Sermons

Sun, Mar 25, 2018

Deconstructing our pretensions

Sermon for Palm Sunday
Series:Sermons

Let's face it--

the world in which we live is an utter mess.

There are currently bloody civil wars in Nigeria...

the Democratic Republic of the Congo...

Ukraine...

Libya...

Syria...

Yemen...

not to mention, Iraq and Afghanistan...

and who knows what's happening in other parts of Africa.

There's continual tensions in the South China Seas.

There are on-going problems of violence and unrest in places like South Sudan... 

Somalia... 

Egypt... 

and Myanmar

not to mention disturbing levels of violence surrounding drug cartels... 

in places like Mexico and Colombia.

There's state-sanctioned oppression--

with people being detained...

and tortured...

and, simply, disappearing--

in places like Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines and West Papua...

and, no doubt, in many other parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.

Then there are the scourges of disease and natural disaster in places like Papua New Guinea... 

and Malawi.

Add to that the rampant poverty of much of our world;

the growing wealth disparity;

the continued exploitation of cheap and expendable labour in the Third World;

and the whole-scale destruction of vast areas of virgin rainforest in the Amazon, South-East Asia, and parts of Africa.

And let's not forget that there are more displaced persons--

asylum seekers... 

and refugees-- 

than at any other time in history;

far more, even, than following the Second World War.

The oppressive, abusive, and illegal actions of the Israelis towards the Palestinians continue unabated;

and any hopes of a Palestinian state...

or a solution to the decades long problem...

seem little more than a pipe-dream.

In Saudi Arabia, ordinary people can be sentenced with punishments of up to a thousand lashes...

simply for--

in the judgment of the Religious Police--

insulting Islam;

while the levels of violence against women in places like India... 

and many parts of the Pacific... 

is truly sickening.

And let's not forget, of course, the reports of acts of inhumanity and sexual assault...

on Nauru and Manus Island.

Even in a fairly stable and affluent country like ours... 

people feel increasing disillusionment with the political system...

which seems to become more combative... 

shriller... 

and nastier with each passing day;

and any sense of bi-partisan agreement and co-operation--

like happened even a generation or so ago--

is simply relegated to a naive past. 

And there seems to be nothing that we can do to change that... 

or to reset the parameters.

 

In the face of all of that...

it's hard not to be disillusioned and despondent.

And, in our disillusionment and despondency...

it's almost natural that we yearn for some power or force--

beyond or outside of ourselves--

to intervene...

to help us out...

to make it all right.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us...

in our distress, our religiosity makes us "look...to the power of God in the world"...

to use God as "a Deus ex machina"--

that is, like a theatrical plot device...

abruptly and unexpectedly intervening to resolve an unsolvable problem.

And, in a sense--

although it might not appear as such on the surface--

that's also what is going on this morning...

in our reading from Mark's Gospel...

in the story that we know as "Palm Sunday".

Here we have Jesus approaching the city of Jerusalem...

seemingly in the manner of a triumphant, conquering general or king.

And yet, it's important to picture the scene as it's described for...

and as it would have been heard by... 

a first century audience.

Here we have a rag-tag collection of peasants and social riff-raff-- 

like beggars and prostitutes--

at least some of whom would have been stooped or deformed...

with missing teeth;

and most, if not all, dressed in badly patched and threadbare tunics and worn out sandals...

dirty and dishevelled...

jumping and dancing like they were possessed or drunk...

and acclaiming Jesus as Messiah--

as the One who would restore the Kingdom of David...

and cast out the hated Romans...

and their own upper-classes who silently sided with the occupiers.

And yet, this Jesus, whom they acclaim...

was another poor peasant, just like them; 

most likely wearing an equally worn and threadbare tunic...

not elegantly dressed up in a purple robe and crown.

And, rather than riding a snorting, stomping black stallion in glistening armour...

he sat astride a smallish young donkey...

which, the author insists, had never been ridden before...

meaning that it would have been stopping and starting in fits and jumps...

kicking, and bucking, and braying... 

and careering all over the road...

while the rag-tag rabble waved olive branches...

and threw their tattered cloaks on the road like some sort of red-carpet.

The whole scene-- 

as the author crafts it--

is so surreal and absurd that you would think that it was written by a modernist French playwright.

 

On the face of it, then, it clearly seems to be a parody of political power.

And that parody is even more poignant when you realise the context--

that the author crafted this scene in the direct aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem...

following the revolt against the Romans.

The people of Israel in Jesus' day...

did, indeed, yearn for a powerful political leader to throw out the Romans...

and to restore David's kingdom...

but that had failed dismally.

The capital...

and the glorious Temple itself...

lay in ruins.

This scene needs to be read and re-imagined in that context.

As such, this scene of a first century piece of street theatre... 

critiques all of our pretensions of power.

Yearning for someone with strength and power to rise up and intervene... 

and to sort out the problems of our community and our world...

through armies and might and the exercise of power...

is futile.

That's not the solution.

That's actually part of the problem.

 

But, in so deconstructing and critiquing the pretensions of political power...

this scene also deconstructs and critiques our images of God.

If power and might can't save us...

then neither can a powerful and mighty God.

As Bonhoeffer reminds us--

contrary to what we yearn for--

the Bible repeatedly points us to a powerless God...

and, he declares, "only a suffering God can help".

Or, to put it another way...

the theologian, John Caputo, suggests that seeing God as an absolute Being actually diminishes God.

It just creates a God who reflects the human need for stability;

a God who simply personifies our insecurities, our needs, and our fears.

Rather, he suggests, we ought to think of God as "the great perhaps";

as the One who calls...

who allures...

who challenges...

who inspires...

and, even, who threatens;

not acting or doing in a human sense--

in the sense of active agency--

but inviting us to action.

The surreal and satirical parody that is Palm Sunday... 

not only mocks all of our pretensions to power...

but it mocks all of our efforts to take comfort in an interventionist God.

God, it proclaims, is the One who comes to us...

not as a powerful king...

but as a carnival clown...

inviting us to see our faults and foibles;

God, it proclaims, is the One who comes to us... 

not in power...

but, in a sense, powerless and alone...

and empathetically embracing human suffering;

God, it proclaims, is the One who comes to us...

not to rescue and save us...

but to invite us to save ourselves.

 

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