Here's a Lenten meditation I first gave in 2004:
I started going to Sunday School when I was three or four years old, and I loved it. I remember the corner classroom with all its sunny windows; the toys; the big board covered in soft, velvety blue felt where we placed the figures of Jesus and all the people from Bible times when the teacher told her stories.
I loved to sit in front of the little worship center and listen to My Sunday School teacher tell the bible stories. She told us about Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus, and the woman at the well offering Jesus a drink of water. And remember the one about the children gathering around Jesus? The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus said, “no, let them come.” I loved every story, but my favorite one of all was about Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey and all the people waving palm branches in the air and spreading them on the ground as he passed, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”
I wasn’t sure what exactly “Hosanna” meant, but I knew it was something good, something joyful. I was right there in the street with the crowd as, each year, a different Sunday School teacher told the same story. I heard the crowd, felt the excitement, as Jesus approached on the little donkey. I could see myself shouting “Hosanna!” Right along with the grown ups. and waving my palm branch. I would lay it on the road as he passed and reach out to touch his sandaled foot or a piece of his robe.
And, you know, no matter how many times I heard the story, no matter how well I knew it by heart, I always wished…well, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit it now, but I always wished it would turn out differently. As the season of Lent unfolded in the Sunday School room week after week, I would wish that each subsequent story would be different—that the fig tree would bear fruit for Jesus, the people would realize that selling things in the temple was not right, Judas wouldn’t take the thirty pieces of silver, Peter wouldn’t deny Jesus and the other disciples wouldn’t run away and hide. I wished, oh how I wished, that the crowd and religious leaders would ask for Jesus to be released, not Barabus, and that the cries of “Hosanna!” would be louder and more powerful than the cries of “Crucify him!”
But, despite my fervent imagination and my wishes to the contrary, the stories always unfolded in the same way and Jesus was always put to death. Like Jesus’ followers, I had to wait until Easter and the resurrection story to feel joy again.
Looking back on my stubborn, wishful thinking, I can see it as more endearingly innocent than foolishly embarrassing. As a world-weary adult, I no longer look for the story to change to suit my wishes, but re-read and re-live the story every year to find nuances and gather new insights that escaped me in past readings. As part of my Lenten journey one year, I went to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” with some church. I admit, I wasn’t anxious to see it because of the controversies surrounding it. But I was able to experience the story in a new way by watching someone else’s reliving of it. That is what the movie represented, after all. Mel Gibson was putting himself into the story.
As I watched the graphically violent and intensely emotional movie, I started thinking about how bizarre this story really is. I wondered, not for the first time, what others must think of us Christians, following this gruesome story that invariably and inevitably ends in the death of our beloved leader and friend. Kind of weird, don’t you think? Doesn’t make sense, seems foolish. As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock might say, “It is not logical, Captain.” As I watched the character of Peter insist, “I don’t know the man,” it occurred to me that the reason Peter denied knowing Jesus may not have been based solely on fear. It might have also been from embarrassment!
This story that we claim as pivotal to our faith in the resurrected Christ is, on the surface, embarrassing. When we agree to pick up our own cross and live in Christian community, we are agreeing to live our lives out loud, to be conspicuous, foolish, exposed. We know the story won’t change into our fantasy of a happy ending; we know it doesn’t get any easier. We can’t claim that suffering will no longer enter our lives or death will not take the lives of those we love. What we get in the claiming of this story is suffering, pain, brutality and death…even after the resurrection has taken place! Why in the world, then, would we continue to claim it?
That’s a question we each have to answer in our own hearts and minds. However, I think Paul gives us good answer, at least a starting off point for discussion and contemplation. In essence, he says “I can’t help but be compelled by this story…it is just part of who I am; it’s in my blood.” He says, “This is personal.” He tells us he wants more than the world can offer. He’s going for the bigger prize of eternal life, where death does not have the last word. Listen to part of his letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verses 8-10, in the contemporary American English of the Message Bible:
“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ - God's righteousness. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.”
Why do we cling to the Passion? Because even as we are repelled by the violence and degradation that the cross recalls and represents, we are even more compelled by Jesus’ compassionate love and grace—shown even in and through the very suffering and tortured death he was forced to endure at the hands of a cold, constricted humanity. It is a passionate compassion that lives and grows far beyond our meager abilities to name and express it. I’ll tell you one thing, though. There is nothing conservative about this compassion!
No, God’s compassion, expressed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is messy, contradictory, controversial, unpredictable and incomprehensible. It’s a compassion that led Jesus to teach his followers such ridiculous notions as “love your enemy,” and “turn the other cheek;” “walk an extra mile,” and celebrate when one who was lost is found, even though you already have 99 in the flock at hand.
When we claim this illogical, shocking, complex story, we run the risk of looking foolish, of being caught out like Peter. “You are one of them, aren’t you? Yeah, I’ve seen you going into that church.” What are you going to say? “No, man, I just go in there for a meeting. I’m not one of them.”
What about when they say, “That stuff you all believe, that turning the other cheek stuff, and loving your enemies, what’s that about? You know that’s not the way the real world works.” Will you look them in the eye and say, “You are absolutely right. It’s not the way of the world, but let me tell you a story. It’s a strange story, an ancient tale about one who was so close to God, he was able to live in the world and shine above it at the same time….”
This story we claim as ours, as our heritage, our legacy, our gift, is not an easy story to tell. It’s painful at times and sometimes I still wish I could just leave out parts of it,…or at least change them to make the story prettier, tidier. But that wouldn’t do it justice. It is the whole story we claim. We claim this story—we enter and re-enter it over and over again—just so we can walk with Jesus, even into death. Because we know, that in doing so, we share in the new life of Christ’s love and grace.