Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 15:1-47
Years ago, I remember sitting in the pew with my mother on Good Friday and closing my eyes and trying very hard to feel sad that Jesus had to die for my sins. But I couldn’t quite pull it off because I knew the joyful way the story would end! And so do we.
Perhaps the greatest male ballet dancer of all time, the Russian Rudolf Nureyev, said, “The hard part is not to make a difficult step look easy, but to make an easy step look interesting.”
The same may be said of Holy Week: the hard part is not to make this central story of our faith look easy to understand – it’s pretty clear what’s going on, but to make it look interesting, that is, worthy of our engagement.
Wanting something to be interesting is not a bad thing. It’s an honest human impulse. When we’re interested, we’re curious, we want to learn, our attention is activated. But many of us do not find Holy Week that interesting. Harsh words I know but wait….
Attendance at Holy Week services (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, sometimes even the Vigil) is far less than on most Sundays. This is true in most churches. For many of us, the hosannas of Palm Sunday morph right into the alleluias of Easter.
Why is this?
Holy Week can seem to demand a level of piety and emotional connection that make us back away from this perceived intimacy: foot washing (even hearing about it) is so personal; blood and suffering –- do we really need more explicit grief and sadness, especially in this year that has itself seemed so punishing? Yet if we refuse to engage with these stories, we may be backing away from the gifts that heartfelt engagement brings and watching from a distance does not. Giving our attention to the services of Holy Week is our affirmative response to the question Jesus poses to Peter: “Could you not watch with me for one hour?”
Today I want to do an overture of sorts, a prelude, starting with Palm Sunday and then moving to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in each case focusing on one aspect of the setting or background for the main action — setting the stage and then pulling that one thing into the present — with the hope that you will want to come in closer this week when the fine preachers you will hear go much deeper.
On Palm Sunday the setting is on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the east side and the west. If you were doing a film, you might move the camera from the east side of the city to the west, the contrasting footage would be dramatic.
In their book The Last Week, New Testament scholars Borg and Crossan begin by noting that there were two processions entering Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. From the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, came into the city at the head of a column of Imperial Cavalry and soldiers, coming into town at this time of the Jewish Passover to head off any trouble with the Jews.
“Imagine that procession,” they write. “A visual array of imperial Roman power: Cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, harnesses, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. The sounds of marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.” (1)
Meanwhile, on the east side of the city, the itinerant teacher Jesus of Nazareth rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers, according to writer Phillip Yancey: “A ragtag procession of the lame, the blind, children, and peasants from Galilee and Bethany. The object of their attention is a forlorn figure riding no stallion or chariot but the back of a baby donkey, a borrowed coat draped across its backbone serving as a saddle. According to Luke, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he begins to weep. He knew how easily a mob could turn, how voices who shout Hosanna one week can shriek Crucify him! the next.” (2)
Palm Sunday reminds us that life can turn on a dime. A tiny virus emerges and changes the daily life of each one of us for a year. The murder of a black man in Minneapolis rocks the world. And this week ten unsuspecting people in Colorado go to the grocery store and are murdered by an angry twenty-one-year-old who bought himself an assault rifle last week without any problem.
An angry editorial in the Washington Post asks, “Have we gone numb to death? To ‘go numb’ suggests that once there was feeling, once there was sensitivity. When was that? Perhaps it was back in 1968 when, after the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Congress passed gun laws that formed the basis of federal regulation that has been regularly eroded and only occasionally strengthened. We haven’t cared for a long time. Not when the dying were schoolchildren, people in the midst of prayer, or contented folks just living quiet lives.” (3)
Meanwhile the armed procession of the NRA, conservative lobbyists, and those who want to buy assault rifles when the mood strikes them continue their unwavering push forward, and nothing much changes unless another stronger movement grows in numbers, one that prioritizes life — of schoolchildren, legislators, LGBTQ people, Black people, Asian people, and those simply going out for groceries. Not one of us is immune from present laws that protect those hell bent on destruction of human life.
Moving now to Maundy Thursday, I again call your attention to one aspect of the setting and what it has to tell us: the weather.
On the eastern edge of Jerusalem, Gethsemane is not far from Bethany and the respite Jesus enjoyed at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Someone created this description: (Tonight) “It is springtime in Judaea and the olive trees were in bloom and the hills to the west of the city were turning green. In the garden of Gethsemane, the first flowers were pushing up through the earth and pollen covered everything like fine gold dust. The birds sang and the breeze blew and the air smelled sweet as the world came to life.” (4) We wonder if there was moonlight or if the only illumination were the torches carried by the soldiers along with Judas, snaking their way up the hill?
In the movie Sophie’s Choice, a group of Jews arrive at Auschwitz in cattle cars, confused, terrified, suitcases in hand. Pulled off the street with no explanation. One of them is named Sophie who has been arrested and brought there with her two young children. Years later, Sophie remembers that this was the most beautiful night, the air warm and soft, spring in full force, a full moon. Again, in that glorious spring weather, the worst of horrors take place as a sadistic Nazis soldier makes Sophie choose which of one her two young children will be taken away, an ungodly choice that haunts her forever.
“Never again,” we said, after the Holocaust.
Yet according to the ACLU, the government provided the courts with data that at least 2,654 immigrant children were separated (taken away) from their parents or caregivers as a result of Trump administration policies. Of these, half were under ten and 100 were under five. (4) The ages of Sophie’s children.
A beautiful landscape, a tranquil setting can be the wrenching background for the cruelty of evil to do its work. Suffering is not punishment, someone said, it is consequences.
As we look towards Good Friday, I want to focus on faith. A lot of questions come to our minds about what we believe and don’t believe about God, Jesus, life and death, heaven and hell. Sometimes we blame ourselves for having too many questions and not enough faith, although Jesus himself died with a question on his lips.
The setting is Golgatha, the killing fields where the Romans brought the worst offenders to die, to serve as examples to their countrymen. In my several decades of preaching this is my favorite idea about Good Friday, originally conceived by Barbara Brown Taylor. She notes that the setting that day included three crosses grouped together among the many on Golgotha. On one side of Jesus was the thief who mocked and ridiculed him. On the other side was the criminal who saw something in Jesus, and asked him to bring him along into his kingdom.
The extremes of doubt and faith are right there on the two crosses, places most of us visit daily. And in the middle of the tableau is Jesus, arms outstretched, embracing all extremes of faith and doubt and the complexities of the human heart. And whichever cross we’re on at a given moment makes no difference to how much we are loved. As Taylor says, “One cross makes a crucifix. Three crosses make a church.” (5)
There are many opportunities to join the journey this week in the morning and evening. As Taylor says, “Let us then keep company with him this week, and, forsaking our own comfort, walk with him as far as we can.” (6) Each day, we’re asked to watch with him for one hour, which is what he asked of Peter.
You may well find this time engaging. You may even find it interesting.
1) Marcus Borg and. John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, 2007.
2) Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 1998.
3) ”Americans Are Stubbornly Unmoved by Death,” Washington Post, March 23, 2021.
4) ACLU newsletter, October 2, 2018.
(5) Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Man in the Middle,” in Home By Another Way, 1999.
(6) Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blood Kin,” in Mixed Blessings, 1998.
(5) Barbara Brown Taylor,