March 26, 2013

Walking Our Talk


To read the lessons for this day, click here.

Now that a new pope has been seated in Rome, and a new Archbishop of Canterbury has been seated in England, all of the rest of us can finally get on with what is left to us of Lent. We are in the home stretch, we have come to the end of the story, the culmination of both our season of reflection and our whole story—the days of Holy Week.

From a very early moment in the history of the Christian church this last Sunday in Lent was a moment of recalling the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The crowds, the acclaim, the happy throng around Jesus; the strange image of a man riding a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem, a picture written in the words of the prophets as heralding the arrival of the promised king. And the palm fronds, the symbol of laurels of worldly victory, seemingly invincible and yet so soon forgotten and vanquished.

Palm Sunday has been in our vocabulary for a long, long time. What is a fairly recent innovation is the idea of linking that story together with the reading of the Passion narrative. When the church was young the two stories were kept separate; Palms on Palm Sunday, Passion on Good Friday. But time went on, and the world grew busy and distracted, and the church was no longer made up only of priests and peasants; not everyone could come to church on Good Friday.

And so, just to make sure that no one missed out on hearing the story, the tradition was established of doing it all in one service, a day that begins in triumph and happy parades and that will end, after the last words, in silence. We make the whole week-long transition from joy to sorrow all in the space of an hour and change this morning. And so today is Palm Sunday, and the Sunday of Passion.

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In many parts of the Christian world this week, including some churches in the Episcopal tradition, one of the ways of observing the story of Our Lord’s Passion this week will be to conduct a service that focuses on a walk along the stations of the Cross.

In Jerusalem, it will happen along the path of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows—the path through the city that tradition holds  want to offer two ideas.

But about the fourth or fifth century, as the church took root in Europe and in places where Jerusalem was a place unimaginably far away, the idea took root that the church itself should become the landscape for the drama of the story. And so it came to be that churches would put up images that would retell the story of Jesus’s passion and suffering, the 3D video technology of the day. Typically they would be arranged around the side aisles of the church, fourteen separate images beginning with Jesus being condemned to death by Pilate and ending with the body of Jesus being laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimithea.

In a little church like Saint John’s, a church without side aisles, it is hard to pull off a service around the theme of the way of the cross. We have our own story, of course; it is told in these windows, but it is the story of the life of Jesus, starting with the nativity and ending with the crucifixion.

More recently there have been new ways of adapting this ancient story to the witness we are called to offer in our own time. In Boston there have been “Stations of the City” processions, sometimes wending their way from place to place where young lives have been ended by the scourge of gang violence, or from church portico to subway entrance where homeless folks seek safety and shelter.

Holy Week, these days ahead of us, are few days in all the year that we are confronted with the basic challenge that faces all disciples. Jesus lays out that challenge most plainly in the Gospel of Matthew: Anyone who would be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.

Lent is the season for self-denial, and if you have been taking advantage of the opportunity it offers you, and I have done all that I could think of to do to encourage you in this way, then you will have taken on the first part of this challenge. Jesus is not asking us to completely lose our identity, to completely forget ourselves.

But disciples must set important things aside—things that seemed important when we hold them close, but that when we get the perspective of distance seem pretty small. We do this as a matter of self-discipline to remind ourselves how much of our lives, how much of the meaning we make in this life, is something we only grasp when we accept our dependence on God, and on the people through which we come to know God—these people right here, the people in our community.

So we’ve done that. But now comes the difficult part. Jesus takes up his burden, the burden of our capacity to disappoint God, and walks the way of the cross in these days between now and Easter.

And we are called to do the same thing: We are called, not just to describe our faith, but to demonstrate it in our lives. We are called to walk our talk. It is now for us to take up our cross, and follow.

So here is the question for Holy Week: What is your cross? What is the burden you have to carry, the thing that is weighing you down? What is it that the world has cast on you—that is quite literally destroying you?

Remember this: Jesus does not ask us to take up our cross and follow him so that we will end up being crucified alongside him.

Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow because it is his purpose and plan to finally defeat all of those burdens in the victory of Easter resurrection.

We can only share in that victory if we dare to bring that burden along with us to the place where the work of resurrection gets done. Your cross, and my cross, and all of the crosses we bear become the cross, the burden Jesus willingly collects and takes on entirely to himself exactly in order to separate us once and for all from their power over us.

So that is the question before us today. What is your cross? What is the burden weighing you down? Holy Week invites us to reflect on that deeply, confront it completely, carry it fearlessly—and finally, through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, be freed from it. But none of that can happen unless we do the thing disciples do—stop talking and start doing, stop wishing and start believing, take up our cross, and start walking.