Sermon The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
April 5, 2020 Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
Matthew 21:1-11 Palm Sunday
Matthew 27:24-26, 33-54 Sunday of the Passion
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son."' The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"
When I was in high school in the early 1960s, one of our field trips for English class was to attend a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The theater was founded by Tyrone Guthrie, the Canadian director who was widely known for his controversial productions of classic dramas. He was one of the first to give the plays of William Shakespeare a modern setting. He would stage Hamlet or Macbeth or King Lear not in the 16th century but in the 20th century complete with contemporary language and costumes. King Lear was no longer a king of long ago but suddenly a CEO running a major corporation, and Romeo and Juliet were transformed into star-crossed young lovers attending high school in the sixties. It was a wonderful way of bringing the plays alive, making them more understandable and having them speak to today's world.
And I got to thinking.
What would Guthrie have done with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the events of the final week of Jesus' life?
How would he have staged it? How would he have set it in today's world?
As someone has suggested, it's like watching a famous tragedy, a famous drama.
Hearing the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his suffering and death that we heard today is like watching a famous drama.
But it is a drama set long ago and far way in a whole other world, and so we might wonder what does it say to us today, how does it speak to us today?
So I got to thinking.
If we could set this story in today's world, perhaps that would help us understand.
Understand what happened, why things went so terribly wrong, and what it might say to us today.
So, if you were in a theater watching a contemporary version of this story, what do you suppose the opening scene would be?
Maybe there would be a backdrop with downtown buildings painted on it, buildings we would recognize as the skyline of Atlanta. And off to one side there would be a street sign and it would read "Peachtree Street."
Then Jesus would enter stage right riding in a borrowed, battered old convertible - a one car motorcade. His followers would be jogging alongside like Secret Service men as a small crowd pressed in on the car to see Jesus and try to touch him. Some in the crowd would be waving and cheering, others would be tossing flowers or even trying to make a red carpet for Jesus by tossing their coats on the street in front of the car.
Jesus riding into our own city.
But what about the crowds - how are we to portray them in today's world, who would they be?
And the disciples - who would they be?
And Caiaphas the High Priest and the Pharisees?
And Pilate - what do we do with him?
And Jesus - what about Jesus?
Well, let's start with Caiaphas.
Caiaphas is often portrayed as the villain of the piece, an evil man who condemned Jesus to death, pressed Pilate to have him crucified, and worked up the crowds to call for his crucifixion. But is that fair or accurate?
Caiaphas was High Priest and he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was the spiritual leader of his people, the Jews, and as such he was responsible for the scripturally mandated sacrificial rites at the Temple and he himself represented the people before God to secure their forgiveness and God's blessing. The Temple was at the very heart of Judaism, symbolizing the presence of God with the people, and Caiaphas was responsible for protecting it and protecting his people as well. He was a man who wanted to preserve the identity and uniqueness of God's chosen people and assure the proper piety of God's chosen so that God would continue to look upon them favorably. He was a devout man who cherished both Scripture and tradition and took both as his guide. But Caiaphas served at the pleasure of Rome. For seventy years Rome had been appointing High Priests in order to guarantee that the High Priest would do whatever Rome deemed necessary to keep the notoriously rebellious Jewish people in line and maintain peace in the province. The High Priest served two masters - God and Rome - and Rome made sure that it exerted as much influence and control over the High Priest as did God, if not more. So when it came to Jesus, Caiaphas was caught between a rock and a hard place. Jesus seemed to be a troublemaker, filling the heads of people with new and even radical ideas, and that could bring Rome down on the heads of all Jews. If Caiaphas supported Jesus, it could mean hundreds of Jews on crosses; if Caiaphas didn't support Jesus, it could mean condemning to death the very Christ of God and bringing the wrath of God down on the people. So what was he to do? Caiaphas studied Scripture, prayed, considered Jesus and his teaching, and in the end concluded that it was better that one man should perish rather than many - it was worth the risk. So not a villain at all, not evil at all, but caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to protect the Temple and the people he held dear.
