Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 17, 2011:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Matthew 26:14--27:66

Gospel (Alt.): Matthew 27:11-54

The verses above don't include the readings that recently have come to be read at the beginning of the service, the Palm Sunday story. Those of you who have been going to church for awhile may have noticed that Palm Sunday sometimes stretches for a longer time than Easter Sunday. There's so much we cover these days. We start with the Palm Sunday story--some churches actually have their congregants start out seated, then they rise and march around the church, either inside or outside, and then they sit down again. And then, when they get to the readings, they hear the whole story of the Passion. We get Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday all in one Sunday. It's almost a relief to show up on Easter and only have to deal with one part of the story.

I know that churches stay with this approach because it's so hard to get people to return to church on weeknights. Part of me thinks that it wouldn't hurt us to hear the Crucifixion story a few more times throughout the year than we currently do. Many of us lose sight of what God suffers for us, and the Crucifixion story makes it very clear. The Crucifixion story should also serve as a warning for us--it may be our fate, if we live our Christian call to the fullest (the history of civilizations shows that governments are very threatened by people who actually want to live their faith all the time--and threatened governments tend to crush the things which make them feel threatened).

Part of me, of course, is sad that people can't make the effort to get to church more often, especially during our highest Holy days. Part of me longs to be part of a more Orthodox tradition, a faith stream that demands more of me. The Eastern Orthodox worshiper observes Lent in a way that most of us never will, with more and longer church services and fasting and other strictures.

Let me also admit that most years, I've had to work during the evenings of Holy Week, so I've been one of those people who couldn't make it back in the evenings. I've made an effort to find services elsewhere, but it's not always easy. Most churches have curtailed their Holy Week offerings precisely because of dwindling attendance.

Part of me gets surly during Palm Sunday service, too, because it's long and familiar and I start to feel like I've heard it before--which makes it interesting when pastors or readers lose their place in the reading, and suddenly, we're in new territory--I've even been to a service where the Pastor read the Good Friday lesson in place of the Palm Sunday section, so we got to hear the Crucifixion story twice. Part of me is surly because I haven't done a very good job with my Lenten disciplines this year. It started off so well: I made a prayer shawl, and I did some meditating with the camera. But now, I'm lucky to get a chance to read my special Henri Nouwen meditation each morning.

But instead of feeling like a failure as Lent ends, instead of feeling grumpy because the lessons are familiar, maybe we should take advantage of these long Passion Sunday readings. Maybe we should meditate on the journey of Jesus and the metaphor of our own journey.

Palm Sunday, which is now called Passion Sunday, reminds us of life's journey. No one gets to live the triumphal entry into Jerusalem day in and day out. If we're lucky, there will be those high water mark periods; we'll be hailed as heroes and people will appreciate our work. All the transportation and dinner details will work out like we want them to. Our friends will be by our side.

Yet the Passion story reminds us that those same appreciative people can turn on us just as quickly. The cheering crowd today can be the one calling for our blood next week. If we're lucky, we'll have friends who stand by us, but we're also likely to suffer all kinds of betrayals (from our friends, from our governments, from any number of societal institutions, and ultimately from our bodies, our all too fragile flesh).

So, if you're feeling like an utter failure, take heart. And if you've had a meaningful Lent, then you've got a good base on which to build.

Soon we enter the long season of post-Pentecost. It's a long time until Advent, when the Church traditionally turns again to the idea of marking a season (either by special disciplines or special observances). But that doesn't mean that we can't work on our own.

A year from now, when you look back at your journey from Easter to Easter, what do you hope you will see? What path can you follow now that will lead to the changes that you seek?

Perhaps these questions make you tired. Start small. A Trappist monk once suggested that we'd all be better if we prayed the Lord's Prayer once a day and read one chapter from the Bible once a day, we'd see amazing changes.

That seems doable. I can turn away from all the worldly distractions for as long as it takes to read a Bible chapter. It takes less than a minute to pray the Lord's Prayer.

And this Sunday, while we're hearing the story of Jesus' journey, I'll think about the other possibilities of paths I could follow to transform my life so that it's more like Christ's. Maybe if I'm contemplating this question, I'll hear the story in new ways.

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