The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks: Palm Sunday—Year C; Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Are we ever ready for this day? Are we ever ready for the rollercoaster ride that takes us to the height of joy atop the Mount of Olives, a place where we can see forever and see clearly who Jesus is as the King of kings and Lord of lords, are we ever ready to go from there to the depths of despair in the Place of the Skull where Jesus meets his death, and all the twists and turns and points of decision in-between? Are we ever ready for this journey? I’m not; I doubt you are either. It always takes my breath away. It always stops me cold. And why? Because if we’re honest, we see ourselves in every last character who plays a role in this drama.
It is useless to fix blame in one place or another—was it the chief priests and leaders who killed Jesus, or Pilate, or Herod, or the soldiers who drove in the nails? That’s too easy an answer. That’s a scapegoat answer that lets the rest of us off the hook far too easily.
And let us not get derailed by chasing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement down the rabbit hole. Substitutionary atonement says that humanity was so awful that God needed a worthy sacrifice, i.e. his Son, as payment for our utter and total sinfulness. I categorically reject this doctrine, this way of understanding the cross. Let me say that again, I categorically reject the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It makes no sense to me that the God who proclaimed all of creation, us included, good and very good could ever look at us with such despise and disdain, nor can I wrap my head around how a loving Father could ever demand the sacrifice of his most beloved Son to balance some sort of equation. This doctrine came out of the feudal understanding in the Middle Ages, and it has messed us up ever since—it has messed up our understanding of God, it has messed up our understanding of Jesus, it has messed up our understanding of ourselves, and it has really messed up our understanding of this day. We can fight battles with this Middle Ages doctrine, but we are fighting straw men, and this, too, is just one more scapegoat that enables us to avoid looking at our complicity in this day. The battle with this doctrine is a deflection, and the false self likes nothing better than deflection on this day. I beg you not to get bogged down there.
No, our focus must not be deflected. We must sit with ourselves. If we are ever to understand the depth of God’s love for us, then we must understand the depths of our humanity. Who killed Jesus? All of us. Every last one of us. The collective false self of humanity is responsible for the death of this innocent man whose only crime was to love us unconditionally.
Every one of the characters shows us one more aspect of the false self.
Judas whose heart is broken because the man he had up on a pedestal, his guru, his teacher, his leader sorely disappointed him, and when the false self gets disappointed, it can lash out with a vengeance!
Peter who wants to hold fast, who wants to be brave, but who ultimately cannot bear the risk of association. Have you ever not stood by a friend when the tide turned? Have you ever denied your deepest truths to save face? The false self hates to be exposed, and it will deny “ever knowing the man” to keep safe, to stay secure.
The Chief Priests and Scribes and Leaders—oh, they are not bad people; they are “caught” people. They have spent their lifetimes working out the rules by which to live a holy and honorable life. As Cynthia Bourgeault points out, they have figured out the roadmaps for themselves and for their people; they took their bearings from received tradition, using the past to interpret the present. The only problem is that Jesus didn’t conform to their roadmaps—and given that choice, they chose their roadmaps over their hearts. They would rather Jesus die than change their roadmaps. Oh, the false self loves to know the way, loves to have a roadmap, because roadmaps equal control and predictability. The false self will do anything, anything to keep those roadmaps from becoming obsolete; the false self simply cannot relinquish control and the predictability that comes with it.
Pilate. Pilate is a tragic figure. He is a mid-level manager. He’s got to keep the powers-that-be above him happy, and he’s got to keep the crowds below him happy. And he will sacrifice his own integrity, his own wisdom, his own truth rather than upset the apple cart. The false self cannot afford to disappoint anyone. The false self will do anything to keep the peace. Better for one man to die than to spiral into the chaos of the disappointed expectations of others.
And there are the others all along the way. Bystanders, soldiers, nameless faces in the crowd who jump on the groupthink train—mocking, teasing, insulting, taunting, ultimately calling for this man to die. The false self loves the energy of a crowd; the false self loves the adrenalin of anger and rage. The false self loves a good scapegoat because if something else dies, its life is preserved.
There are those who love Jesus but just can’t stay to the end. The false self just doesn’t have staying power. At least not when it matters.
But even on this day, even on this awful day, the True Self will not be denied presence. The True Self keeps peeking through the darkness. Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross, the Daughters of Jerusalem who beat their breasts in grief, the Centurion who could see beyond his role to the truth, Joseph of Arimathea who will ensure honor to the end, the women, the Women from Galilee, who just won’t leave and keep vigil with spices and ointments. The false self lives inside of us, but so does the True Self who can carry burdens beyond our imaginings, who can risk the exposure of honest grief, who refuses to cede dignity away, who simply can sit vigil in the most painful of circumstances, and who one week from now, will know how to rise.
So, today is about confronting the depths of our humanity and our great capacity for brokenness, for evil, and for untold good. Today is about coming to terms with the totality of our self—our false self and the parts of us that are forever anchored in the True Self. When Jesus stretches out his arms, he holds it all—he holds every last aspect of our humanity, and holds it, and holds it, and he forgives it, and he loves it. He loves the false self until it is secure enough that it is willing to die, so that we can be born anew.
Make no mistake, this journey is painful, unbelievably painful, but such is the price of admission to resurrected life. Don’t miss this journey. It will be worth it—I promise you that. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 24, 2013