Are we tempted to whitewash the events of this week? If we were to choose one color to represent the events of this week, what color would we choose?
It’s always a bit tricky to decide on a sermon title ahead of time. It’s a bit like picking out a paint color before you actually see it on the walls of your house. “Oceanic Blue” sounds incredibly romantic and serene, that is until it is slathered all over your house, which incidentally is nowhere near an ocean and doesn’t have the same background visuals of people sipping pina coladas by the poolside with no worries. Certainly the label, “Oceanic Blue,” doesn’t evoke a paint brush dripping from your hand.
My husband and I once painted the exterior of our house ourselves. I don’t recommend it. We argued over various shades of blue until we finally exhausted ourselves. We ultimately decided on a color that was called something like, “Mid-Atlantic Dream.” It reminded me of the Chesapeake Bay and summer vacations at my grandmother’s. Frank was tired of arguing so he let me pick it. I won by sheer perseverance. But when we got the paint home and started to put it on our house, it turned into “Mid-Atlantic Nightmare.” We ended up with one great big ugly blue streak right down the backside of our house, an eyesore for both our neighbors and ourselves.
Our Palm Sunday festivities also have a big ugly streak right down the middle. Everything is not green and glorious, festive, fun, and frolicking. The message of the gospel this week is debatable, depending on our proximity to Jesus and what hour it is. Even then it is really hard to explain if we listen carefully to his closest companions. The whole story of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem to his hanging from a cross is a hot mess. The few days that Jesus spends in Jerusalem go from joyous entry to cries to crucify. Hope and expectation are brutally crushed by power, disappointment, and abandonment. This is no comedy of errors. One minute there are crowds waving palms and then a few hours later chaos, terror, and a sham trial.
Sometimes, even if we think we “understand” this ancient story, the Holy Spirit shows up and reveals that we have a big, ugly streak of apathy on our world and on our spiritual house. The hot mess of Holy Week reveals our fickle hearts and the ramifications of our false loves. Because in a sense, what Jesus gave his heart to got him killed, but ultimately saved him. And Peter’s conflicting loves exposed him and initially painted him a coward. What do our loves reveal?
Before the hot mess happens, a big ugly streak of fear will radically color all of the disciples’ shouts of hosanna and all of their palm waving. There is, indeed, a living nightmare that will appear to unravel all of the dreams of those first disciples at Jerusalem. By the end of the week, one disciple will be dead; one disciple will humbled, and the rest will be scattered. Jesus—the anointed one– will hang from a Roman cross, an example to all those who would challenge the powers-that-be. The trial, death, and crucifixion of the one we call Christ stains our Holy Week with blood that we don’t actually see.
Bracketed between our shouts of “God-save-us” and our glorious “alleluias” run our own cries to “crucify him” and our impatient hurry to get him out of the grave already and Easter dinner on the table. This isn’t the primary color that we had in mind; it’s not what we intended or wanted, but it is there. Before we get to the pastels of Easter morning, we’ve got to deal with seeing our world and our Savior painted in shades of dark crimson, black crow, and foggy grey. On Palm Sunday, and during Holy Week, like the disciples, we’re confronted with having a love that marks us as different, a love that will always cost us some other lesser love in our lives. And if what we profess and what we do are in conflict, our hearts will give us away and we are marked by the gap.
If you’ve ever talked to someone about whom or what they love, you can often see it in his eyes or her insistence. Our body language can betray us. The disciple, Peter, has this problem. When we see him during the week, he’s outside, warming himself by the fire, trying to keep himself just far enough away from the action to be an observer to Jesus’ trial, but not close enough to actually be indicted. He knows he is guilty by association. His love is on trial. He loves what Jesus stands for: the healing energy of lives being transformed for the better, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the revelation of Godly insight, and the way he’s been accepted with all of his stubborn ways. But Peter cannot bring himself to admit to others that he trusts Jesus, rather than the propaganda and power of Rome. He has seen those crosses. He knows what power can do in the wrong hands. He loves his own life too much to risk it for God’s in-breaking kingdom. Three times Peter is confronted and three times he tells those around him, “I do not know the man!” A bystander tells him that his accent gives him away. The more he protests, the more his body language and heart betray how he really feels.
Peter had bragged to Jesus and the other disciples that he would follow, that he would be loyal to the bitter end. Then comes that awful night when Jesus was arrested. Peter couldn’t stay awake. In Matthew’s gospel we’re told that Peter is sleeping at least three separate times. As Jesus prays and suffers silently about his future and the future of his disciples, Peter—and the others—just can’t stay awake to listen and keep him company in his misery.
When the guards come and bring Jesus before the authorities, Peter rouses himself enough to take a seat with the guards to see how everything will turn out. Who we choose to stand or sit with can reveal a lot about our hearts. Sitting with a guard is as much a choice as standing with a condemned man. Peter has selected his seat, and it is with the guards.
What do we do when we see injustice? Are we more concerned with ourselves or others? What if we are the ones perpetuating the injustice?
The Rev. Martin Niemoller was a German pastor who opposed Hitler and his regime. In later years, Niemoller confessed his difficulty in taking a stand:
First they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Finally, the came for me and there was no one left to speak out.
Have you ever denied knowing some truth because it would get you in a whole heap more trouble admitting or sharing your knowledge versus pretending you know nothing? Have you ever found yourself in a hot mess because of some truth that you knew, but felt you could not act upon? Have you ever kept silent when you felt you were called to testify to the truth as you understand it?
One of the reasons we share these stories with their frightening colors is to understand some of the many ways we human beings respond out of self-interest and fear. Christ was not crucified only once a long time ago, but daily as we make individual and collective decisions that reflect the things that we love more than the ways of Jesus. Like Peter, our particular American “accent” gives us away: our sense of entitlement, our self-interest, our fear of reprisal, and our way of life. These lesser loves often reveal us to ourselves. Choose an issue with which we are confronted today and ask yourself what it would mean to for you to stand with the non-violent Jesus. What cost would you bear for this choice? What fear or confession would you need to expose in yourself? What idol would you need to let go of?
Marcus Borg has written that Jesus’ passion for God’s kingdom and justice got him killed. And yet Jesus resisted anyway and showed us what it means to take a stand against fear, hate, and terror. To be associated with a condemned savior is to examine our role in creating the ugly streaks across the world’s heart and across God’s creation. We aren’t individually “off the hook” for our collective sins; we’re confronted by the cross as a community of faith whose leader tried to overcome that sin.
Do you know the man? Has Jesus asked you to love someone or something that he loves? Are you guilty by association because you have taken risks for the oppressed, the broken, the ignored, and forgotten? Let us show that we know Jesus. Let us love the people he has loved, and not be afraid of the cost to our reputations, our privilege, or our way of life. Let us show that we know the man.
The Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once told this story:
“I learned the meaning of love from a drunk. Once I passed two drunks drinking in a gutter and overheard the following conversation between them: The first drunk said: ‘I love you!’ But the second drunk replied: ‘No you don’t.’
Then first drunk protested: ‘Yes, yes, I do. I love you with all my heart.’
So, the conversation went like that for a while—the first drunk claiming to love the other and the second one arguing against it.
‘I love you’ said the first drunk. Finally, his friend interjected:
‘No you don’t. If you love me, why don’t you know what hurts me?’
Friends, may we understand what we love. May we stay awake. May our hearts give us away as we stand with Jesus at the cross. May we know what hurts him—what still hurts him– and why.
 “Martin Niemoller,” Encyclopedia Britannica’s Reflections on the Holocaust, www.Britannica.com/holocaust/article-9055786