Articles, Essays & Sermons

Confrontation in Jerusalem

by Ken Sehested
Mark 11:1-11

This week we come to the dramatic events of Lent’s finale. Holy Week. Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In order to figure out where this parade is taking us, we need to remember some clues that have been given earlier in the story.

The first thing we need to remember is that the nativity stories of Jesus’ birth were not originally sung as lullabies. Rather, they were provocative hints at the political intrigue unfolding with the birth in Bethlehem.

How do we know that? Recall that at the time of Jesus’ birth the great Caesar Augustus ruled the known world from his throne in Rome. Many inscriptions describing Caesar’s divine status can still be found. On some of those artifacts you can read about the Caesar’s “gospel”—literally, euaggelia, the same root word in Greek we Christians use when we speak of evangelism. In Rome’s imperial world, “gospel” was the good news of Caesar’s having established “peace and security for the world.” Before Jesus, Caesar was described as “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. Because of this, citizens were to have “faith” in their “lord” —the words “faith” and “Lord” are the same ones in the Jesus story. Elsewhere Caesar is referred to as “redeemer” who has “saved the world” from war and established “peace on the earth.”*

From this distance we may sing about the “holy infant, so tender and mild,” the original night of Jesus’ birth was anything calm and bright. It was an explosive season of plots and counter-plots and a fierce ideological struggle to decide who, really, was to be lord.

The second thing we need to remember is the season of Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem was the fevered occasion of Passover. Passover was the story of the Hebrews escape from Egyptian bondage. It was like Memorial Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving all rolled up into one. And the fact that the Jews were again in bondage: Ruled by Roman might enforced by Roman legions right there in their own country.

Remember what the people shouted as this parade began: “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of our Lord! Blessed be the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna.” These are shouts of thinly-veiled political subversion, with the memory of the great King David brought to bear against the reality of the great Caesar Augustus. And the word “Hosanna” isn’t a word of piety—it’s not like saying “O, thank-you Jesus!” The word means “come and liberate us!”

The third thing you need to remember is that a unique characteristic of Mark’s gospel is what scholars refer to as the “messianic secret.” Over and over in Mark’s account Jesus is forever shushing people—don’t go telling anyone about the miracles I’ve performed. He was, in effect, a marketer’s worst nightmare.

And the fourth thing you need to recall comes up ahead, at the ending of Mark’s Gospel. There are actually several ancient manuscripts that have very different endings. But most scholars agree that the oldest of these ends with this description of the three women who came to anoint Jesus’ dead body. After an unexpected conversation with an angel in Jesus’ tomb, they are told, the story says: “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” It is an abrupt closure to a brutal story of torture and a gruesome murder. The storyline simply collapses in fear and trembling.

There is a realism to this truncated account that is compelling, especially in the fairytale cult that dominates so much church life in our age. This truncated version of the resurrection story somehow more commonly captures much of our own lived experiences—standing at the precipice of despair, fleeing hearts filled with misgivings, minds racing to make sense of how such a promising future could end in such ruin. Is there no word to sustain the weary?

My most enduring Lenten memory dates back to 1991 during the first war in the Persian Gulf. There were honest reasons to believe that the resistance to going to the invasion against Saddam Hussein might stay the unleashing of the dogs of war. We were wrong, terribly wrong. And more than a few of us were afraid, very afraid, of what would happen. That’s when I decided to build on a project my organization was already sponsoring, a “Call to Prayer and Fasting,” urging people to pray daily and fast weekly to forestall the run-up to open warfare. I decided to fast for the entire season of Lent, living on bread and water, as a symbolic act of resistance.

By the way, that’s when my acquaintance with Joyce was forged into a friendship. Prior to a trip to Washington, DC, I called Joyce to ask if I could bunk at her place. That’s when I found out that she, too—without any knowledge of my commitment—had decided to engage in a liquids-only fast for Lent. While I was there, she tried to convince me that my fast would allow going out for pizza and beer because, hey, it’s only grain and water!

To end my fast on Easter morning I invited several friends to join me for a simple sunrise liturgy and communion service in a park adjacent to the Mississippi River in Memphis. We gathered in front of a monument to those who, in the 19th century, came to Memphis to care for the dead and dying caused by a yellow fever epidemic. Many who came were themselves infected and lost their lives.

I asked two young women in our congregation to serve communion. One of them was my daughter Jessica, and her best friend, Courtney Walsh. Both were 14 years old. Later that week I began of more things that needed to be said, especially to Jessica and Courtney, about the relationship between suffering and joy. And so I wrote an open letter: “Announcing Resurrection in a Violent World.” I’d like to read a few excerpts from that piece.

