Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Which Gate? For Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday lays a question before us, maybe the most important question of all. As John Crossan and Marcus Borg describe it in The Last Week, it’s a question about two parades on the same day, one coming through the east gate of the city, the other through the west.  The important question is, “Which gate?”  Through the west gate, coming from Caesarea Maritima, comes the infantry and the cavalry, with the Governor, Pontius Pilate.  It is a national festival, and the army is arriving to stifle any unrest, any thought of rising up against Rome.

Through the east gate comes an odd and ominous parade.  Jesus of Nazareth enters on a donkey, laying claim to the city as anticipated by the prophet, Zechariah: 
                                    “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
                                    Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant
                                    and victorious is he, humble,     
                                    and riding on a donkey.

It is the first of a series of provocative actions, actions that spell trouble for the religious leaders and for Herod, actions that threaten their tenuous hold on the power they borrow from Rome.  On Monday, he will return to Jerusalem and confront the temple authorities. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus calls the temple a “den of robbers”, quoting Jeremiah 7.11, which excoriates the religious authorities of that prophet’s time for treating the temple as a kind of “safe house” in which they can evade the consequences of their abominable behaviour.

On Tuesday he will chastise a group of Herodians for carrying a coin that bears the image of Caesar and ascribes divine status to him. That same day, he will denounce the Saducees (Mark 12.24-27), the chief priests (Mark 11.27-33) and the scribes (Mark 12.38-40).

On Wednesday, an unnamed woman anoints him for his death. Immediately before the anointing, we hear that the chief priests and scribes are looking for a chance to arrest Jesus “by stealth”, away from the crowds who revere and protect him. On Thursday, Judas gives them that chance.  Finally, in the darkness, no longer surrounded by the crowds, soldiers take Jesus to a new place where he is surrounded by new crowds.  In front of the high priest, at Herod’s home, facing Pilate, he is no longer protected by crowds who would have no access to this drama.  Sleepless, beaten, and reviled by this other crowd, he stumbles to the Place of the Skull, Golgotha.

Which gate? You’d have to choose the west gate, wouldn’t you? That’s where the heavy hitters come in. That’s where the winners gather. That’s where “Who’s Who?” meet to look after “what’s what’.  It’s the savvy, practical thing to do – to join the parade “most likely to succeed”. And by three o’clock on Friday afternoon, “what’s what” is very clear. Jesus, who twisted the nose of every authority in town, is dead. And yet we gather, every year, to remember the donkey parade.

And just in case we’re inclined to make the lines too clear, tempted either to despair (because we so easily choose the wrong gate) or smugness (because we can’t imagine ever making that mistake) the critical moment of recognition will come to a soldier of the Roman occupation, who exclaims “God’s son” as Jesus dies. The first evangelist came in the wrong gate! (And Judas came in the right one.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Tell the Stones - For Lent 5

There in the valley of dry bones stands our ancestor, carried there by the hand of God. Just as with Jesus in the wilderness, led there by the Spirit immediately after his baptism, we learn that Ezekiel’s journey is the work of the Spirit. This is no tame Spirit, then. And these are no green pastures, no still waters. In fact, this valley’s principle feature is its utter lifelessness. Not so much as a drop of water or a breath. 

God leads our ancestor around the valley, and it’s nothing but bones, nothing but dry. This lifeless valley and its bonescape are what has become of the people of God. God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live. “You tell me.” But he knows they can’t. Dead is dead. Over is over. 

“You tell me,” says Ezekiel, to the Holy One, who replies – “I’ll tell you. YOU tell the bones.” Prophesy to them, tell them that things are about to be quite different for them. Tell them to be alive again. Walking through the bones, our dreaming ancestor does tell them. And his words have the power of God in them, carry that power into the midst of them. Suddenly, dead is not dead and over is not over. Instead they clatter together, clothed by the power that rides on Ezekiel’s words, clothed with sinew and flesh. Then the breath that Ezekiel calls up fills them like a wind-filled sail and stands them on their feet, alive.

I wonder if Jesus has this story in mind as he stands in front of the grave of Lazarus. We know that he weeps like us, feeling the power of death all around him, and within him. Does he remember an ancient story about death’s power and God’s new life, told in home and synagogue?  Does he call up the breath of God, the Spirit of God, the mighty wind of God, to blow away the smell of death from this place and fill the life of Lazarus like a sail? 

When we think of ourselves as worshippers of Jesus, we can keep this all at a safe distance. The wonderworker has done this extraordinary thing, has called up the Spirit of God, the mighty rushing wind of God and Lazarus lives.
And if we can keep Ezekiel safely in the past, a bible man living in a bible world in a long ago bible time, then we can reminisce about the things God used to do in the good old bible days. And be safe from any expectation that such a thing – such a Spirit, such a breath, such a wind – could blow across our lives into some dying part of the life of the world and fill it like a sail.

But when we are followers of Jesus, and when we know Ezekiel as an ancient self not so different from the self each of us knows as “myself” , then there might be some expectation upon us, (as disciples) to do a little Spirit-calling ourselves.

And that might mean that we are in the bonescape, not by some dreadful mischance or mischoice, but because that’s where the Spirit waits upon our calling. What if it is the hand of God that carries us into whatever valley of bones we endure? Would that change how we see our valleys, our wilderness, our losses? 
I wonder if there is, somewhere in each of our lives,  some valley, wilderness or loss that is, in truth, an invitation to us to summon the Spirit of life into a place of death. Do we hear somewhere in these stories, the voice of the Holy One – “I’ll tell you.  YOU tell the bones."