Sunday, March 28, 2010

April Fool

April Fool

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Passion/Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.

The LORD is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar. NRSV

Palm Sunday always provides a head-scratching opportunity for preachers. Easter is still a week off, and with it the celebration of the triumph of the resurrection. Today, Palm Sunday, we generally take part in a sort of mini-celebration, which, by the end of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, turns toward the dark days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So what is the point of Palm Sunday, really? Is it a sort of April Fools joke on folks who thought they had the right take on the sort of power possessed by Jesus, only to discover they were in error? Clearly, the disciples were taken entirely by surprise by the way the week turned out. They dozed instead of praying, they ran in fear, they were clueless about Jesus’ last dinner meeting with them and its meaning, they fought, they quarreled, they angled for position ... a lot like Christians today!

Today I have chosen to set to one side the well-worn gospel accounts of the Palm Sunday processional in Jerusalem in order to look at Psalm 118, from which the gospel writers later saw many clues as to the divine purpose behind Jesus’ unusual entry into Jerusalem.

So often we approach the Psalms as a sort of collection or book of quotations containing proverbial wisdom. But they are not just bits of piety and poetry and inspiration designed for captions on the inside of greeting cards. The Psalms are real expressions, real reflections on experiences of real life. They emerge from “confrontations with real evil, real dangers, real fears, real anxieties, real frustrations, and really nasty people.”[1] They speak to experiences common to all humanity because they emerge straight from the human condition. One of the most basic human conditions many Psalms address is fear: the visceral, fundamental, disabling anxiety common to all humanity. We all have experienced it, some may be struggling with it at this very moment as we sit in this sanctuary.

Psalm 118 might seem an odd text for Palm Sunday, though it does contain phrases reminiscent of the events of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The psalm reminds us that the context of praise with which it begins exists inside a larger environment of fear, sadness, anxiety, sorrow, disappointment, even terror. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ time, an environment of fear was the context in which joy was found by the psalmist, just as the context of life is death, the context of light is darkness, the context of sound is silence. The context of the psalm’s praise is the story of the whisker’s width escape from death by the young David, pretender to the throne, as he fled from Saul, the king of record, who was determined to destroy his would-be successor.

Without going into excessive detail, Saul had sent out armed forces, hit men, and schemers to defeat the young David. “David (was) a man with a contract on his head. The world (was) out to get him. He (was) not just imagining it. It (was) not just a bit of paranoia. He (was) not just mildly confused or bewildered. He (was) in mortal danger. His friends (were) not to be relied upon in the treacherous geopolitical world of his age. And the skills that had served him before, the talents, the abilities, all of the things that people had praised in him before, now got him nothing at all. He has been pursued. He has been persecuted. He has been slandered and much maligned, chased all over the land. As the spiritual says, ‘He has been buked and scorned.’ But in the end, by his perseverance, by the grace of God, and over enormous odds,”[2] his kingship was realized, and his ultimate triumph was made all the sweeter for the narrowness of the margin by which it was achieved.

Reflecting on David’s experience, the psalmist declares, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord, and he answered me and set me in a broad (meaning, ‘free’) place.”

David’s enemies were real. He wasn’t merely possessed of a need to employ self-improvement slogans like “mind over matter.” At verse 10 his enemies surrounded him on all sides. At verse 12 he describes them as surrounding him like a bunch of killer bees. At verse 13 he declared, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.”

It doesn’t require a military background to understand this sense of siege, of attack, of conflict and frustration. I have seen it in my friends. I see it in some of you from time to time. I see it in myself. It is part of the human condition, like breathing and eating and sleeping. Fear, conflict, and anxiety come with the task of being human. Most people I talk with don’t name some single gigantic evil enemy or force that is out to get them. Most people, most of my friends, and I, most of the time, don’t feel that there is a single pursuer after us. But we know the feeling sometimes of being surrounded by swarming bees coming from every direction, defying the meager protection of our hapless arm waving. They are little anxieties, small burdens and complaints. It would be better to have one big, clear, visible enemy with whom we could contend once and for all. But life rarely works that way. Insidious little claims on our spirits wear us down in our inability to isolate them and fight each one off.

The kind of fear of which this text is speaking is not the fear of death. It is the fear of life: fear of living, fear of the consequences of the next breath, the next hour, the next hour’s encounter. What will be the next impossible demand placed upon us? Will it be before sunset tonight that somebody will ask of us what we cannot possibly do? Tomorrow will someone say something we would rather not hear? Will the mail bring not tidings of great joy, but the dreadful news that the IRS is interested in us? It is fear of life and its consequences that puts us into a state of paralysis.

The fear of life means that most people dare not live fully or freely, but rather live what Henry David Thoreau called, “... lives of quiet desperation, (going) to the grave with the song still in them,”[3] lives in which we exist perennially on the defensive, anticipating a life in which, as an old proverb says, sorrows never come singly and joys never come in pairs.

In the services during the coming week we will be given reason to remember why fear entered into the hearts of the disciples following the hurrahs of Palm Sunday. On Thursday, we will celebrate the supper which Jesus instituted with his closest disciples, only to be reminded the next night that it took so little to cause them to flee in fear. And it is fear of life that drives so many of us into the darkest recesses of our own private anxieties and fears, showing all the signs of life lived in the shadows out of a fear of life itself: Depression, gloom, stress, morbidity, all the things the psalmist also marked elsewhere as signs of life lived in the valley of the shadow of death. In Jesus’ ministry prior to his resurrection, the disciples were almost uniformly weak-kneed, frightened of their own shadows, and rarely ever understood Jesus’ ministry or his words except on levels closest to the surface. That describes pre-Easter people pretty well.

I recall a David Frost interview with Nelson Mandela that was broadcast several years ago. Mandela was asked about the key to his success in helping a thoroughly racist South Africa move, mostly peacefully, from segregation and apartheid to peace and cooperation among the races. What, the interviewer wanted to know, was his formula for such peace? Mandela replied that it would not be diplomacy, or military might, or economic power that would guarantee peace and a shot at prosperity for his troubled country. It would be “the death of fear, the fear of oneself, the fear of the other, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the everyday circumstances of one’s life: white, colored, and black. The death of fear would be the beginning of new life.”[4]

As much as we look toward the resurrection of Jesus on the Sunday after today, we also look in his raised life for the death of fear and the renewal of hope and possibility for ourselves, and for our world.

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

[1] My thanks to Peter Gomes, whose Harvard chapel sermon, “The Death of Fear,” (Pulpit Digest, March/April 1995) has had a great impact on my thoughts about, and my work on, this psalm.
[2] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., Gomes sermon.