Sermon: Two Ways

4.13.2014     Preaching Text: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)

Palm Sunday is a day of contrasts, of transitions. It begins with great fanfare but marks in earnest Jesus’ final few days. It’s a curious mix of celebration and fear, because just beneath the buoyant frenzy is the horrifying specter of betrayal and death. The juxtaposition of the two sensibilities in the extreme is unsettling.

One way to interpret the unfolding scene is to see it as one of blue skies and bright sunshine, a colorful if not carnival-like atmosphere of happy, collective hysteria. Yet beneath it all lurks a dark, pernicious, unsettling anxiety.

This past week, Howard Streifford commented on the masterful artistry of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies. I was reminded of the one scene (in the second movie, I think) where the Corleone family is gathered at a church celebrating the baptism of a new grandchild, while at that very moment their “associates” are carrying out planned “hits” on rival mafia families.

The juxtaposition of heaven and hell, the disparity between the purity and innocence of baptism with that of evil and mayhem, unsettles the viewer. The scene moves back and forth in real time between the stately, grace-filled church and the seedy goings-on in other parts of the city, while the soundtrack hums continuously with the tremulous beauty of the church’s organ and the priest’s solemn Latinate ministrations. The scene is eerie.

The same juxtaposition of highs and lows seems intrinsic to Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem. As the buzzing crowds gather to welcome him with palms and branches, the forces of darkness are already at work. The die is cast. The dark specter of betrayal and vengeance hides just beneath the surface, and can be palpably felt, assuming one is attentive.

Then again, this is not too terribly different from much of everyday life. While on the surface things seem one way, underneath lurks an often unconscious anxiety, the hidden subtext or backdrop to life in the main. We have two choices: ignore life’s niggling, unsettling anxieties, or address them head-on, as Jesus does.

In our reading this morning from Philippians, Paul quotes what is thought to be an early Christian hymn, one that describes “kenosis,” or the self-emptying of Jesus. Though he was in the form of God, we are told, he chooses the lowly path of suffering, as is witnessed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Rather than use power and force, he chooses to face his fears head-on.

As you know, some 17 months ago my mother was in a serious auto accident, which caused permanent nerve damage. She spent months in rehabilitation, enduring along the way a great deal of physical, emotional, and psychological pain. She was not a happy camper!

Years before my father had spent a couple of weeks in the same nursing home where she now resides – and hated it! My mother vowed she’d never go there. Ever.

For the first year or so she spent her days lamenting her circumstance of diminished functionality with little hope of recovery. She wanted to die, and made no bones about it.

But then something happened. Over the last few months a curious peace has settled over her. Not only has she come to accept the reality of her new life, she actually has started to embrace it!

She now realizes how much she has grown over the last year-and-a-half, spiritually as well as emotionally. With the help of two in-house chaplains, as well as clergy from her church and the community, she has been able to face far more openly some of the fears and pain in her life, pain she had otherwise sought so assiduously to avoid.

Due to a tragic childhood, she had always tried to manage and control her fears. She would devise elaborate routines and activities to ward off any lingering anxiety. She had her “system,” and it seemed to work for her.

After the accident, however, she no longer could direct her life. She was no longer “in control” of events and circumstances. There was no escape. She was forced to be dependent on these same events and circumstances, as well as on the people around her.

With this crack in the armor, she eventually found new life and new hope – beyond her routine. She started to pray more, not just for herself but for others. She began to explore faith in new ways, even though she had attended church her whole life. And along the way, she learned to accept help from others.

A few weeks ago she made a startling decision: to sell her house, itself a symbol of her unwillingness to accept the limitations and changed circumstances of her new life.

Not that this came about suddenly – far from it. The changes had been gradual over time. But she eventually did reach that place where she could openly accept the reality of her situation (and mean it).

“This is my new life,” she recently told Linda and me. “It has its shortcomings, to be sure, but my needs are being met. I have my friends and family who visit regularly, and I have a deeper appreciation for God. In fact, I have absolutely no desire to go back to my old life. I have no interest in having to go to Stop ‘n Shop or Whole Foods. I am content here.” This is nothing short of a miracle.

I shared with her the story of Jacob, of how he had wrestled with God in a dream. All night long Jacob struggles with his unknown opponent before finally realizing his adversary is none other than Jahweh!

In the midst of this intense struggle, due to Jacob’s stubborn tenacity, God forces his hip out of its socket. Jacob wakes up with a permanent limp. Yet, curiously, he has no regrets.

Though his encounter with God leaves him injured physically, God has blessed him, spiritually. Jacob has received the priceless gift of God’s grace, and considers his permanent limp as but a small price to have paid.

Though he never would have chosen such suffering, the experience of it affords him something heretofore unimaginable – a personal, transformative encounter with the living God. In the end he accepts, even prefers, living with a limp than to living an otherwise perfectly healthy life without God.

Perhaps the paradox of Palm Sunday is that Jesus chooses the lowly path of suffering rather than that of self-will, and, in so doing, reveals to all the world the hidden power and glory of God’s ineffable grace. Amen.