April 17, 2011
I Peter 2:21-24, Matthew 27:45-50
There is an Arab proverb that says, "It is good to know the truth, but it is more pleasant to speak of palm trees."
Palm Tress - beautiful, tall, fruitful and evergreen - are indeed lovely subjects for conversation. Those of us who are lucky enough to have vacationed or traveled where palm trees are native associate them with some of the most enjoyable times of our lives. After a hard winter like the one that doesn’t seem to want to let go of us, who hasn’t longed for a life lived under a palm tree.
Ahh - palm trees! There is nothing like the sound of their huge fronds, rustling in a tropical breeze.
Their flowers scent the desert air.
They bear delicious dates and coconuts.
Their fronds are used in the thatched roofs of homes.
Their fibers can be woven into tropical garments, and the mats that line tent floors.
They provide oil - palm oil - for eating and for lamps.
The shade of the palm tree is welcome and pleasing.
Life is good under the palm.
And it is tempting, especially on palm sunday, to speak of palm trees. After all - the Bible tells us that palm trees played an important role in welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem when he, accompanied by a jubilant crowd, made his triumphant entry. So we could speak of Palm Trees - only palm trees - this morning. It is better to speak of palm trees, the proverb says. Yes, but what is that first part again? It is good to know the truth.
And, the truth is that the palm tree plays only a bit part in what Jesus did in Jerusalem during Holy Week. The tree that stars in our spiritual lives this week is the Tree of Life that, for all the world, looks like a Hanging Tree - the cross. It is on the cross Christians say, that Jesus won our salvation - our healing, our wholeness our full and complete humanity.
I’ll confess that, as your resident theologian, I have no idea how Jesus’ hanging accomplishes salvation. Theologians have debated it as though there was one answer. Biblical witness includes at least seven or eight (depending on how you read some passages) theories of how Jesus’ death on the tree accomplishes our salvation. I’ve read them until my head hurts. But the death itself makes my heart hurt. It takes all my faith and all my trust to stand in the shadow of the hanging tree and hang on to the idea that this, too, is how God works in the world - by hanging in with human suffering and pain.
Here is what we know - experiential. From our own lives: Life is good under the palm. But standing under the hanging tree teaches us lessons we need.
Because we know that the tree of life includes suffering. Some of it is just part of living - broken hearts, aches and pains, aging and the losses that come with it. Some suffering comes from things gone terribly wrong - our bodies or brains malfunction. A pathogen overwhelms the immune system. An accident happens. Random and wrong.
But some suffering, to me the most horrible kind of suffering, comes at the hands of cruel or thoughtless but powerful people: Bullies and demagogues - at school, or in high office - who choose to hurt those who are not as strong as they are. This is the suffering that causes me to despair. Shooting protesters. Demolishing homes. Torturing prisoners.
The Hanging Tree is both an example of and an answer to all these kinds of suffering. It is the peculiarly Christian resource in responding to suffering of all kinds. It is our daily reminder that Jesus chose to share our lot - our pain, our vulnerability, even our despair.
It provides the Christian perspective on the kind of cruelty and human caused suffering that pervades our world. The Hanging Tree shows us where Christ is found. We see that He chose to put himself at the non-existant mercy of those forces in the world which protect their power at all costs, who don’t give a rip for collateral damage, who willingly shed the blood of innocents in what they tell themselves and the world is a greater good.
He carried all of that to the tree and hung it up there in full view of the world. it is clear from the Biblical witness that Jesus’ heart hurt, too. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” he cries. We don’t have to make any logical leaps, or wonder for a moment if Jesus knew the kind of pain that darkens our hearts sometimes. The man of Calvary knows Utter despair and heartache.
He displayed it - Naked. Horrifying. Repulsive.
Some preachers say - sometimes I may have said - that the disciples and women who stood there by the cross were failures because the stood by and watched this horrible thing happen. But it is equally plausible that standing there and watching, being witnesses and not closing their eyes, or turning away, or running to shield themselves from the pain and sorrow was an act of faith. To see what evil does to good. To see the cost of human sin. To stand in the shadow of the hanging tree is an act of faith.
This tree is what it takes to transform human horror into human hope.
Faith that stands under the hanging tree transforms us from unwitting participants in the cruelty of the crowd to fully conscious beings who recognize the divine in life’s victims. That is the beginning of salvation. It starts under the cross, under the hanging tree, gazing up at innocence of Christ.
So this week - my invitation and my prayer is that we will, as a congregation, hang in there with Jesus on the tree, because this is where it starts.
But, Praise God!, this is not where it ends! Salvation does not end with Christ on the cross. God’s plan for us passes through this dark chapter and on to the relief and the joy and the triumph of life over death, life beyond death, life more powerful than death in every way. And it is just a week away.
But we can’t fully know and appreciate and celebrate that Life - we can’t enter into the Joy that Easter brings - until we have stood in the shadow and fully known the truth that can only be apprehended under the Hanging Tree.