John the Baptist’s day of reckoning

They say that even the most confident, bold and courageous people have soft hearts. Those of us who may instinctively flinch at John the Baptist’s energetic – even vitriolic – outburst against the Pharisees, and loyal deference to Jesus Christ in his speech from last week’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12); those of us who would question his insensitive, uncaring, and offensive style – we might pause today in light of this Gospel story about John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).

For what we see here is a more nuanced, man of faith no longer ranting out of a dogmatic cut-and-dry confidence. But a soft, vulnerable heart. He is much more than an in-your-face, sock-it-to-them extremist and extrovert. Here we get a peek at his vulnerability and the depth of his soul. Maybe it’s because he knew he was close to his death.

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa last week, U.S. President Obama said that Mandela’s strength was “sharing with us [that is, the world] his doubts and fears.”

In prison, John the Baptist expresses his doubts as to whether the man he had rooted for all these years was truly the Messiah. Was his entire life calling to herald the coming Christ all for naught? Like the doubting Thomas would later, John the Baptist seriously questioned whether this Jesus who ate and hung out with sinners, Romans, and tax collectors was the man whom they all expected would save them from those very sinners. John the Baptist’s insecurity is telling, especially when placed in contrast with the early depiction of him crying out brashly in the wilderness.

How does Jesus respond to John’s expressions of doubt? With not only encouragement and affirmation. But Jesus also lifts John’s ministry up. Jesus doesn’t scold John for doubting. Jesus calls him “the greatest” person alive.

I hope John heard that good news. It is a path of hardship John the Baptist undertook, without question. It was a hard path of rejection, ridicule and suffering John endured being a prophet and preparing the way of the Lord. And yet, it is also a path tempered with grace. Because the grace of God came to John in prison; when he really couldn’t do anything to change his unfortunate circumstances – that’s when he received a word of blessing from the One for whom he had prepared the way.

Mandela – true power


His life began with aspirations for security and success. His was, like many of ours in youth, a life learning all about – as Richard Rohr puts it – ‘a language of ascent’. He hoped for a safe career as a civil servant.

Then, responding to the ravaged politics of racism, he protested with others in the streets of South Africa and was arrested in a demonstration against apartheid.

He said he was willing to die for the values of equality among people in his divided country.

He didn’t die for his conviction at the time. But was sentenced to life in prison. Early photos of Nelson Mandela show a young, stalwart, brusque-looking man in exercise clothes. The impression is one of strength, emanating a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. He reminds me in this early time like a boxer about to enter the ring.

Instead, his time in prison taught him ‘a language of descent’, one that religion at its best teaches – teaches us to shed tears, weep, and let go.

What did he do in prison? He befriended his guards, and taught his inmates how to read. When he emerged from prison twenty-seven years later, he was a changed man. He entered prison as a wolf, and emerged more as a lamb willing not so much to dominate and exercise power over his opponents, but to serve them. Of course, it is in this stage of life whilst practicing a language of descent, when Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.

I don’t think there are many world leaders who demonstrate, like Nelson Mandela did, the qualities of John the Baptist with his raw, initiating energy on the one hand, and the gentle, servant leadership demonstrated by Jesus on the other. And perhaps it is not ours to try to imitate these giants of history.

But maybe ours is the task to recognize our own calling to conviction, pursuit of justice, in the name of Jesus. John the Baptist was making a way clear for one who was to follow, one who was greater than him. Any work on our part to do the right thing will sometimes mean our needs for security and success will take a back seat. We will follow Christ, and make a way clear for him to come again, not by pursuing selfish goals, by hoarding and doing the safe things. But by practicing a language of descent, a letting go of our ego compulsions, and acting out of a conviction of Christ’s love for us, and for all people. As Nelson Mandela once said, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

When we let the light of Christ shine through our lives, the whole world will see and be transformed.

Richard Rohr writes about the role of religion in teaching a language of descent, p.47 “Everything Belongs”, especially to men

Palms & Passion

I don’t think there is a more conflicted day in the church calendar than “Palm Sunday”; or is it “Passion Sunday”? Or … both?

I recently heard someone complain about this liturgical challenge: How do we structure the order of worship? This disconnect extends also to the substance of the story itself –Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

From the point of view of the adoring crowd, hypocrisy seeps all over this so-called ‘triumphal’ entry of Jesus on a donkey. How can we wave palm branches and sing “Hosanna!” to the Lord out one side of our mouths when we know all too well that in just a few short days we’ll be shouting “Crucify Him!” out the other side.

Maybe you might want to stay home on Palm/Passion Sunday.

Traditionally, Palm Sunday has been the designation for the Sunday before Easter.

