“Jesus Stories”

In the small village of Cabot, Vermont, where I spent the first three years of my life, the 4th of July parade was a big deal. My mom’s face still gets animated when she reminds me about the year I starred in the parade. My parents’ friends, Arnold and Mary, owned a dairy farm. Their land spread out across rolling bluffs above the village, the house and barns perched at the top. I can still hear the distinctive cadence of their thick New England accents. Mary would bustle around the house, preparing food and chattering about her experiences as a teacher. Arnold was a quiet man, but more often that not, wore a broad grin and a sparkle in his eye that suggested mischief.

In the faded color pictures that preserve my moment of small town fame, I’m a shy, little blond kid sitting with great solemnity next to the big, smiling, sunburned farmer sporting a red T shirt and red, white and blue overalls. The hay wagon, pulled by a Clydesdale work horse, appears to be an antique, with its wood body and wood-spoked wheels. The wagon sports an enormous round hay bale, a couple of modest sized American flags, and a tongue in cheek sign declaring: “We roll our own”.

Like most parades, Jesus’ ceremonious entrance into Jerusalem was not spontaneous—it was very well planned. This event was carefully crafted– whether by Jesus himself, or by the storytellers who came later—as a staged political demonstration intended to communicate the essence of Jesus – who he was and what he valued. The palm Sunday processional alludes heavily to the scripture and tradition of Israel. The Messiah will enter Jerusalem from the east, from the Mt. of Olives, and that is what Jesus does.

However; while many sources imagine the Messiah to be a warrior, our texts mines different strands of tradition. All of the Gospel accounts of this event allude to Zechariah 9:9-10, which proclaims: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…”

The humble royalty of the Palm Sunday Jesus, swaying through the cobblestone streets on the back of a young donkey is meant to offer an ironic, even humorous contrast to the glimmering swords and snorting war horses of Rome. Jesus, this ritualistic moment declares, is a ruler of a different sort, one who destroys the weapons of war and who commands peace to the human heart and the heart of nations. And yet, Jesus knows this vision is not to be, not yet.

In the verses that immediately follow his entrance to Jerusalem, he weeps over the city, “saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Indeed, at Jesus’ birth, the angels sang “Peace on earth”. Now, the multitude of disciples chanting Psalm 118, the traditional song of piligrims entering Jerusalem, no longer lay claim to “peace on earth”. Instead, they sing about “peace in heaven.”

Today, March 24th, is the anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s assassination in 1980. Here’s the essence of his story (I’m quoting the venerable Wickepedia): “On 23 February 1977, [Romero] was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador. His appointment was met with surprise, dismay, and even incredulity. While this appointment was welcomed by the government, many priests were disappointed… The progressive priests feared that [Romero’s] conservative reputation would negatively affect liberation theology’s commitment to the poor. On 12 March 1977, Rutilio Grande, a progressive Jesuit priest and personal friend of Romero who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor campesinos, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path…”

The account continues: “In response to Fr. Rutilio’s murder, Romero revealed a radicalism that had not been evident earlier. Traditionally, the church had been seen as complicit in the aims of the state and military to privilege the wealthy and powerful while the majority of the population remained in abject poverty. [Romero] spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. Romero was shot…while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite.”

It’s quite significant, to me, that Romero died celebrating communion. The Eucharistic meal in this context, is a profoundly political act. It is not only about spiritual nourishment, but about the creation of an earthly reality that ensures the bread of life and the cup of blessing for all. Like Romero, Jesus is the hero of the common people, the peasants, who lay their coats before him, and place their hopes in his way of being.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem, he continues to offer himself and his vision with generous persistence, with a gentle power of spirit and purpose. In the face of an empire that employs the torture of the cross to silence him, he holds firm, with unwavering commitment, to his own story, the story that has grounded and shaped him since his youth: the story of Passover and Exodus. It’s the central Jewish story, which identifies the character and intention of God as one who liberates us from slaveries of every kind. The palm Sunday narrative portrays Jesus as one who courageously chooses this way of freedom and peace against all odds. As others declare that a world of equity is impossible, he envisions and enacts this world with unwavering passion, until his last breath. Grieving over our human attraction to the ways of violence, Jesus continues to hope for our earthly transformation.

Theologian Charles Hefling, in an article titled Why the Cross? comments on the traditional idea that Christ accepted his suffering so that we would not have to suffer. He writes, “It is the other way around. He accepted it because we do have to. His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them. Accepting that way, the way of the cross, was an act of solidarity with us …” (Christian Century March 20, 2013, p. 26)

As we mused in my Lenten small group, there is no satisfactory explanation’ for the suffering that is part of human life. It’s a mystery, with a capital “M” as one person said. When it comes to the dying and the rising of Jesus, there is no real explanation either, only a story. I encourage you, this Holy Week, to immerse yourself in the Jesus story. Be present to it, ponder it. Travel, with Jesus, through the washing of feet and the eating of supper and the betrayal of friends. Yes, this is a shameless commercial for the Maundy Thursday service this Thursday at 6 pm, a worshipful feast in remembrance of Jesus’ last supper. Come if you are able! It will be a beautiful, meaningful evening. But don’t stop there. Come on Good Friday noon, or read the Gospel lesson for yourself, using the handout in the back of the sanctuary. Go to the garden of agonized prayer, feel the weight of the cross and the pain of the nails. Meditate over the suffering in your own life, and look out over this bruised world. Ask God, why have you forsaken us? Touch the chilly stone of the tomb, watch through the endless hours before dawn.

As you experience this story, muse over it, wonder over it. Ask yourself: What is my Jesus story? In what new ways might I receive this narrative? Are there old understandings I first need to release so that I can hear some life-giving word? The story that leads us to the Easter moment is not a solution or an answer; it’s capital M mystery. But it is a promise, a promise that the story isn’t yet over. The story’s not over until we eat the bread of life and drink the cup of blessing as one human family. The story’s not over until we all share in the joy of heavenly peace made real here on earth. Amen.