Palm Sunday – Philippians 2, 5-11 & Mark 11, 1-11
I have spent a lot of my life answering Compare and Contrast questions.
I studied English A Level, then read, but not as much as I should have, for a humanities and social sciences degree. In my forties I studied for my M.B.A. and then spent two years at theological college, where we spent an awful lot of time comparing and contrasting different Old Testament prophets, Gospel accounts and liturgies. I remember comparing and contrasting six different early baptism rites (Rome, Milan, Gaul, Lyon, Ireland and somewhere I can’t remember!). I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting Cranmer’s 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books (I preferred the 1549 Prayer Book, but that’s a subject for another day) and, so it went on.
The Gospel passage we have heard this morning tells of Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a colt, or donkey. Jesus is greeted by his supporters who are hoping for and anticipating ‘the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.’ This of course means, for them, a restoration of independence and an overthrowing of imperial power. Odd then that they are prepared to overlook the fact that Jesus makes his entry on a colt, or donkey. A single man, riding into Jerusalem on a colt or donkey I would want to suggest was hardly likely to frighten anyone; especially the Romans. We are also told in Mark’s account of the triumphal entry that ‘many people spread their cloaks on the road.’ How many, we are not sure. What I do think important to note however is the complete absence of detail. If you think about it the gospel writers weren’t afraid of ascribing a number to the great multitudes; think of 4, or 5,000 for example. Which brings me back to the notion of ‘compare and contrast.’
There were in fact two processions entering Jerusalem that day. Jesus on his humble colt and, Pontius Pilate carried high, on a throne, in his imperial procession. The Roman imperial procession was designed to encourage a sense of awe and fear and to raise money. Rather than being feted with palms Pilate would have been bowed at and rewarded with dosh. Pilate wouldn’t have been greeted simply by ‘many people,’ but by hoards and hoards of people. His entrance would have been stage managed and designed to impress. Anyone who was anyone would have been watching Pilate’s triumphal entry, not Jesus’.
Another point of comparison could be made about the ultimate destination of the two processions; processions after all have to end up somewhere. Think of our own processions today. The procession into church finishes at the altar, the gospel procession at the intersection of the cross in the middle of the church etc. Pilate’s procession on that first Palm Sunday would have ended up at the Imperial Palace at a gala dinner at which he would have, as the emperor’s proxy, sat on a royal throne. Jesus by comparison is of course no proxy. He is himself, the Messiah, God incarnate, as St. Paul stresses ‘he was in the form of God.’ His gala dinner is to be a simple supper, in an upstairs room, where he washes the feet of his disciples and institutes the Eucharist. You see nobody knows what Pilate and his cronies had at the gala dinner that night but 2000 years later we all know and continue to participate in the feast that Jesus held: the Eucharistic feast.
And of course Jesus is to have no earthly throne. Instead he goes to the Cross. No one knows what Pilate’s throne looked like, or what it was made of, but today we still know all about the Cross. But, why did Jesus have to go to the cross? Why was the Cross to be his earthly throne? Michael Mayne put it like this:
‘Because he accepted at his baptism his vocation to be totally open to God, to show God’s undiscriminating love for people of every kind, good and bad alike, to forgive hurts and offences, to eat with those considered outcasts: to challenge established values and views where they denied or obscured the values of God’s kingdom and the worth of every person. And many hated him for it, as perversely, the good, the generous and the vulnerable will be always hated by that within which feels threatened: which finds it easier to settle for the easy option, to protect our rights and interests and not to go the second mile. Jesus came to be the love of God: love that is not an easy emotion but nothing less than a costly giving of yourself for the good of another – giving your time, your attention, if need be your very life itself.’
My final compare and contrasts are simply these: is the account of the first Palm Sunday something we should read as a one-off, or is it a story we can still use to reflect on the misuse of power and authority in the contemporary world? And, where do we, you and me, look for redemption and salvation? Is it in the easy pickings of an off the shelf world view, or in the cult of the seemingly all powerful leader, or is it in the Messiah who entered into his city on a donkey, and then ‘humbled himself (still further) and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross?’
