29 March 2015

Hollow Hosannas?

Palm Sunday/ 29th March 2015

Mark 11:1-19

A parade, palms, and shouts of praise.  These are the things that come to mind when we hear this story. And, yet, there’s something about this day, the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem, that’s not quite right. 

We call it Palm Sunday, but it’s never called thus in the text.  Did you notice that Mark’s text never says anything about palm branches?  Instead, he says they “spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields,” (Mark 11:8), not from trees.  The church sings its hymns, All Glory Laud and Honor to thee, Redeemer King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring![1]as we did this morning, but there are no children singing sweet hosannas in Mark’s text. Our hymns often enhance and amplify the biblical story. Sometimes our hymns distort and diminish the meaning of the biblical story.  If I was in Jerusalem that day, with my son or daughter at hand, I probably would have made sure that we were no where near the procession route.  Why?  Because, as Mark tells it, this was a risky, dangerous, provocative parade that Jesus orchestrated here.  There’s nothing sweet about this story.  It’s bittersweet.

“Hosanna! Hosanna!” the people cried.  By the end of the week some of the same were no doubt in the crowd shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  It’s knowing this that makes the entire story extremely odd, even disturbing.  Knowing what we know, about what transpired that week, the hosannas sound hollow.  What’s going on in this story?  What were their expectations?  What did Jesus hope to achieve with this demonstration?  What did the disciples think was going on?  What about the crowds, the onlookers viewing this spectacle? What were their thoughts?  And what do they really mean by “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

. . .

The more I read and reread the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and study contemporary biblical scholarship, at least one thing becomes clear (or clearer): this is carefully choreographed political street theatre.[2]  It’s loaded with symbolic meaning, the least of which is Jesus’ riding on a colt, instead of a full-grown horse.[3]  Brian Blount, one of the leading Mark scholars of our day, Presbyterian pastor and president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, says, Mark “spends more time describing the preparations for Jesus’ entry, than the entrance itself, more time talking about a colt, than talking about the intentions of the one who will ride on it.”[4] Mark’s gospel is the shortest; he has an economy of words, the narrative moves quickly.  But here it takes seven verses to talk about the colt.  Did you notice this?  Mark has two verses describing what the people were shouting before they enter the city, then just one verse describing the entry itself.  And, this, too, is a very odd verse: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mk 11:11).  What was the procession for?  Nothing.  What did it really achieve? Not much.  Maybe that was the point: to get the attention of the city and to forewarn them that something new was about to occur.

The next day, in Bethany, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit.  And then he enters Jerusalem a second time, goes straight to the temple mount, turns over the table of the money changers, and effectively takes over the administration of the temple.  “My house that be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17, quoting Isaiah 56:7)!  And that’s when things start to become really ugly.  And when evening comes Jesus and the disciples leave the city again.

So, what did those hosannas really mean the day before?  Hosanna is Hebrew for, “Save, we pray!” “Save us!” “Save,” they shout to Jesus.  Save!  Save from what?  From whom? For what? They’re not saying, “Jesus save us from our sin.”  They’re not saying, “Jesus, save our souls for heaven.”  It’s not that individual; it’s not that spiritual, even.   They’re saying, “Save us, Jesus.  Blessed are you, the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  We have to pay close attention here to this verse. 

If Jesus is bringing in his kingdom, announcing his rule over the city, then what happens to Caesar?  If Jesus is claiming his title as a descendant of King David—which is clearly what the crowds are saying—it becomes obvious that what the people are hoping to be saved from is Roman occupation and the domination of the empire.  And all of this is occurring during Passover, when the population of the city swells with pilgrims in town to celebrate the Passover meal—which is, itself, a commemoration of Israel’s liberation from an earlier empire, from the domination of Pharaoh. 

