Palm Sunday – March 25, 2018

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Rev’d Canon Claude Schroeder

We began our service this morning with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where the crowds, we are told, waved palm branches in the air.

But today isn’t really about the Palms. It’s about the Cross, which explains the our Palm Crosses. Although Good Friday marks the actual day Jesus was crucified, starting today and throughout this Holy Week, it is the Cross, and everything that led up to it, which is the subject of the Church’s worship, meditation and devotion.

What is the Cross?

For us the Cross is the ultimate revelation of God on this earth.

The Cross is God saying, “This is who I am. This is the way I am.”

It is Jesus who, on the Cross, reveals God to us in the way He dies as a human. (John Behr)

But if Jesus, on the Cross, shows what it means for God to be God, He also shows us what it means for humans, who have been created in God’s image, to be human.

When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror?

This is what we are doing when we contemplate the Cross.

It is because of the Cross that we say of Jesus Christ that He is fully God and fully man.

Now in the service we had at St. Mary’s on Ash Wednesday we heard that “in the primitive church it was a the custom to observe with great devotion the days of Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.”

We are the heirs of that custom and that tradition. Today marks the beginning of Holy Week.

It is not business as usual. Our business this week is with God and His Cross.

So how do we go about this?

We just heard Matthew’s story ofJesus’ account of the Passion. On Thursday night we will gather to commemorate the institution of the Holy Communion, recall the humility and self service of Christ in washing the feet of the disciples. We will have supper together and then go into the Garden to watch and pray. On Good Friday we will gather at noon to hear John’s unique account of the Passion. We will pray for the world, venerate the Cross, and partake of the Holy Communion.

And then?

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to linger a while at the foot of the Cross, that we might truly enter into the joy of what happened next….

A few years ago Hollywood produced a film directed by Mel Gibson called “The Passion of the Christ.” I went to see it, and was quite traumatized by what I saw. What Mel Gibson did in his film was to focus our attention in a very graphic and clinical way on the physical pain and suffering that Jesus endured. We were given ringside seats. Crucifixion wasn’t an especially efficient method of execution, like firing squad, hanging, beheading or today, lethal injection. Crucifixion was essentially a method of torturing someone to death. It often took a while for things to run their course, hours sometimes days. In order to speed things up the Roman execution squad would break the legs of their crucifixion victims, so that they would longer be able to lift themselves up to take a breath, and thus suffocate. Because of the beating He received beforehand, Jesus didn’t last all that long. It was all over in about six hours. 

It’s interesting to me that as we listen to what the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have to say about what happened, how little attention they give to the torture. In Matthew we have one line about the beating and another line about the crucifixion.

But what evangelists record in lurid detail are the insults and the mocking taunts that were hurled at Christ.

“Away with Him. Set Barabbas free!”

“He saved others, let him now save Himself, if this is God’s Messiah, the Chosen!”

The scarlet robe and the crown of thorns were not physically painful, but torturous bits of mockery.

Remember that old saying,” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It is not true. The enduring wounds we carry throughout life often have to do precisely with the words which we have heard spoken to us, about us, and against us, often in childhood.

All of which is to say that Mel Gibson missed the point. His film contained a serious theological error, and its an error that many theologians and artists in the past have made. It’s the idea that what was saving about the Cross was the pain Jesus suffered in the whipping and the beating and the blood and the nails, and that this is what God demanded in order to forgive us.

The saving healing power of the Cross consists not in the pain Jesus endured but in the shame that he endured. As it was written in the Book of the prophet Isaiah, ”I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” (Isaiah 50.6)

When St. Paul in today’s epistle reading from Philippians writes that Jesus “became obedient unto death, even unto death on a Cross- ”even” does not mean that the Cross was painful above all pain, but rather that it was shameful above all shame.

The Passion of the Christ is not about the pain. It’s about the shame. But we seem to prefer narratives of violence over narratives of shame.

Why is this so important? Why do the evangelists and St. Paul make such a big deal of this?

We find the answer in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where we are told “the man and his wife were naked and unashamed. ” However after they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which God had told them not to eat, their eyes were opened, and they realized they were naked. Contrary to what we might expect, Adam and Eve not feel guilty about what they had done. Rather they were ashamed of themselves.