So who do you think Caiaphas would be in today's world? Before you answer, consider this: Caiaphas was High Priest of Judaism and Jesus was himself a devout Jew, so you can't place Caiaphas outside of Christianity in today's world. On the contrary, Caiaphas would be at the very heart of Christianity. And he would be a member of the clergy. So what do you think? A bishop maybe - a bishop in a mainline Protestant denomination or Catholic Church, or maybe a spiritual leader of one of the evangelical churches, or a televangelist or pastor or priest? (Well, a pastor of a large congregation, not a small one like ours!) Caiaphas would be a major religious leader, a devout person who was dedicated to protecting Christianity and its institutional life and who took seriously his responsibility to maintain Christian piety and practice. Scripture, for him, would be God's clear word revealing God's will and he would also cherish tradition. Yet, Caiaphas would also be someone who is perhaps compromised by his desire for success and more controlled by cultural and political forces than he cares to admit.
So, any thoughts? Any names come to mind?
And now, the Pharisees.
Here too the temptation would be to cast them as villains, but as with Caiaphas, that would be neither fair nor accurate.
The Pharisees were lay people, not priests. They were good people who were deeply concerned that the hostile Roman culture was threatening the identity and distinctiveness of Judaism, sometimes pressuring, sometimes seducing Jews to turn away from what made them Jews. Like the High Priest, they too were committed to preserving the holiness of the people, preserving what made Jews God's particular, peculiar people. Culture was the enemy and their answer was religious law. The law defined what was holy and good, what constituted righteous behavior in the eyes of God, and made Jews God's people. They believed both Scripture and rabbinic teaching spelled out clearly what was expected of Jews. Based on this, the Pharisees set very high standards for themselves and their fellow Jews and followed very strict regulations regarding behavior and association. These standards and regulations defined in great detail right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness, what and whom were acceptable and what and whom were not. Cleanliness laws, Sabbath observance and tithing were all vital to their lives. They expected their fellow Jews to live up to their standards and follow the regulations and if they did, they were acceptable to them. Those who refused or failed were not to be associated with. Any lowering of the standards would serve to only further dilute Judaism and lead to even more moral confusion. Commandment, absolute moral standards, strict adherence to Scripture, was the only way and many Jews admired the Pharisees for their religiosity, their clear values, their strong moral stands.
So how do you picture the Pharisees in today's world? Here again you must be careful: as with Caiaphas so too with the Pharisees - they would not be outside Christianity but at the center of it. As they were lay leaders of Judaism of which Jesus was a part, so today they would be lay leaders of Christianity. So who might they be today? Perhaps good, devoted members of Christian churches of all kinds who are very disturbed by what is happening to Christian belief and morality in our culture. They would find religious commandments and Scriptural teaching to be the answer to the lack of clear values and the moral confusion of so many. They would believe in living up to very high standards and that right and wrong can be clearly defined. Judging others would be important in order to guide people and keep them away from harmful and dangerous associations. Some might even take pride in their knowledge of Scripture, their understanding of God's will and their spirituality.
So how would you cast the Pharisees in today's world?
And then there are the crowds.
Who were these people who had heard Jesus teach and preach, perhaps even saw one or two of his miracles, welcomed him into Jerusalem with such great hope and yet finally turned on him?
In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky describes the masses as seeking bread, miracle and authority. And maybe many in those crowds fit that description. Perhaps there were those who expected Jesus to literally provide bread, increase their economic security, improve their lives in a very real, material way - or at least to give them bread enough to keep them content. And perhaps there were people who wanted miracle after miracle, expected miracle after miracle not only to cure themselves but also help them believe – believe that Jesus really was from God, had the power, was truly the Christ. And maybe there were people who wanted to hear authoritative answers, wanted someone to tell them what to do, someone who would remove all doubts and confusions and make them feel secure in their belief. But also among the crowds were perhaps those who saw Jesus not simply as a spiritual hope but a political hope as well – the one who would start a movement to set the people free from Rome's oppressive rule, establish Israel as a nation again, set up a kingdom on earth. And also among the crowds were those who couldn't live up to the Pharisees' standards and thus were outcast and rejected, or those who found Temple worship empty and the Pharisees' emphasis on rule and righteousness to be suffocating - people who found the religion of the day a deadly thing and were searching for something different, seeking something that gave them a sense of hope and life and being near to God. So many different people in those crowds.