Religion and politics combine here.  It can’t be ignored—it’s blatantly obvious. You have thousands of people pouring into the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the liberation of God’s people from the yoke of oppression, in God’s holy city, Jerusalem, this city of Yahweh’s “shalom,” Yahweh’s peace and wholeness, surrounded by legions of Roman soldiers brought up annually to the city from the main Roman garrison along the coast to make sure that the city remains peaceful. We know that the city was full of religious zealots and protests against the Romans.  And the Jewish authorities running the temple—not all the Jews, but those in authority of the temple precinct, essentially the Sanhedrin—we know were essentially collaborators with the Roman authorities.  It was their invested interest to maintain the peace.[5]  Rome rewarded them for doing so. And so into this powder keg we have Jesus’ own, carefully planned march on Jerusalem, riding in on a colt, mocking the Romans, as the people shouted “Save us, Jesus!” with the religious and political authorities looking on.  His actions the next day lead to the destruction of the temple economy. 

I don’t know why we love overlook the political dimensions of this story.  We love to spiritualize the Bible, domesticate it, and in so doing we distort it, thus making it difficult to really “hear” what Mark is saying about Jesus’ life and ministry.

Paula Fredriksen, a leading New Testament scholar, makes this clear: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, during Passover, this religious holiday of national liberation, an entry that was directly the result of Jesus’ own commitment to the kingdom of God, “would have been understood by any Jew that the present order was about to cede to the Kingdom of God.”[6]  It’s an act of social, political, economic, as well as theological revolution.

“Save, we pray.”  But things start to turn ugly and the crowds and even some of the disciples start to turn on Jesus because they want him to save them, save Israel, on their terms. They want him to take on their oppressors and liberate them.  They want him to restore things to the way they were.  But that’s not his plan.

There’s something else we need to remember when we read Mark’s gospel.  We have to remember when Mark wrote it, around 70 AD.  And what happened in 70 AD? It’s one of the most important years in the history of the world, one of the most significant dates for both Jews and Christians.  The Roman siege of Jerusalem and, eventually, the total destruction of the temple—the same temple that witnessed Jesus’ demonstration several decades before—occurred in 70.  And we know from the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100), that in 66 AD, at the start of the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD), there was a man named Menahem, a leader in the Sicarri, an anti-Roman Jewish insurgent group.  Josephus said, he “took some of the men of note with him, and retired to Masada, where he broke open king Herod’s armory, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers also.  These he made use of for a guard, and returned in the state of a king to Jerusalem, and became leader of the sedition, and gave orders for continuing the siege.”[7] Mark wrote his gospel only a few years after Menahem’s triumphal entry, someone also claiming to be king of the Jews.  Mark’s hearers would have known about this story.  Jesus and Menahem are not the same.  Jesus comes in a different way.

. . .

Pray, save us.  We, too, sing “Hosanna!” on this day.  What does it mean for us?  What are we really saying?  Blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the coming kingdom.  What is this kingdom? Where, exactly, is the kingdom? The kingdom is not “up there” in some heaven, but here and now for Jesus and Mark. The focus of the gospel is on the kingdom.  Our thoughts during Holy Week are focused so much on the cross.  How could they not be?  But the cross, itself, has to be understood within the context of Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom, the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody.  Jesus faces a cross because of his commitment to God’s kingdom, to God’s empire, which is one way to translate the Greek here.  It’s because Jesus comes bearing the kingdom—God’s empire—in the midst of false empires and principalities and powers, that the religious and political powers unite against him and seek to destroy him.  Cornel West, a contemporary philosopher of religion, said it beautifully, succinctly: “Holy Week is fundamentally about love in the face of empire.”[8] 

Jesus is a threat. His way of love is always a threat to our ways, our assumptions, our ethics, our visions for the way the world should be.  We want Jesus on our terms.  But he comes in a different way, on a colt, not a stallion. And when he calls you and me to follow him it’s an invitation to take his road, to walk his way into the kingdom, on his terms. And so, I wonder, are our hosannas any less hollow when we expect God to “save” on our terms?

