Bit Parts

SJF • Palm Sunday A • Tobias Haller BSG God also highly exalted him and give him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Every knee bending, every tongue confessing — Isaiah said it first and Saint Paul repeated it. But that’s hardly what it seems like in the Passion according to Saint Matthew that we heard today. Maybe in the Palm Gospel, where everybody is celebrating and calling out to Jesus our Lord, but certainly not in the evangelist Matthew’s version of the Passion. It doesn’t take very long for the cries of “Hosanna” to turn into, “Let him be crucified.” And the change of heart seems to be just about universal. Just about everybody is against Jesus. It isn’t just Judas, and the chief priests and the elders, and the crowds, and the soldiers. Even his friends don’t seem to want to have any more to do with him any more; even Peter, the only one with even a modicum of courage to follow at a distance, even he, as you recall, denies Jesus when put to the test. In Matthew’s version of the Passion even both of the thieves crucified there, on either side of Jesus, join in the fun and curse him. The opposition is almost entirely unanimous.

There are, however, a few exceptions. Matthew portrays Pilate, for instance, in a somewhat sympathetic light — a typical politician torn between trying to keep the peace and trying to please the mob and seeing to it that true justice is done. As is often true with politicians, he chooses the easy way, he chooses peace and pleasing the mob instead of justice. He washes his hands of the innocent blood, and allows the execution to proceed.

Pilate is certainly not the first politician to try to have his cake and eat it too; nor is he the last to place himself in a position of deniability and shift the responsibility to someone else. In a more modern setting, rather than washing his hands, he would probably have had his press secretary issue a statement to the effect that “we were badly advised and we were operating on insufficient intelligence” and perhaps he might even use those timeless words, “mistakes were made.” Still, Matthew does not portray Pilate as a bloodthirsty villain, and certainly not as being against Jesus except to the extent that his job requires it. +++ But there are two other characters in Matthew’s Gospel that I’d like to invite to step into the spotlight today. They are not major players by any means, but rather they are bit parts in the drama. They are one step up from being an “extra” — but still don’t get into the category of a featured role. In the movie business they are called an “under five” — which means that they have fewer than five lines. In fact, in this case each of them has only one line.

And one of them is an offstage voice: Pilate’s wife; she sends that message, warning her husband to have nothing to do with the trial of an innocent man because she has had a bad dream about him. For Matthew, this harks back to his account of the Nativity in which Joseph — as I’m sure you recall — is warned in dreams at the very beginning of the Jesus’s life; and so here another dream comes to the wife of Pontius Pilate, in the closing hours of the Jesus’s life. I suppose to pick up another analogy of a film you might imagine this as a voiceover — I’m sure you’ve all seen films where someone is reading a letter from someone else, and you hear the voice of that other person — picture Pilate unrolling a scroll and hearing his wife’s voice as he reads her letter: “Have nothing to do with this man, for I have been troubled in a dream on his account.” A bit part, clearly, but an important one — for it adds to Pilate’s discomfort with the whole situation and his desire to keep his distance from it.

The other bit player is the centurion, who with the other soldiers gathered at the foot of the cross, has the last word in today’s reading of the Passion: “Truly this man was God’s son.” Now, the role of these Roman soldier is all the more interesting because earlier in the drama they were on the “anti” side, those who mocked Jesus — so this represents a major change of heart, at the end, when suddenly they see something that most of the others can’t see; they see this so-called king of the Jews as not just the king of the Jews but as God’s Son: a declaration not just of royalty but divinity. +++ The interesting thing about these characters — Pilate’s wife, and the centurion and the other soldiers — is that they are all Gentiles — in fact, if you include Pilate, all of the even-close-to “good guys” in Matthew’s Passion are Gentiles. Why is that?

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That’s a good question — since Matthew is generally considered to be the most Jewish of the four evangelists; that is, he is the one who most often quotes from the Old Testament in the course of his Gospel. You know how it all went, from the Nativity stories right on: “this happened to fulfill what was said by the prophet” every step of the way he is bringing the Old Testament into the New, relating it, tying it together. Notice in today’s account of the Passion how he dwells on the details of Psalm 22: actually quoting it at one point. He includes the mocking, the challenges to have God deliver him, the piercing of the hands and feet, the division of the garments and the casting of lots; and then most powerfully, when he actually quotes the opening verse of the Psalm, putting those words, in Aramaic, into Jesus’s mouth — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — as Jesus himself cries out that powerful verse of Psalm 22 as his arms are stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross. That Psalm is the lament of an innocent man surrounded by gangs of enemies who have literally ripped him to shreds and hung him out to dry — and die.

