“Palms to Shadows”
Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden
>>Let us descend with you, O Lord, from waving palms to soulless shadows, even as Easter begins to dawn. Amen.<<
Today’s service on the liturgical calendar is like oil and water – an odd mix of celebration and shadow – moving from waving palms to shrouded cross, as the cheering dissipates and the shouts of “crucify him” rise. We begin our Holy Week descent today, what the band Nine Inch Nails calls the “downward spiral” – the descent St. Paul talks about in that great poem in Philippians ch. 2 we heard a moment ago. Christ, writes Paul, “was in the form of God” in the heights, but descended and “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” dying a slave’s death on a cross; for in the Roman Empire only slaves or political criminals died in public shame on crosses.
In his book The Orthodox Heretic , Peter Rollins illustrates this descent with a story about overthrowing an emperor. “There once was a mighty emperor,” writes Rollins, “who had known only victory and prosperity during his entire life. Such was his success in battle and his absolute power over his subjects, that many considered him divine. The emperor ruled with an iron fist from a majestic palace built high up in the mountains – a vantage point from where he could survey his vast kingdom. Over time, he had built up the largest army that the world had ever known – an army before which every nation trembled. … [O]ne night this great leader had a terrifying dream. In this dream he witnessed his vast army laid waste before him and his great palace in ruins. Then he heard a divine voice saying, ‘There is a heavenly power at work in your empire that can bring your whole army to its knees, a power that transcends your earthly reign.’ The emperor awoke and said to himself, I must see this divine power for myself. So he turned to the great religious leaders of his land, visiting their vast cathedrals and diligently engaging in all their elaborate rituals. He offered great sacrifices at the altar of the various gods and promised untold treasure to the religious authorities if they could reveal this divine power to him. … [But n]o matter how hard he tried and no matter what rituals and incantations the religious authorities engaged in, the emperor felt no divine presence and witnessed no mighty acts. So he turned inward, seeking this divine power through private meditation, fasting, and prayer. He spent long hours practicing new forms of asceticism, prolonged periods of isolation, and every form of prayer he could discover. … [D]espite these great sacrifices, the emperor felt and saw nothing. Then one morning he overheard two of his servants discussing religious matters. As he listened, he heard them speak of a great mystic who lived in the city. This man was believed to be so close to God that he could uproot trees and part seas with a mere gesture. As the emperor listened, he heard that this great man of God had contracted a terminal disease during his work in the poorer parts of the city. He was approaching death and had only days to live. The emperor viewed this overheard conversation as a sign that God had finally heard his prayer, and so immediately, he called together an entourage of soldiers and servants, demanding that he be brought to the dying man’s bedside without delay. … After some searching they found the humble dwelling of the old teacher, and the emperor boldly entered. While the emperor rarely spoke directly to anyone other than his most trusted advisors, on this occasion he looked directly at the dying man and said, ‘I have been told that you walk close to God. I am here because I have heard of this God’s power and wish to bear witness to it.’ ‘Is that so?’ replied the mystic. ‘I must warn you that the power of my god is unlike anything you have encountered before. If you truly seek it out, it will break you into pieces and destroy your reign over this land.’ ‘So be it,’ said the emperor, ‘if what you say is true, then fate has spoken.’ The mystic nodded and then, with the last of his strength, beckoned the emperor to approach his bedside. The emperor complied, and in response the old man reached up, grabbed him by his fine robes, pulled him down to his knees, and whispered into his ear, ‘Here is the power of my God: it is found in my … flesh, in my weakness, in the dirt and disease of this world. You have not seen this power because it is in the people you have refused to heed; it resides in those you have tortured and put to death, those who have suffered under your hand. The power of God is to be found in the face of the widow and the orphan, in the illegal alien, and in the outstretched hand of the starving man. This weakness and fragility is the power of God, a power that can overturn the most evil of tyrants.’ These were the last words of the teacher, for there and then he died in the arms of the emperor. The emperor remained silent for some time, clutching the dead man’s body. He looked around the humble dwelling and saw the poverty of the people who had stayed by this man’s bedside throughout his suffering, and he began to weep.”
…This story told by Peter Rollins is a story of descent to discover the power of God not in imperial heights or centers of politics, but in the streets: in teeming humanity, in marching crowds, in teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School leading a nation, in the bedside teaching of an old saint, who points to the forgotten corners of the world to see the hand of God. It’s a divine power from below, manifested in what St. Paul in that early Christian hymn from Philippians ch. 2 calls the descent or the “emptying” of Christ – a story, a poem, a hymn about a God who was veiled in flesh and self-sacrifice, but who stretched out divine arms on a cross to embrace humanity in all of its heights and depths. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul calls the cross “foolishness” and “scandal,” reflecting no doubt the ridicule early Christians faced in the Roman world for honoring a crucified God. Roman writers like Suetonius called Christianity a “superstitio” a “superstition” – a ridiculous religion because of the cross. The satirist, Lucian of Samosata, joked that Jesus was a “crucified sophist.” And the first century Roman emperor, Nero, in a bid to stamp out the movement, rounded some followers of Jesus up, and crucified them like the Lord they served. But Christian theology has always viewed the cross as a demonstration of God’s ironic power, an ironic divine strength, not discovered in swords and spears and AR-15s; it’s not a power from above; it’s a power that bubbles up from below, in flesh-and-blood, in marching feet, and in the voices of school children, like 11 year old Naomi Wadler, who spoke yesterday to a multitude in Washington about gun violence in schools, saying, “Never again!”
