Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Triumph of the King? A sermon for Palm Sunday

The Triumph of the King. It sounds rather ponderous, like one of the bits of Tolkien that only hardcore geeks read. Or worse, it sounds presumptuous. Because we all know what happened in this triumph. Decent preacher from the north country, comes sweeping into the capital city, gets arrested by the authorities for sedition, put to death in a really nasty way. Some triumph. Of course, we also know happened two days later, on the great day that we’ve come to call Easter Sunday, when he rose from the dead.

Nobody knew this was going to happen on a Sunday morning when that preacher, the firebrand from Galilee who went around preaching the kingdom of God, and performing healings, and opening people’s eyes to God, when that man Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem. And while what happens next really matters, and many of us here will spend the coming week remembering it and mourning it and celebrating it, I want to invite you to think yourself into the minds of the people in the crowds that Sunday morning. Forget what you know about the events of the following week. What kind of strange event was going on that morning?

As a way into this, I thought we might start with a quiz. So, a show of hands please. What does Hosanna mean? Is it: A. Hail, O Lord! or B. God be praised! or C. Save us, Lord! or D. Give me oil in my lamp.

And the answer is… C: Save us, Lord! I was genuinely surprised to find the answer to this one when I read it a few days ago. You know the word hosanna. You’ve sung it many times in different songs [including this morning??]. But have you stopped to think what it means? I hadn’t done so before I started reading about this passage. I guess I thought it meant something like A or B, something similar to the word ‘hallelujah’. But it doesn’t. It refers back quite explicitly to the psalm we spoke together, with its line: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!”. So it’s not a cry of praise at all, it’s a cry for help. It’s a cry from the heart, like the psalm which says “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!”

And the people of Jerusalem needed help. They needed to cry out to God. They were living under an oppressive ruler who was the puppet of the world’s largest empire, noted for its brutality. And yes, God answered. He sent them what they were asking for. But it wasn’t quite what they were expecting. They expected a very different triumph from the one they received.

Let’s talk about that word Triumph a bit more. The cities of Europe, old and new, are full of arches like this, set up by victorious military leaders to celebrate their victories. They’ve been around for millennia. This one, the Arc de Triomphe, was put there by Napoleon. There are at least two in London. But they were perfected by the Romans, as a way of celebrating the victories of their generals and rubbing it in for the defeated people.

These Roman triumphs had similar features. There was a victorious leader, riding on a war-horse or in a chariot, accompanied by his troops. The local dignitaries would make grand speeches about the leader’s achievements. The leader and his party would go to the grand temple to give thanks to their gods. And they would bring the spoils of the war – the treasures they had looted, the slaves they had captured, often killing those captives at the end of the process to show their power.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was certainly celebrated and was triumphal in its own way. But it was different from the Roman triumphs in almost every possible respect.

First, he didn’t come in on a war-horse or a chariot, like the Roman leader in the picture here. He came into the city on a colt, a young donkey (so young that its mother came along with it). Now, there was a prophecy involved, which Matthew quotes from Zechariah. But there was also the basic fact in that region that donkeys were humble animals ridden by simple folk. You might know the hymn to the tune of Drunken Sailor, which goes “We have a king who rides a donkey… and his name is Jesus”.

Next, he didn’t get lots of grand speeches. Of course there were palm branches and those shouts of hosanna. But there were no local dignitaries telling us of his great deeds. Instead there were people openly saying “WHO? FROM WHERE?” Not so much scorn as plain bewilderment.

And then there was Jesus’ actions when he entered. As I said, the Roman generals went straight to the temple. They brought animals to sacrifice, gifts to give to their gods. Jesus also went straight to the temple. But not to sacrifice. He went to turn things upside down – he drove out the money-changers and salesmen, he cured the blind and lame. He took away the petty acts of exploitation that the temple brought upon those who came to worship there, and he healed people instead. In other words, he fulfilled that cry of hosanna, save us, straight away – but to save the people from the ways they were exploited and oppressed by their own people.

So how did the people respond? Let’s look at that a bit more.

