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Luke 22:39-42, 47b-53
If you’ve come to church today hoping to escape politics, to get away from the non-stop name-calling, blame-gaming, power-grabbing, fear-feeding, anger-fueling, and blatant “let’s make America white again” presidential campaign, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.
Because, on one level anyway, Holy Week is all about power and control—the struggle to keep it, the fear of losing it, the importance of defining it, the call to confront it and, ultimately, the willingness to surrender it for something so much better.
If you’ve come to church today looking for easy answers to life’s difficult questions or perhaps a much-needed lightening of life’s heavy load—well, I’m a seeker too, but today’s message is not so straightforward.
Because—spoiler alert—the path Jesus embarks on today, the same way he calls each of us to walk—the path of peace in response to violence, justice in the light of inequality and inhumanity, love where there is hatred, reconciliation and healing that leads to new and abundant life—well, that path leads first to death on a cross.
But if, instead (or, perhaps, in addition to those other, totally legitimate longings) you’re here because you want to believe that love—true self-giving, self-emptying, no-holds-barred love—can transform you and the world, you’ve come to the right place.
If you’re here because you need that kind of love—the kind that will do anything and everything for your well-being, not because you deserve it or because you’ve earned it, but just because you are made in the image of God and you exist—well, welcome home. You’re in fine company here, and you can rest assured the life-giving mercy we all depend on is made-to-order fresh every morning (not by us, but by our Creator).
And if you’re here because you want to walk this hard week with Jesus, the one who gave up everything to walk with us—well, I really shouldn’t get ahead of the story, but let me just say that I think you’re well on the way to new life. God bless you!
Because Holy Week is not, of course, only about how to make it through the next few days with Jesus. It is also about how to live our lives in this beautiful but broken and often brutal world that God loves so much—how to stay grounded in Christ, who is grounded in God, who is Mercy upon Mercy and Love without end.
From the Mount of Olives Jesus would have had a first-rate view of Jerusalem. Even today, that is where the tour buses take Holy Land pilgrims to help get them oriented to the major sites. There they can also pose for dramatic photographs, with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the gleaming gold cap of the Dome of the Rock as a backdrop.
Back when Jesus looked across the Kidron Valley and into Jerusalem’s simmering mix of power and poverty, empire, subjugation, collaboration and corruption, he would have seen the massive temple complex looming over the rest of the city. Already the temple courts would have been crowded with pilgrims come to celebrate Passover, the holiest festival of the Jewish year.
As Jesus waited for his disciples to come back with a borrowed donkey colt, he might also have been able to see a long column of dust rising from the west. Chances are he knew what that meant: the approach of Pontius Pilate’s military procession, a massive show of Roman force designed to maintain order and repress even the faintest hint of Jewish rebellion.
Jesus was not interested in rebellion; the donkey symbolized humility and peace. He was not interested in political empires or economic power; he proclaimed the realm of God on earth, where the last will be first, the lives of the poor and oppressed will matter, the oppressed will be set free, all who hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied.
He was no fool. He understood that the kingdom of God threatened the empires of money and military might. It threatened the religious authorities, too, and anyone else who had been so worn down by repression and fear that their daily hope was not justice by mere survival.
This was why Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey: to be perfectly clear. His parade was the opposite of the Roman procession: humility instead of might, a carpet of branches and cloaks instead of the tools of war and repression, shouts of longing and hope (“Hosanna” means “save us”) instead of the silence of fear.
The kingdom Jesus proclaimed was one of peace. The order he preached was one of abundant life for all. But, yes, it would disrupt the powerful and dethrone the mighty. Yes, it would require the sharing of resources, the lifting up of the lowly, the bringing in of outsiders, the relinquishment of power and privilege. His was not a political program, but rather a radical spiritual path with clear political and economic ramifications.
Yes, the realm of God will disrupt the powerful and dethrone the mighty. Yes, it will require the sharing of more than enough. Yes, it does call for tearing down walls and bringing in the lost and the least and giving them the best seats at God’s table. Yes, it will create a ruckus. Yes, it will set all of us free. But first—first—we must remove our cloaks of status quo; first, we must leave the empire’s path of false security and illusory greatness and follow Jesus on the nonviolent path of compassion and justice, mercy and love. First, we must give up our privilege.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
That’s how the ancient Christ hymn begins before going on to describe how Christ willingly gave up his divine privilege, how the Word who was with God and was God became flesh and lived among us, how he willingly emptied himself and loved others selflessly—even to the point of death on a cross, so that we might live into our divinity, so that we might know the fullness of life.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”—the mind of self-emptying, the mind of equality not privilege, the mind of tender, heartbroken love that holds nothing back.
Ground yourself in Christ.
It’s a tall order, isn’t it? Where do we even begin?
Years ago, and still now and again, entering into the lives of others—briefly—was kind of a thing. Back when I was an aspiring journalist, there was even a name for one form of it: “participatory journalism.” Central to this form of reporting was the idea that to really understand a way of life and the people who lived it, a reporter had to do more than observe. And so a reporter would, for a time, immerse themselves in that world, perhaps even going undercover to become, for a time, the very people they wanted to understand and write about.
And so it was that a writer named George Plimpton played on a professional football team, spent time on the pro golf circuit, and otherwise indulged his sports fantasies. More recently, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spent a year undercover, posing as an unskilled, low-wage worker to better understand and explain the inequities of our economic system. (This is also how I came to spend an afternoon performing as a clown in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.)
But here’s the thing: When George Plimpton was getting pounded on the football field, he always knew his easy chair awaited him at home. When Barbara Ehrenreich was eking out her days on minimum wage, she knew she could go back to her privileged life whenever she wanted. Their self-emptying was temporary; they could always go back to the way things were.
But for Christ becoming fully human was no lark; living with the dispossessed was not a project. It was who he was created to be; it was what he was born to do.
When, on that fateful night in the garden, he all but shouted “No more of this,” I think he meant more than swords and violence and the abuse of power. He knew that, for him, there would be no going back to his life of teaching and healing, loving and truth-telling—that was what had led to this moment. It was all on the line now. This was it. And so he emptied himself further; he gave all he had.
In the same way, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King knew there would be for him no going back to a regular Sunday pulpit, no comfortable family life. He knew what the end was gonna be, and still he pressed on.
In the same way, once Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero began to understand the plight of his people, he knew there was no turning a blind eye. He was in the struggle for the long haul; he would live and die with the people, presente.
And in much the same way, to be grounded in Christ means to root ourselves in his self-emptying, self-giving love. To be grounded in Christ means not simply to dip our toes in the waters of faith and then retreat to dry, safe land, but to fully immerse ourselves in the lives of the lost and the least and to let our hearts and minds be fully transformed by the powerful Spirit of Love.
It is a tall order. It is a deep dying. It is an invaluable invitation to new and real and abundant life.
“Stay with me,” Jesus all but begged of his disciples that night in the garden. “Love one another,” he had told them at supper.
The week we begin today is both holy and hard. The tragedy is not only what happened to Jesus; it is also how his disciples and friends betrayed, denied and deserted him.
Will our hearts be led by love, or will we give in to fear? Will we follow him to the cross and out of the tomb, or will we settle for the way things are?
Come, beloved. The hour is at hand.