Friday, April 11, 2014

Palm Sunday

The large palm leaves have arrived, ready for church on Sunday, and they are already in place at the front of the church. Last week's exploration of the story of the raising of Lazarus gave me a new lens to view the Palm Sunday story, and to reflect on the entrance into Jerusalem. The previous time Jesus had been in Jerusalem (as reported in John's Gospel, just before the raising of Lazarus) the people had picked up stones in order to kill him, and it is reported that they wanted to arrest him but he escaped and crossed the Jordan to the place where John had previously been baptizing - far from the authority and reach of the religious leaders in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is in this remote location, the wilderness, that Jesus learns that Lazarus is sick. To go to Bethany to see Lazarus would have placed him in close proximity to Jerusalem, only 2 miles/3 km away. And when finally he does go to Bethany, Martha comes to him outside the village. Mary is summoned, but unwittingly brings the professional mourners, the 'death people', with her as they thought she was going to the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus now finds himself surrounded unexpectedly by people, mainly Judeans, and his location is revealed. He goes to the house of Mary and Martha, and Lazarus, now four days dead, and raises Lazarus to life. Many of the people put their faith in Jesus. Others go the chief priests and Pharisees to tell them what Jesus has done. They ask, 'What should we do? This man is working a lot of miracles. If we don't stop him now, everyone will put their faith in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our temple and our nation'. Caiphas, the high priest, said, 'You people don't have any sense at all! Don't you know it's better for one person to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed?' From that day on, the council started making plans to put Jesus to death. The powers that be plan to put him to death - the very one who has given life to Lazarus.
The text doesn't say where Jesus heads after the raising of Lazarus, but one would think he would return to the wilderness, and later returning to visit Lazarus, Mary and Martha six days before Passover. The Passover festival, a commemoration of the liberation of the Hebrew people over 3,300 years previously by God from slavery in ancient Egypt was a major celebration and Jesus clearly planned to be in Jerusalem for the festival, even though Jerusalem was a dangerous place for him to be. Mary's anointing of him just before he goes to Jerusalem is as if she is preparing for the day of his burial. It would be hard to imagine that Jesus would have headed to Jerusalem with joy, nor wanting to raise any fuss and attention that might draw unwanted attention to him by the authorities. It is clear that he had a kind of fearlessness, convinced of the mission he had undertaken to realize the reign of God, here and now.
The large crowd heard he was coming and took palm branches and went out to meet him as he arrived. They recognized him as so many others had previously, and shouted out - blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna - save us! 
This year, I have been giving space to contemplate Jesus' entry to Jerusalem - not from the view of the crowd (often considered triumphant, but probably more about longing and profound hope), but of Jesus himself, whose life would be cut short by the authorities - political and religious. 
My contemplation has invited me to consider the many places in the world where political and religious leaders continue to cut short the life and freedom of those who simply want to bring hope and healing to those who suffer, and release for those who are oppressed. To offer salvation - healing and wholeness. In many places, challenges to the power of the authorities result in the brutal quashing of dissent. And yet, there remains so much to challenge - corruption and greed dig deeper and deeper among the seats of power, such that the serving of the 'common good' no longer seems to be the primary responsibility of those who exercise power. We see punitive action against the vulnerable, exploitation of women and children, and justice and human dignity overlooked. People die of diseases that can be easily cured or prevented if we only had the will to do so. The challenges of hunger and food distribution are forgotten, and the plight of human trafficking ignored because it serves the economic market and production chains. Homelessness, unemployment and underemployment continue in rising numbers, as do the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world.
What is the role of the church in offering salvation - healing and wholeness? In what way do we respond when we sense that there is danger from those in authority and power if we 'beg to differ'? Is there a diaconal imperative for fearlessness in challenging the powers when people's lives are diminished?
Margaret Wheatley writes: Today, in our troubled world, we need all the gifts that fearlessness offers us - love, clear seeing, bravery, intelligent action, perseverance. We can reclaim our vocation to be fully human. We can bring into being the world that Paulo Freire dreamed for us all, “a world in which it will be easier to love.”
I have been following the actions of 5 Christians who were arrested after their group held a prayer vigil in the office of the Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, in reaction to what they described as Australia’s “cruel treatment” of asylum seekers on March 21. All charges have now been dismissed against the group. One member of the group said, “I have witnessed first-hand the conflict and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine I feel compelled to take action to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers". Another said, “We were praying also for Mr Morrison, not in a way that was condemning or judgemental. We were actually praying that Mr Morrison might have a change of heart. In his maiden speech for Federal Parliament, he gave a really amazing outline of his vision that included justice and compassion for vulnerable people… For us, we were hoping Mr Morrison might have a change of heart and join us.”
This Sunday, Palm Sunday, there will be a 'walk for refugees' in each capital city around Australia, to protest peacefully, and to dissent against harsh actions by the Government. Australia is a democratic country, but there seems to be a hardening of attitudes towards dissent, and a curtailing of opportunities for 'civil disobedience'. Watch this space!

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