So who would they be today? Well, there are certainly people today who expect Jesus to give them bread, increase their prosperity, make life better for them - who believe that faith should work, that faith should lead to tangible rewards, that faith should make life better. And there are people inside and outside churches who need miracles to believe, who need God to do something to prove that he is there and has the power. And certainly there are many today who crave authoritative answers, who want some authority figure to tell them what to think and do and thus remove all confusion and doubt. And there are also those who want God to establish his kingdom in America, who want God back in schools and courtrooms, who want their political platform to be adopted by God. And of course there are a number of people who find churches and organized religion to be empty, lifeless, and are seeking a new spirituality, seeking purpose and meaning. And there are those who feel outcast by Christianity, judged and condemned.
So can you picture the crowds in today's world? Can you put some faces on them?
And now Pilate.
Pilate was Rome's man in Palestine who was charged with keeping the Pax Romana - peace as Rome defined peace - in a land far from the glitter and glory of Rome, a land known for insurgents and revolutionaries and general troublemakers.
By all accounts, Pilate could be ruthless and brutal, a true law and order man. But then that's the way Rome kept the peace, kept the roads open and trade flowing, the economy strong and the empire flourishing: by force, violence, killing anyone who dared threaten the peace. But Pilate also upheld Roman justice and protecting the innocent, though he was not above the occasional sacrifice of the innocent for the sake of order and the public good. Pilate was a consummate politician who knew how to work the various factions and keep them in line. He kept an eye on the public opinion polls and knew which way the wind was blowing, knew what would please the people and keep Rome off his back. Pilate was probably also very good at self-preservation – protecting his position and his pension. He would have had to have been, given the job he had.
So who would Pilate be in today's world? A politician of most any stripe would probably fit, but in particular, I think, a politician who has compromised his or her original high ideals of public service in the midst of the nasty game of political survival - someone who has come to be ruled by the polls, who understands the need to keep big contributors happy, who is willing to sacrifice justice at the altar of political expediency. Perhaps position and pension have come to mean everything to him or her. And power.
Here too perhaps you can put a face on Pilate.
And finally, the disciples.
Fishermen and laborers and a low-level government official or two, and beyond the inner circle of the twelve, single women and housewives, farmers and carpenters and trades-people and business owners, most of them poor but a few rich ones too, and some broken-down wrecks and misfits and outcasts.
They were everyday people, some of whom had left everything to follow this Jesus. Most of them didn't know their Scripture very well (evidently, they didn't pay attention in Confirmation classes either!); many of them couldn't even read and had to rely on religious teachers for interpretation and understanding. Something about this Jesus had attracted them like no one else had. There was a power to his presence and words that was almost irresistible, a sense of life about him that made them feel alive like never before. He said things they didn't fully understand and did things they couldn't really comprehend. He had a compassion about him that seemed to encompass everyone. He didn't seem to be so concerned with religious doctrine and ritual as he was concerned with people, with them. They came to believe in him, believe that he was the Messiah, their hope and salvation, yet still they had a lot of questions about what that meant exactly and at times they felt that they had gotten in way over their heads, especially when Jesus talked about suffering and dying. They didn't like that. They had their own personal agendas of course. Some hoped that Jesus would finally give them some status in the world, make them successful as the world measured success. Others saw him as a political figure and pinned their hopes for freedom from Rome on him. Others saw a chance to escape their old lives for a new life, some adventure and excitement. But all of them, in one way or another, came to fall in love with this Jesus and had to be near him and feel the life and hope he put in them.