These are comparisons and questions I invite you to reflect on this Holy Week.
Mothering Sunday: Colossians 3, 12-17 & John 19, 25-27
This week I spent some time with my spiritual director. We discussed the importance of spending time with people who provide us with a sense of security and stability. People who can minister to us and, in a very real sense, ‘mother us.’ We both felt that in choppy, unpredictable and, difficult times this is necessary for the good of our own souls. We all need to be affirmed, nurtured and at times gently challenged. We all need to be mothered.
Mothering Sunday – as distinct from the American Mother’s Day – reminds us of all that is good and necessary about the concept of mothering. It also reminds us that we need to allow ourselves to be mothered, and this implies accepting our own fragility, vulnerability and need to be both loved and nurtured. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact I think owning, and offering, our own vulnerability and fragility is the essence of that highly spiritual quality we hear about in the Sermon on the Mount, and in today’s epistle: meekness.
Mothering Sunday is so called because it was the day, mid way through Lent, when domestic staff and servants were given the day off so they could do two things: return to their mother church and, spend time with their family; the underlying, subliminal, message being that it is vitally important for own sense of well-being that we spend time in places, and with people, who give us that all important sense of stability and who feed and nourish us. Mothering is, at heart, about doing this. Mothering’s concern is in saying whatever else is going on in your life, however much the ground beneath your feet seems to be shifting, I am here for you. I am here to cherish you, affirm you, strengthen you, and stand in solidarity with you.
Today’s readings paint an attractive picture of mothering. Just listen again to the virtues St. Paul lists in his letter to the Colossians: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love. St. Paul insists that when these virtues are offered and accepted everything is bound together ‘in perfect harmony.’
We all need to find people and places where compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love are the guiding and animating virtues, for only then can we be truly mothered. But, we need to go further and commit ourselves to becoming active agents of these virtues, both individually and corporately, for only then can we be good neighbours and, only then, can we truly become Mother-Church. Our Mothering Sunday challenge is simply this: to become an authentic Christ-like, Mother-church. To do so we need to open ourselves up, in prayer, to the work of the Holy Spirit, asking that the Fruit of the Spirit ripens within us.
Over the last few years the Church of England, or at least some churches within the Church of England, have begun to re-appraise their attitude towards Mary. I think this is an entirely good thing. Mary is the icon of all that is good in the concept of ‘mothering.’ The gospel reading makes this clear. Mary is to be found at the foot of the cross, watching her son being crucified. It is an horrific image. Mary, no doubt, is utterly confused and bewildered. She doesn’t as yet know that she will see her son, our Lord, again. And yet, she is just there for her son. A rock of stability. She is the only permanent in his life and she is there, for him, at the hour of his need. She is just there: permanent, stable, faithful and always loving. If I had to use a word to describe the values that Mary embodies it would be holiness, which is, of course, one of three benefice aspirations.
We need, this Mothering Sunday, to let Mary’s story inspire us and challenge us. Are we faithful and stable to our friends, family and neighbours when, especially when, the very ground beneath their feet seems to be shifting? Is the Church always faithful, stable and loving, even and especially when, all around us seems uncertain and when our best efforts seem to go unrewarded? These are the hard mothering questions and, they are ours to answer.
This Mothers day let us be grateful to all who have mothered us, and let us re-commit to becoming a truly all loving, perfect, and harmonious Mother-Church.
We need to do so both for own sakes and, for the sake of the world around us, Amen.
Lent 3: 1 Corinthians 1, 18-25 & John 2, 13-22
I was wondering this week whether anyone has a favourite phrase, stanza or verse from a hymn; something that really speaks to them, inspires them, challenges them or comforts them? For me the last verse of Love Divine which includes the words ‘ changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise,’ is pretty special. If that what heaven is to look and feel like, my deepest prayer would simply be this: ‘Lord, count me in.’
