The Preaching of the Word

First Presbyterian Church

116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor

Palm/Passion Sunday
March 20, 2016

“Tactile, Textile, and Linen Cloth”

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9

Epistle Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel Reading: Mark 14:27-31,43-52


If you ask me what is the most moving, most powerful film I have ever seen, I would nominate the Academy Award winner for 1994, “Schindler’s List.” It is a moving account of the holocaust and of the extraordinary efforts of Oscar Schindler, a Nazi party member and ammunitions manufacturer, to save many Polish Jews from the gas chambers. I couldn’t help but be struck by the stylistic aspect of the film that has to do with the clothing and fabric and nakedness. The movie begins with close-up shots of cuff links, a tie, a shirt, and a suit. Clothing to make the man Oscar Schindler. But if there is extravagant clothing, there is also nakedness in the death camps where so many people file past the camera, the lines of human flesh being sorted out to determine who will die and who will live. In the middle of the movie we see a little girl in a coat identified as a splotch of red on a black and white screen going through the streets of Krakow during the purge, a single dot of innocence dodging the hail of bullets and violence going on all about her. It is a brilliant film in which fabric and nakedness, tactile and textile elements are used to help tell the story, a story of kindness and mercy in the midst of betrayal and suffering.

Mark’s passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial and death, is a story full of tactile and textile, cloth and nakedness as well. But it begins with cloaks and coats, today placed on a donkey and strewn in the road before Jesus. At the trial of Jesus the high priest tears his robes. The soldiers make a crown of thorns for Jesus’ head and laugh as they put a purple robe about his shoulders, then strip him, and take him to Golgotha. As he hangs on the cross, they divide his clothes. And when at last he is laid to rest, his body is wrapped in a linen cloth. Odd, don’t you think, all these references to fabric? As if Mark is trying to tell us something in them.

And did I forget one reference; the peculiar appearance of a man in the Garden of Gethsemane who follows Jesus after the other disciples have fled for their lives? He is for some reason wearing only a linen cloth. We don’t know why he is there or what he is doing, but when he is spotted and the guards attempt to seize him, he runs away naked, leaving his linen loincloth in the hand of one of the guards. It’s an odd detail, forgettable, except for all those other references to clothing and nakedness.

Over the centuries, people have taken a guess as to who this man is and why his story is included. In the early centuries he was considered to be the apostle John, or James, the brother of Jesus. One early commentator suggests he was a servant in the house where Jesus had eaten the Passover meal. In the nineteenth century it was suggested that this was Mark, the evangelist himself, who is signing the gospel in this way, saying, “I was there.” On and on the speculation has gone, and we still do not know who he was or why this peculiar element in the story is remembered.

But one thing is for sure and that is throughout all the centuries with all the opportunities to drop or edit or lose this fragment, no one has ever thought it justifiable to do so, but rather it has become one of the carefully remembered and treasured details of the story of Jesus’ passion and death. There is something enticing about it that the church has never been able to figure out, but which, nonetheless, adds to the story in a way that it has never been able to ignore.

Are there any clues? Well, linen cloths appear twice in Mark’s gospel, only twice:  in this story of the man in the garden, and in the story of the burial at the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea buys a linen cloth and uses it to bury the body of Jesus. I wonder if what Mark is trying to do is link the abandonment in the garden and its linen cloth left dangling, with the cloth of the empty tomb, the brilliant cloth of resurrection faith transformed form a burial shroud into a garment of brilliant radiance and light. I wonder, and if that is so, then perhaps there is more here for us than we might have first thought. Can it be that the shadowy figure running away from the garden, linen cloth left behind, heart pounding all the way to his throat, legs aching with running, looked something like you, looked something like me, that who ever he was, was a part of who we are, there in the garden, stripped of our pretenses, torn away from our lofty confessions and affirmations of faith, deluded by our fears and faltering trust in Christ? There in the garden we are caught defenseless. And so we run away helpless and embarrassed.  For haven’t we, each of us, abandoned our highest resolves and most loyal intentions in serving God at some time? Haven’t we, each of us, run away in some moment when our witness was crucial?

The story of the passion and death of Jesus is a story where the very fabric and texture of life is shredded and torn, where faith itself is fragile and failing. The story reminds us more than we wish to hear – that Jesus followers, not just Judas or Peter or the twelve, but all of us have left the garden exposed. And that is what is center stage on this day of palms and praises as Jesus enters Jerusalem. For the palms and praises of today become chants of crucifixion tomorrow.

The linen cloth of resurrection faith is the mantle worn by all who follow Jesus. But there are times when we abandon that faith to the threats and fears that overwhelm us. And this is something few of us want to hear and even fewer wish to acknowledge. Yet it wakes us in the night, and haunts us in our daytimes. It is the lie we have told to those who trusted us, who counted on our word. It is the ill feelings we harbor in our hearts for someone once loved. It is the cry for help we did not answer and the appeal for mercy that we did not grant. It is every time that a word was spoken to destroy a character and we did not speak to oppose it. It is what we have done at work, at home, and far from home that was a betrayal of what is good and kind. It is all these things that finally make us fearful in this life, afraid that the God we hope is good and kind is really just mean and petty as we can be.

This is how we abandon Jesus, how we leave our faith and loyalty to him behind, how we strip ourselves of our resurrection clothes and run away naked and afraid. And that is why this week comes none too soon. It is why Jesus entered Jerusalem so long ago for our sake. It is why he hung upon a cross to die and take upon himself all that is shredded and torn and broken in our world. For we need not be afraid, we need not run away, we need not believe in a God as small as we suspect.

Between this day and Sunday next we will remember the events of Jerusalem, the days our Savior and his disciples spent in the holy city preceding his death. It is not an easy story to relive, and many fall away on each of its days. It is a story of human flesh torn and bruised for our sake, of a temple curtain rent asunder to eliminate the boundaries between heaven and earth, of a priest who shreds his robes because the old is gone and the new has come, and of a linen cloth we left in the garden when our fears and failures overcame us.

But most of all it is a story of a God who is kinder and more merciful than we had ever imagined. In spite of our inconstancy, God approaches us with constant love. And that is at the heart of this passion story. God will never leave us. Not in life. Not in death. Not in gardens of abandonment, nor on crosses of suffering. Not even when our shouts of Hosanna become shouts to crucify. Not even then will God abandon us.

For our truest hope on this Palm/Passion Sunday and the expectation of Easter to come is our heartfelt hope that in life and in death we belong to God! Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!