And yet, for Matthew, in spite of his own Jewishness, and of the echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures that run through his Gospel, and his outreach to his own people, Matthew chooses to highlight the Gentile bit players as the most sympathetic characters in his account of the Passion.

And right there at the heart of the quandary you have the clue as to why Matthew has done this, what Matthew’s intention was in giving these sympathetic parts to Gentiles. You see, Matthew is writing to his own people, writing to a Jewish audience, and he is using a form of argument to convince them, a form of argument that is itself a rich part of the Jewish tradition, a form of argument called “light and heavy” — of which I’ve spoken before because Jesus himself makes use of the form, in another account of the Passion, when he says, “If they do this when the wood is green what will they do when it is dry?”

And what is the point of the argument? Remember, Matthew is an evangelist — he has one primary goal: to tell the Good News to the end that those who hear it may believe. This is the one thing all the evangelists have in common, however different their style, their audience, or the details that they choose to emphasize in their accounts. Here, Matthew, is writing to his own people; he is trying to embarrass them into realizing the extent of their error in having rejected the Messiah.

He echoes the language Peter uses at the first Pentecost, when Peter tells the Jewish pilgrims from all over the world that they acted in ignorance, but that this was part of God’s plan not only to save them, but to bring the Gentiles into salvation. Matthew’s goal as an evangelist is to convict and convert his own people. He wants more than anything to help them see that Jesus was and is the Messiah of God. Throughout his Gospel he has been showing how Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures — and in the Passion, he makes use of these Gentile bit players to say, “If even these Gentiles, who know nothing of God, these pagans living outside the law and the covenant, outside the blessing of God, if even they are capable of seeing the Messiah, shouldn’t you be able to as well — you my brothers and sisters, you who have read and heard the holy Scriptures from your childhood up? You who know God — don’t you know him when you see him?”

Matthew is using that argument of “light and heavy” as we might say “it’s so easy even a child can do it” — meaning that if a child can do it certainly an adult can. He is saying, if even a Gentile can recognize the God of the Jews when he comes, who is the God of all people, why can’t the Jews who have been given that promise from the very beginning?

Like the apostles Peter and Paul, Matthew wants his people — the Jewish people of his day — to join him in accepting Jesus as the fulfillment for which they had so long waited.

This is the way in which the prophecy of Isaiah would come to pass, the prophecy that Saint Paul reaffirmed in his letter to the church at Philippi — that all people, of every land, of every tongue, Jew and Gentile alike, of every tribe and kindred on this celestial ball, together with the chosen heirs of Israel’s race would bend the knee and cry out as one that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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We set our feet today upon the path of Holy Week at the end of which we will watch with our Savior as he is crowned, not with a royal diadem but with a crown of thorns. We too ought to be embarrassed by this Gospel — for we have not always witnessed to our Savior as we should. But let us pray to God to give us the strength to follow Jesus, to walk with him and to watch with him, that we may one day live with him and praise him in that place where he sits enthroned in glory — where by the will of God and the grace and mercy of his sacrifice we will join with angels and archangels, with the prophets and the dreamers, with the blessed company of the apostles and martyrs, with the penitent and repentant — even those embarrassed into faith — where every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.+

Outside the Walls

So much of significance takes place outside the walls of Jerusalem, in Bethany where a woman makes an offering to be remembered 2014 a sermon for Palm Sunday 2012

SJF • Palm Sunday 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

We have just heard the passion of Christ according to the evangelist Mark, as we do every three years. What is unusual about this year is the fact that this is the first time we have heard the Passion according to the new Revised Common Lectionary — the set of Scripture readings appointed for use in the Episcopal Church since the end of 2010. This is the first year we’ve been reading “Year B” as it is called.

One of the revisions that the editors of this Lectionary made, was the decision to begin the Passion with that passage about the woman who poured ointment on the head of Jesus as he sat at table in the home of Simon the leper, in Bethany. This passage of Scripture has never been included in the Sunday gospel readings of the Episcopal Church. That is all the more ironic given the fact that Jesus says that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what that woman did for him would be told in remembrance of her.

So it is about time she was remembered, and high time the authorities who determine such things took note of this woman and what Jesus said of her. And so I am glad to have this opportunity, finally, to preach on this important text on a Sunday, and Palm Sunday at that. I’m particularly happy to do so because I believe that as with so much of Mark’s Gospel — the shortest of the four Gospels — everything in his text is significant: Mark doesn’t waste words with irrelevant details and if he tells us something, it is important to record it.

