“I Am Not One of Them”
Chilmark Community Church
April 9, 2017
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Preaching and worship on Palm Sunday is something of a spiritual juggling act. The task is to worship with integrity and to move from the joyful celebration of Palm Sunday to the persecution and passion of Jesus in the space of a few short days. It would be all too easy to celebrate with the crowds at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem today and then greet the triumphal Easter dawn of resurrection next week and slide over what happens on the days in between. But the drama of the few days ahead between now and next Sunday is what gives Easter morning its meaning.
We start with Jesus telling his disciples to find a colt on which he can ride. From the prophet, Zechariah, Matthew finds the model for Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem and sets the scene for the celebration: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O Jerusalem! Lo, Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9) The image of a king riding into the city on a donkey is a curious juxtaposition of power and humility. The colt is found and Jesus begins his ride through Bethany and Bethpage. The paradox of a long awaited king and messiah making a triumphal entrance into the city under the eyes of imperial Rome – – on a donkey – – is street drama at its best. As the word got out, people lined the roadsides – people like you and me – looking for hope – – looking for one who would save them – – who would bring order to life – – looking for a messiah who would liberate them from the heavy weight of Roman imperial power.
And so they celebrated. They spread their own cloaks and garments in the road in front of Jesus – – they laid down palm branches to make his way smooth – – they sang “Hosanna!” Their expectation was so great.
And Matthew says that Jerusalem was in turmoil with people wondering who this Jesus was – and what was all the fuss about. But Jesus does not stop to enjoy the accolades. In the next scene, he becomes quite solitary as he enters the temple and makes his challenges there. And he keeps moving – – healing people who are blind and disabled. And then, just as quickly, he withdraws and returns to Bethany, just outside of the city for the night.
The next day Jesus engages in theological discussions about where his authority comes from. He argues on matters of justice and the meaning of the kingdom of God. He manages to offend a more than a few people. But not the poor and the sick and the hungry – – the powerless ones. If we wander over in to John’s gospel we learn quickly that one of Jesus’ disciples will sell him out for 30 pieces of silver. We join Jesus and his friends for the final meal that he will share with them. We witness him establishing a new covenant with them – to be with them always. We stand in the shadows of the garden where he is arrested and we hear Peter deny him three times in the early hours of the morning. We wrestle with knowing that Jesus is tortured and humiliated by the Roman soldiers who arrested him.
All of this and more happens between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The parts that are most difficult for me are the parts where the friends, the adoring crowds, the followers – – the disciples – – just seem to fade out of the picture. Jesus is left alone to endure what he must endure.
In John’s gospel Peter becomes the center of the story for awhile. With the best of intentions Peter has made his dramatic promise to Jesus that he will never desert him. But now we find Peter in the courtyard outside the house of the High Priest – sitting near the fire to keep warm. He just has to know what is about to unfold. Roman practice with seditious Jews was consistent and well known. Three times, Peter defensively denies his relationship with Jesus. “I am not his disciple.” In those few words, uttered in fear and anger, the humanity that we share with Peter is played out in all its sadness and confusion.
Peter denies being with Jesus. Peter – – the first one to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah a few chapters earlier. How could this have happened? How could one so close to Jesus not even acknowledge that he knew Jesus.
Denial is a strange thing. It clouds our ability to see the reality of a situation or set of circumstances. It is a defense mechanism which often gets set in motion when life offers us situations that are too big or too painful or too shocking to deal with all at once. Denial serves a purpose. Often, it cushions reality until we are ready to deal with it. It allows us to work through a crisis a little bit at a time when the crisis might completely overwhelm us .
It is ancient history for me now, but there was a day 27 years ago when my mom and dad boarded a plane in Orlando, Florida to fly north to the little town of Bainbridge, New York. My mother had bone cancer and was deteriorating rapidly. My brother had taken decisive action, bought the plane tickets, and told them what time to be at the airport. He brought my mother home. Less than three weeks later, my mother was admitted to the hospital for the first and only time during her illness. We all took turns sitting at her bedside with my dad who waited each day for the word that things had turned around and that my mom was well enough to go home. He was certain that he would be able to care for her and nurse her back to health and strength.
On reflection, it is still a wonder to me that my 4 siblings and my dad and I could look at the same set of circumstances and see very different things. Two of us knew we were walking with my mom toward her death. Four of us were sure this was just a setback from which she would recover. Two of us heard her saying good-bye. Four of us held out for healing and restoration.
There was no way to communicate through those two separate realities without causing each other incredible pain. Denial is like that. Denial creates a different reality to cushion the pain of what is happening or is about to happen. It is an alternate reality – – it is not questioned. Sometimes, denial helps us get through the crisis.
Peter sat by the fire, confronted three times by the reality of what was happening. Three times he argues that he is not connected with Jesus. We might guess that fear beyond anything he has ever known has taken over. Anguish of a depth we can only imagine pervades his mind and his reasoning.
There are times in all our lives when we sit near the fire with Peter. We wrap ourselves in the cloak of our ability to deny the truth of what is happening to us or around us – – a serious illness or problems with addiction, overwhelming financial distress. As a society, denial functions very efficiently to cloud our thinking and our responses to the social injustices that exist right in our own communities – terrified immigrants, children fearing going to school because their parents might not be there when they get home; homeless people who sort of fade into the background; elderly folks who live in isolation surrounded by what they have hoarded around them.
Peter’s words “I’m not one of them” may not fit exactly – but we are just as vulnerable as he was to not seeing the enormity of what we deny because sometimes the problems just seem so big and unmanageable.
But as we learn when we follow Peter’s story to it’s hopeful conclusion, where denial goes unchallenged, there can be no healing, no growth, no resolution to problems, no wholeness. But the power and love of the Christ are such that we are not permitted to live with our denial indefinitely. Sooner or later, the clarity of the love of God breaks through. We gradually confront the reality we have been avoiding. We struggle with the scary and painful and stressful parts of our lives – we find our way through and we come to know healing and wholeness in a new way.
The instrument of Peter’s awakening was the crowing of a rooster. With that noisy and unpleasant early morning sound, Peter heard Jesus’ words again – “you will deny me” – and Peter broke down and wept. Jesus – the one who knew Peter better than Peter knew himself.
Wherever we are on our faith journey – whether as individuals or as part of the faith community, we are assured that there is One who knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus is offered to us in the scriptures to help us see who we are. The Light that he embodied illuminates the darkest corners of confusion and doubt. That Light draws us toward itself – – and resurrection happens – – life begins anew and we are drawn toward wholeness.
It is for this reason that we can joyfully celebrate Palm Sunday even knowing that the reality of Jesus’ passion and death are hidden within the celebration. And we will celebrate joyfully next week, following the darkest hours of denial and betrayal that happened on the days we call Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We will rejoice following the sorrow and uncertainty that marks the time in the tomb on Saturday.
It is tempting to say we can and will celebrate because we know how the story ends. But it is more accurate to say that we celebrate because we know how the rest of the story begins. With today’s worship we enter Holy Week. May we enter the week mindfully aware of all that we fear and struggle with. May the next several days be filled with awareness of the truth that out of denial, suffering, pain and even out of death comes the possibility of rich, abundant and joyful life. May you have a rich Holy Week.