I have the clear sense that, despite your tender age, you intuitively understand the curious relation between suffering and joy, between despair and hopefulness. My reason for writing this letter is so that you may more fully comprehend this confusing, seemingly contradictory reality. For though we celebrate Easter's resurrection announcement, the stench of death is still in the air.

Even before our resurrection flowers have wilted, we will be confronted again with the presence of evil. In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, was executed two days after Easter Sunday by the Nazis for resisting their authority. This past week, April 4, is the anniversary of  Dr. King’s assassination right here in Memphis. And right now, half a world away, the terror of our country's military power is manifest in unspeakable devastation.

God may be in the heavens, but all is surely not right with the world. Jesus' defeat of the world's power of crucifixion didn't make things all right. You may ask, How honest is it for us to celebrate Easter's resurrection when so much blood continues to be shed? How can we proclaim Easter's promise in an increasingly violent world? Doesn't the world snicker at resurrection claims? In fact, doesn't most of the church secretly ignore this promise? . . .

By asking you to lead in our communion meal this morning, I am trying to tell you something very important, something which most of the Christian community in our culture has forgotten, something which many Christian leaders work hard to suppress. The disturbing message of the eucharistic meal is this:

There is no resurrection by proxy. {Vincent Harding}

There's an old French proverb that says: To love is to suffer. That's a good way to sum up the meaning of the Christian season of Lent. Most of our culture prefers to celebrate Valentine's Day [February 14 that year] rather than Ash Wednesday [February 13 that year]. Most people are repulsed by the thought of smudging ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross. Most, even in the church, shy away from the mark of crucifixion. Instead of the body-broken, blood-spilt meal which Jesus offered, most prefer the empty calories of candy. Valentine candy is the Gospel of our culture. . . .

Your life in God's Spirit is actually the very reason you will know suffering, the reason you will know sadness and disappointment. Not that suffering is good. It most certainly is not, and you should never, ever seek it. But it will find you, simply because God is looking, through the eyes of your soul, at creation as it was intended from the beginning. And when you see what God intended, what is now visible brings great sadness. And this sadness will cause you to be near those who suffer, to experience their pain, to attempt to bring healing and hope. You can't bring healing and hope from a safe distance. You have to get up close, which inevitably will mean you will feel the pain yourself.

Nevertheless, rejoice! Rejoice, even in your suffering, for God is at work redeeming creation. Rejoice, even in your suffering, for you are one of God's instruments of redemption. Rejoice, even in your suffering, for redemption is not simply your personal possession, but is being extended—through you and other believers—across the whole world.

May you and I both continue to learn these things—and continue to teach these things to each other—all the days of our lives.

The reason the older ending to Mark’s gospel rings true is because you and I live constantly in the face of redemptive plans gone sour, hopes battered and bruised, splendid dreams which turn into nightmares, soothing visions that are scorched by the sun’s relentless glare.

Valued friends fail us, colleagues demean us, loved ones breath their last breath and our own bodies falter under the weight of our years. Often as not life comes at a terrible price to our hopes and dreams. Sometimes we spend more time picking up the pieces than forging into the future. Whatever happened to those sturdy professions of convictions?—convictions now gone soft and compromised and barely remembered.

My friend Kyle Childress tells about stopping at a small gas station along a U.S. highway through central Texas on his way to visit his parents. As he went inside to pay the cost he noticed a hand-written sign on the wall above the cash register. Here’s what it said:

“Dragons I have never met. Only spiders and gum on the bottom of my shoe. I could have handled dragons.”

One of the longer versions of the final chapter in Mark’s Gospel has this closing line: “And [the disciples] went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.”

Now we head into Holy Week—while includes all the unholiness that marks our days no less than the disciples; with fear and trembling that break out in our lives no less than it did for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome, the original evangelists of the Gospel story who originally fled the resurrection scene because they were afraid.

There is no getting over our fears and our failures. To be conformed to the way of the cross means constantly stepping around spiders and cleaning gum off the bottoms of our shoes. There is no resurrection by proxy. Our courage is displayed not in denying these frailties but in facing them;
      •ever willing to be still again
      •to listen again for the word that sustains the weary;
      •to announce again that true and hearty word to all grown deaf with grief,


      •to sing again: “Silently now I wait for thee, Ready my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!”

*See Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, pp. 133-134 Press. And also John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. HarperCollins Pub.: New York, 2007, pp. 28, 108, 117, 148, 204.

Circle of Mercy Congregation
Palm Sunday, 5 April 2009

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org