthodox Churches operate on a different calendar and for them Palm Sunday is not until April 28 and Easter on May 5 – their Easter may actually feel like spring!   In Christian churches, people will hear this very same reading from Luke, they will receive blessed palm branches to take home – some will even be taught how to weave the palm into a cross.  This week will be marked by a number of worship services, on Thursday known as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, depending on one’s tradition, will commemorate the Last Supper where Jesus washed the feet of disciples and the institution of the Eucharist.  On Friday, Good Friday, Christian churches will mark the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The week concludes actually on Easter eve – Saturday evening  – with the Easter Vigil Service or at sunrise on Sunday morning with Easter Sunrise Service marking Jesus triumph over death in the Resurrection.

Now it is also important to note that Christians are not the only ones celebrating an important holiday this week.  In the Jewish calendar, Passover begins.  Passover marks the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and beginning of their forty year journey to the Promised Land.  Moses is the hero of this story – finally convincing Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and then leading them safely away when Pharaoh changes his mind. Moses too is not always a popular hero.  Not long after the Israelites flee slavery in Egypt do we find them complaining about hunger and thirst, how Moses should have never led them out, that they would rather be slaves where they at least had rations.  Passover remembers and celebrates the Exodus and it is the foundational story of liberation and each year the Jewish people re-tell the story and pass it along to the next generation.

Now why begin this sermon on Building Up and Tearing Down with all this information about upcoming religious holidays?  Well, this is our context – these holidays are happening all around us.  We see Easter eggs and bunnies, sales on holiday foods, the Matzah and other Passover foods in the stores.  Maybe even members of our families are inviting us to join them for these celebrations. So we are not isolated or apart from these – we are in the midst of it.  Some of our UU Congregations are participating in and celebrating them in their own various ways.

So let’s talk about this reading from Luke and what this all has to do with building up and tearing down.  The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is found in all four gospel accounts.  In each of the accounts Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey or colt and the people lay their cloaks and tree branches on the ground to greet him.  He is greeted as hero, as king.  Our story does foretell that not all are happy with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – our antagonists, the Pharisees – are already trying to figure out how to stop Jesus.  Now a note about the Pharisees and the gospel stories as they are often portrayed as the enemy to Jesus and his message.  It is important to note that the Pharisees were fierce opponents to the Roman Empire and sought to preserve Israelite law and customs in a hostile, oppressive environment.  Their insistence on the law was a form of resistance to Rome and many of them were crucified for their actions.  After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD their role of preserving Jewish law and custom was even more important – yet that often brought them into tension with the followers of Jesus.  Luke’s account, which is addressed to a specific community of Jesus followers, comes after 70 AD – after the Temple has been destroyed.  This is important because for too long the Jews have been the ones held responsible for the death of Jesus – specifically the Pharisees and Sadducees.  The Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus – the Roman rulers were responsible for executing Jesus.  Dominic Crossan in his book Who Killed Jesus? makes the case that the passion narratives are a form of propaganda for the early Christian communities following the expulsion of followers of Jesus from Jewish communities.

So back to our story, Jesus comes into Jerusalem triumphantly – with the people praising him with the words “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”  So how is it that one who enters with so much adulation and praise is then by the end of the week put to death?  And not just executed but abandoned by his friends – only three women stay with him during his ordeal.  Among his closest friends, the disciples, one, Judas, turns him over to the authorities, another denies him three times, Peter.  In the end he dies feeling forsaken by all including God. How does this happen?

Now Jesus’ teaching was not always popular.  One of the first things he does upon arriving in Jerusalem is to throw the money changers out of the Temple.  This act alone would have been seen as a threat to Roman rule and occupation - enough to get him executed by the Roman leaders.  He has tough words for people, particularly for the rich.  Jesus was a prophet and the role of the prophet is often unpopular.  Many of the Hebrew Prophets faced persecution and death.  We human beings are often very resistant to hearing the truth.

Secondly the people were longing for a leader that would get them out from Roman rule and oppression. They wanted a revolutionary. Yet the kingdom that Jesus preached was not the one the people expected.  People had heard the stories about Jesus – probably greatly exaggerated – and had built up a particular expectation, a particular hope.  When that did not come to pass, they were disappointed.  When Roman officials came for Jesus, they were too disappointed and afraid to stand with him – even those closest to him.

