Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass Palm Sunday 2018

Mark 11:1-10
Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Mark 15.1-39

Someone commented last week that at Bible Book Club we always end up talking about politics! Well, the more we read the Bible, the less we will be surprised at that. Politics is the art or science of government, the state, policy. It is to do with how people live together in society. And the Bible has a lot to say about that. God is the creator of the world, and God’s demands of righteousness, justice and love are constantly coming up against the world as it is. Righteousness, justice and love can seem to be in short supply; suffering and death are found instead.
There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that religion is somehow a private interior hobby, to be kept separate from life out there in the world. The Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was both a religious and a political act. So, too, was his death.
In Holy Week we read two accounts of the death or “passion” of Jesus. The first, on Palm Sunday, this year is from Mark’s Gospel. The second, on Good Friday, is always John’s account. So we hear two different perspectives on the same events.
How do they differ? John tends to bring out the depth and theological meaning of events. John is, so to speak, the view “from above”. We’ll look more at him on Friday. Mark’s is more the account of an observer in the crowd, a view of events “on the level”. But it is still the view of an intelligent observer, who really sees what is going on.
In this drama there are the “parties” of the day: not Labour or Conservative, but the chief priests, the Romans, the Herodians, and radical fringe groups like the Zealots. All have their own idea of government and policy, and they are often in conflict. But in the middle is Jesus. He unites these divided parties against himself, because they all see him as a rival. He has his own claim of government, an alternative to them all, the silent victim who stands for a completely different understanding of how the world could be.
And Pontius Pilate, the Governor, is of course a career politician. The crowd is getting restive, but he thinks he can win them over. “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”, he asks, “for he realised that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over”. He sees exactly what is going on, the politics, the rivalry at work between the different sides. He thinks he can play one party against another, the priests against the crowd. But the priests have got there before him.
The crowd have turned against Jesus, and Pilate realises that he is on a loser. Being the kind of politician who puts results above principle, he sees that he has to turn against Jesus, too. Never mind the innocence of the victim; a riot is brewing, better give them the victim they demand.
And so the story plays out to its bitter end, the lynch mob, roused up by one party, sanctioned by the other, gets its way. The innocent man goes to his death “to satisfy the crowd”.
In many ways the death of Jesus is a scene that has been played out over and again throughout history, with many crowds and many victims. The violence of this scene is typically human; God seems distant, almost absent.
Almost, but not quite. God is mentioned three times in Mark’s passion story. At the trial the High Priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” A question dripping with irony – the High Priest alludes to God by a euphemism, “the Blessed One”, to avoid the irreverence of mentioning God by name, whilst all the while planning a murder in the name of God.
Then, just before the moment of his death, Jesus cries out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. A prayer which underlines the absence of God from the lynch mob that put Jesus to death.
At the beginning of the process of killing Jesus, then, God is mentioned by way of blasphemy. And, at the end, by way of absence. It should be clear, then, that the human stuff that takes place in between is not from God.
This is made even clearer by the final mention of God in Mark’s passion story: the centurion who when he saw how Jesus died said, “Truly, this was God’s Son!” One of those engaged in the business of killing suddenly sees that everything has been all wrong. Everyone had supposed that God was in the forces of violence aligned against the victim. Had not the priests said that he was a blasphemer? But when it is all over, the centurion suddenly sees, instead, that the victim was God.
God has been here in this story all along, but not where we thought. God is there in the one who stands for righteousness, justice and love – even though all the powers-that-be turn against him. God is there in the one who in his suffering and death asks why God has forsaken him. In the middle of the storm of violence. In human politics gone bad. In the darkness of absence and death. God is there, even where God does not seem to be, where we would never think of looking.
The story is not over, of course. But for the time being absence and death are what we are left with. Even so, the centurion speaks with the voice of faith, surely a sudden gift, unlooked for, given to the guilty. “Truly this was God’s Son.” The disaster is complete, the loss irrevocable – in human terms. But faith somehow is still there in the darkness. Faith given to the centurion. Faith that burns in the hearts of the women, who go to see where Jesus is buried. And, in the darkness, faith waits.
Faith is not a fantasy escape from reality. It does not separate us from engagement with the world in  its mess and its trouble. The Bible allows us, indeed requires us, to be absolutely realistic about darkness, absence and loss. The psalms are the prayer book of Israel, and now of the Church, and around a third of the psalms are prayers in dereliction and loss, voices of complaint raised to a seemingly unresponsive God. Like Psalm 22, the only prayer that Jesus utters in Mark’s passion story.
False gods, idols, of course need our attention and reassurance all the time. The true God, by contrast, allows us to complain, to lament God’s absence. We are even given the words in which to pray. Because the true God is where we would never put an idol: in the darkness, in the absence, suffering the loss which we ourselves lament. The true God places himself in the midst of the world as it is, with all that goes wrong. That is where faith is given to us, too. And, in the darkness, faith waits.

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