Choosing to become small

Palm Sunday, 2020

Matt 21:1-11; Ps 31:9-16
Phil 2:5-11; Matthew’s Passion

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

Wondering what to say to you today, I remembered something from when I was a small child. Each year, my mother or my father would take me to the big Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. My dad would hoist me up on his shoulders so I could see over the crowds, and then we’d gawk at the floats and the marching bands as they came passing by. It was for me a time of total joy. But later that day, the streets would be empty: the people dispersed, the animals gone, candy wrappers and torn balloons blowing in the gutters. The joy, in its time, had been real, and it would return. But the question Palm Sunday offered the disciples is the same one it offers us: Will you still follow Jesus when the parade goes home?

            That question is obviously germane to us this year, perhaps in a way it has never been before, for this is a Palm Sunday unlike any other. Usually, we’d be marching around the Cathedral, waving palms, weaving them into crosses, and then tucking them quietly into our pockets to bless our homes for the year to come. This year, we are at home, and the only palms we’ve got are the ones we were born with. The ones made in the image of God.

            This week, in particular, I have sensed a turning in our community: the reality of our situation is sinking in. I have heard new words in our conversations: Anxiety. Fear. Worry — worry about those we love, about whether we will have jobs, about the economic impact of all this, about whether there will be enough food.  About what world we will return to, when we are able to return. And around it all, the sheer uncertainty with which we are all living: how long will this last?

            Palm Sunday marks a similar turning point in Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the transition from acclaim and success to distance, isolation and fear. In Matthew’s Gospel, it happens with breathtaking speed: Jesus enters Jerusalem, acclaimed by the crowds; heads to the Temple and throws out the money-changers; the tone darkens and the shadows begin to gather. No one likes to have their world turned upside-down, and the priests at the Temple were no exception.

            Viewed through a human lens, the transition is stark. From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus’ fame had been growing. He moved from calling a few people, one or two at a time, to gathering huge crowds; they flocked to him for healing, for teaching, for bread. He is hailed as a prophet, as the return of Elijah, even as the long-awaited Messiah. And when he enters Jerusalem, he does so as a king. A strange king, no doubt, mounted on a donkey rather than on a steed, but the king promised in Scripture: meek and mounted on an ass.

            But from a divine point of view, what looked to us like the summit of success was, in fact, a tremendous act of self-emptying, what the theologians call kenosis. This Jesus whom the crowds followed, this Jesus whom they mounted on a donkey and for whom they waved palms, was none other than the King of Heaven. St. Paul reminds us that Jesus’ whole earthly ministry was a process of becoming small: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —  even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-8) And so the diminishment we see after today, the shadowed steps we walk with Jesus in this last week of his earthly life, is part and parcel of what has come before: in all things, Christ Jesus became small for us, so that we might grow in him. It was not Christ’s glory but his self-offering which allowed God to touch us, and us to touch the Son of God.

            What, then, does it meant to become small?

            Simply this: faced with a broken world, Jesus allowed it to break him. He did not seek danger, but he also was not willing to stand apart from the suffering of the world.

            Jon Sobrino writes that the fundamental work of a Christian is the forgiveness of reality, by which he means, accepting the world as it is while working for its conversion. Loving one another and this world even while we are broken, and loving them fiercely enough to call them out of their brokenness into something more whole. He writes, “Christian forgiveness of reality also means taking on its weight….letting ourselves be affected by [the poor and] their poverty, and sharing their weakness… overcoming the mechanisms we use to defend ourselves from reality.”[1]

            That is the work Jesus took on in his Incarnation, and most visibly in this week we begin today. From Palm Sunday until the end of his life, Christ performed no miracle — except the miracle of his love for us. St. Paul writes, “Christ became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty we might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) He enters our struggles, takes on our weakness and our vulnerability, refuses to use his divine power, refuses to defend himself from our scheming, our hunger for power, our envy, our malice, our cruelty, even from our death.  He lets us break him.

            And we, we who seek to walk in his steps — we cannot stand apart from one another. The call of Christ is not to build ourselves pleasant homes, but to enter into the suffering of the world deeply enough for it to become to us what it is to God: intolerable. And then to work to transform it. Debie Thomas writes,  “To take up a cross as Jesus does is to stand, always, in the hot white center of the world’s pain.  Not just to glance in the general direction of suffering and then sidle away, but to dwell there. … Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul and body that surrounds us, and pouring our energies and our lives into alleviating that pain — no matter what it costs.“[2] None of us, of course, can take up a cross as Jesus did. Only he can identify wholly with our suffering. But neither can we refuse to take part in it. In that sense, this broken Holy Week is a deeply Christlike time: confronted head-on with our acute vulnerability, each of us has chosen to become small in order to seek the good of our neighbor.

            That sacrificial offering — an offering made not from our capacity but from our weakness, from within the limitations of our flesh — is all the offering we ultimately have to give. When we are strong, we can pour upon the feet of Jesus all our wealth: our music, our flowers, our poetry, our beauty, our skill. But when we are made to be, for a while, poor, what do we have to offer one another, if not our hearts? And what does Christ offer us, but his own?

            There is a story I would like to share with you: one more story, on a day which has had, perhaps, too many. It’s about a group of Christians who had been taken prisoner in South America. They had been imprisoned for their faith, and were strictly forbidden to pray, to read the Bible, to live in any way that marked them as Christians. As Easter drew near, they longed to take Communion, to share the bread and wine one more time before the unfolding of future they did not know and could not trust. And so they gathered that morning in the prison, surrounded by a large group of their fellow inmates, who had offered to laugh and chatter and play cards and to make so much noise that the guards could not tell what was going on.

            And the Christians bowed their heads and prayed; they prayed for those they loved and for one another. They prayed for those in prison and for all who were trapped or wrongly accused or condemned to death for no reason. And when the whisper of names had faded to silence, the priest who was among them prayed the Words of Institution. He had no bread, no wine, and so when he came to that part, he just stretched out his empty hands and said, “This is my body, given for you.” And he passed the imaginary Host from one palm to another, hand on hand, and then he lifted an imaginary chalice, saying, “This is my blood, given for you.” And they had nothing — Nothing! — except the body and blood of Christ, not found that day in bread and wine, but made real in the bodies it had nourished, and in the determination of a few souls to honor their God with whatever they had, even if that was only their bare selves.

            Faithfulness is about what happens when all we have to offer is our bare selves. God’s faithfulness, and our own. It is about a world so broken that in the end, when nothing else would reach us, God laid aside all the paraphernalia of divinity — the smoke and the fire, the rituals and prophets — and offered us his own bare self, laid himself naked into our calloused hands. Unarmed, undefended. A human being. Enough, by the grace of God, to break this world wide open. Enough to break us wide open, if we will allow it to.

       Will we?

[1]The Principle of Mercy, 61.

[2] Journey with Jesus, March 29, 2020.


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