Jesus was heralded as the King who would save the people from Roman domination. The crowds expected the kind of Messiah who would come and make their lives better, who would change their external circumstances for the better. And so he rode in majesty, riding on a donkey. Understandably, the crowds laid palm branches on the royal highway – and the crowds cheered “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

But liturgists and scholars in recent years have challenged the church to insert the title “Passion” to describe this Sunday. “Passion” – not so much how we normally understand the word to describe an intense, positive feeling towards someone or some thing. But “Passion” to describe what Mel Gibson did in his famous movie, “The Passion of the Christ”; that is, the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus. The “Passion” includes all those stories from the Gospel leading Jesus to the Cross.

And Palm Sunday is only the first day of Holy Week; the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is only the first event of several in the story. It is important to at least attempt a reconciliation of Palms AND Passion in our approach to the beginning of Holy Week. For the two are inseparable. They belong together.

Yet somehow we live in a culture of thinking that is “dualist”; in other words, we tend to solve our problems by going the route of “this or that”, “either/or”, “all or nothing”, “black or white” kind of thinking.

But is that real? Palms and Passion challenges us in our thinking: What about Israelis and Palestinians co-existing, living together on the same piece of land? What about different people belonging to the same community? What if rural values could impact positively urban realities, and vice versa? What about people with opposite opinions on a controversial subject remaining members of the same church?

By denying “both/and” possibilities, and pretending life can be packaged neatly into separate boxes, are we like the seeds that fell on shallow soil, which immediately spring up – but when the sun rises, are scorched? (Matt 13:5-6)

Biblically, Palms and Passion are inseparable. Immediately following Luke’s version of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeps when the last echo of Hosanna fades from the hillside (19:41-44). Indeed the trajectory in all the Gospels goes from celebration to discouragement, desertion and despair.

Does this liturgy then call us, allow us, give us permission to reconcile seeming opposites? Can we in the practice of our faith truly live, be real and honest? Can we learn to pray when times are tough? Can we find hope in the midst of despair? Jesus was able to hold these seemingly opposite realities; he received the adoration of the crowds and then was able to grieve for their soon treachery — and still love the people of Jerusalem; as he hung on the cross he prayed: “Father, forgive them …” (Luke 23:34). The Gospel shows us that Jesus holds the contradictions of our lives in the unity of his heart and his love for us all.

Psalm 31 is a prayer. Psalm 31 reconnects Palms and Passion; first by letting us hear the Psalmist’s deepening despair, confessing his own misery; the Psalmist gives us permission to search within; to explore the interiority of suffering, and to find hope.

The section of the Psalm we read begins with a request: “Be gracious to me, O God” (v.9). And is the prayer answered? Maybe the more accurate way of asking is – How is the prayer answered?

I was recently reading a little bit about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa some decades ago now. Apartheid was the racist policy of the government of South Africa that sought to keep separate whites and blacks. Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 after spending three decades inprisoned for his stance against apartheid. How was he able to emerge from such a long time imprisoned to present such a hopeful, trusting vision of the future?

In his book on forgiveness, Desmond Tutu describes Mandela’s attitude the night he came to stay with the archbishop in Capetown after being set free. He says, “I found a man regal in dignity, bubbling over with magnanimity and a desire to dedicate himself to the reconciliation of those whom apartheid had alienated from one another. Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, not spewing words of hatred and revenge. Instead, he amazed us all by his heroic embodiment of forgiveness” (from No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday, New York, New York, 1999, p.39).

Is the Psalmist’s prayer answered? How does God answer his request for grace? Well, the answer doesn’t seem to be changing the psalmist’s outward circumstances; life may still bring a betraying kiss, a lonely Gethsemane, a cross, 27 years in a seemingly endless South African prison. Being Christian doesn’t immune us from hardship. Doing good is not a prerequisite for having a perfect, successful life.

Yet, the Lord answers prayer with a gift – the gift of trust. The psalmist confesses, (31:14-15) “I trust in you, O Lord; I say ‘you are my God’ My times are in your hands.”

The Psalmist is confessing a new reality that has broken in upon his suffering: I trust in God. To be able to assert amidst hardship – You are my rock, my fortress, my salvation, and echo the words of Jesus amidst his suffering – Into your hands I commend my spirit.

So, do we have the capacity to celebrate and give thanks amidst our pain and suffering? Are we able to express a profound trust in God when all seems hopeless? Is it okay to be honest about the sometimes vast contradictions of our lives, individually and in community? Can seeming opposites coexist in the same room? Can forgiveness be expressed and received in a culture of retribution, revenge and tit-for-tat?

In the love of Christ who embraced his Palms AND Passion, who reconciled all opposites, divisions, within us, and who died for ALL people – the answer to all these questions is a confident ‘Yes!’

And what happens when we dare follow this path of embracing both the Palms and Passion, not only this coming week, but as a guide for our whole lives? The Promise is clear: You know it. Nelson Mandela eventually experienced it, on earth as a foretaste of the feast to come. But if you’re not sure, you have to stick around for a week to find out …..

But here’s a hint: The Passion is not the end of the story.