Sermon, Palm Sunday 2016
March 20, 2016
Religious holidays and ideas that have risen to have homogenous meaning, that mean very much the same thing in the common mind in our culture, are among the most difficult to preach.? Making a concept have near universal meaning often times is a religious political objective.
When George W. Bush wanted to have our country invade Iraq for the second time there was a huge and organized effort to label Iraq and Saddam Hussein as part of an axis of evil complete with enough uranium to build an atomic weapon that would be aimed at the heart of our freedom.? His administration was just successful enough at creating fear in the wake of 9/11 to drive us into a murderous rampage that has only served to continue to destabilize that region of the world and make us less free and more fearful.
A campaign that has not been as of yet, so successful, is the Black Lives Matter effort.?? After centuries of forced subjugation and slavery followed by another one hundred years of segregation, the effort to convince white America of our continuing racism that still dooms a very large percentage of Black Americans to ghettos, poverty, police and civilian shootings and prison, this effort to say that black lives ought to matter more than they do, has not been an easy education.
Palm Sunday has been a successful homogenous creation even though out of the four stories we have in Mark, Matthew, Luke and John only one of them, the least historically valid one, the last one created, is the only one that uses the term ?palms? for this event. ?Palms are so much more celebrative than what the earliest traditions are?bare branches and cloaks.
The first seventy years of tradition remembered Jesus coming into Jerusalem not as a King on a noble steed but as a populist prophet on the back of a nursing mother donkey with its colt beside her as people took off their outer cloaks and laid them in his path as a sign that they honored Jesus as ?Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!?? In addition, the earliest stories add that folks went out into the fields and cut branches that they laid in his path.
Ancient Israel?s weather is not so unlike our own.? There were no palms to be cut.? Trees are still bare and most likely what the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had were the branches that they had brought with them to Jerusalem to start their cook fires and by which they stayed warm at night.
Certainly there is a strong tradition that Jesus came greatly beloved as an alternative to Pilate and the Roman Occupying force that also came into Jerusalem at the same time.? Jesus came in from the east as a sign of hope filled liberation in a very humble way.? Pilate came in from the West with full military and political pomp and circumstance.
The two met in the middle and we are only too aware, much like those of us who remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the only winners have been the so-called military industrial complex.? Millions died in their homeland and we have hundreds of thousands of veterans who fought bravely and mostly with honor who have come home with injuries and memories of war efforts that were politically and practically ill-conceived.
I remember George W. Bush sending the troops off to war, us in their support with the infamous phrase, ?May God bless America.?? It is a phrase, ?May God bless America? that is so strikingly similar to the phrase used in both the traditional psalm used today, #118, and in the reading from Luke?s Gospel that quotes Psalm 118, using it in the context of Jesus? arrival in the city of Jerusalem, saying,? ?Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!?
I had to get out my dictionary for this one.? The word is pronounced bless?d when used as an adjective and, same spelling, blessed (blest) when used as a verb.? Is the person being blessed by God or is Jesus blessed, as in he is very good.? Or, if you go down the list of definitions, #6 reads, damned, when used euphemistically. ??Do political leaders mean we are bless- ed or that surely our God will bless us in our war efforts. To be followed by most of us asking, ?Who cares, what does it mean, if anything, to me today??
Does faith, does church, does religion, does believing or not believing change our status with God, with the Holy, with all that is Divine?
In my reading Daniel Clendening noted how a few weeks ago the New York Times published an opinion piece that ought to be required reading for this week’s Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday.? It’s by Kate Bowler, a thirty-five-year-old historian at Duke Divinity School, and called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me” (February 13, 2016 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0).
Bowler was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer four months ago.? It was a “massive tumor” and not a bad gallbladder that was causing her abdominal pain.? After falling to her knees in tears, and crying in the arms of her husband, one of the first thoughts she had was also, “Oh, God, this is ironic.”? Why?? Because she had recently published a book called “Blessed.”
