A Meditation Preached by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Palm/Passion Sunday April 17, 2011
(This brief meditation draws much of its substance from Theodore J. Wardlaw's article, "At a distance," in the Christian Century, March 20, 2007, as footnoted below.)
The normal order of our liturgy each week calls for our scripture readings to precede the sermon or meditation. Occasionally, we reverse that customary order, or, as today, we read one lesson before and one after the sermon. We do so today because this is Palm/Passion Sunday, in case you've been asleep during the early part of the service and just woke up. I have said before that Palm/Passion Sunday is a somewhat "schizophrenic day." It begins with palm branches and "hosannas" and the triumphal entry of Jesus. Then, with a studied awareness of the week that lies ahead, it takes a dark turn toward Christ's passion... toward his suffering and death. There have always been and still are many Christians who would prefer to linger amid the palms, or even better, to skip straight ahead to Easter. These are folks who prefer services that are upbeat, but in such preference they miss the heart of the Christian claim, for as Christian historian James Duke notes, the church has always insisted that "the death of Jesus is integral to God's good news in Christ Jesus." Resurrection is not immortality; it is the stunning reversal of the forces of death. If we go from triumph to triumph, and do not experience the depths of the darkness of the week in between, then Easter is a hollow shell of a celebration compared to what it can be for those who travel the path of Christ's passion. I do encourage you to join us on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this week for services, which I promise will not leave any of us unaffected. This morning we offer something of an overture to those services, as we focus on Matthew's account of some of the events of Jesus' last week in Jerusalem.
The story of the passion and death of Christ is, in one sense, too much of a story to tell in the confines of a single worship service. What you will hear in a few minutes is an abridged version. There are too many scenes, to be sure, too many stories. It reminds me of the hurried visit Marla and I made with Tom Brown and John Rogers to the Metropolitan Museum in New York last month, when we were in the city to hear Tom play a recital. It was something like several thousand works of art in something like, oh, a couple of hours.
That museum visit came to mind this week when I reread Ted Wardlaw's description of the time when he attended an exhibition of some of the works of the French impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh. As I was trying to sort out the broad sweep of the Passion narrative in Matthew's Gospel, Ted's reflections on his experience of the Van Gogh exhibition helped, and I share it with you today in the hope that it might help you reflect on the story as well. Ted remembered that
It was not an altogether pleasant experience because there was a man in my group who had a peculiar way of taking in each painting. He would stand about an inch away and then move slowly from one side to another, examining each strand of canvas, each dollop of paint. After he had scanned the entire surface of the painting, he would turn and make his way back across with his right ear about an inch away from the canvas. He examined every single painting in this manner. The rest of us, of course, could see nothing except the portion of the painting not covered by the man's considerable size.Throat clearings and groans from the rest of us did no good. Eventually, one member of our group said, "Sir, you are ruining this experience for the rest of us." Whereupon the man turned and lectured all of us. "This is the proper way to get an appreciation of the inner integrity of a painting," he said. "In order to truly experience it, you have to stand up close. If you are trying to understand it from as far away as all of you are, then you're all just lost!" With that, he returned to his microscopic scrutiny.
Aside from the fact that all of us have had similar encounters with arrogant know-it-alls, that experience offered a metaphor, Ted suggested. "We spend a good bit of time looking at life as that man looked at art: up close, maybe an inch away from its vast landscape, where it is impossible to sense any perspective whatsoever. We focus upon each strand of canvas and each dollop of paint, and thus lose any sense of essential patterns, themes and harmonies that may be right there under our noses."
It is not to say that in the world of science, say, or in the study of literature, or even in preaching that the study of the particular does not have its place. I'm grateful to those scientists who spend their lives studying microscopic minutia so that the rest of us can have a better chance at health. I'm grateful to the biblical scholars who have worked hard to unpack the idiosyncrasies of Greek and Hebrew texts, so that we may have a better grasp of the meanings of scripture. But, as Wardlaw says, there's a danger if we don't step back from the details from time to time to look at the broad sweep. "Living life without the sweep of a larger perspective can invite a certain moral numbness; some things cannot be absorbed from up close."
This may never be truer than during Holy Week, and in the events that run from Palm Sunday to Easter. Matthew understands that we can't take in these events if we stand too close to the canvas. In our text today, Matthew fills the drama with a steady stream of emotions. The triumphal entry. The trial of Jesus. The contempt of the soldiers. The release of a man who deserves execution.The crucifixion. The soldiers mocking Jesus. The darkness. The cry of abandonment. The death. The worry about a plot to steal the body.
The temptation we preachers face, Wardlaw says, is to stand close to one part of this text and linger there... with some part that can be explained or grasped. But we do better sometimes when we stand back, and take in the whole sweep of the story, and try "to articulate a drama that is larger than the sum of its parts... Only those who stand back and experience the canvas as a whole will receive the impact of this story in the way the Creator intended for it to be."
Near the end of this sweeping story, Matthew adds what seems to be a simple concluding statement: "Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him." In a sense, what Matthew does is challenge us to "find our places next to those people standing there on the edge of things, and to take in, with them, all of the events of this story, each in turn, as the powers and principalities deliver the worst they can summon upon the cross of Jesus Christ. The challenge is to stand far enough away from the canvas to overcome the numbing familiarity that attends our knowing this story backward and forward. The challenge is to see it - in both its terror and redemption - as if for the first time; and then observe that at the end of it all, God is still in charge. God is still God. God's ongoing drama with history and human life is still unfolding."
So, stand back for a few minutes... at a distance, as it were... and try to sense the broad sweep as Matthew tells the story of Jesus' final day. We will read much of the 27th chapter of Matthew's Gospel.
Matthew 27: 1-2, 11-64
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. 2They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus said, ‘You say so.' 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?' 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus* Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus* Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?'* 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.' 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?' And they said, ‘Barabbas.' 22Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?'* All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!' 23Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?' But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!'
24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man's blood;* see to it yourselves.' 25Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!' 26So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters,* and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!' 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots;* 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.'
38Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads 40and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.' 41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.* He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, "I am God's Son." ' 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.' 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.'* 50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.* 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God's Son!'*
55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, "After three days I will rise again." 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, "He has been raised from the dead", and the last deception would be worse than the first.' 65Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard* of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.'* 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
 James O. Duke, "Theological Perspective on Matthew 27:11-54," Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 176.
 Theodore J. Wardlaw, "At a distance," in "Living by the Word," Christian Century, March 20, 2007, 18.
 Wardlaw; the text he cites is 23:49.