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Instead of Looking for Elijah, Let’s Look at the Suffering Before Us: Palm/Passion Sunday

Sunday, March 25, 2018:
Mark 11:1-11
Psalm 118
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14-15

Holy and immortal God,
open our hearts to the Blessed One,
so that we may enter the gates of your justice,
confessing in our words and in our deeds
that Jesus is Lord, now and for ever. Amen.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

That’s how Mark begins his story. A story with that succinct opening, and that continues along briskly with scene after scene, vignette after vignette. Jesus and the Twelve move along, and heal. Move along, and teach, preach, and proclaim. Move along, and upset some people. Move along, and be embraced by people. And then repeat, healing and preaching, etc. Culminating in the triumphal entry, that parody of an imperial procession, with our King not on a war horse, but on a donkey.

And at this point we’ve arrived at the back end of the story. And those animated, rapid-fire scenes give way to a molasses-paced dream, or paralyzing nightmare. Where instead of zipping around from town to town, all across the country, (we still find Jesus — and ourselves — tossed about from place to place,) but everything’s now limited to the area in and around Jerusalem; a crowded town getting ready for the high point of the Jewish year, the Passover. Imagine the anticipation, the tension, and the numbers we had on Ezra Street in uptown Waterloo just a few days ago, and we get close to the feel of the city in Mark’s story. The scenes get longer, the distances shorter; now moving from house-to-house, palace to palace, garden to courtyard, from one mob to another mob.

The story, the nightmare we just heard rolls out in three sections:

– In the first, Jesus is surrounded by friends and followers. At the house in Bethany, where we meet the unnamed woman; the only other character who seems to understand what’s going to happen. We move on to the Last Supper in the upper room. Where on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus is somehow able to give thanks. A last moment with the core of his group together. Which quickly descends into incredulous questions about an impending betrayal. “Surely not I?” they repeat. And it’s after this nervous soul-searching that they share a meal together. I suspect more difficult, more tense than we usually imagine. We know that bread was shared, and a cup passed around.

Today I’m finding myself wondering about their appetites. I can’t imagine Jesus having much of one that night. And I wonder if that’s part of why he falls to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane. In that final scene in this first section, still surrounded by friends — the inner circle of his inner circle — but where they can offer no comfort, no solidarity.

And, with a kiss from one of his supposed friends we move deeper into the nightmare, where in this next section of Mark’s story we find Jesus surrounded not by friends, but by accusers. Judas and the band of thugs with, in my mind, torches and pitchforks. And those playing parts in the various religious and civic legal proceedings: religious leaders; false witnesses; the Roman governor; shouting crowds; mocking, physically abusive guards.

And this Kafka-esque section of prosecution and persecution leads into the third, and deepest layer of the nightmare. An abyss, or sunken place, where paralysis becomes restraint by rope and nail. Now Jesus is surrounded not by his friends, and not a mob of accusers. Here he is alone, God-forsaken. The cycle, the nightmare of desertion having run its course. Now arguably he’s not entirely alone, as a few accusers remain, in the form of the mocking passers-by and the criminals on either side.

The only glimmer of hope and humanity in this scene comes in the distance. The narrator clues us in; I don’t know if Jesus, due to blood and bruises, and the orientation of his Cross, if he even knew they were there. Off in the distance, the group of women, more faithful and courageous than the Twelve apostles.

As I’ve read and reflected on this nightmare in recent days I find myself with lots of questions. What exactly is the significance of the various mystery characters that punctuate the story? Like Simon, the man with the skin disease; the woman who anoints Jesus for his burial. Jesus’s contacts in the city, who had the room prepared for the Passover; the person in the Garden who cuts the ear off the slave of the priest (I wonder if he was aiming for someone else?); the false witnesses at the trial — had they had any dealings with Jesus previously? Or were they random pilgrims there for the Passover? Who is the young person following at a distance? (Why only dressed in a linen cloth? Why did the Gospel-writer preserve this seemingly random detail?)

I wonder about the people who seem fixated on seeing if the great prophet Elijah will reveal himself and intercede. Does that episode unsettle us as much as it should? Who in our world today, we might ask, is more concerned with religious or ideological observance and spiritual phenomena, to the detriment of actual human well-being?

I wonder about what should be said, what needs to be said today. If anything really needs to be said. St. Paul would probably be content that in the long reading we’ve indeed heard that ancient Christian proclamation of “Christ crucified.”

I find myself drawn to the soldier at the foot of the Cross. Complicit in the execution, yet he makes a statement of faith after watching Jesus die. I’m honestly not sure what exactly he saw in Jesus at that moment that opened up his heart. But I pray that we might be so open to really looking at Jesus, and being moved by it.

And so I encourage you to spend some time with this story. And do consider, seriously consider, observing, as you can, the services of this coming Holy Week. So that, as we journey alongside Jesus in these fateful days, and in looking to the Cross, we would be more attuned to God’s mercy and presence in the often brutal story, and in our often brutal world.

So that we get a glimpse of what the woman saw, when she anointed Jesus’s head.

And to grow in compassion and concern, to be more like the women who watched from a distance. And to reflect on that soldier, who, like us, is so in need of God’s mercy, and is moved to say “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”

Only a God of infinite mercy and surprise could bring life, and goodness, out of this nightmare. But to get to the new life of Easter, we first walk the way of the Cross. And we ask ourselves about who this God is that shuns divinity and dares to enter into the nightmares of our world, and what we so often do to each other.

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter