Whose life matters?

Palm Sunday

Is 50:4-9a; Phil 2:5-11
Mark 11:1-11; Mark 14:32-15:39

Rev. Deborah Meister

Last week, someone hung a noose beside a church near my former one. It was not the first time that church had been defaced: someone had already taken down their Black Lives Matter banner, twice. Six Asian women were killed by a gunman in Atlanta. Closer to home seven women have been killed in as many weeks, right here in Quebec, apparently by the people who were supposed to love them.

Whose lives matter?

That question is front and center during Holy Week, when we enter in to the story of Christ’s Passion and death, when we realize that, in the eyes of Authority, his did not. The theologian James Cone, writing from a situation of black marginalization, argues that God is black, and that it is our responsibility as Christians to become black with God.1 He means that God is always among those who have been pushed out of the light, whose lives, on the scales of power, are without weight, and that we, as Christians, must be where God is. Not just to help others, giving of our bounty to meet their needs, but in radical self-identification which sees that our well-being is bound up in the well-being of all others. That no one can know peace until all know peace.

The Passion of Christ captures perhaps better than any other text the cold, cynical calculations and manipulations by which those in authority divide us from one another to make us easy to control. It includes all the voices, all the perspectives.

It gives us the exquisite cynicism of the oppressed, the priests and leaders of a conquered people performing the debilitating calculus of just what it will take to preserve such few liberties as still remain. And the equally cynical Roman prefect, who sees the innocence of the victim, yet throws him to the mob to tempt them to betray their own integrity and fall under his spiritual sway as they are already under the domination of his army.

It gives us the passive helplessness of the disciples, who follow Jesus to the garden, but cannot watch and pray with him; they are so worn down by the burden of their everyday lives that they keep falling asleep.

There is the crowd which comes to arrest Jesus. They heard him day after day, teaching in the temple, but did not lay hands on him — for ill or for good. Day after day they heard his words, but never touched him, never reached out with the human love of a disciple, nor with the desperation of the bleeding woman, nor with the hunger of those who asked him for bread. They saw him – perhaps as a curiosity, or perhaps as just another teacher, expounding words that had little to do with them – and they went away unmoved.

There is the denial of Peter, the fear which freezes the heart and comes through the mouth as a denial of relationship: “I do not know him.” He has fed me and taught me and challenged me and rebuked me and washed my feet – but I do not know the man.

There are even the taunts of the other crucified criminal, dying under the same sentence as Christ, yet seeking, even on the cross, to be one up on his neighbor. In Luke’s Gospel, he pleads, half-joking – but only half – “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”

All these voices, the voices of grief, fear, cynicism, survival at its most base, callous indifference, political avarice, cruelty – these are the voices of our animal self, that thing in each of us that seeks survival above all else – all these serve as a frame for the silence of Jesus. In the other Gospels, Christ speaks of mercy, over and over again, but in Mark’s, he is nearly silent. There are no gracious words:

– Father, forgive them.
– Weep not for me, but for yourselves.
– Today you will be with me in Paradise
– Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

There remain only his last words to the disciples: “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial,” and his one, brief response to Pilate: “You say so.” And then, of course, his cri de coeur: “Why have you forsaken me?” That silence embodies the reality of an insignificant man caught in an indifferent system, one in which the verdict was always going to be rigged, in which there is no point mounting a defense because, in the eyes of Authority, how they define you matters more than what you may or may not have done.

The poet Auden writes,

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came. 2

Does that make you uncomfortable?

It should. It should because, in the Passion, Jesus did not help. He did not rush in with all the power of God and make things better. Instead, he entered with all his human helplessness and tasted what it might mean to die, abandoned, condemned. He holds up a mirror to our indifference, by which I do not mean that we do not care, but that we do not care enough to have changed these things.

In his actions, Jesus manages to do what no one other character in the entire Passion manages to do. Every person in this story other than Jesus tries to define himself as part of an “us” – and each “us” involves the people we are not. For the disciples, it’s a cozy little community: “we followers of Jesus” against “those people.” For the followers of the High Priest, it’s “we cozy community of the righteous” against “that rabble-rouser over there.” For the High Priest himself, it’s “we, the pure” and the rest of you. For the Romans, it’s “we, the conquerors” versus “you subject peoples.” For Peter, it’s “we who do not know him” against “you who are in danger.”

In Mark’s witness, Jesus is silent, and Mark allows that silence to stand right to the end, when the women come to the tomb, hear of resurrection, and say nothing. But we also have the witness of the other Gospels, and so we see with the eyes of the church what Jesus was about. Jesus alone dares to dream of an “us” that does not constitute a “them.” To the disciple who denied him, he comes back and offers three chances for affirmation after the Resurrection. Of those who crucified him, he says “forgive.” To the crucified criminal, and to us all, he says, “you will all be with me in paradise.”

There is a strange encounter in the courtyard, while Jesus is being tried. A servant-girl comes up to Peter and says, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” Peter reacts like a stuck pig: “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” He hears her words as an accusation, and speaks out of fear.

But what if she was not accusing him? What if she were speaking out of hope? After all, we are only a few days past Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, the very one we celebrate today. I tend to see that celebration as trivial — people getting caught up in the fad of the hour — but what if it was not? What if the people of Jerusalem really longed for a prophet, one of the prophets of old who would speak truth to power and call it to account? What if that servant-girl had heard of Jesus’ kindness to women? What if she were desperate for a word of God, for an act of kindness, for someone to champion her with courage and conviction? As desperate as those seven women in Quebec must have been, when, if they called for shelter, they would have been told there was no room in the inn?

If that woman was speaking to Peter out of hope, then Peter’s fear would have destroyed it, just as the complicity of the church in Quebec with the abuses of power has discredited, for many, the claims of Christ. A prophet, after all, must be transformational; otherwise, he is just a windbag.

And so, perhaps, the invitation for us is to see our own silence — not, at this Cathedral, a lack of words, but a lack of solidarity. We open our Zoom rooms and our doors to all who enter, but do we stand with those who dare not enter? Do we seek out those for whom Jesus really would be a word of hope and offer it?

Do we throw in our weight with them, even when doing so is frightening, knowing that we, too, would be lost without Christ? Do we even believe that?

This Holy Week, try believing it. As we enter into these stories, remember that we are not the ones who stood with Christ; we are the ones he saved. Taste, in his silence and in his desolation, his love. But remember, too, that we live on the far side of the resurrection. We do not need to share Peter’s fear. We need to make the claims of Christ credible again. What would it mean to live with that much love?

  1. His metaphor would, of course, mean something completely different in a majority-Black nation.
  2. “The Shield of Achilles”

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