And in today's world who would they be? Certainly believers both inside and outside the church, people who are deeply committed to Jesus, people who love him, put their faith in him, want the life only he can give, follow him and try to live out the Gospel even though they still have questions. They would be different from one another, have diverse views, have different social and political agendas, and yet find commonality in their love for Christ.
And so maybe you should put your own face on a disciple in today's world, put yourself in their company.
And now back to Peachtree Street and Jesus entering the city.
Bishops and televangelists and clergy are there, though they watch from a balcony and do not look pleased. And lay people are there, leaders of various religious groups, but they too are at a distance and look upset. But the crowds are not upset - they are waving and laughing and pressing in on Jesus. And deeply committed followers are there, staying close to Jesus, enjoying it and yet overwhelmed by it too. The mayor and governor are not there, but they have people present who will report back to them.
The atmosphere is electrifying. There is such hope in the air - the hope that everything will change, God will draw near, peace and joy will fill the very earth. But in a few days Jesus will be dead - dead at the hands of Caiaphas, the Pharisees, Pilate and the crowds; and the disciples will have uttered no word of protest, will have kept silent and abandoned Jesus.
So what happened?
Well, the first thing we need to understand is this: it was not outsiders, not "them, out there," not some enemy of God, not atheists, not evil godless people who killed the Christ of God; it was insiders, believers, good, serious, wellmeaning religious people, leaders and everyday people. In today's terms, it was "Christians" who killed the Christ of God.
It's the way it was and still is.
To understand that we need to understand Jesus.
And the way to understand Jesus is to see him as God's radically new thing.
The Christ of God is a Christ who was beyond Scripture, could not be confined within Scripture, even seemed to violate Scripture. And he was a Christ who could not be entombed in doctrine or tradition, a Christ who shattered every neat and tidy summary of him. He was a Christ who refused to be reduced to rules and commandments, who refused to live according to standards and morality of human devising, who reinterpreted Scripture in a radical way. He was a Christ who turned the world upside down, who endorsed no political agenda, who blessed no personal agenda.
He was a Christ of God who invited people into relationship with him, not into relationship with an institution or doctrine or ritual, and invited them to follow his way of serving and being in the world.
And thus to be in relationship with him was both a wonderful and terrifying thing: he gave life to his followers, and yet called them to give their lives away for his sake; he gave freedom to his followers, yet called them to yoke themselves to him; he gave hope to his followers, yet called them to abandon their meager hopes for themselves and live with an extravagant hope for the world.
To fall in love with this Christ of God was to be changed forever and live in disturbing, wonder-filled, terrifying ways.
He was God's utterly new thing, utterly new way of bringing salvation and life.
And now perhaps you begin to understand.
Caiaphas acted to protect the institution of the Temple and the people themselves. And he felt justified in doing so because Jesus didn't seem to value Temple worship or respect Temple tradition and even threatened to destroy the Temple itself. No true Messiah would be like that, Caiaphas believed, based on his reading of Scripture. The Pharisees also acted to protect and preserve believers and true faith and practice. Jesus, to the mind of the Pharisees, had few, if any, standards - he violated Sabbath law, violated the dietary and cleanliness laws, associated with sinners and outcasts. On the basis of both Scripture and tradition, it was clear to them that Jesus was not the Messiah and even more, a dangerous teacher who had to be stopped. And the crowds? They felt let down, disillusioned. Jesus did not give them what they wanted and in the end he didn't even have power enough to save himself, let alone anyone else. No Messiah would allow himself to be crucified like a common criminal. And Pilate? He acted to keep the peace, maintain order. He knew the charges against Jesus were trumped up, but there was something he couldn't ignore. He kept hearing words like "king" and ''kingdom" and that was enough to justify his action. There was only one emperor or king and he was Caesar, and there was only one empire or kingdom and that was Rome. Pilate would not and could not allow any rivals. Politically speaking, he did the prudent thing: he pleased the people, kept the peace, and did away with a threat to the empire. And the disciples? They acted to protect themselves, save their own skins. So they ran. No cry of protest from them, only fear and betrayal and silence.