These “Hosannas” offered by the crowd bother me, they disturb, even haunt me.  There’s something disingenuous and hollow about them.  Again, maybe because we know the chorus will change its song by Friday.  And we, too, risk being hollow and disingenuous when we say, “Hosanna!” “Save us” and don’t work toward the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus gave his life to show us, which is effectively the same as saying, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” Our hosannas are false when we’re not willing to suffer—or, at least, become just slightly uncomfortable—because of Jesus’ way of mercy and compassion and peace and generosity and hospitality grace and justice and wholeness.  What does this kingdom of God—the very things the crowd affirms in Jesus’ arrival—what does it really mean for us, today, what does it look like in places such as Ferguson; the impoverished places of Baltimore; in the halls of government and the board rooms of corporations that overlook the needs of all God’s children; in places such as Yemen and Tunisia where sanctuaries become fiery pits of hell, where ISIL/ISIS and Boko Haram—the very face of evil—inflict heavy crosses for the followers of the man who once rode on a colt; where technology is wed with the desire to self-destruct unleashing wave upon wave of grief and pain, inflicting wounds that will fester and never heal? What does the kingdom of God look like in these situations?

These are heavy questions.  It’s a heavy week.  Crosses are heavy.  But love requires honesty.  Love calls for truth.  This is the world that confronts us daily, of which we are all a part, a world of crosses and crucifixions, a world that still turns on its savior, a world the savior came to love and heal and save, a world the savior continues to love and heal and save.  In such a world, I want to offer honest, heartfelt hosannas.  Don’t you?  I want mine to be different. Ours have to be different.  The hosannas we can offer to the Lord, the hosannas we sing, the kingdom we pray for and hope, is the kingdom given in the Risen Christ.  Heartfelt hosannas are risky, dangerous, and often provocative.  This is what’s required of a disciple of the Risen One.  To sing “Hosanna!” to him means we have given our hearts, again and again, to his way, to his life, his truth, his vision for the world, his love for the world.  It means aligning our wills with him so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  Blessed—blessed, indeed—is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna!  Hosanna!

Image: Emmanuel Nsama, Triumphal Entry (1969), mural in the chapel at Njase Girls Secondary School, Choma, Zambia.

[1] “All Glory Laud and Honor” is an English translation of a Latin hymn text “Gloria, laus et honor,” written by Theodulf of OrlĂ©ans (c. 750/60- 82) in 820.  The hymn is based on Matthew’s (21:1-11) account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
[2] See Ched Myers’ masterful commentary Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1994), 294ff.
[3] A colt is a male horse not more than four years of age.
[4] Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 187.
[5] For more about Jerusalem during the time of Passover and the complex relationship between the Roman and Jewish authorities, see Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2007).  See also Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
[6] Cited in Blount, 189.
[7] Cited in Myers, 289.

15 March 2015

Voices in the Night

 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 15th March 2015

"The word of the LORD [, that is, Yahweh,] was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1).  This verse sets the stage for what unfolds in this remarkable text. 

It was rare to hear a word from Yahweh in those days.  Visions were not widespread.  Not in their day.  There was a time when people expected to hear a voice from Yahweh.  There was a time when people expected to have visions and visitations, epiphanies.  Revelation had become a thing of the past.  Samuel and Eli and others were living from, living off of earlier epiphanies, earlier visions, earlier encounters with the Living God, not from anything new.

Eli is tending to the ark of the covenant, the dwelling place of God.  The candle was lit near the ark, as it was every night; it burned all night.  Eli, the priest, was near the ark, close to it, but obviously the thought of the presence of Yahweh didn’t disturb him; it didn’t keep him up all night.  Here is the ark, the dwelling place of Yahweh.  Just think of the power of the ark. It would have been like sleeping next to a volcano. Yet, that thought didn’t seem to keep him up at night.

This is an evocative scene: Eli, the priest, a member of the religious establishment, is tending to the religious practices required of him, lighting candles, keeping watch over the ark of the covenant, preserving the rituals of the sanctuary in Shiloh, this dwelling place of God.  And he’s asleep.  Granted, he needs to sleep.  We all need to sleep.  But, here, sleep is the context for what happens; it’s the setting for the story, the occasion for what transpires.  Sleep almost becomes symbolic for something else. Does Eli represent a time when the people of God fell asleep before the presence of God?  Yawning before Yahweh.  Bored with Yahweh.  A time when the people of God served with little expectation that Yahweh would actually speak or move.  Or, perhaps, it was Yahweh who yawned, who fell asleep, bored with his people.

It’s curious that this scene occurs at night, probably close to the dawn, near the moment of first light, in that liminal, in-between place when night yields to day.  It’s while they are both asleep—sleep, when the ego relinquishes its control to the depths of the unconscious—that Yahweh chooses to speak, to speak when they least expect it, to speak when their ego defenses are down, for that’s when Yahweh is most likely to be heard. At night, in a dream state, outside conventional, ordinary, waking experience—that’s when Samuel is available for a word from the LORD.