This gospel passage also formed the substance of one of the Bible studies in which I took part in South Africa last fall, and this gives me an opportunity to share something of what I learned from that wonderful experience — breaking open the words of Scripture almost like breaking open that jar of expensive ointment, in honor of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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The first thing to note about this passage is that it takes place in Bethany, a small town a Sabbath’s day journey outside the walls of Jerusalem. Remember that a Sabbath’s day journey is a very short one since you are not supposed to travel very far on the Sabbath. This little town outside of Jerusalem — what was it? The name “Bethany” is thought by some to mean “House of Figs” or “House of Dates” — like the Mount of Olives, also outside the city — that this was a place where fig trees grew, or perhaps date palms. But it is far more likely that it relates to the Aramaic word anyi, “the poor.” “Beth-anyi” “the House of the Poor.” Let’s face it, folks, this was the slums outside of Jerusalem. This is the place where the poor and the outcast lived. If you wanted an image of Bethany look at the shanty-towns in South Africa, or the slums outside of Rio, and you’ll have an idea of what Bethany was. It was a place of the poor.

The other striking detail is that this incident takes place in the home of Simon the leper. Now, we don’t know if this Simon was a leper whom Jesus had cured of his leprosy — or even that he had been cured of his leprosy at all. Cured or not, the fact that he was still known as Simon the leper lets us know something about how people regarded him, and his house. This is the home of someone doubly on the edge of society, not someone at its center — Simon is not a person of power and prestige, but someone known as a leper, and his house, “Simon the leper’s house, in Bethany, the house of the poor.” This is a man shunted off to the side, not someone at the center. Even if healed, he was a side-liner if not an outcast

So Jesus, true to his tendency to seek out the lowliest and the most despised with whom to spend his time, is sitting at table in a leper’s house, in the village of the poor. And into this already unorthodox setting there comes this woman with a jar of expensive ointment which she breaks open and pours on Jesus’s head. We are not told her name; we are not told her station in life. Because this incident is similar to accounts from the other evangelists some have suggested that as in Luke, she is a “woman of the city” — and you know what that means. Others have suggested that this might be Mary, who lived there in Bethany with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus. This could be, they think, a different version of the similar event in John’s gospel, where she is identified.

But Mark gives us none of these details, not even her name, and by choosing not to do so, he invites us to focus on the details he does provide: which is about how expensive this ointment is, and how the woman doesn’t just open the jar and pour the ointment out, but breaks the jar, which means it had to be used up then and there — there was nothing to hold it. This is extravagance, an extravagant offering, broken and poured out and completely given. And the disciples turn on her for and say she is “wasting” it. Jesus immediately places what she has done in the context of his coming passion and death, while also reminding them as the first things he says — and you can imagine again, picturing him sitting where he is sitting: in this shanty-town surrounded by poverty — and when they say, We could have sold this for the poor; he says, “The poor you have with you always” — and all he would have needed do is gesture around him, “What are you talking about, my friends? Where do you think you are now? You will have the poor with you always.”

And so he immediately shifts his attention to his coming death and passion and notes three things in quick succession:

— you will not always have me; I am going away.

— she has done what she could; she gave everything she had in that broken jar; she couldn’t save anything of it in that broken jar once it was given.

— and she has anointed me for in advance of my burial.

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But perhaps the most striking thing for me about this passage is that introductory line about where it takes place, Bethany. For the setting is Bethany is not just the poor-house outside of Jerusalem, this town of outcasts and irregular and unconventional people: Simon the leper, and the household of Lazarus, Mary and Martha; and this unnamed woman. And what struck the Bible study group I was with in South Africa was how little of real importance in the gospel takes place inside the walls of Jerusalem, in the Holy City, and how much of importance takes place outside of those city walls or even further from it — from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem the city of David, about five miles south of Jerusalem; through his coming death on Golgotha, outside the city walls; and his burial and being raised to life again in the garden, also outside the walls; and even his ascension from Mount Olivet, also outside the city.

