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Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013

On the series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, there is a character named Data. Data is an android. He looks fully human, he functions in a fully human way, but he has one deficit. Just like his predecessor, Mr. Spock, he does not express emotions. In fact, he is worse off than Mr. Spock. Spock was half human and could have learned to express emotions, but Data is incapable of doing so. His expression is always the same, whatever the situation, and his system for valuing things is a simple binary one. Something is either logical or it is not logical. Not logical is bad, and logical is good.

Data would have a lot of trouble with Palm Sunday. The bottom line, according to Luke’s centurion, is that an innocent man was killed. That is supremely illogical. But along the way, there are many other things that are not logical because human beings have emotions. They are happy, they hurt, they are frightened, they are uncomfortable with things they either do not or do not want to understand. They do things that are expedient rather than logical. They use violence to create what they see as peace.

The first illogical thing about Palm Sunday is the procession into Jerusalem. It is not logical that Jesus should know all about the colt, but he does. He tells his disciples to get the colt and what to say if they are questioned, which they are. “The Lord needs it” is their reply, and they get the colt. It is perhaps logical that they want to treat Jesus as a king. After all, they have named him Messiah and the Messiah is supposed to be their king. They put their cloaks on the colt and send Jesus into town, putting their cloaks on the way as well. It is a traditional way to welcome royalty. In Luke’s version there are no palm branches, only his disciples praising him and paraphrasing Psalm 118:26. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Data might think this ritual is logical, but he would not believe in Jesus’ deeds of power as the disciples did. He would also think that it was extremely illogical for a king to ride into town on a colt instead of a steed. But Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 that says the king will come in humility as well as in victory riding a colt. Jesus is a king who does not offer war and dominance as a solution to the world’s ills, but peace. The crowds are zealous in their praise for him and he takes it as his due or as how things have been decreed by God to be. Data would be impressed by someone who brought peace to seek peace – that would be logical.

About a week passes, and we move to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus prays in agony to the Father that he not have to drink this cup, that he not have to die. Jesus is a good man, Data would think. He has done many things to help people, and it is not logical that he should have to die. But human emotions being what they are, Jesus has also made the religious authorities uncomfortable – so uncomfortable that they want to kill him to preserve their way of life. Judas comes to betray Jesus, and Jesus will not let the disciples defend him. One of them cuts off someone’s ear, and Jesus heals it before he allows himself to be taken. Okay, Data would think. Jesus is not condoning violence of any kind, and he goes with the authorities. This is congruent with his character so far.

The courtyard is the next act in the scripted version of Jesus’ passion. Luke is the only evangelist that has Jesus present when Peter betrays him. Even though Jesus knows Peter is going to do this, the hurt and anguish in the look that he gives Peter are powerful and poignant. Another betrayal, another abandonment. It is illogical not to tell the truth, Data would think, but again human emotions intervene. Peter is terrified that the authorities will take him too.

When Jesus comes before the Jewish council, Herod and Pilate, he says very little, if anything. Again logical, given his character, but extremely illogical in the ways of the world. When Jesus is asked if he is the Son of God by the council and the king of the Jews by Pilate, he only responds that he has been called that by them, that the words are not his. Herod gets nothing out of him and sends him back to Pilate. Only the Jewish authorities find any case against him. Pilate says three times that Jesus has not done anything to warrant death. He proposes to let him off with a flogging. That is logical, Data would think. He has not done any wrong according to the religion of these people or to the Roman government. But what he would not understand is why the Jewish authorities keep pressing their case against him. He would not understand their opposition to him or their fear that he would upset the apple cart of their power.

Finally, Pilate gives in to the wishes of the council and lets them crucify Jesus. Supremely illogical. The man thinks he is innocent, and he obviously holds the power. Why would he let himself be swayed by anyone? Why would he participate in this illogical desire to kill Jesus? But he does, and Jesus is led off to be crucified. On the way to the cross, he stops to talk to some women who are lamenting. He has compassion for them, but he gives them a warning about the unhappiness to come for Jerusalem. Congruent with who he is, Data would say. Logical again.

When Jesus is crucified, he prays for his killers, his betrayers – all who have sinned against him, “Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.” The people that have brought him to his death do not have so much an ignorance of the intellect, but an ignorance of the heart (William G. Carter), the place where the emotions of love and faith and hate and fear reside. And hate and fear are winning this day. It is the hour when darkness reigns, as Jesus had said earlier. Jesus is crucified between two thieves, one who mocks him and one who begs him for forgiveness, asking that Jesus might remember him when he comes to his throne. Compassionate to the end, Jesus says the thief will share Paradise with him that very day. Then he commends his spirit to God and dies.

Data would understand what the centurion voices – that a great injustice has been done by the death of an innocent man. He also would understand that Jesus, though he was human and had human emotions, always acted congruently with his nature. What he said and what he did matched (George W. Stroup). There was a certain sort of logic about that. But the praise, moving to hatred and violence and betrayal, moving to satisfaction from the Jewish council and sadness on the part of Jesus’ followers he would not understand at all.

Passion week is not logical. It is brought about by human emotions – by faith and fear, by love and hate. The characters are fickle or violent or scared, but Jesus is not. He is faithful to God’s will in the face of his exaltation and his supreme humiliation – death on a cross. Jesus does not expect people to act logically as Data would, following Captain Picard anywhere he tells him to go. He expects the violence and the betrayal that are so much a part of human existence – the sin he came to redeem us from. We are not called to be logical machines so we will do whatever Jesus tells us. We have a choice whether to love, to care, to fear, to harm. God does not want us to be androids; God wants us to choose to be faithful, to do everything God asks us to do out of love for God and gratitude for Jesus’ redeeming act on the cross. God wants us to be congruent as Jesus was, to have what we say and think and do match what we believe. Here we can rely on the logic we do possess to help us keep acting as Christians in the world, no matter what our situations. If God has helped us before, it is logical to assume God will help us again, and we can sometimes see through our fear that way. Of course we need God’s grace to overcome our fear, to avoid taking part in Jesus’ death and instead stand on the side of peace and justice and new life.

Holy Week is the most important week of the Christian year, and I invite you to observe it, not just by going to Palm Sunday services and by waiting for the joy that is Easter, but by observing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as well. Your spiritual life will be enriched, and the joy of Easter will be even sweeter.

AMEN.

  - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
William G. Carter, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 154
George W. Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville:WestminsterJohn Knox Press, 2009), p. 182