Reposted from A Palm Sunday Sermon given at the Montgomery New Church 4/1/2012
I heard an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently. In it he talked about the ongoing deep work that is needed as South Africa moves from Apartheid and three centuries of oppression and domination of people with white skin over people with black skin. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, posed the conversation of how one would know whether the work Bishop Tutu had been doing had “achieved” it’s goals and what “recovery” looked like for the people of South Africa. Archbishop Tutu responded with this story: I recommend listening to the interview. The story is from: 22:52-25:21
TRANSCRIPT: “I think that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made —I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this. And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?” And well of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged somewhere in me.”
This story stopped me in my tracks and brought home the deep contradictions that each one of us hold in our beings, in our words, in our history, in our actions, thoughts and feelings. Here is a man who has dedicated his life and his work to breaking down oppression, bringing justice and raising up the worth of all people. A man who himself has rich black skin and a heritage of the people’s that he is dedicated to opening up a way for, even this man wrestles with the contradictions inside himself when the very thing he’s fighting against bubbles up in his own being.
Here’s another example: The next day the huge crowd that had arrived for the Feast heard that Jesus was entering Jerusalem. They broke off palm branches and went out to meet him. And they cheered: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Yes! The King of Israel!” (John 12:14).
In the same city, just a few days later, the same Jesus Christ was raised up in question in front of crowds of people. The story goes something like this:
“Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”
But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)
Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”
But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will (Luke 23:13-24).
It’s uncomfortable to place ourselves in this story, particularly if we are part of the crowd on both days. But are we not part the crowd? Is there not a place inside each of us that sings praises and asks for God to save us one day and then calls for crucifixion a few days later? Have we not stood in the shoes of Bishop Tutu? Seeing inside ourselves the very things that we have been working to change in the world around us? We are filled with these contradictions between how we want to live and how we speak and act and think and feel.
Through these weeks of Lent, as part of my practice, I have been striving to name these contradictions, these tensions inside. It is uncomfortable work and makes me squirm to realize how much like these crowds I am. How I can cry out to God, “save me” when life is feeling difficult and I think God could remove the challenges, and then soon after deny my need for God or even reject God’s presence in the people around me. I have noticed disconnects between my words and my actions, between my ideals and my reactions.
There is something disturbing to consciously name these contradictions. There is something liberating and freeing in naming these contradictions. To name that we carry selfishness and arrogance within us as we strive to do good and follow God and to admit that we are sinner and saint, villain and hero, benevolent and selfish and throughout it all—loved by God.
What’s this? Loved by God? Even when we speak critical words? Even when we are arrogant and vindictive? Even when we go against what we know we are called to? And here is the gospel, the good news, and the power of the Lord in our Holy Week Contradictions.
Let’s go back over the stories…we’ve noted the contradictions between the crowds that cheers on Palm Sunday and to the ones that deny him and call for crucifixion just a few days later. We’ve noted the way we operate in these contradictions in our own lives and how we are continually in flux in our thoughts and actions. Where is the Lord in all this? Jesus Christ, that of God, God Incarnate, gospel message to us, an example of how God acts in the world. How does Jesus respond throughout these stories in the gospel? Jesus consistently meets them where they are. With love and compassion. With truth and accountability. With forgiveness and reconciliation.
Even to the point on the cross where Jesus calls out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Can you imagine being called to that level of forgiveness and compassionate response? Can you imagine being embraced by that level of understanding for the contradictions we hold in ourselves and being gently held and encouraged to continue to show up, to observe and name the contradictions, to keep inviting the Lord into our lives and move us in ways of reconciliation and wholeness?
What does this look like? How do we do this? I believe each one of you have wisdom to bring to this conversation and I look forward to hearing your responses. To frame our conversation I’d like to offer us two doorways for receiving and connecting with God’s work in each of us.
Mystical theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg writes, “If we believed that—as is truly the case—everything good and true comes from the Lord and everything evil and false comes from hell, then we would not claim the goodness as our own and make it self-serving or claim the evil as our own and make ourselves guilty of it” (Divine Providence #320).
There is such freedom from suffering and guilt and freedom from arrogance and pride when we integrate this concept into our lives. We can integrate this teaching by holding and returning to an awareness of our thoughts, our words and our actions. And as we live this teaching, we let go of the strength of the thoughts and habits that have been ingrained and plague us, or as Bishop Tutu said, the things that have become “lodged” in us. The misshapen ideas of who we are and our need to beat ourselves up or clamber to be better than others. We can spend more time dwelling in the land of wholeness and peace where we know that we are a vessel and that we want to surrender and have the Lord be the one who is forming that vessel.
And the second doorway that I want to suggest is to develop a practice of asking the question: “Where is the Lord in this?” We asked this question of our gospel readings this morning and found the Lord being the constant presence of love and strength, healing and forgiveness, reconciliation, persistence, and hope.
And we can ask this question as we navigate our inner and outer lives.
Where is the Lord in a heated interaction?
In the deep breath we take?
In the flash of insight opening us up to a third way?
Where is the Lord in the contradictions of grief and loss?
In the comfort from a friend?
When we reach out to grasp at something in our places of great darkness?
Where is the Lord when we are convicted with a way that we are living in arrogance and pride?
In the challenge to be changed?
In the gentle spirit that we can be held in as we change?
Is it the humility of seeing ourselves in others?
As we walk into this Holy Week…let us notice the tensions and the contradictions, in the gospel story and in ourselves. And let us explore these two doorways. To remember that all good comes from God and all evil comes from hell. And to ask the question, “where is the Lord in this?” Drawing on God’s presence to be in us and through us and guide us. And loving us when we shout out “Hosanna” and loving and when we cry “Crucify him”.