This week, as I thought about today’s readings I couldn’t help but think about some of the words in that great hymn At the Name of Jesus, in particular some of the words from verses five and six:
‘He is God the Saviour, he is Christ the Lord, ever to be worshipped, trusted and adored.’
‘In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue all that is not holy, all that is not true.’
Could it be that these sets of words provide us with two distinct Lent challenges?
In today’s epistle St. Paul informs that the first century Corinth was a highly sceptical place, a place in which true belief, or faith could only be offered on the basis of contingency: ‘for Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.’ One group – the Jews- were looking only for the God of power and might: a game show God, whose efficacy was dependent on signs and miracles. The other group – the Gentiles – were interested only in the God of philosophy and ideas; hence the emphasis on wisdom. But, the paradox is that both groups had witnessed that for which they were still searching! The ‘sign’ that the Jews couldn’t accept was the cross, and the wisdom that the Greeks couldn’t accept were the very words of Jesus. Words which included the somewhat novel concepts of loving your neighbour and seeing the glory of God in the stranger and the outcast. The evidence was firmly there for Jew and Greek alike, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t see it. The evidence for God is still present but of course many will continue to refuse to see it. Why, we may wonder.
My suggestion is simply this: it is far easier to seek proof for a God that conforms to our existing world view than it is to accept the ‘foolishness’ of a Messiah worthy of being ‘worshipped, trusted and adored’ on the basis of the cross and resurrection. And, of course if we are to truly worship, trust and adore Jesus then the corollary is that we must cease self-worship, self-adoration, self-reliance. To worship, trust and adore Jesus is to reject the great heresies of our day: that only that which can be empirically proven is worth believing in and, that wisdom amounts to buying into a narrative that we are the only true authors of our own destiny. The greatest of all heresies is to measure or judge God by human, rather than divine, standards. The greatest of all heresies gives rise to two problems; either we see ourselves as all powerful or we see ourselves as incapable and somehow not up to scratch.
There is one other great heresy of our day that we need to confront and reject. That is the heresy which states that trade, commerce and economics can sort everything out. This heresy is dangerous because it denies the role and place of the sacred. The market becomes everything. In the gospel reading we are told that the Temple, that great icon of the Jewish faith, was full of people selling ‘cattle, sheep and doves’ and, that this was facilitated by the ‘money-changers.’ Its an unattractive image and it certainly got to Jesus. But, we need to be honest and accept that religion has always sought to collude with the worst aspects of commerce; just think of the pre-reformation sale of indulgences, or the grotesque appeals made by American televangelists, or the false promises made by those who preach a prosperity gospel. All of these sellers of religious rubbish seek to get in the way of an authentic, ‘true’ and ‘holy’ relationship with God, through Jesus. Their heresy is to deliberately, for their own ends, to seek to reduce God to the crudest laws of economics and commerce. The notion that God can be bought is a hideous notion. God did the buying, and the place from which he did it was the cross. You see the peddlers of false religion and secular ideology don’t want you to believe that God loves you without terms and conditions. They don’t want you to believe that God wants you to present yourself before him in all of your weakness and vulnerability. They don’t want you to make Jesus king of your hearts and let him, as the only one ‘ever to be worshipped, trusted and adored,’ ‘subdue all that is not holy, all that is not true,’ for if we do this there will simply be no room left for the shabby promises of pseudo science, popular philosophy, or the ‘because you are worth it’ school of economics.
The peddlers of false religion want you to, like the Jews and the Greeks of Jerusalem and ancient Corinth, to render your faith contingent on scientific data, a highly individualised account of wisdom or, the flimsy notion of economic success. They want you to prove yourself to God. The heresies of our age, it turns out, are the same heresies of the biblical age.
This Lent let us, through our devotion to Jesus, let him ‘subdue’ all within us that is simply neither ‘holy’ or ‘true,’ for only by doing so will be freed from the false ideologies, theologies and heresies that seek to hold us captive, Amen.
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