faith in action

Between What Matters and What Seems to Matter

A Holy Week sermon on Mark 11:1-11 Preached on Palm Sunday 2021 for Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia (via Zoom).

Palm Sunday holy week

EC Bentley, a detective writer is most famously known for the mystery, Trent’s Last Case. Not only does Trent, this unconventional detective, fall in love with one of the suspects, he also, fastidiously collects evidence and draws all the wrong conclusions.

Years ago, I was drawn to one of Bentley’s quotes - “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?”

It seems apropos for the times in which we are living and particularly in this Holy Week 2021. Between what matters and what seems to matter - how do we judge wisely. What matters and what seems to matter is confusing and confounding making it difficult to distinguish between the realities. It is this conflation of what matters and what seems to matter that wreaks havoc. We have so many examples of this in recent years. (Calling a virus by the name of a country is confusing and wreaks havoc.)

The work at the General Board of Church and Society advocating for justice on behalf of the United Methodist Church is an exercise in distinguishing between what matters and what seems to matter. It is an exercise in having to stay focused on the raison d’être, (important reason or purpose- for our being). Every institution and faith community must continually ask - “what is our reason for being?” How do we guard against the distractions, intrusions, and obstructions that would lead us down a different path? What is the raison d’être of the University, educational institutions, of hospitals, of governments, of the Church. The purpose of the church’s ministry is to witness to and live out the Gospel of love and justice - of forgiveness, healing and redemption.

This is the heart of Holy Week. Jesus knows what matters. He knows where he is headed. This Holy Week journey began weeks ago with the readings of Jesus temptations. Jesus endured the temptations in the wilderness of being allured to indulgence pleasure - desire power (spectacular throw/might) and covet materialism (kingdoms/wealth). We see these temptations as the struggle between what matters and what seems to matter–the intrusions/ the obstructions/ the distractions from the things that really matter.

On the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem he knew where he was going. It was like that frightful rainy night in Memphis - Dr. King, knew where he was going, when he said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Jesus knew where he was going.

We are living in these days of distraction that erode our spirits, that polarize our communities, that harm and kill Black people and abuse, violate and kill people of Asian descent, traumatize little children at the border, that stigmatize people living in poverty, that politicize the church, that mock the stories of women. Distractions, obstructions, intrusions that blind us to love, steel us against injustice, and harden our hearts and cloud our minds are not the way of the faith.

These distractions challenge our faith and the very substance of the Gospel. Distraction is the stuff of good mysteries. Sometimes what seems to be the logical conclusion is, in fact, not. For a time, what appears to be true is, in fact, false. The Gospel guides our minds and hearts from what appears to matter to what really matters. Jesus helps us see more clearly. This Mark passage guides us down an unapparent path.

Officer Eugene Goodman, the Capitol Hill Police officer, on that dreadful January day of insurrection at the Capitol—the symbol of American democracy—appeared to be retreating from the insurgents when, in fact, he provided a brilliant deflection that probably saved many lives. The first glimpse of that moment seems to be one thing but turns out to be something radically different.

The festive, gregarious, joyful, party-going Palm Sunday crowd soon turn into an outraged mob -demanding murder and death. It seems to be one thing and turns out to be something very different. Sometimes, what we think we see is a distraction from what is really going on. And rarely are we able to see the end of the story. This is the case with so many of our stories. Our narratives, our language, our memory, the media, betray us. We lose sight of our raison d’être (who we are and what is our reason for being).

Confessionally, we know what we do. We treat Jesus as a criminal. We treat people of sacred worth as chattel and enslave them. We vilify groups of people, call them names, stereotype them and make them targets - judging ethnicity, race, class, region, gender, accent. We believe the narratives of the powerful and privileged and show contempt for the experiences of those we choose not to believe. The stories of women are suspect. The requirements for belonging (in this country and to our faith communities) are exclusive. We often expect people growing up in a family/community speaking one language (Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Thai) not only to have to learn to speak English but without an accent-whatever that means). I cannot tell you how often at Emory, in Washington and all around the world when talking with people about their lives many will say “Forgive my English. It is not very good.” (As if colonialism’s English were the noblest and best.)

For many of us living in the U.S., after January 6 will we likely never read this Palm Sunday narrative in the same way again. The Palm Sunday narrative now conjures up different real -life images, stories, sounds and fury. Although we know about lynching, racial murder and violence we have not really appropriated it as vividly- even speaking to our own privilege.

It is difficult to describe the level of violence and mayhem that happened across the street from where the United Methodist Building houses 40 faith-based communities advocating for justice. It was horrifying and stunning to see the mob storming the Capitol. What happens when an innocent, jubilant or even misguided party on the road to Jerusalem—turns into a hate-filled, violent mob calling for murder and mayhem. How this “turning” takes place is fascinating to me – but this is not the point of this sermon. For today - we just know it happens.

After the death of 5 people on the Capitol grounds including Officer Sicknick (who the news reported had possibly committed suicide), Professor Eddie Glaude of Princeton University wrote using the words of James Baldwin… Now we must confront the dead.

Many things have intersected in this year:

  • a global pandemic,
  • glaring exposure to racial injustices in this country,
  • deep division within the republic.

This Lenten season has given us an opportunity to reflect anew on who we are and what it means to be a Christian and a person of faith. Now we must confront the dead. During this global pandemic - with more than 2.8 million reported deaths worldwide and more deaths in the U.S. than in all U.S. wars combined (except the American Revolution) we must confront the dead.

Last week, in Georgia with the killings of 8 people – 7 women - 6 of whom were women of Asian descent racism and misogyny is yet again exposed in a horrific way. We must now confront the dead. It is a painful season.

We know that the gun violence epidemic in the U.S. is in part a mental health crisis and needs to be treated as such. But the focus on mental health cannot ignore or dismiss the fact that events like the shooting in Atlanta are racist acts of terror. The sin of racism is deep within us. Power and privilege support it as well as insulates us. We must face our sin. We must face the dead in order to find life.

So back to Trent’s Last Case. The story does not end when Trent gathers his facts and comes to the wrong conclusions. There is still on more chapter.

Mark 11:11 says, then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went to Bethany with the Twelve. He looked around at everything – as it was late – and he went on with those who were with him.

This is the week that we are given this pivotal story of our Christian faith – the one through which we can reflect, think, pray, and facing the dead begin to glance toward healing and redemption. It is when we face the dead and begin to turn toward life. If the Christian story is anything - it is that sin and brokenness violence, hatred, racism of any kind - including crucifixion - is not the final chapter.

Christian faith proclaims in word and action that God in Jesus Christ has summoned disciples throughout the ages to continue turning the Romans’ crucifixion into creation’s resurrection,

  • liberating us from sin,
  • reclaiming us from suffering.
  • healing the divisions that separate us from one another,
  • and turning us toward new life.

This is the how this journey goes. And even this Palm Sunday story does not end here. Knowing our propensity for sin and evil—Jesus looks around at everything and falls in love with all of the suspects—and goes on to Bethany.