“Samuel!  Samuel!”  Was it a shout?  A whisper?  Was it a dream? How did Samuel first hear his name? 

Of course, he didn’t know it was Yahweh.  He assumed it was Eli calling, no different from other nights, no doubt, when Eli, poor of sight, might have called out for help from Samuel. “Eli, here I am,” he said.  Samuel assumes that it could only have been Eli calling out his name. It’s striking: even though they’re before the dwelling presence of Yahweh it never dawned on them that God could be speaking, there’s no expectation that the voice was coming from God. They both assumed that God was silent.

And so Samuel runs to Eli.  “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli says, “I didn’t call you; go back to sleep.”  So he went back to his bed. 

The Lord calls again, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  So Samuel gets up and goes to Eli and says again, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli says again, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  So Samuel went back to his bed.

We’re told here at this point in the story that even though Samuel slept in the temple, he was the ward of Eli; the text reads, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7).  This is a remarkable piece of information in the narrative.  Samuel is unfamiliar with the voice of God; he’s unfamiliar with the presence of God.  So there was no way for Samuel to recognize the voice or the movement of God in his life because they hadn’t been formally introduced, as it were.  Recognition is not possible without cognition.  You cannot know again (re-cognize) without first knowing.  And Samuel had no prior knowledge of God in his life.  Surely, he knew about Yahweh, but that’s not the same as knowing Yahweh—there’s a world of difference between the two.

And so for a third time the voice of Yahweh speaks to Samuel.  And for a third time Samuel’s confused.  He assumes that Eli is the only one there.  He assumes that there can only be one person calling his name, only one option: Eli.  And so for a third time he goes to Eli and says, probably frustrated at this point, “Here I am, for you called me.”

It’s only then, after the third visitation that Eli begins to awake from his own spiritual slumber.  You can almost imagine him slowly beginning to realize what is happening.  Even though Yahweh had been silent for a long time, Eli knew enough about Yahweh, knew something about Yahweh’s style, knew something of Yahweh’s approach to recognize a visitation when it happens.  Eli knew it was Yahweh.

“Go,” Samuel, “lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”  And so Samuel went and did as he was told. “So Samuel went and laid down in his place.  In time Yahweh returned and “stood there,” the text said, “calling as before, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’”  And this time he was ready. “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Then Yahweh began to speak to Samuel.

This is a lot for a twelve-year old to take in, isn’t it?  This is a lot for anyone to experience.  Perhaps we should be grateful that experiences such as these are not that common.  At some level any encounter with Yahweh, as we see throughout scripture, is disturbing and unsettling. Our immediate response might be something like fear, which is why the angels of the Yahweh are forever saying, “Fear not!”  After the initial feeling of fear, one thing becomes evident: once you have a religious experience like Samuel’s there’s no going back.  Normalcy is forever altered.  There are people who have never had a religious experience in their lives and hope for one, they hope for something that will confirm their faith.  I can understand that hope.  On the other hand one must be careful what one hopes for.  Once you have such an experience there’s no way to undo it.  It’s yours and then you’re responsible for it, responsible to it—to be faithful to it.

There are other folks in our day, some even in the Church, who believe that religious experiences such as Samuel’s were for an earlier age.  It was a different time, a different dispensation.  Perhaps we’re too sophisticated for epiphanies and theophanies, for spiritual experiences.  Perhaps in our age we’ve become so jaded and cynical and hurt and disappointed to the point that we, too, say, “The word of the LORD is rare in these days; visitations are not widespread.”  And so there are plenty of folks who have fallen asleep in the temple of the LORD, yawning before Yahweh, never expecting to hear a word from God or experience anything profound. Others, like Samuel, go about their religious practices and rituals, without any expectation that the Holy is about to be heard or encountered.

That wise poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) once said there are things “not known, because not looked for.”[1]  If you have no expectation that God still speaks, if you’re eclipsing any possibility of encountering the Living God, then don’t be surprised if you’re disappointed.  As Jesus said, “Those who seek, find” (Matthew 7:7).