And it's no different today: insiders, Christians themselves, continue to kill the Christ of God, and he is killed in the same ways.
Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to protect believers' images of God and their institutions and to close themselves off to the new thing God is doing. Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to justify cruelty toward others, condemning and excluding others from the family of God. Christ is killed whenever Scripture is used to confine God within personal opinion and prejudice and belief, rather than open us to the God beyond the God we believe in. And Christ is killed whenever we seek to entomb him in tradition and doctrine and institution. And he is killed by legalistic morality - religion that suffocates love and compassion. And he is killed by political expediency and by allowing no threat to our own little empire and by turning him into a Jesus who supports political agendas and cultural values. And anger and disillusionment kill him. And fear and silence - the silence of believers who do not protest him being killed by believers themselves.
It was the sad, hard truth of Palm Sunday and the days that followed, and it is the sad, hard truth of today.
And will the story ever change?
Or will the same, sad, drama be played out year after year, century after century?
Well, the story can change, if we will change.
We must allow Christ and the Gospel to change us.
We must enter truly into relationship with him and let go of our precious opinions and views and even beliefs and allow him to give us new beliefs, new views, new thoughts and wants and wills, new hearts and minds.
That is our hope and the hope for this world as well.
And it is a hope that depends not on what happens "out there" with "them", but what happens in here with us and in millions of other churches.
Christians must stop killing the Christ of God.
And start being Christs themselves.
Christians must start allowing Christ and the Gospel to take center stage again in their lives.
And write a new script.
A new story that ends in hope and great joy!
A Pastoral Prayer (after F. Buechner)
O Christ of God who comes,
you are the hope of the world -
give us hope!
Give us the hope that beyond the worst the world can do there is such a
best that not even the world can take it from us, the hope that none
whom you love are ever finally lost - not even to death.
O Christ who died,
who suffered loneliness and pain for our sake,
And let die in us all that keeps us from you and from each other and
from what we have it in us at our best and bravest to become.
O Christ who rose again,
Holy Spirit of Christ,
arise and live within us!
That we may be your body, that we may be your feet to walk into the world's
pain, your hands to heal, your heart to break, if need be, for the love of the world.
O Risen Christ, make Christs of us all!
And we pray too, O Lord, that you would comfort and strengthen the sick, the hospitalized, the suffering and the hurting. Be not far from those who are dying, those who grieve. Especially do we pray for all who are ill with the coronavirus, both in our nation and around the world. And we pray for Carolyn Herche, Michelle Bryant, Ralph Turner, Barbara Hellwig, Harold Finney, Linda Keyser, Justin Markham, Martha Ratzman, Kay Douma, Judy Cable, Annette Flanigan, Ryland Jones, Joanne McGee, Sharon Allison, Barbara Gordin, Walt Sternke, Bill Dixon, George Pringle, Carl Berkobin, Sandy Tiedemann, Genelda Clinton, Eleanor Gibson, Sarah Fields, Kristi Gordin, Winifred Pernell, and Roberta Lecour. And for all those family and friends so dear to us.
And cast out our fears by your love, O Lord. Calm the storm of worries within. Create within us hearts that trust in you.
And help us to give thanks this day, O Lord - for your love which sustains us, for all your gifts to us, for the healing and hope with which you grace us. And thanks for all the healthcare workers and other workers who risk themselves to keep us healthy, keep us fed, keep us going in one way or another.
And let us always be a friend to the lonely, the frightened, the hungry, the helpless, the homeless.
And peace, 0 Lord, peace on this earth! Teach us the things that make for peace, teach us again your way. Guide our nation, guide our world, along the path that leads to life and hope for all your creation.
And now in the silence, O Lord, we pray our most personal prayers and listen for the word you speak to us...
O Lord, help us now to go forth with praise and joy! Grace our days with laughter. Give us the faith that trusts that all shall be well.