All of these crucial events (and I use the word “crucial” with an emphasis on the cross of which it speaks, that cross that stood “outside the city walls” on the “green hill far away”) all of these acts in the drama of salvation take place outside the city walls or even further from it. Only the Last Supper itself takes place in the city — perhaps a way to remind us that it is the priestly act of Christ, joined with his disciples as a new priestly people, in the city whose temple has become corrupted by abuse and misuse. But the acts of salvation themselves, from the incarnation through the ascension — the descent of Godhead into human flesh and the bearing up of the human nature into the transcendent realm of God — all of these things take place outside the walls of the holy city and apart from it — out there with the poor and the outcast. For the holy city has remained content in its own holiness, unwilling to be broken open like that ointment jar, to be poured out, and spent. Remember that those who seek to save their lives, lose, and those who lose their life — who spend them — for his sake, will keep them.

And so it is, is that this unnamed woman performs an emblematic act in breaking open that jar of precious ointment, not only anointing Jesus for his burial but echoing his self-giving emptying of himself for our sake and for our salvation upon the cross, that stood outside the city walls. And this is why her act is so tied up with the good news itself: why else would Jesus say that wherever the good news is proclaimed this will be told in remembrance of her? Her act is emblematic of the good news itself; it is the good news.

It is good news that God did not remain a distant and foreign, benign Creator, looking down upon the earth from a heavenly throne on an earth below; it is good news that God in Christ broke through that great gap fixed between this world and the perfect world of heaven, and entered into the fallen creation, emptying himself of all attributes of majesty, to take upon himself our human likeness, the likeness of one outcast, the likeness of one poor and humble; it is good news that he took on the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

We have entered the beginning of this holy week. In a few moments at this altar, and again on Maundy Thursday we will celebrate that Memorial of his passion, which he said to do in remembrance of him, and which he committed to us in that upper room in Jerusalem. But on Good Friday we will also walk again outside those city walls, walking to the place where he was crucified. We will walk with those bearing his body to the tomb, and we will rest through that quiet Sabbath Saturday. Then on Easter... Well, you know what happens then. Let us not rush on to that; let us pause for a moment for that other remembrance: that remembrance of this woman, finally included in our Sunday readings after all these years, remembering what she did in making that offering, giving of herself as an emblem of Jesus’ own giving of him self. Let us make use, over these next days, of the breaking open of God’s word, like precious ointment, valuable not for how much it could be sold for, but for the honor that it shows to the one for whom it is given. Let us give thanks for the action of that anonymous woman, and like her offer all that we have of value to honor our Lord and our God. He will come to us, in our poverty, in our weakness, outside the walls; where we wait in expectation for the day of his coming in might and majesty, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Uplifting Low-Down

SJF • Palm Sunday 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.+

Some years ago, I heard a voice speak through a window in time. It wasn’t a supernatural experience like that of St John the Divine. It was on National Public radio. It was part of a broadcast of historic recordings — not recordings of famous people, but of ordinary folks like you or me. The recording was made almost sixty years ago, and the man who made it was 102 years old at the time he recorded it — so his voice spoke through a window of time into the middle of the century before last — the time of the Civil War.

Joseph Johnson had been a slave in the American South, already in his teens when slavery ended. He, and his family before him for three generations, had been slaves — his grandfather, Mr Johnson said with a mixture of pride and resentment, had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

What most struck me about this recording wasn’t the reminisces of this elderly former slave, but the attitude of the man who was interviewing him: his great-grandson. In spite of the number of times he must have heard these stories at his great-grandpa’s knee — you could tell he wasn’t grasping the meaning that they held.

His old great-grandfather kept trying to give him the low-down on what it meant to be a slave, but the younger man just couldn’t get it. When the old man said, “We all belonged to Mr Smith,” the young man asked, “What kind of work did you do for him?” With some irritation, the old man replied, “We didn’t work for him — he owned us! Like he owned his horse or his mule.” The younger man couldn’t grasp what it meant to be a slave. He heard the words, but their weight escaped him. He couldn’t feel the soreness of bent and aching backs, weary, bone-tired arms, the crack of the whip, the cutting curses and insults, or more importantly the total lack of the ability to say, “I’m going to quit this awful job!” — and the deep, deep pain of humiliation summed up in the single word: slave.

He asked further, “Once you were free, did you ever want to go back to being a slave again?” With astonishment audible in every syllable, the old man replied, “Well, some folks might to have wanted to, but not me; to be a slave is to be a dog. You can’t be a man when you’re a slave.” The old man had summed up well what the philosophers say of slavery: it is the loss of self-determination that means so much to what it is to be a full person, it negates humanity by converting a human being into an object, an appliance, a tool to use until it is of no more use, and then to discard. “You can’t be a man where you’re a slave.” And maybe then that young man finally understood what his great-grandfather was trying to tell him.

