Palm Sunday 2015

Preaching, Theology

“If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

Theatre was cathartic for the ancient Greeks. Tragedy was a very public way to gather everyone in the whole village together in the same holding space to collectively witness some of the darkest, most gruesome realities of the human condition and grieve together out loud. When a citizen went to the public theatre she may have wept, she may have recognized something from her own life on the stage, she may have fought against shock and horror. She may have witnessed the story of a family go horribly, pathologically wrong. She may have witnessed the story of a soldier whose time at war left him enraged and suicidal. The most important thing for the citizen, however, was that she was not left to bear through all these difficult emotions alone. Her neighbors were beside her weeping also. When a citizen went to the public theatre he was released from the isolation of shutting all the dark terrible secrets which come part and parcel with fragile flesh and fickle blood behind some locked door in the back corner of his heart. When a citizen went to the public theatre, the power of truth in community transformed her by giving her back to belonging to a people who bore their pain together.

Thankfully this cathartic, transformative power is not relegated to ancient history. When I was working with the Veterans Administration I became familiar with an organization called Outside the Wire which brings this kind of theatre to veterans with combat-related psychological injuries. The group began by taking veterans who had been traumatized in combat, gathering them together in the same room, and performing some of the great Greek tragedies for them, like Oedipus Rex and Ajax. These ancient stories of trauma and violence and self-harm were immediately recognizable to the combat veterans. After each performance or reading, the group guides the audience in a discussion of their personal reactions, memories, connections. The group also provides sources of support for the veterans, community resources for counseling, some new perspectives for examining their trauma. Now, Outside the Wire has extended their mission to other populations as well, they’ve performed inside of prisons, for homeless folks, for survivors of domestic abuse. With each group they’ve found the same to be true: that wherever folks can come together to collectively see the trauma of their daily lives mirrored back to them, healing can occur.

Of course, our own people know something of this truth. Every year at about the same time each year for the past two thousand or so, we gather where we are and act out the same old grim charade which was first committed against the one we strive to love above all others, the one who first loved us into being. Every year we come together, all over the world, to tell the story of how the one who’s always teaching us -always confusing us with some parable or embarrassing us with some public confrontation- was suddenly the victim of a confusing, embarrassing, terrifying act of torture and public execution. We know something of what it is to witness the darkest parts of ourselves portrayed in the public square. The part of ourself which runs away when the going gets tough. The part of ourself which would gladly trade the confidence of a friend and mentor for a few quick bucks. The part of ourself which shouts, “Crucify him!” along with the rest of the crowd, one which wants to see another self-appointed upstart prophet knocked square off the platform he has created for himself. We know something of what it is to come face to face with a mirror that can reveal the worst of ourselves before it shows the best.

“Why are you doing this?” Jesus prepares his disciples for this question. He has asked them to go and find a colt that has never been ridden. This bizarre request could generate any number of questions. Why an unridden colt? Why would you want to ride some juvenile beast which hasn’t even been broken in for labor yet? The ride will be wobbly at best, perhaps veering in more than one undesirable direction. And why ours? Can’t you find your own? If you needed this couldn’t you have purchased one yourself? Why are you doing this? Jesus’ answer is simple: he needs it. He is about to create some public theatre of his own. He is about to enter the city which he knows will kill him, not under a cloak of secrecy, but in a public display of absurd humility which flies in the face of our loftiest notions about victory and triumph. He needs everyone there, he needs them to shout his name out loud, to strip the coats from off their backs, he needs them to make noise and wave their palms and dance wildly to let the whole wide city know he has arrived, that he is present. Not upon some chariot of worldly glory; but lowly, sitting on the foal of a donkey who has never seen a crowd before and is probably terrified by the noise.

Why are we doing this? Why are we gathering to tell this same old story yet again, for perhaps the one thousand nine hundred eighty fifth time? Not only that but why must we tell it in so many ways? Why hear the whole thing now only to show up on Thursday and Friday to hear the same parts hashed out yet again? Why Bach cantatas? Why the saddest hymns? Why stations of the cross, why seven last words? Why processions and prayers, why Mel Gibson, why biker shirts with outstretched bloodied arms under captions like, “He loved you this much”? Perhaps the Lord needs it. Perhaps God is as traumatized as we are. Just when our humanity had been perfected we nailed it to a tree. From the way we live our lives it seems that we have been traumatized ever since. From the way we continue to perpetuate this kind of violence against God and one another and ourselves, it would seem we are still living out the same crisis together over and over and over again. Perhaps the Lord needs us to see how much we’re hurting still, and how much he’s hurting with us. Perhaps the Lord needs us to remember this for as many times it takes, until all the crosses which remain in our world -from the cross of poverty to the cross of racial inequality to the cross of violence against women’s bodies to the cross of adolescent militiamen- until all of them have been dismantled for good.

This is not a theatre. We are not an audience. This story is not preformed by professionals. We are as juvenile as a foal that has never been ridden before. The Lord needs us, our bodies, our ears, our tears, our horror and our shock; if we give them to God, they will be returned in time, and we shall find ourselves transformed for the healing of the whole world.


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