Revised Common Lectionary Page for 1 April 2012 (Palm Sunday, Year B)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  • Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16

Palm Sunday is, second only to Ash Wednesday, my favorite bit of practical theology.  On Ash Wednesday, of course, Christians hear read the passage in which Jesus commands the faithful not to go about dirty-faced when the fast.  Then, at the outset of a forty-day fast, we dirty our faces.  The subtlety of the theological move never ceases to amaze me: in a season dedicated to contemplating our own sins, we face the choice of skipping one of the central ceremonies of the Christian year, thus neglecting the assembly of the faithful; or participating, and thus visibly disobeying the ONE THING that we’re told not to do.  Either way, we start out Lent playing from behind.

Likewise with Palm Sunday: on the Sunday before we get the most visitors (excluding on Mother’s Day, but I go to a Southern church), we hear about the moment when the people of Jerusalem were at their most wrong about the Messiah of the LORD.  In Mark’s version, the people call out, not about the coming reign of God, but of the coming kingdom of David.  They welcome not the dying Christ who will forgive his enemies but the great warrior-king, the one who slaughters Moabites by the yard (go back and read the early chapters of 2 Samuel) and makes his name in the world in a long series of definitive military victories against pagan enemies.  In short, when we send our children (does every congregation use the children to bring the palm leaves), we re-enact that moment when Jerusalem sets herself up to turn against the real Jesus.

And that, of course, is the brilliance of the festival.  As the culminating Sunday of Lent, we need moments precisely like this, when we can face honestly the ways that we make God in our own image, call on Jesus to give smiling approval to our worst vices (sometimes over coffee), and anoint as the movement of the Spirit our pet political projects.   The sophisticated point that Palm Sunday makes, when it’s the last Sunday of Lent (which is to say every year), is that the sins that most need forgiven are the ones we don’t have the imagination to name.

And that’s why, year after year and Sunday after Sunday, I keep teaching the Bible whenever people have the patience to let me.  Its narratives and laments and epistles and apocalypses never lose their punch, their ability to reframe the world that I see and to open my eyes to the corners that I’ve tried, wittingly or no, to hide from myself.  If indeed the fool says in his heart that there is no God, then Palm Sunday is dedicated to those fools who say in their hearts (whether their brains can hear or not), “God won’t catch me on this one.”

May Lent reach its peak as we confess those sins of which we’re most proud.


2 thoughts on “The Festival of Bad Ideas: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 1 April 2012”
  1. Nathan, when you wrote, “we need moments precisely like this, when we can face honestly the ways that we make God in our own image”, I could not help but think of your previous statemtent of attending a Southern church.

    I, too, grew up in the south, and I have to say that while I miss the southern culture, and part of that is how it felt on Sundays, if there is one culture in this country that sees itself as the most beatific picture of God, it is the one of the South. I even know people here in the Northeast who imagine the Southern Sundays as Andy, Aunt Bea and Barney sitting on the front porch after Sunday dinner. And to be honest, as a young preacher in the south, I enjoyed a lot of Sunday afternoon front porch sitting.

    The above is not a criticism of the southern culture, but of those in it who see it as closest to God. There are churches of the Restoration Movement here in the Northeast whose Southern transplants actually see themselves as the very ones who hold the church together. Christians of the North, especially the Northeast, are seen as perpetual babes in Christ.

    So, how can a people feel good about its identity without making itself into an idol? Well, that is where “prophets” come in to play. Good people need, from time to time, an Amos who can look them in the eye and proclaim, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion..”; someone with the courage to say “I will make them envious by those who are not a people”. I did not have that courage as a young preacher; but I now try to impart it one on one when I visit once or twice a year.

  2. Good stuff, John, as usual.

    Our congregation at ACC is odd in several ways, but one significant oddity about us is just how few of us are actually from Georgia. We’ve got people from the Bayou and Indiana and Ohio and Cameroon and Pennsylvania, and by the time you add all those folks up in a small church, you’ve already established that there’s not really a geographic center whence everyone’s “kin” come. And to be honest, that’s a decided advantage over another congregation we attended in north Georgia when first we moved down here, a place where I would go weeks at a time without anyone talking to me because I wasn’t part of one of “the families.”

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