As a historian of Christianity, Bowler has specialized in the American prosperity gospel that promises us health, wealth, and happiness.? For her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2013), she spent ten years interviewing megachurch pastors, watching televangelists, and listening to celebrities pray for people in wheelchairs.? She joined 900 tourists on a trip to Israel with Benny Hinn.? Raised on the prairies of Winnipeg, Bowler observes that even some of her own famously modest Canadian Anabaptists, the Mennonites are nothing but plain clothed capitalists who have bought into the idea that the right kind of faith leads to blessings.
“Blessed” is the operative word, says Bowler, a shorthand for the prosperity gospel.? As in “I am blessed.”? As in a #blessed hashtag at Thanksgiving.? For many Christians, “being blessed” is the goal of the gospel.? In Bowler’s judgment, this gospel of prosperity and blessing has become “a full-fledged American phenomenon.”
There’s a good and proper sense of the word “blessed,” she observes, as in a deep sense of gratitude for God’s goodness.? But among prosperity preachers, “blessed” is a reward for right faith.? This narcissistic sense of “blessed” includes a palpable sense of entitlement and smugness, not to mention the shaming and blaming of others who exhibit faulty faith
In other words, and as Oprah has said, there’s no such thing as luck.? And certainly not bad luck.? Only a divine order for my good.? A quid pro quo of God’s blessings for my faith.? “This is America,” writes Bowler, “where there are no setbacks, just setups.? Tragedies are simply tests of character.”
According to the prosperity gospel, “everything happens for a reason.”? This is what one of Bowler’s neighbors assured her after knocking on her door after her cancer diagnosis.? The neighbor said, ?Be at peace, everything happens for a reason.?
“I’d love to hear it,” said Bowler’s husband.
“Pardon?!” replied the surprised neighbor.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.”
The prosperity gospel tries to exert order over the chaos in our lives, to solve the mystery of human suffering, “because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say, ‘Wow.? That’s awful and unfair.'”
And so the prosperity gospel “offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you?. The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end,” and regardless of obvious evidence to the contrary.
In a passage that could have been written specifically for Palm Sunday and the passion of our Lord, Bowler writes:
“The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America?s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I?m going to need to let go.”
After a long litany of pain and sorrow, the psalmist this week surrenders his life and his illusions of self-rule to God: “Into your hands I commit my spirit?. My times are in your hands.”
Jesus’s life comes to a violent end this week.? There are no false promises, no easy way out, just his horrible screams about being abandoned by God. He’s executed as a criminal by the Roman government.
In the garden of Gethsemane he prays, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).
And on the cross he quotes the psalmist for this week, “into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:6, Luke 23:46), words which the first martyr Stephen also quotes at his own execution (Acts 7:59).
And so Paul instructs us this week, surrender your self and your illusions of control, commit your life and your self to God.? Beware of the fools? gold of false promises.? “Have the same attitude that was also in Christ Jesus.”
Bowler’s cancer diagnosis has upended her life.? She can’t be certain she’ll see the day her son starts elementary school.? She wonders about buying books for projects that might never get finished.? And so, she writes, “I have surrendered my favorite manifestos about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential.”
Her unexpected vulnerability and loss of control over her life have given Bowler what she calls “new ways of being alive.”? She writes, “I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfect moments? Life is so beautiful.? Life is so hard.”
Cloak Sunday, Bare Branches Sunday is Jesus riding his donkey into for him the holiest of cities surrendering himself and his movement into that larger than life religious/political/cultural center of ancient Jerusalem.? He came into town loving, angry, calm, hungry for good food and justice for his people.? His was an early campaign that Jewish Lives Matter in the midst of that horrible Roman Occupation.
Was he bless?ed?? Sure he was.? Was he blessed?? It was a tough blessing that he lived to his death.
For today, we dare suggest that we are blessed with God?s unending love that we might serve to bless others and be called bless-ed.