So, what if we assume that God is still speaking, still seeking us, still trying to appear in many ways, how will we recognize that voice?  How will we recognize the Voice that summons us in the middle of the night?  We need an experience, a cognition, first. And we all need mentors who can help show us the way. Eli’s advice to Samuel was very wise and that truth still holds for us today.  Say, “Speak, LORD, your servant is listening.”

We are called to listen.  To listen is to be receptive to what God is trying to say to us in our lives. 

Listening requires presence.  In other words, in order to listen we need to be present, in the moment, not somewhere else.  It’s difficult to listen to someone if you’re thoughts are elsewhere.  We have to be present.

Being receptive means we have to be open, available, removing the obstacles that silence the Voice.  Being receptive means shutting up long enough to listen for what God might be trying to say.  It requires silence.  It’s difficult to listen to what someone is saying when you’re doing all the talking or when the internal chatter carries on incessantly in our heads as someone talks to us.  You know someone is speaking to you, but it sounds like the voice of the teacher in Charlie Brown; it’s almost impossible to really listen and understand what is being said.  The same can be said of our relationship with God.

And the same is true with prayer.  There’s a place for speaking in prayer, voicing our praise and petitions to God.  But there comes a time when the words must stop, when we realize there’s nothing left to say, and so we become silent and still and we open ourselves, becoming receptive to the "word" that might be coming the other way, a word from the silence, coming from God.  St. Isaac of Syria, writing from the seventh century, said, “The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God.”

It’s a terrible risk, you know, all of this.  It requires trust.  Can we trust the silence to speak?  Can we sit long enough in the silence and listen?  Can we trust what we hear? Can we trust the Voice? 

Samuel, quite innocently, even naively, opened himself up to the voice of Yahweh.  The reading for today ends at verse 10, with Samuel saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening!”  The lectionary completely skips what we find in verse 11. It completely omits what Yahweh said to Samuel and what God said was not what Samuel wanted to hear, not what he expected to here.  Samuel discovers God’s impending judgment against the house of Eli, against the blasphemies of Eli’s sons, actually.  The message Samuel receives is difficult, abrasive, and devastating.  As you can imagine, Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what he saw and heard.  But Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  He had to.  That’s the risk.

And that, my friends, is how prophets are born—or called or formed.  The text says, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”  Samuel was obedient to what he heard and saw.  Samuel knew that he was beholden to the Voice.  He had to be.  He had no choice. 

This is what is means to be a prophet within the biblical tradition.  The first task of the prophet is not to foretell the future.  The first task of the prophet is to listen to the Voice of God and then speak to the people, not what the prophet wants to say, but what the prophet has to say, is compelled to say, is called to say.  This is also a good description of how ministers are called and a good way to describe the life of a preacher and how sermons are formed.  What the prophet says is for the sake of the people because it’s for the sake of God and God is on the side of the people.  “The prophet,” Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, says, “is somebody whose role is always to be challenging the community to be what it is meant to be—to live out the gift that God has given to it.”[2] 

The person who perhaps best captures the image of a prophet for us is Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).  King a preacher, yes; a reformer, yes; an agitator, sure—but it was his role as prophet that really made King, King.  What he said was challenging to hear (then and now), but he was challenging this nation and the Church to be what it was meant to be, to live up to it’s own ideals and vision, to live out its calling.  That’s the role of the prophet. We can hear it in so many of King’s sermons and speeches and sayings, such as this one: “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”[3]

Prophets aren’t the only ones summoned to listen to God.  We’re all called to listen, called to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10).  And in that stillness, in the silence, actively listening with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), in time, you will hear something—a still small voice whispering in your ear in the middle of the night or a voice that shakes foundations—that will change your life. 

“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  This, too, can be our posture in prayer.  And who knows…you just might be summoned to be a prophet.  You never know.  You might be summoned to become a preacher.  You might discover a voice you didn’t know you had, a voice the world needs to hear.

What matters most is that we awake up from our spiritual slumbers.  There is so much in our lives that wants to lull us to sleep.  But we need to wake up and then listen and then follow wherever the Voice wants to take us.

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” from Four Quartets.
[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 13.
[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (1963).