Let’s turn to some of our most revered heroes and prophets. Today we revere William Ellery Channing , one of the father’s of Unitarianism in America, for his abolitionism – actually all three New England fathers of Unitarianism  - Channing, Emerson and Parker were all abolitionists.  Yet Channing’s own congregation, Federal Street Church, was not pleased with his abolitionism and they eventually came to part ways.  After insisting on officiating at the funeral of a prominent abolitionist, Channing would preach only one more time at Federal Street.  Even we Unitarian Universalists can show a certain aversion to painful truths.

We often build up our heroes to impossible expectations, whether sports, politics or religious.  We also will tear people down when they take positions that are contrary to our own or don’t live up to our expectations.  In all these cases, the building up or tearing is because we have created an image for the person that is based in what we want not necessarily what is true.

One common understanding of Jesus is that as uniquely the son of God and in fact equal to God in divinity.   Ralph Waldo Emerson challenged this notion of Jesus.  Emerson in his Divinity School Address preached “Jesus taught that God incarnates himself in man evermore goes for the anew to take possession of this world.”  He rejected Christian teaching that limited the indwelling of the divine to one or two people – rather for Emerson Divine indwelling was available to all.  Jesus, for Emerson, was a great exemplar of a teacher who lived and showed others how God lived in him and encouraged others to do the same.  For Emerson the projection of Divinity uniquely onto Jesus is to set Jesus on a false pedestal, much like the crowd in our story.  It distorts the reality of Jesus and his message.

In the quote from Howard Thurman in the order of service*, Thurman had built an image of Jerusalem that did not match the actual Jerusalem he was visiting. He writes “the Jerusalem of my present experience was in profound conflict with what the Jerusalem of my imagination had taught me through the intimacy of my religious tradition and teaching. I felt the great gulf that separated the present place and the symbolism of what that place meant in the history of my own life and tradition.  I do not desire to see it again.”  Like Thurman we have built in our imagination an image of Jesus, an image of Jerusalem.  Thurman wants to flee the actual Jerusalem in favor of the one of his imagination.  How often do we do this? We often prefer our own image over reality.

Sometimes we prefer our own image because it lets us off the hook. Emerson makes this point – when we make Jesus divine we let ourselves off the hook to emulate him. After all we can’t do what Jesus did – Jesus was God.  Sometimes we just so want to believe.  All the sports stars, public figures that we or minimally the media put on pedestals. We put standards on them that are impossible and distort who they actually are.  It is detrimental both to us as fans – as we are then devastated when they fall off the pedestal – and the person who cannot possibly live up to the impossible standard.

We need heroes and heroines.  We need their stories for inspiration, encouragement, for hope.  We also need to let our heroes and heroines be flawed and imperfect.  I loved the Harry Potter books in part because the hero was not perfect.  Harry Potter broke the rules, he got his friends in danger and trouble, and then he pushed his friends away.  Yet he is also a great hero.  What if we allowed our real life heroes to be flawed?

Because of course this tendency to idealize people and make them into we want them to be is not just reserved for public figures.  We often do the same thing to family members and friends and then when they fail to live up to our standard we are hurt.  Often in our hurt we tear them down, or toss them out of our lives.  Maybe it is ourselves we set impossible expectations for and then tear ourselves down because we cannot possibly live up to it.   Those impossible expectations we have set are not based on our true self  – but on a false image of ourselves coming from others’ images and expectations, coming because we do not yet truly know our true self.  The further we are from our sense of our true self, the harder it is to see others as themselves.

So I invite us to reflect together on how we may have created others in an image of who we want them to be rather than who they are.  Who have we put up on pedestal that they cannot live up to or torn down unfairly?  Let us seek not to build up people to impossible heights only to be hurt and disappointed when they cannot live up to our expectations.  Let us remember the story of Palm Sunday – of a teacher, a prophet who lived a life in service to others, speaking out for those who had no voice, living on the margins, who was welcomed with great expectation only to be abandoned when he was not what others expected.  Let us reflect that if the message of Jesus’ life and teaching was to show us how to live in the image and likeness of the holy as Emerson proclaimed, how can we see that image of the holy in ourselves and in others.  May we seek to see the true self in the other and not an image we have created.  May we seek our own true self so that we may more easily see the true self of others.  Let us build ourselves and one another up, breaking down those false pedestals and images, and bring forth the holy in ourselves and one another.

*"It is important that I wanted to get back to the long-time security of my Jerusalem, which did not exist in any place or any time but which is a part of the fluid area of my own living experience."  from With Head and Heart by Howard Thurman