Lessons for Palm Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls were mocked as they went to school. They were the Little Rock Nine who arrived for the first day of school on September 4, 1957, at Little Rock Central High only to be blocked by the Arkansas National Guard on orders from Governor Orval Faubus, defying the Supreme Court’s decision on school desegregation.
Eight of the nine would arrive together in a show of support and community but Elizabeth Eckford, whose family did not have a telephone, never heard of the plan. Elizabeth arrived alone. One of the most enduring images form the civil rights movement is the photograph of Elizabeth stoically approaching the school, a notebook in her hand, as a crowd of hostile and screaming white students and their parents mocked her, spat upon her, and hurled insults.
The narrative of Jesus’ passion and death are familiar to us in the Church. It’s a narrative central to our tradition, proclaimed in our creeds, in our preaching, and in our Eucharistic prayers. But I wonder, ‘Have we noticed the pattern of the multiple times that Jesus is mocked and derided?’ And, ‘Have we noticed how Jesus dismantles the mockery and subverts the pretensions of those doing the mocking.
Jesus appears first before the religious authorities, the chief priests and the whole council, who “were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death.” They wanted Jesus dead because he acted and spoke against their interests, against the conventional and traditional claims. He is arrested in Gethsemane and brought to the house of the high priest. And how ironic is the scene:
He who welcomed sinners at his table even Judas of the Sicarii, is identified with a kiss of friendship. He stands alone who fed the five-thousand. He who gave sight to the blind is himself blindfolded. He, against whom no witnesses can testify in truth, is called the blasphemer. And the authorities spit on him and hit him and mock him.
Ruby Bridges had a similar experience as the Little Rock Nine. On November 14, 1960, a six-year Ruby would be the first to desegregate schools in New Orleans. As soon as Bridges entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out; all the teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. In the months that followed, Ruby was bullied every day, with one woman daily threatening to poison her. Ruby’s father lost his job, the neighborhood grocery store refused to let them shop, and her sharecropper grandparents were turned off their land.
But amidst the mockery and derision, there was also support and community, love and justice. While every other teacher refused, Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, valiantly and fervently taught Ruby Henry, sometimes alone but always “as if she were teaching a whole class.” On the day after Ruby’s courageous entrance into the school, a white 34-year Methodist Minister broke through the protests and brought his five-year daughter Pam to school – though she was in a grade lower than Ruby. A neighbor would give her father a new job and white landowners in a county south offered her grandparents land on which to sharecrop. A group of black and white would also band together to protect the Bridges’ house and to walk with Ruby and the Federal Marshals on the way to school. Facing the mockery, the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges and the communities in which they lived would dismantle the mockery and begin to subvert the pretensions of racism.
After facing the religious authorities, Jesus appears before the authorities of empire. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Now, just as the religious authorities fail to recognize him as Messiah, the authorities of empire fail to recognize him as King. Indeed, Pilate treats him as a fraud and, again, we see the irony of the narrative. Turning Jesus over to soldiers, they mockingly clothe him in royal purple and crown him who is King of kings and Lord of lords. They even strike him with his own scepter and make him carry his own throne.
And, just as Jesus exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the Sanhedrin, the council – who were coerced and corrupted by their own power, so too Jesus reveals the bankruptcy of Empire. The authorities expose themselves as unworthy, knowingly sending an innocent man to his death just to appease a raucous crowd – the innocent sacrificed on the altar and pretense of security.
In the wake of the tragic and troubling events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, high school students who survived the shooting have been mocked, in person and online, in state houses and in other houses. They have been mocked for standing up to politicians – for standing up to Empire, and calling for sensible gun legislation. They have been derided as “crisis actors” and mocked as they tearfully reacted to Florida’s House voting down legislation. Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Douglas shooting, was even called a “skin-head lesbian” and a “bald-faced liar” as she became a leader in the efforts to combat gun violence.
