Saturday, March 31, 2007

Palm/Passion Sunday




When I was a boy, today was a very important day.  We’d prepare for it in advance, work out our strategies – we knew the two important phases, the fact that up until lunchtime was Phase One – getting people to fall for some ridiculous story – Phase Two of April Fools Day started after lunch, the phase of playing practical jokes and the all-important sticking of notes on other peoples backs.  Phase Two was the really paranoid half – the absolute pinnacle of humiliation was to find you’d been walking around for half a day with a ‘kick me’ sticker on your back.

April Fools Day has got a long and uncertain history – it seems the playing of tricks was an important part of spring celebrations right back to Roman times but many historians believe that the April Fools tradition is also related to the medieval festival of the church known as the Feast of Asses – a day when all the solemnity of the church was overturned, when peasants pretended to be bishops and sermons gave way to a sort of ribald drama and a procession in which clergy dressed up as fools rode hobby horses into the nave.  Eventually the Feast of Asses was banned because congregations got into the spirit of it just a bit too much.

So it seems like a stroke of divine good humour – to this preacher at least – that April Fools Day this year falls on the Sunday of the Passion – that dual celebration when we think both of Jesus’ festive procession into Jerusalem and his trial and execution less than a week later.  Because when you really think about it, much of what Jesus said and did during his life seems pretty foolish by regular standards.  He told some crazy stories and said some pretty outlandish things.  Stories like the farmer who deliberately goes out and plants a field of noxious weeds - and he tells us God’s kingdom is like that.  Outlandish claims like unless you hear the good news with the credulity of a child then you’re going to miss the point, like the claim that the poor are lifted up and the rich miss out, or that if you want to be first in God’s eyes then you have to live as the servant of everyone else.  Upside down stuff, foolish stuff, and he acted in ways that anybody could tell you were a recipe for disaster in the real world.  Like allowing a woman with a shady reputation to give him an extravagant foot-rub at a respectable party.  Like hanging around not with righteous folk, not with people who had any influence, but with nobodies, and lepers and prostitutes.  Upside down stuff that comes from loving indiscriminately, from not being strategic, from following your heart when everybody around you is following their head.  And he tells us God’s kingdom is like that.  It never was going to end well.

And on this feast of Asses we read this strange story of Jesus on his hobby-horse, sitting on the foal of a donkey with both his feet scraping the ground, riding into Jerusalem like a king while his disciples dance and cheer and roll out the red carpet for him.  Except, I bet it never would have made the next morning’s edition of the Jerusalem Post, not the way Luke tells it, anyhow.  Matthew tells it differently, it’s in Matthew’s gospel that the whole city is buzzing with excitement because Jesus is coming to town, and it’s in Matthew’s version that we get the Hosannas and the palm branches.  None of that in Luke’s version of the story.  Luke, I think, fits better with the notion of a solitary fool on a donkey riding up the nave of a cathedral.

Course, I can’t say which gospel account is closer to how it actually happened – both Luke and Matthew are writing their gospels years after the event and both of them have got their reasons for putting a different spin on it – but this year it’s Luke’s turn to tell the story and I think there’s something to be said for following it through the way he tells it, and seeing where it leads us.

No palms.  That tells us something significant.  Because waving palm branches is what you do for a triumphant military leader, that’s what the people did do for Judas Maccabeus, the great Jewish resistance fighter a hundred years before Jesus when he led a brilliant campaign and threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem.  A hundred years later, the people could have used another Judas Maccabeus, a warrior Messiah, but they didn’t get one in Jesus, that’s for sure.  So, no palms.

 No crowds either.  In Matthew the whole city is ablaze with excitement.  In Luke, it’s just the disciples yelling and prancing about.  Luke says it’s a multitude of disciples but, well, there’s the inner circle, the 12, and a few others like blind Bartimaeus who finds he can see again and follows Jesus, there are some women like the three Marys, maybe Zacchaeus now that he’s given away all his money and probably lost his job as well, and let’s say a few dozen more who’ve realised that in Jesus they’ve come across something life-changing - but that’s about it.  Maybe a multitude like we get at St Michaels on a good Sunday, but not the whole city ablaze with excitement, no crowds and nobody else there at all except the disciples and a few grumpy Pharisees telling them to shut up.

And Jesus is riding a donkey.  Just a little one, according to Luke, and it’s not even his.  A borrowed one.  We’re really meant, I think, to notice the donkey, Jesus seems to be riding into the city like a conquering warlord or a king except that he hasn’t got the right vehicle.  No warhorse, just a hobby-horse.

No cheerleaders, no crowds of expectant locals, just a ragtag bunch of ex-lepers, ex-fishermen and prostitutes and fools.  Course there were a few normal folk – a few academics, one or two Pharisees like timid Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who thought that Jesus had got it just about right, but most of the ones who knew that Jesus’ take on the love of God was not just right but mind-blowingly life-changing – most of them were the poor and the marginalised and the sinful men and women Jesus had bumped into along the way.  King of the ragamuffins on a donkey, a humble beast of burden, borrowed for the day.

But Luke adds an extra detail, and it’s this.  The disciples are yelling, ‘blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ – that’s the standard greeting for a Passover pilgrim except that they call him a king – and then an echo of the song of the heavenly host that greets Jesus’ birth - ‘peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!’ – but in the very next verse the mood changes because Jesus weeps over the city that actually hasn’t greeted him at all, that actually hasn’t heard a word he’s said, and as events over the next few days will prove, has rejected outright his radical message of God’s indiscriminate forgiveness and love.  ‘If only’, this is more or less what Jesus says here, ‘if only you could have recognised what peace is really about’.

Do you know what the name of the city means?  Jerusalem – the ‘salem’ bit is a Canaanite word, a variation of shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, and it means a bit more than our English word, it means wholeness and wellness and right relationship. The Hebrew word shalom means living together in harmony, which is why Jewish people use it even today as a greeting.  The point is, here, that Jesus has come to the city of peace with a message of peace, a message of compassionate love that turns the structures of inequality and privilege on their heads, and he says, ‘that’s what God’s like’, and the city says, ‘no way – shut up or you’ll be in big trouble’. 

You ride into town in a jester’s suit, sitting on a hobby-horse and telling folks, turn yourselves upside down and inside out.  Love the silliest and the least, do good to those who hate you, give away whatever it is you think makes you special, it’s when you’ve got nothing at all that you can count yourself lucky because then you’re in the right frame of mind to rely on God.  The Feast of the Asses.  No wonder nobody listened, and he ended up less than a week later, nailed to a Roman cross.

But, what about us?  What are we going to do with this fool who looks like a cheap imitation king on a donkey?  Because, make no bones about it, when Jesus rides into town on his hobby-horse there’s a challenge for the locals.  Do you get it?  Have you got the point and if you have, are you game enough to actually live like this?  You see- let’s not kid ourselves - there’s a cost in living and loving as wastefully and indiscriminately as Jesus does.  There’s a promise, too, and it’s the promise of life that’s fuller and more generous and more authentic, the promise of life that’s so bursting at the seams it can’t be stopped even by death itself – but we’re not there yet.  We haven’t got to that part of the story yet.  We’re still talking about the cost of living and loving authentically.

Sp, what about us?  Are we game to follow this fool for a single week?  It’s going to be a long week, a rollercoaster week - but a week, I promise you, that if you pay attention, is going to change your life.