Shame is a primal emotion, and it is wired into the very fabric of our being. Whereas in guilt we feel badly about what we have done. (I have made a mistake) In shame we feel badly about who we are. ( I am a mistake) It is the deep pain we feel in association with ”who we are.” It is extreme vulnerability and nakedness in the face of which we will do one of two things: try and cover up, or run and hide. Adam and Eve did both.

So how do we go about covering up our shame and hiding from God and from each other?

We do it by the way we dress, the way we speak, how we use our bodies, and especially our faces. (Can’t look someone in the face, when we are ashamed.)

We do it by associating ourselves with the “in group.”

We also cover up our shame in the way we engage our emotions in the face of hardship and disappointment which declare our unworthiness, incompetence, inadequacy and so on, like when you lose your job or get fired. It’s why what is first experienced as shame quickly translates into either anger or depression. While anger and depression aren’t exactly a lot of fun either, they infinitely preferable to shame, and somewhat easier to manage.

Shame is not only a primal emotion, and an unbearable one, but also a “sticky” one. When in the middle of the recital the little girl on stage makes a mistake on the piano, or loses her place in the piece, after it’s all over will burst into tears and wish the floor would open and swallow her up. But the audience who has witnessed what happened also feels badly. It’s why when your husband or wife gets sacked, or your child gets arrested or kicked out of school, they might well feel ashamed, but you will feel it along with them. lt’s why when you attempt to shame someone you don’t like or disagree with, by making a global statement about them, calling them a jerk or an idiot, you end up feeling ashamed. By your comments, you tried to push that person off the cliff but ended up taking their hand and jumping off with them.

God of course does not shame us. God did not want to talk to Adam and Eve about their feelings. He wanted to talk to them about what they had done. The shame they were feeling was a distraction.

So what are we to do? There is saying from one of the ancient fathers of the Church. “You cannot escape shame, except by shame.” (St. John Climacus] In other words, we have to bear a little shame. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16.24-26) It’s not an invitation to pain and suffering, but the bearing of a little shame.

What does this look like? How do we do this? One way we do this is by coming to confession where in the presence of God and another human being we acknowledge what it is that we have done or left undone. We speak about the things about which we are ashamed. God will forgives us our sin, and will cover our shame. This is who He is. This is the way He is.

Everything that we experience as sin, whether it is our own sin against someone else, or someone else sinning against us against, is an action that involves shame. What did Jesus say? “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5.44). In other words, forgive everyone for everything, and in so doing you will bear a little shame.

Finally it seems to me this business of bearing of a little shame is inescapably part of getting old. This is when, in the words of our Psalm today, ” my life is waxen old with sorrow, and my years with mourning. My strength fails me because of my adversity, and my bones are consumed. (Psalm 31. 11,12) You don’t look as good as you used to. You don’t see as good as you used to. You don’t hear as good as you used to. You don’t remember as good as you used. You don’t walk as good as you used to. The day is coming when you may end wearing a diaper, or have somebody else clean up after you. (I would rather you not see me this way.) Talk about embracing your vulnerability, which is another way of describing what it means to bear a little shame.

I remember once being called the General Hospital to see a man. I found him wandering the halls. When we got to his room. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Not good.” I said, “Tell me more. ” He said, “ I am trying to figure how I can kill myself.” I said, “What’s the problem?” He said, “The problem is this… ” and he pointed down to the urine bag which he was now going to have to carry around with him for the rest of his life as a result of the surgery. He said to me, “How can I go and see my friends, smelling of pee?” Here was a man so overcome and overwhelmed by the shame of his life that he was contemplating suicide.

So what it does it mean for us to bear the shame of old age? What we have been given to do by the Church, is to give thanks always and for everything. In the midst of the crucifixion of your life the Church invites you to lift up your hearts and give thanks unto the Lord, for “it is very meet, right, and our bounden duty that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord…” (BCP p. 78)

It was said of Jesus that “for the joy set before him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12.2)

This is path that Jesus sets us on in Holy week. It is the path to the joy and to freedom of Easter. Amen.