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Most of us are like that young man. It is hard for us to get the full implication — the ultimate low-down — on what it means to be a slave. And so, when we hear the Scriptures today, especially Paul’s words to the Philippians, the word slave tends to slide over our ears instead of sinking in, like butter on cold toast. Paul said that Jesus, the Son of God, took upon himself the form of a slave — but we don’t grasp the full significance of these words.

So let’s refresh our memories, based on Mr Johnson’s testimony. To be a slave means to have no control over your own life: to be owned by someone else — not just to have to work hard, not just to have to follow orders — lots of people have to do that — but to have your very being rest in someone else’s hands, to have no power of self-determination: to be an object whose very existence is at someone else’s discretion.

To be a slave is to be the lowest of the low — to be at the very bottom of human society. It is to be even beneath human society: to be one step over the edge at which human likeness disappears even in one’s own eyes: as Mr Johnson said, “When you’re a slave, you are a dog.”

To apply these expressions to Jesus Christ sounds scandalous. And it is. This is the scandal of the Incarnation — that the Son of God took that step down, down to the very bottom. It is not simply that the word was made flesh, that God became a human being, but that the Son of God became— among human beings — not the highest, not a king or an emperor, but the lowest and the humblest, one not even considered human by many: a slave, treated as you or I might treat one of our appliances: something bought and paid for, valued while serviceable but dumped out on the sidewalk for collection by Sanitation when it is of no further use. A slave is one with no control over his or her own life, one who is placed at our mercy — placed himself into the hands of fallen humanity — our hands. We just said together those words said by our forebears — our hands were reached out, to “crucify him, crucify him.”

This is a great mystery: that Jesus accepted all of this willingly — for us, for our sakes and for our salvation. At his final meal, Jesus knew that his hour had come, that he was about to be betrayed into human hands by human hands, the very hands that would dip in the bowl with his. Believe me, you don’t want to fall into human hands.

But, as they say in the TV ads, “There’s more!” Jesus would go beyond the mere humility of a servant, even the humiliation of a slave. As the old language of Apostles’ Creed said so bluntly, “He descended into hell.”

Paul describes the step-by-step process in Philippians. The ladder of humility led from God’s majesty, at his right hand, to humanity (just below the angels), to slavery — that so distorts human beings that they are no longer seen as human beings, even by themselves — and then to that final step of death, where being — human or otherwise — altogether ceases. Jesus voluntarily takes these steps, even the final step into the abyss of non-being, the step into death, even death on the cross — for us.

And this is the glory of the cross: that the cross which marks the lowest point to which the Son would descend — that it should be the very means by which the Son would be lifted up, and draw the whole world to himself. This is the glory of the cross: that the abyss of death into which he was willing to descend should be forever patched and sealed by two beams of wood laid crosswise.

The cross is the mark of paradox: that He who Is should cease to be; that the death of one should bring life to all; that the slavery of one should bring freedom to all; that the highest should become the lowest. Only from that lowest point — only from the grave, the pit of death and hell — could Christ in rising again bring all of humanity back up with him from the grave. Only by getting completely under the burden of fallen human nature could Christ lift and carry it. Only by descending to the grave, the place of non-being, only from that lowest point, could he place the lever of the cross against the fulcrum of his death, and raise up a fallen world. Only from the grave could Jesus raise us to new life.

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And all the while the means of this great miracle, the means of our salvation, the cross, stands before us, there above the altar, a representation in brass instead of dark and bloody wood. This is a representation of the ladder on which the Son of God climbed down from heaven so he could be lifted up on earth, and bring the whole world to himself. This is the instrument by which a slave was revealed as the king in disguise; the one deemed no longer human, revealed to be humanity in perfection. This is the tool by which Christ, who took a slave’s form in order to bring freedom, died so that we might live again with him after our own deaths.

We are called to lift high that cross, our standard and our rallying point, the sign of victory in the midst of seeming defeat, the crossbeams that seal the portals of death, the lever the lifts a fallen world, the ladder of salvation. As we go forth today from this place at the end of our worship, to a world enslaved by riches that cannot make one free; to a world that cheapens human nature through injustice, sexism and racism, that enslaves the children of God and binds them in chains of hate and pain; to a world that refuses to recognize and honor love unless it fits its narrow understanding; to a world that is hungry for the good news of Christ but doesn’t know bread from heaven when it sees it; to a world that is dying of thirst while fountains of grace pour from the wounded side of the Lord of glory — as we go forth today at the end of our worship in the power of the Spirit let us lift high the cross upon which he was lifted up, to draw the whole world to himself. +