They waved palm branches of course. That’s the famous thing about the day. It was traditional to wave palm branches on Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, which was a harvest festival which also remembered the way the Israelites lived during the Exodus. But they were also the symbol of Judas Maccabeus, celebrated as the man who liberated the people of Israel two centuries earlier. And for the Romans the palm branch was a symbol of the goddess of victory. So there was celebration in the waving of palms but there was a political statement too.

And of course the very next thing the people do, according to Matthew, is to cry “Hosanna” – save us, Jesus. Save us from the people who oppress us. Deliver us from our enemies. They call him the son of David, and they say that he comes in the name of the Lord. Again these are quotes from the psalm, but they are strong statements about the kind of king they want, the kind of king they see Jesus as. This is a moment of transformation, of change. If you know the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps you remember the moment when the crowds are singing “Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho”, and at the same time the priests are singing “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot – this common crowd is much too loud”. This is a triumph of a very kingly sort, albeit a Jewish triumph rather than a Roman one.

And then he’s in Jerusalem and something strange thing happens. The tone of the crowd changes. It’s no longer “hosanna” but rather it’s “who is this man?”. They don’t know what to make of Jesus, this strange radical figure. One reason for this, perhaps, is that there are two crowds – the palm-wavers are the people who have followed Jesus from Galilee, while the ones asking who he is, are those who live in Jerusalem. But it’s still a great question, and one we might spend our whole lives answering: who is this Jesus for us?

And if that’s how the people responded, can we respond today?

Two thoughts. The first is from Helder Camara, long-time archbishop in Brazil and a man of great spiritual wisdom. He was once asked how he kept his humility in the face of all the wealth and power that comes with being an archbishop. He said that he imagined himself entering Jerusalem in triumph – but not as Jesus. He imagined himself as Jesus’ donkey, carrying him to where he needed to be.

And the other thought is a bit like it. I mentioned earlier the hymn “We have a king who rides a donkey”. It ends with the following words: “What shall we do with our life this morning? Give it up in service!” 

Because that’s what Jesus did. The road through the gates of Jerusalem led Jesus to Calvary, and to giving up his life for others. Palm Sunday is a triumphant time, but it’s not the kind of triumph that the Romans expected, or that the Jews expected, or that the disciples expected.

Jesus came into Jerusalem in an act of triumph, but it was a triumph that turned everything upside down just as much as his earlier preaching and actions had done. He came to proclaim a victory of the humble over the mighty, of the weak over the strong, of the oppressed over the oppressors. Now that’s what I call a triumph.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Song of the Mother: a sermon on the Magnificat

[Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 30th March 2014, Mother's Day. Text: Luke 1:46-55, The Magnificat. The sermon was immediately preceded by the hymn Tell Out My Soul.]

So we have heard and we have sung a song, the great song, of the mother of Jesus. I’ve promised to be short this morning, but I want to talk a bit about Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat from its first word in the Latin version. It’s a song that has resonated down the ages from her time to ours. It’s got it all: joy, praise, concern for others and the world, and a deep sense of hope for a revolutionary kingdom of God present here on earth that will overturn the powers of the world.

If someone invented a Bible version of Desert Island Discs, and I had to pick a single passage, then Mary’s song might be well it. Martin Luther (perhaps not the first person that comes to mind when talking about Mary) wrote about the song that “She sang it not for herself alone, but for all of us, to sing it after her”.

There’s so much to say about it but today I want to focus on what Mary’s song can say to us about a mother’s love, which seems appropriate today for anyone who’s had a mother or is a mother or lives with a mother. I’m going to talk about three kinds of love that the Magnificat can tell us about: joy, risk, and justice.

Mother’s love: joy

The first kind of mother’s love that the Magnificat tells us about is joy. Those opening words, “my soul magnifies [or glorifies] the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour” are words of such joy. Mary starts with praise and rejoicing. Before anything else, she praises God and rejoices in him. The rest of the song will outline the reasons why she praises him, but before anything else, she praises God and rejoices in him. The rest of the song will outline the reasons why she praises him. She praises him for her coming motherhood, for the things he has done for her, but also for the amazing things he has done for his people and for the whole world.

