By Bruce G. Epperly
We are at edge of adventure….palms are waving…crowds shouting “Hosanna”…. common folks anticipating global and personal transformation. But, at the edges of the crowd, lurk the powers and principalities, the presidents and kings, the empire strategists, the protectors of religious and social status quo. Repulsed by joyful songs of lepers, prostitutes, outcasts, women, foreigners, and everyday people carrying their lunch pails to work, they secretly scheme to get the final word. Justice is threatening, peace undermining, and community destructive of all that they hold dear – power, wealth, and orthodoxy. And so they murmur, “He must be stopped and we know how to do it! We’ve done it before. This time isn’t any different. Prophets come and go, but the status quo remains – the poor will always be with you and we intend to keep it that way!”
And, yet he rides, on a colt with no weapon, only words of truth and healing, only hospitality and embrace. But, these words vibrate through “hosannas,” for they are the words of creation, the Tao of resurrection; words so true that even the “stones will shout out,” if human praise is hushed.
Ah, Holy Week, a triumph and a disaster, a Sabbath of hopeless regret, and then a Mystery – a rising son [sun], and the death of all death, and life giving life.
Ah, Holy Week, you can feel it in the air…one day, you will live this week…Thank goodness, we usually get Holy Week in small doses – loss of innocence, the collapse of our life story, addiction and betrayal, being caught in the vice grip of the powers and personalities, weak and hopeless, but waiting…could there be a resurrection? Could this broken heart beat once more, could this restless mind find peace, could this lost future be reclaimed?
Walter Brueggeman describes the movement of the Psalms as “orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.” And, this is Holy Week! From praise to poverty and then new life, still scarred but healed and transformed. If we are honest, this is – or will be – our story…though we hope it will not be!
On a colt rides the Savior, the Healer, the Teacher, the Spirit Person, the One who shows us God…. Perhaps, some of you thought the sermon title was a typographical error – “Holy Weak” – how can we equate weakness with God? Or weakness with salvation and resurrection? With the one we call Savior and Healer? But, this is no typographical error, for our salvation, our healing, and transformation, may very well be found in embracing weakness and dislocation, interdependence and mutual hospitality, rather than isolated individualism, well-guarded security, and overbearing power.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison that “only a suffering God can save!” A distant, unfeeling, all-powerful God – a God who has it all planned out, who rules the world and determines history – without our input cannot save us – when all is lost, when our world collapses, and our dreams are in doubt. No, we need a God, right here, vulnerable, with skin and bones, feeling our pain, even as God inspires us to courage, endurance, and hope – we need a God like Jesus, riding on a colt, with a cross in the distance.
That’s the power of Philippians 2:5-11. Perhaps, an early Christological hymn, a poem to the Christ, these words transform our images of power and victory:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ,
Who though he was in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness….
Obedient to the point of death –
Even death on a cross.
Where is God? Right here, right where we need God…as we struggle with the heaviness of memories of a painful past…as we wrestle with self-doubt and wonder if we walk the path alone…as we face life threatening illness or chronic pain…as we ponder our own mortality…our own betrayal of our highest values….Where is God? Where is our Savior and Healer? “On the gallows,” as Elie Weisel says, from the vantage point of Auschwitz!
To say that God is near, that God is with us, is to proclaim that our pain is God’s pain and our joy is God’s joy….and it is a Holy Weakness that gives a second wind and the courage to face powers greater than ourselves….Holy Weakness, for even the Risen Christ is known by his wounds as well his glory!
The power of Holy Weakness changes our image of God and our image of power – whether in the church, in political life, or in the affairs of nations. My teacher Bernard Loomer spoke of two kinds of power – coercive, unilateral, I win-you lose power andrelational, partnership, freedom-creating power; he spoke of dominating power that is threatened by others and loving power that embraces others’ success. Relational, open-spirited, open-system power – power that wants everyone to succeed; power that embraces outsiders and enemies is the power of Holy Week, the power of salvation for ourselves and all creation.
The victorious, resurrected Christ is still, by the world’s standards, the one who wins by powerlessness and weakness. His moment of triumph is not one of “shock and awe” or “winning through intimidation,” but transforming through loving and defeating by welcoming. Listen to this glorious hymn:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
And gave [Jesus Christ] the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bend,
In heaven and on earth, and under the earth,
And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God who is our Father [and Mother].
This is not religious imperialism in disguise. Yes, Jesus is Savior and Ruler of all, but his rule embraces everything in earth and heaven and even in the lostness of Sheol. You cannot bow or confess out of fear or damnation. Victory is elusive as long as you are hated! God’s glory is the triumph of love, of welcome, of healing, of joyful song, and coming home….it is not displacement of Buddhism, the eradication of First American or Native African faith, it is not the call to monolithic faith, doctrine, or spiritual practice….the Triune God creates and welcomes us in all our diversity, a diversity that mirrors God’s own creative diversity…and rejoices in the hymns of all creation.
And, here we are celebrating a Holy Weakness that Stronger than Nuclear Energy, political stubbornness, or terrorist hatred…we are called to have the mind of Christ, to be strong enough to be vulnerable, confident enough in our faith to learn from other faiths, hopeful enough in the future to work for peace and face the pain of others, even the pain of death…and faithful enough to see healing and growth where others see nothingness and loss…courageous enough to wait for resurrection and jump for joy when it comes.
Holy Weak…Holy Weakness…a power that wins by loving and love that embraces all things…riding on a colt, riding through triumph and disaster…accepting resurrection…in all its mystery, wonder, and surprise.
A sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday at Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, www.ducc.us, by retired co-pastor,Bruce Epperly. Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.