We’re trying to catch a glimpse of this ironic divine power-from-below – this descent from heights to depths – in today’s service as we move from waving palms to shrouded cross. It’s the same movement we find in today’s gospel reading from John. Today’s story begins with a rumor. Just a mere whisper that Jesus might be in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, according to John, was enough to draw an energetic crowd. They pulled off palm branches and began waving them while chanting Psalm 118, “hosanna! Blessed is the one coming in the Lord’s name!” Palms in antiquity symbolized victory. The Roman writer Martial used the Latin word “palma” as a metonym for “victory.” In 141 B.C.E., when the Jews won a great military victory, they celebrated by waving palms. The crowd in John’s story greets Jesus as a victorious king, waving palms and crying out “Save us!,” “hosanna!” That the setting of this story is Jerusalem during Passover is crucial. Passover is the festival that celebrates the ancient Israelite liberation from slavery in Egypt, the toppling of an oppressive empire by God. The Romans knew this, and beefed up their military presence in the city each Passover to maintain order. To arrive in such an electric manner – with palms of victory and shouts of expectant praise from a crowd longing to see the lifting of Rome’s heavy hand – Jesus was bound to draw attention from the authorities. This single event was probably the pivotal, first domino to fall, starting a chain reaction of events ending with a cross at week’s end. Romans crucified political problem-people, sometimes by the thousands outside Jerusalem’s gates.
We can’t know what was going through his mind, as Jesus entered the city. The gospels speak of tension in his final week of life, as he moved back and forth between victim and controller of his destiny, between human fragility and divine-sense-of-mission. Today’s story descends from adoring crowds with palms of victory to Jesus’ cryptic comment spoken in private to his disciples about a single grain of wheat dying in the earth in order to rise and bear much fruit. The gospels themselves don’t tell the same story about this tension. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus dies with a frantic cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in John’s gospel, he’s very much poised and in control, dying not with a cry but with purposeful resilience, calmly asking for a drink and then whispering, “it is finished,” before giving up his spirit. Christians have held various views of the cross in the history of theology. The Apostles’ Creed states plainly that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Some in Christian history have viewed the cross in ransom terms: a ransom paid to the devil to free human souls. Others have viewed it in atonement or substitutionary terms: Jesus paid the price of human sin in full, dying in our place. I like how Lutheran Minister Nadia Bolz-Weber views the cross. She calls it a “blessed exchange” where, she writes, “God gathers up all our sin, all our broken … junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life.” “I receive that grace for what is it,” she writes: “a gift.” John’s gospel doesn’t use “ransom” language, but it does speak of Jesus “taking away the sin of the world” – taking away and transforming “all our broken junk” – and of starting a movement through his death, like a grain of wheat buried in the earth in order to bear much fruit when it rises. John’s Jesus speaks of his death as a “glorification” that transforms human death and darkness into life and light. The cross reveals God’s power, writes St. Paul – God’s ironic, creative power – that transforms brokenness; that can create a field of wheat from the death of a single grain.
…Or the deaths of 17 grains of wheat. I’m sure we’ve all seen the pictures from yesterday’s marches throughout the country and world. Some of you may have even participated; yesterday’s rally on the Commons was attended by several hundred people. The signs people carried caught my eye. A picture from Berlin showed eight people with eight different signs: “I am from Mexico,” read one, “and I march for Sandy Hook. I am from Bolivia,” read another, “and I march for Las Vegas.” And others, “I am from Australia and I march for San Bernardino. I am from Venezuela and I march for Pulse nightclub. I am from Costa Rica and I march for Virginia Tech. I am from [the] USA and I march for Texas. I am from Azerbaijan and I march for Columbine. I am from Nigeria and I march for Parkland.” One person in Sydney, Australia held a sign that read, “Graduation not graves.” A sign in Philadelphia read, “Young, angry, ready for change.” In New York City, 17 people wore white shrouds, symbolizing the 17 victims in Parkland. Some held signs: “Arms are for hugging.” “Books not bullets.” In Anchorage, one sign read, “Fear has no place in school.” In Stamford, CT, a child held a sign, “I should be worried about my grades not my life.” In Tulsa, a child on her daddy’s shoulders held a sign that sounded like a prayer – a plea: “Keep me safe.” And then from the DC march, a sign showed the words “What the world needs now” surrounded by a heart.
In its reporting on yesterday’s march in DC, The New York Times highlighted the speech by eighteen year old Emma Gonzalez, who has become a national figure after the Parkland shooting. She “spoke for just under two minutes …, describing the effects of gun violence in emotional detail and reciting the names of classmates who had been killed. Then she said nothing for four minutes and 26 seconds. … She stared straight ahead during her period of silence onstage, her sometimes watery eyes fixed in the distance. Then a timer went off. ‘Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds,’ she said. ‘The shooter has ceased shooting, and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape, and walk free for an hour before arrest. … ‘Fight for your lives, before it’s someone else’s job,’ she continued, and then walked offstage.”
…Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point. Maybe divine power is brewing to create life out of the tragedies of gun violence in schools. To theologize tragedy doesn’t deny the pain of crucifixions. But it makes an Easter claim – a claim of hope, a sunrise claim – that shadowy valleys aren’t final destinations, whether in our world, in our country, or in the personal tragedies of our own lives. Tiny grains can become fields of wheat. Amen.
1 Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2015 ), 137-141.
2 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (New York: Convergent, 2015), 18-19.