March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56; Psalm 31:9-16


Terry Tempest Williams retells this story of musical revolution in her recent book “When Women Were Birds.”

“On Friday, August 29, 1952, a pianist named David Tudor stepped onto stage at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, NY. He sat down on the piano bench, closed the black lid over the ivory keys. And clicked a stopwatch he held in his hand. During this time he was turning the pages of a silent score. He stood twice, to open and close the piano lid between movements. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the pianist stood up to receive applause. The audience was stunned.”

Today we reenact two tributes to the power of silence. The first is Jesus’ procession to Jerusalem, and the second is his execution.

To help us understand the silence of the passion and procession, I want to share with you another story from Jewish history that some have likely never hear. It comes from the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. It goes like this:

“In the dark of night, Pontius Pilate processed with any number of other Roman troops from Cesarea to Jerusalem. In the dark of night what they carried were effigies of Caesar to be installed throughout Jerusalem.  In the dark of night they installed these ensigns throughout the city to mark that Roman law would now supercede Jewish law. As you will remember Jews were forbidden from the manufacture of any image of God.  Any such illustration would be unthinkable. To assert furthermore that the human Emperor, Ceasar, were God was not just a political affront but the worst of blasphemies.
Having awakened to find the newly installed ensigns and becoming deeply disturbed by them, it is said that the Jews went in multitudes to Cesarea to intercede with Pilate to remove the images. They remained for days, and on the sixth day Pilate ordered his soldiers to carry concealed weapons. He assumed his judgment seat located in an open place in the city. The Jews gathered around Pilate, and then Pilate signaled his troops to surround them.  Pilate then threatened the protesters with immediate death if they did not agree to stop their disturbance and go home. In response the Jews are said to have thrown themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, insisting they would take their death very willingly rather than have the wisdom of their laws to be transgressed.
The silence must have been deafening, for the historian Josephus reports that Pilate was deeply affected by their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea.”

Josephus then tells another story of non-violent protest by the Jews that does not end so well. After that the historian offers a single, short paragraph about Jesus the Christ. He is described him as a “wise man,” “a doer of wonderful works,” a “teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure” whom Pilate condemned to the cross.

Can we hear then, today’s story of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem as part of this pattern of creative, non-violent protest? Can we imagine Jesus and the disciples ironically imitating Pilate’s procession of effigies as if to say, “You want to see a procession of the image of God? We’ll show you a procession of the image of God.  This man! The Lord needs a colt to ride!  Get him a colt!”

Luke says some of the Pharisees warned against this protest and procession. Surely they were warning against retaliation from the Romans as well as the blasphemous implication that Jesus was the image of God. But Jesus pushes back.  His words convey this message. “When they have silenced these disciples and they have defeated us all such that there are no more humans to speak truth …Even these stones will shout!”  This is Jesus’ teaching that when deceit reigns there is a capital silencing of truth’s defenders, then silence itself will stand for truth.

The contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek says that “…emancipation remains the most daring of all ventures.” Mohandas Gandhi would likely translate Zizek to say that “The pursuit of Truth is the most daring of all ventures.” For Gandhi wrote, “I used to say that though God may be Love, God is Truth, above all… I went a step further and said that Truth is God.”

Sometimes it is in silence that we can hear our deepest personal truth. And sometimes it is the truth of another that we hear spoken in total quiet. Sometimes injustice takes itself so far that there is not a voice left to be heard in which case the silence itself becomes deafening. We can hear in today’s gospel the ineffable truth that is heard in the silence that follows a human’s last breath, be it a beloved grandmother, Jesus the Christ, or a prisoner executed by the state. The silence seems to shout.  

Jesus, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. Pilate condemned him to the cross. We say that at this event darkness came over the whole land and the sun’s light failed.

The silence must have been deafening.