“Love and Compassion”
Palm Sunday, Year B, March 25, 2018
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Mark 11:1-11 John 12:12-16
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
In a prayerful paraphrase of a portion of Psalm 119, Nan Merrill makes this interpretation beginning at verse 129, and I will begin and end this sermon with this quote: “When I meditate upon your Light, my heart opens with compassion for all life. This is how the veil is lifted, how the soul is filled with truth and light. Then we will not judge others, and we will radiate love and healing to the world.” (Psalms for Praying, an Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007, pp. 249-250).
Notice the dynamic movement in this from meditation on God’s living Presence, to an opening of the heart, then the lifting of a veil as our soul is filled with truth and light, and this experiential mode of perception leads away from judging, and into an active, radiating love bringing healing to the world. Living in this blessing replaces the world’s fear through God’s “enfolding Love, Wisdom, and Power.” (pg. 250).
This dynamic from contemplation that experiences God’s Presence, to action, is precisely what is at work on Palm Sunday. However, although Jesus is living out love and compassion in his humble and prophetic entry into Jerusalem, it takes a little longer to sink in with those wanting this to be a triumphal entry. Jesus enters on a colt, some say a donkey, not a war horse. He enters as a humble servant and yet the people hail him as a king, and are ready and eager for him to lift the oppression of Roman occupation, to become a political king in the line of David, restoring Israel in prominence, power, and prestige. They wave palm branches which were cut in the fields. Those there for the Passover Festival had heard Jesus was coming and they were prepared to receive him. But not on his terms!
Jesus does not play into the crowd’s ideas of what living as the King of Israel involves. One of the best parts of this entire scene is that after all the excitement and action, as the parade builds moving closer into town, it culminates in Jesus going to the Temple, looking around at everything, and then leaving. It was late, so he took the disciples out to Bethany, which he had just come through. That’s the end of the dramatic entry. No revolution, no political uprising, no rioting in the streets, no thunder from heaven. He looks around and then leaves. It isn’t the destination, but how he journeyed that is the core of this story. It seems that waving palm branches with patriotic sentiment and hawkish ideologies is not what leads to lasting, life-giving change. But riding on a donkey, self-humbling, does.
Last week during the invitation to communion, I made a comment about Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Jesus, as she mentions how we live in a time of spiritual ferment, and it seems that sometimes we are like a hospice worker and at other times a midwife as the church struggles and changes. I thought I’d quote her directly, because the point I want to emphasize is actually the last part, and I’m not sure I quite captured that for communion. In thanking her Episcopalian Bishop, the Right Rev. Robert J. O’Neill, she says, “In these times of spiritual ferment, when one hardly knows whether one is a midwife or a hospice worker to the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, Bishop O’Neill has led the way with clarity, compassion, and imagination. He renews my faith that Christianity will emerge from this time of winnowing with a deeper and more authentic commitment to the path of it’s risen Master.” (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, Transforming the Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message, Shambala Publications, Boulder CO, 2008, acknowledgements pg. x).
Emerge from this time of winnowing. Winnowing. Christianity is in a time of winnowing. Winnowing is an agricultural term. It involves a current of air blowing through grain in order to remove the chaff so all that remains is the nourishing grain, as it falls, it gives life beyond itself. Winnowing is usually done by filling up a scoop or basket, throwing the contents into the air on a breezy day. The wind captures the chaff, the debris, the dirt, and the more substantial heads of grain drop into a pile on a clean, cleared floor. But while it’s being thrown, with the wind whipping through, the action seems chaotic and confusing, and you might even need to close your eyes for while so the dust can clear. But sure enough, winnowing gets you down to the grain, just as this time of spiritual ferment promises, with hope and optimistic trust, that the church will emerge with “a deeper and more authentic commitment to the path of its risen Master.”
Those people waving palm branches are not interested in the path of the Master. It isn’t long before their crying out, “Blessed is he who comes” changes to “Crucify him!” They are looking for a political savior, and we can piously look back and say, “we know better.” The church ever since has claimed Jesus as Lord and Savior. But much like the crowds that day, it is easy to make assumptions that may not, necessarily, be true. Jesus is the Savior, but on his terms, and in Christ’s Way, and in this time of Reformation and spiritual fervor, an ancient wisdom is emerging that gives insight into the path and purpose of our Risen Lord.
Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, sheds light on this wisdom by saying, “I have the immense joy of being a [human being], a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1968, pg. 157, as quoted on Richard Rohr’s daily devotional email, http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/9A2A678A24A036922540EF23F30FEDED/713021DC5DC21FE0C9C291422E3DE149 , quotes from this follow in this sermon).
The Gospel of Matthew’s way of saying this is in 5:14,16, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works[,] and[,] give glory to your Father in heaven.”
As this winnowing, through humility, reveals deep love and compassion, Richard Rohr reflects on this, saying “A mystic—like Merton, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, John Duns Scotus, and many others—is one who recognizes God’s image and likeness in this human being, in this creature, in this moment, and from that encounter with the sacred comes to see God everywhere and always. The mystic cannot help but love and have compassion for what is right in front of them. God’s indwelling presence—in every created thing—is inherent and cannot be earned or destroyed.”
Friends, look at the windows. They allow light to shine through them. The beauty of the windows is brought out as the light shine through, but the light itself is outside the windows. That’s one traditional way of seeing God in relation to the creation. Also, look above at the light fixtures where there are electric bulbs. The glass shroud of those lights are lit from within, because the source of light is internal, in the form of a bulb. That’s another way of viewing God’s relationship with the creation. One views God as separate and outside, and one views God as living within. This is at the core of the larger Church’s struggle today.
Thomas Aquinas lived in the 1200’s and his philosophies helped shape the church into an institution that views God as being separate, outside, and shining light from outside, through the church, through Christians, into the world. John Duns Scotus was a Christian mystic who lived at about the same time whose philosophies would be more like the lamps, saying that divine light lives within us and emanates from the inside out. Not only are people carriers of the divine image, but every-thing, all parts of creation are manifestations of God’s glorious light burning within. The philosophy of Aquinas has carried the church for hundreds of years, but winnowing is at work while that other wisdom is re-discovered as it emerges from its deep roots.
You see the parallel with Palm Sunday as the church is in a time of winnowing, as each of us is called to examine what we believe, how it is that we come to believe that, and that we are invited to “a deeper and more authentic commitment to the path of [our] risen Master?” (Bourgeault). We are right there with those people waving palm branches in response to a certain mindset and way of thinking. But as Jesus enters, riding a colt, a donkey, a symbol of humility and peace, embodying God’s love and compassion, how long will we wave those branches? When will we put down the branches so Jesus can be Lord on his terms, to change our “mindset” into an “open mind,” and expand our way of thinking into an entirely new way of perceiving reality?
The Living Christ is inviting the world to allow God’s light to shine, not from on high, not from outside, but from within, as placed there by our Creator, so we may live with love and compassion through transformed hearts. We can take our place, along with everything else, as being “gifted by the loving Creator with a sanctity beyond our ability to understand.” As the chaff blows away, and our vision clears, we can “. . .Once [again…] recognize the value of nature, of others, and of ourselves, [as] we are called to [follow Jesus and live out our lives…] as images of Christ who [embody…] divine love.”
We can be thankful that one tradition of the church thought it wise to take the palm branches from this festive day and burn them. We let them dry, and next year as we participate in Ash Wednesday, the symbolism is reassigned. These branches are given a new role in their transformed state. Rather than looking for an outside savior to get the world just the way we want it, instead, in an elemental way, we take ashes to remind us of how fleeting life is, of our mortality, and yet because God’s divine Presence lives within us, we remember that in Christ, we are united with all things seen and unseen as the divine Trinity dances in love and relationship. We remember we are star dust and to star dust we shall return. You can’t wave ashes, but your can wear them as a marking and a reminder.
Again, here is that Psalm for praying: “When I meditate upon your Light, my heart opens with compassion for all life. This is how the veil is lifted, how the soul is filled with truth and light. Then we will not judge others, and we will radiate love and healing to the world.”
May we continue to discover an inner light as a gift from God, shining our way on the path of self-emptying as we journey with our Risen Master, and may God be glorified now, even as forever. Amen.