March 29, 2015
“Loads We Carry”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. 21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
I have been watching a lot of TED talks recently because I love to see how passion leads people in amazing directions and to do and learn amazing things.
So this week I’ve watched a story about a Japanese man who picked up a yoyo at 14 and became a world champion in yoyo in a matter of years, about how teenage brain development relates to behavior, about a how a man with a mother who was addicted to heroin and imprisoned, became an acclaimed children’s book artist and illustrator, and how two 12th graders discovered bacteria that would eat a cancer-causing chemical found in plastics.
And there was a talk by Bruce Feiler who is an author and writer/presenter of the PBS miniseries “Walking the Bible.” He talked about finding a way to help busy, stressed out families, especially the parents, using a technique from successful software development companies called agile programming.
He has three key “planks,” three key things to his theory, two of the planks have to do with adaptability and empowerment, but the third of these is “Tell your Story.”
And he says that successful companies and successful families and successful individuals have a bedrock understanding of who they are, where they come from and what they value. Tell your Story.
And he says one way to do this is to remember and tell our children who they are and where they come from.
Feiler says in his talk, “Researchers at Emory gave children a simple ‘what do you know’ test.
Do you know where your grandparents were born?
Do you know where your parents went to high school?
Do you know anybody in your family who had a difficult situation, an illness, and they overcame it?
The children who scored highest on this ‘do you know’ scale had the highest self-esteem and a greater sense they could control their lives.
The ‘do you know’ test was the single biggest predictor of emotional health and happiness. As the author of the study told me, children who have a sense of — they’re part of a larger narrative have greater self-confidence.”
Our Bible is the story of who we are, it is God telling us who we are – here is your faith history, here are your ancestors, here is what they struggled with, here is how God was faithful, here is the hope that we live into. That is bedrock.
And so we tell the story over and over again. And we tell it again especially this time of year.
We tell the story of how God was in Jesus Christ, and how God so loved the world that he sent his son to demonstrate the depths to which he would go to bring us back to him. He was the one who was wronged by us, we have sinned against God, and God shows us what love is. We deserved death, but God took the punishment in our place, so that nothing could separate us from God.
We tell the story again as we head into Holy Week.
It is Palm Sunday and we have our palms in hand, but today we are not reading about Jesus entering Jerusalem for the Passover Festival to shouts and cheers and waving branches.
We are reading instead about the end of the week.
We are given two choices today about where to turn our attention; the lectionary gives us Palms or Passion, meaning Jesus’ suffering.
There was a time when there was only Palm Sunday with its joyful spirit – we’ve come through this long, penitential season of Lent of fasting and prayer and it feels good to have some celebration.
But then there were places and people who never went to a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service – they never caught a glimpse of profound suffering, of darkness and despair and confusion and pain, and never sat with realization that Jesus had died, and that evil had seemingly won, that evil had been stronger than peace, and love and hope.
They just went from Palm Sunday worship to Easter Sunday worship.
That’s a lot of alleluias.
Our lives are not just a string of alleluias, and neither is the gospel. So we are going to lay down our palm branches for a while, and focus our attention on the dark side of the gospel.
To get there, we will start with Jesus entering Jerusalem like a king. This is how conquerors were greeted.
The city was packed with people, hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of Jews who came to where God was to worship and celebrate and remember how God set God’s people free when they were slaves in Egypt.
It was a freedom celebration and here was coming a new king.
And you have to remember that this was a people desperate for freedom once again.
They were oppressed by the Romans.
Their king Herod the Great, who was fairly terrible to begin with, had died, and his sons had been given pieces of the kingdom to rule over but no title of king.
There was not a king, but God had promised one.
So as Jesus rides into the city, the crowds yell, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Here was a man coming to claim the throne of David. We know that it is only a matter of days before the same voices cry out for Jesus to be killed.
In the between time, Jesus had not acted like he was supposed to. In fact he had been sacrilegious – he had disrupted worship in the temple at this most important time of the year. And he teaches and his teaching challenges the way things have been. His popularity is frightening, his teaching is subversive, and the religious leaders fear revolt by their people, they fear that their nation, and their faith, and their temple, and their very lives will crushed out of existence by the Romans.
Jesus is betrayed by one of his close friends, who promises to lead the authorities right to Jesus in return for money – but Jesus knew it was coming. All of his close friends desert him – one of them is in such a hurry to get away that his clothes are torn from him by the mob.
There is a sham of a trial before the high priest and the chief priests and the elders and the scribes, where people say false things about Jesus and are believed – and then they bind Jesus and take him to the Roman prefect, Pilate.
There is a trial before Pilate – and Jesus answers none of the accusations against him – by the law, no response brought down a guilty verdict.
There is a man called Barabbas, also in prison for committing murder during an insurrection. Pilate gives the restless crowd a choice between the prisoners, Jesus or Barabbas. The crowd chooses Barabbas, the guilty man over the innocent one – the man who at least did something to take a stand, even if it was violent. And then Jesus was mocked and beaten brutally. This is the part of the story where we would rather turn our eyes away.
This Holy Week story is a story of downward mobility, or perhaps we would call it a fall from grace – one week to go from most popular in Jerusalem, enjoying the friendship of many close followers, to utterly broken, betrayed, alone, beaten.
They dressed him up like a king and mocked him. Jesus’ greatest story, the one about the kingdom of God being here and now, that was spit on.
And then they walked Jesus to The Place of the Skull, Golgotha, to crucify him – but they made someone else carry his cross there.
What do we make of this unique detail in the story? Mark tells us the name of this passer-by and a little information about him – it is Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, and he is coming in from the countryside.
He likely knows nothing about this affair – he does not know who Jesus is or why he is condemned. He surely had things he needed to do before the Sabbath, and his day is disrupted, and it looks like perhaps even his life is disrupted.
And here’s why — Mark is usually short on details. Remember that gospels were written as faith statements about Jesus by particular people at a particular time, and for a particular audience.
And if we were in Mark’s original audience we would have said – oh of course, Alexander and Rufus, we know them well. Mark writes about people that his readers would have known, people who were part of the early movement of Jesus followers, who were part of the early church. It was their father, who was just a bystander, someone traveling in from the country on the day before the Sabbath. And why? He couldn’t afford to stay in Jerusalem? He couldn’t find a place to stay? Whatever the reason, he was not a follower of Jesus.
And he is forced by the oppressors of his people to carry the method of execution for a prisoner.
And yet, somehow, that connects him to Jesus in such a way that his children are well known to the followers of Jesus. Something remarkable has happened.
Simon discovers the love of God in Jesus Christ not through Jesus’ teaching or miracles, but because he witnessed his suffering, and not only witnessed it, but bore some of that suffering, at least for a little while.
How near does that come to our experiences in this life? We are by-standers, minding our own business, and suddenly we are burdened by something we have no control of. We have been conscripted to suffering or illness or struggle – it isn’t our fault, we didn’t even see it coming. But we feel the weight of it, and wonder why we were chosen to bear it – to bear this depression, this anxiety, this long term pain, this mental illness, this hardship, this injustice, this silent disability. But we find in this story, in our story, that we do not suffer alone, that our God is a God who suffers with us.
Perhaps we thought that we were God-forsaken, but it is not so. And it can be, that in these dark times, we find God nearer than we thought, that those are the times where our faith begins or is strengthened. The loads we carry can be the start of grace. That’s our story. Amen.