Sunday, March 24, 2013

Paths of glory

Text: Luke 19 28-44 (Jesus enters Jerusalem)

When I was a child, I had trouble distinguishing between Palm Sunday and Easter. Both were happy occasions in which we raised our voices in praise. On Palm Sunday we sang Hosanna (which means God saves) and on Easter Sunday we sang Hallelujah (which means praise the Lord). In between -- and for reasons that often puzzled me -- we marked the pain and sadness of Jesus' Last Supper, his arrest, and his crucifixion.

It is true that in certain outward respects, the two Sundays are similar. But in other ways, they are quite different. Palm Sunday's hosannas express dreams of national redemption and glory while Easter Sunday's hallelujahs express a Love that is beyond nation or glory.

When I named this sermon "Paths of glory," I was thinking of a 1958 Hollywood movie of that name. It is an anti-war movie, which stars Kirk Douglas as a French Colonel in World War One. He tries to save the men under this command, first from a hopeless attack against the Germans and then from the execution of survivors of that deadly attack when they are tried for cowardice.

In reading about this great film, I learned that its title "Paths of Glory" is taken from the 1750 poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Written by Thomas Grey to commemorate the death of a friend, the poem includes the following lines:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

Palm Sunday is an attempt by the crowds who idolize Jesus to turn his journey to Jerusalem into a path of glory. But as Jesus knows and as they will soon find out, his so-called path of glory leads but to the grave of Good Friday. It is only when the hopes of glory expressed on Palm Sunday are proven false on Good Friday that the mysterious but sure hope of the empty tomb of Easter is revealed.

We can't seem to live without idols. As children, we idolize our parents. As teenagers, we idolize pop stars and sports heroes. As adults, we idolize political or religious leaders. The good news is that travelling on a spiritual path in a community of faith can help us understand why we are drawn to various idols and then turn from them towards the God who is Love.

The people who sang hosanna to Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were hoping for a new king. They were poor people, cruelly oppressed by the Romans. In Jesus, they saw a Christ or King whom they hoped would be a warrior like King David and who would channel God's mighty hand into miraculous feats of liberation.

The idolized Jesus because of their needs. But as an idol, Jesus could not meet these needs. The Romans would not be overcome by the efforts of a warrior king. Instead, in a mysterious and wonderful way, Jesus' death and resurrection showed his followers that each of us carries Jesus in our heart in the form of an inner Christ. The inner Christ is a king not just for the Jews. He is for all people who seek to live in the light of God's eternal love.

New life in Christ does not in itself overthrow oppression or solve our social problems. It shows us that beyond idolatry there is something more desirable than national glory. This is God's Love, within, between and all around us.

In the World War One movie, "Paths of Glory," both the French and German soldiers on opposite sides of the trenches are fighting for national idols. The Germans have their Kaiser and Empire. The French have their beloved Republic. Both sides are told by the church, the rich, and the powerful that they should submit to the authority of their military commanders and sacrifice their lives for the glory of the nation.

The movie shows that the French high command is corrupt and cruel. When a group of French soldiers abandon a hopeless military assault on the Germans after suffering terrible casualties, and when other French soldiers refuse to fire on these same troops who have abandoned this crazy assault, they start to break free of their idolization of the nation.

Jesus' supporters on Palm Sunday also have delusions of national grandeur. Jesus, however, does not share these delusions. He enters Jerusalem on a humble donkey and weeps for the city. His supporters believe that Jesus has come to liberate the Jews. Jesus knows that his sacrifice is for all people.

Jesus shows that God's Christ does not engage in violence to lead one nation to defeat another. Instead, Christ fearlessly speaks truth to religious and imperial power regardless of the cost to himself. The religious elite and the empire kill Jesus, which marks an end to Jesus' role as a national idol. But the joyous news of Easter is that God's love in Christ lives on after Good Friday. Jesus rises to new life in the awakened and loving hearts of all who follow him. This new life is not for one nation, but for all peoples.

So too in "Paths of Glory." The Colonel played by Kirk Douglas defends his men whey they are charged with treason. In the end, he fails and the so-called traitors are executed. Like millions of others in that terrible war, they die, but not for the illusion of national pride or in an attempt to kill their German brothers. They die for the values of sanity and love.

Clearly, abandoning our idols does not mean that we won't die. Jesus is executed by the Romans. The French soldiers in "Paths of Glory" are executed by their own army. But when we stand for values deeper than those given to us by national rulers, we have accepted God's grace to live within the light of Love.

Our idols give us clues as to the sacred values that might lie beyond them. When we idolize our nation, we are attempting in a distorted way to love our neighbours. When we idolize a pop star or an athlete, we are attempting in a distorted way to show our love for beauty and human accomplishment. When we idolize our parents, we are attempting in a distorted way to grow up. Seen in this way, the worship of idols can become a way station on the path to God. In just this way, Palm Sunday is a way station to the cross and beyond.

By following Jesus into Jerusalem and through the pain of Holy Week, we help strip ourselves of the illusions of Palm Sunday and prepare ourselves for the quiet but wondrous news of Easter. Easter assures us that although our idol has been killed, God's love lives on within and between us.

Palm Sunday is a loud celebration that involves multitudes of people. Easter Sunday is a quiet affair experienced by only a handful of Jesus' friends. Palm Sunday is a time of hope for national salvation. Easter Sunday is a time of mystery, confusion and wonder. Palm Sunday heralds a king who is expected to be a warrior like King David. Easter Sunday reveals a king who lives within each beating heart . . .

The worship of idols seems inevitable. But so does our disappointment in them. Idols are continually being exposed as distorted reflections of what we most value and want from life. By walking with Jesus into Jerusalem, by sharing the bread and cup with him on Thursday evening, and by kneeling at the foot of his cross in sadness and pain on Friday morning, we prepare ourselves for a love that is brighter and stronger than any idol. We prepare ourselves for the good news of Easter. 

Christ has died. Christ has Risen. Christ will come again.


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