Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11:1-11
Passion Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47
In my Church Palm Sunday is a service full of mixed messages. In the depths of Lent we join in a festive procession. Then we read the Passion Gospel and suddenly it’s Good Friday on Palm Sunday, and the mood turns from festivity to dejection. We’re definitely back in Lent.
And then, of course, we also know what’s coming at the end of Holy Week. There’s supposed to be this happy ending just like in the movies. We’ve been acting out this drama most of our lives, so it’s hard to keep our moods from getting mixed up. The Passion Gospel can run right by us as we think about the rest of the day. And when we get to Easter we may shout the acclamation while we grumble about taxes. Everything’s mixed up—what we think we should feel, what we really do feel, what we feel when we know it’s not the way we think we should. All mixed up.
If you’re inclined to apologize for any of that, don’t bother. Mixed-up moods are part of being human, and all the more so in a setting where so many things are pre-arranged. And worship is just manipulation if all it does is incite feelings. Genuine worship opens us to God from all that we are—how we feel, how we think we should feel, how we feel we should think, that whole bewildering jumble of stuff that makes us, well, us. It’s about letting go of pretense, including the pretense of being caught up in worship.
So there’s probably not a more fitting Passion Gospel to read today than Mark’s. In fact, Mark’s whole Gospel bristles with mixed signals. It even ends with a resurrection that never gets reported, except of course that Mark reports it to us. And nobody plays the roles they’re supposed to play. Insiders act like outsiders; outsiders act like insiders.
Mark, I’m sorry to say, joins the other Gospel writers in making the Jewish leadership and crowds look more responsible for Jesus’ death than they probably were. But he also singles out one of those leaders as a friend who welcomes Jesus even in death. We think we know lots of things about this Joseph of Arimathea. Anglicans are fond of a legend that he brought Jesus as a child to visit England, and the other Gospels try to make him look Christian. But for Mark he’s simply “a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”
So in death Jesus has friends who share his hopes but live in other faith communities—friends in synagogues, friends in mosques, friends in churches that make people like me run for cover. You can’t predict where his friends might be found, except that it’s likely to be somewhere you wouldn’t look.
But if you look for friends among the Twelve Disciples, you’ll be disappointed. Not one of them stays with him in death—not in this Gospel. They’re all deserters. The Twelve, that is—twelve men, in case you hadn’t noticed. But Jesus still has faithful disciples. They have names like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joses, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They’ve learned all their lives that, when men get squeamish and run off, somebody has to be brave and realistic enough to stick around and face the worst that life can bring. They’re the disciples now, not Peter, James, John or the rest of the Twelve. The people on the fringe are now in the inner circle. Even though Mark has them run away too at the end of the Gospel, they’re the last to run, and they’re not running from death. Besides, we know they finally told what they saw, or we wouldn’t be hearing the story. That makes them the first apostles, though it took the church close to 2,000 years to make any of them Priests or Bishops.
Mark’s also very clear about who did the actual killing—the occupying soldiers. They play the role they’re supposed to play and play it very well. They’re good at executions. But when Jesus shouts words of despair, cries out wordlessly and finally dies, it’s one of the executioners who gets the top score in Mark’s Christology seminar. Mark calls his Gospel “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But the only human voice in the whole Gospel to call him the Son of God turns out to be a man who just finished killing him. Did he convert? Did he repent? We’re never told. You can write a good Christology paper and never follow Jesus. But the executioner’s words are still Mark’s words of faith. The outsider acts like an insider. He’s not playing the role he’s supposed to play.
And when it comes to roles, what about Jesus himself? The only words he screams from the cross sound like words of despair—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He says more hopeful things in other Gospels, but not this one. Maybe he’s quoting Psalm 22, and yes, that’s a psalm that moves from despair to faith and praise. That’s all worth noticing. But Jesus didn’t say anything about that, not in this story. The only words he utters are words of doubt and abandonment. The one who only moments later gets called the Son of God doesn’t seem to fit the title. No festive processions, no palm branches, no authoritative pronouncements, no clear words of faith—just question marks and screams and a final breath. The insider looks like an outsider, and that’s the last we see of him in Mark.
So where does that leave us today? What are we supposed to do with this jumble of mixed signals? What do we do with a Gospel that turns every hint of an answer into a billowing cloud of questions?
Well, let’s turn the questions around. Is your life of faith all that different? Do you ever feel like the outsider when you’re expected to be the insider? Have you noticed yet that the people you once thought had all the answers really have just as many questions as you do? Have you ever sat with someone who felt utterly abandoned by God and noticed that it doesn’t do any good to try to take that feeling away? Have you ever been that someone?
If you find yourself pulled in different directions here, then be grateful for Mark’s Gospel. Of our four Gospels, it’s the one you can count on not to try to rescue us.
Do you know that word, “rescue”? It’s part of the currency of pastoral care. People share their grief or their fear or their anger or their confusion, and your temptation and mine is always going to be to respond with something that we think will make them feel better. That’s called “rescuing,” and it’s a bad idea.
It’s not that wanting to help is wrong—it’s that rescuing just won’t help. There are places where answers and affirmations are perfectly fine, but this isn’t one of them. Here the more urgent need is to be assured that you can let all that stuff spill out and still have somebody around who won’t run away. When the questions are heard but go unanswered, when the outbursts are simply allowed to be, that’s when it finally begins to dawn on us that we can bring all that we are toward wholeness, toward shalom.
Like the whole season of Lent, and especially Holy Week, Mark’s Gospel shows us a God who won’t rescue us. Instead we have a God who won’t leave us when we run away, who won’t lecture us when we scream words of doubt and abandonment, who makes broken lives part of God’s very life, who calls the most unlikely people into friendship, and who moves all that we are toward wholeness—a wholeness that’s always a bit beyond our grasp but that won’t ever leave us behind.
The procession that begins with hosannas and waving palms moves us on through broken bread, broken lives, desertion and waiting for shalom. And that’s where God’s risen life will be found.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.