Mary’s song sits within a very long Jewish tradition of powerful women singers: Miriam in Exodus after the parting of the Red Sea, Deborah the judge, Hannah the mother of Samuel and Judith who questions the faith of Israel’s ruling class. Although she talks about herself as lowly, and although the status of women in 1st century Palestine was pretty bad, her song is full of power.

So that’s the first expression of a mother’s love in the Magnificat: heartfelt joy. It’s a lesson we can all learn from, joy towards God and joy towards those we love.

Mother’s love: risk

The next kind of love is that of risk. All relationships have risk inherent to them. There are common images of Mary and Jesus in the history of art. Here is one, of her cradling the infant, and it’s found in many places  – this statue is in St Matthew’s Church here in Northampton.

Once a baby is born, it enters the world and becomes subject to all sorts of risks. That is the case whether the baby is the son of God, or any other human being. Mary talks about this one less in the Magnificat, but soon after Jesus’ birth (also in Luke’s gospel), she was warned about it by Simeon, who said that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.

And from the moment Jesus was born, he was in a place of risk. He was born into poverty, in a borrowed place. His family had to flee into exile for fear of his life. His ministry was with the marginalised and the outcasts. He was pilloried by the state as a dangerous radical, betrayed by his friends, and put to death. No wonder Mary’s soul was pierced.

So there’s another image of Mary cradling Jesus. This is a version of the Pieta, the image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus after his crucifixion. It’s by a German artist, Käthe Kollwitz, whose own son was killed as a soldier in the First World War. Many of her images are of mothers and children. Kollwitz knew about the risks of love. So did Mary. But loving someone, in a dangerous world, always involves risk.

Mary’s message to us is that it’s a risk worth taking.

Mother’s love: cry for justice

Mary’s song tells us about one more form of love: a cry for justice, for your own children but also for all the children of the world. 

The history of world is full of mothers who have sacrificed things for the sake of their children (yes, fathers too, but more often mothers). I’ve watched a couple of TV documentaries recently about food poverty in Britain. One of the most shocking parts was the number of times that mothers were shown going without food so their children could eat. In a rich country it is simply unacceptable that this should happen. But it’s something mothers have always done. This is another picture from Käthe Kollwitz about how this was in the depression of the 1920s in Germany.

And because it’s mothers who so often sacrifice things, it’s often mothers who call for justice for the world. Mary’s song is a statement of extraordinary radicalism. She says that God casts down the mighty and sends the rich away hungry. As the picture says in the style of a Pentecostalist church, “sing it again, Mary!”

The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who was the first to talk about liberation theology, talks of the great promise of the Magnificat, writing that “[its] thanksgiving and joy are closely linked to the action of God who liberates the oppressed and humbles the powerful. The future of history belongs to the poor and exploited.”

For those of us who have a decent income in a rich country, that puts us in an uncomfortable position! But it’s a very clear statement about justice. William Barclay wrote that: “There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity brings about a revolution in individuals and revolution in the world.” Mary’s song makes it clear to us: a world in which there is hunger and food banks and cities with vast wealth on one street and grinding poverty on the next – that is not the world of God’s kingdom. God is on the side of the oppressed and the marginalised, the people with whom Jesus spent his time.

The Song of Mary gives us a threefold statement about love for Mother’s Day, and a challenge for us all: love with joy, love with risk, love with justice. Amen.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Economic lessons from the sixties, still true today

Two quotes from great men speaking in the 1960s about economic injustice. Both could have been written today. Have we come so short a distance in almost 50 years?

Here's Martin Luther King, in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965:
This is why we must join the war against poverty and believe in the dignity of all work. What makes a job menial? I’m tired of this stuff about menial labor. What makes it menial is that we don’t pay folk anything. Give somebody a job and pay them some money so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life. And no matter what the job is it takes on dignity.
And George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, talking to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly in 1968:
By all means let [them] call on the people of Britain to work hard to make sacrifices. But youth will increasingly ask: ‘For whom the work, and for whom the sacrifices?’ Is the whole world of global labour just to go on doing just that for the benefit of indifferent Mammon? It is urgent that the whole issue of international monetary finance be independently reviewed.