But amidst the mockery and derision, there was also support and community, love and justice. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, our Bishop Gregory Brewer, and Bishops from throughout the Episcopal Church and beyond have joined in calling this nation to action against gun violence. Retailers (Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and others) have taken their stand by curtailing their sales or stopping them altogether. Nationwide, thousands of High School student “walked out” for 17 minutes on March 14 and nearly one-million people joined in rallies and marches just yesterday, both aimed at seeking attention and action on gun violence and school safety from our officials. Facing the mockery, Emma Gonzalez, our own youth group, and student leaders like them across the nation and the world are beginning to dismantle the mockery and are challenging and subverting the pretensions of Empire.
Jesus appears before the crowd, and they call for his crucifixion. He appears before them again once he is crucified. These are people who welcomed him as a hero when he entered Jerusalem in triumph only a few days before.
After facing Pilate and the Empire, Jesus stands before the crowd. At first, he stands before them next to Pilate. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Only a short time later, he again appears before the crowd, this time helpless, hanging from a cross, suspended between earth and heaven, his blood seeping from his wounds, taking him down to death. And there are those that would mock him still, cowardly and cruel, hurling abuses. A passer-by. The chief priests, along with the scribes. Even those crucified with him taunted him.
Again, the irony is evident as they mock Jesus’ relationship with the Father, trying to get him to turn away from his path. But this son of God, the beloved, will not abandon his God. They mock the cross who themselves have been led astray from covenant. They mock Jesus’s submission to the cross but fail to see Jesus’ love for all creation in his outstretched arms. But Jesus faces the mockery and subverts their pretensions, loving them and loving us even unto death, even death on a cross.
Matthew Shepard was student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie on the night of October 6, 1998. He died in a Fort Collins, Colorado, hospital six days later from severe head injuries. In the trail that followed, it became evident that Shepard’s sexual orientation was a key motive in the commission of the crime. Florida law does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, or marketplace accommodations. There is a harm that is caused by being turned away, whether it be formal or by degree. There is a shame and a fear in not being welcome to fully participate in public life. There is pain in rejection and harassment and insecurity. Indeed, LGBT youth are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual youth, with 1 in 6 seriously considering it each year. Nine out of ten in the LGBT community have reported being bullied, harassed, or mocked because of their sexual orientation.
But amidst the mockery and derision, there is also support and community, love and justice. The Lakeland Youth Alliance and Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, both of which meet here at Saint David’s, provide loving support to homosexual teens and their families. Polk Pride, which Saint David’s has proudly supported since its inception four years ago, raises awareness and brings together a community of friendship and common interest. The LGBT community and its allies are continuing to strive for equality before the law and welcome in sacred places – but for than welcome, perhaps affirmation – but more than affirmation, striving for confirmation of sacredness and blessedness as sons and daughters of God. There is a long road ahead but we can imagine the dismantling of mockery, subverting the pretensions of a community that rejects and repudiates.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd welcomes him as king, yet in the days to come, they mock him and deride him and call for his crucifixion.
Jesus stands, figuratively, before one other on this day – the one who gets it right.
Most ironically of all, the one who gets it right is the most unlikely somebody. A Roman centurion is marking time until the death occurs. He is there to make sure that none of the crucified are rescued by their followers or friends. He is a gentile, an officer of the empire, one who looks as an outsider on the turbulent life of Jerusalem during Passover season. He is there simply to maintain order.
A criminal dying on a cross is something this centurion has often seen. He knows how contemptible it is, particularly for Romans. Yet death on a cross looks different on this day, with this prisoner. And so the tough soldier blurts out about Jesus, to no one and everyone, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” The centurion has for a moment glimpsed the supreme irony of enthronement on a cross of shame and death.
A couple decades later, St. Paul makes a similar point when writing to the Christians in Corinth. He tells them that the message of the cross is sheer folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is God’s power at work.
To the extent that we do not come to an awareness like that of the centurion and Paul, then we inevitably mock Christ – we mock Christ in the pretensions of our superiority, in the pretensions of our submission to Empire, in the pretensions of our singular image of God – basically, in all our pretensions that do not revel community, justice, peace, and love. It is our own fatal folly.
To the extent we do come to this awareness, we honor Christ and his cross, and show that we welcome God’s own foolishness, which is the most sublime wisdom. Today, let us honor the cross, the sign of the dismantling of mockery and subversion of pretension, and welcome its folly into our lives.