The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem – James Tissot
The Worst Thing is Not the Last Thing
Rev. Sarah Buteux
April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday, Year C
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Five and a half weeks ago, we began Lent by reciting these words as the ashes of burnt palms were imposed on our foreheads.
Well, most of us did. Or, maybe it was just some of us.
I didn’t take attendance and I’m not going to ask for a show of hands to see who was actually there, because you and I all know that there aren’t a whole lot of people who come out for Ash Wednesday anymore. It is why we’ve taken to bringing the ashes out onto main street and offering them to people “on the go.”
But even when we bring them outside and make receiving them as convenient as possible, the truth is most people walk right by. And I don’t think it’s just because people are too busy to pause for ashes or even that fewer and fewer people identify as Christian.
I think it’s that Ash Wednesday – even for Christians – is kind of a tough sell. I think most people know that it’s a day to stop and face up to the fact that we are all sinners who are going to die, and I get that there are very few people who really want to dwell on that.
But I don’t think people avoid Ash Wednesday because they’d rather live in denial. In my experience most people are well aware that their life is precious and short and they’re not living it as well as they should be. I think they avoid Ash Wednesday precisely because they know that all too well. They just have no idea what to do about it.
Which is kind of why I wish everyone would come. Because a curiously liberating thing occurs when you hear those words and feel the ashes smeared across your brow.
In the words of Paul Fromberg, “The worst thing we can imagine is that we’re made of dirt and going to die. But when we say it aloud,” he says, something shifts. “We discover the worst thing isn’t the last thing. The last thing is forgiveness.”
“…the worst thing isn’t the last thing.
The last thing is forgiveness.”
I think these are important words to hold on to as this season of Lent comes to a close. Important words to consider as we enter into Holy Week and make this journey with Jesus into the roiling heart of Jerusalem, because -spoiler alert -the worst thing is about to happen to him.
It might not feel like it in the moment, what with all our palms and hosannas, with the hometown crowd cheering for Jesus and our own choir singing, “Jerusalem, my Happy Home,” but things are about to go sideways fast.
Jesus is on a collision course with disaster. He’s been building an anti-imperial coalition amongst the poor and the powerless, which can’t help but fail.
He’s been lifting up the lowly and humbling the proud, making powerful enemies at twice the rate that he’s making under-privileged friends.
And now he’s entering Jerusalem the week before Passover with a crowd of unarmed peasants. They are blessing him as their king even as scores of Roman soldiers are arriving to remind everyone – by whatever means necessary – that there is no king but Caesar.
Even if you’re just tuning in, it’s pretty clear that this is not going to end well.
Because, you see, riding in on his little baby donkey, Jesus is signaling the fulfillment of an ancient Hebrew prophecy which claimed that God would one day send a new kind of king – a gentle, peaceful king – to break all weapons of war and banish violence from the land.
The trouble is that Jesus is marching through a land where people have come to believe that the only way to achieve peace is through violence, and there is already a king in place who has perfected that art.
The motto of Rome was peace through victory, and their victories were ruthless, bloody affairs. Think “Game of Thrones,” but…well, actually, just think “Game of Thrones.”
And once the Romans conquered a people, they kept them in line through the threat of even more violence, a self-perpetuating cycle that brought the worst out of everyone. Crucifying dissenters was one of the more brutally efficient ways they had of maintaining order, and they weren’t afraid to use it…a lot.
But order is not the same thing as peace, at least not the level of peace Jesus comes to bring. And he won’t be kept in line by the threat of violence, because Jesus knows something they don’t. He knows that the worst thing is not the last thing.
And so he riles up the people even as the Pharisees beg him to stop before he gets himself or his disciples killed. Then he causes such a scene in the temple that the Chief Priests move up their plans to take him out before he gets all of Israel killed.
And -as a side note – can I just say that I fully understand why those men did what they did. They’re not villains. They’re terrified, terrified for the sake of themselves and their people, and for good reason.
What they might not realize, is that for all their power, deep down the Romans are terrified too. In fact, if you dig just below the surface, you realize that everyone in this story is acting out of fear.
Everyone is afraid of being hurt: afraid of uprisings and reprisals, war and chaos, destruction and death, revenge and retribution. So afraid of being hurt that they are willing to hurt others first, crucify them even, in order keep what little peace they already have no matter how fragile and temporary it might be.
Everyone is acting out of fear in this story… everyone except for Jesus. On his itty, bitty, little donkey, with no weapon but his wit and no battle plan but the gospel, Jesus dares to proclaim that there is another way to live in this world.
He comes willing to be hurt -rather than hurt anyone else – if that’s what it takes to show us how to break the cycles of fear and retribution we all cling to.
He offers an alternative to the Pax Romana; not a peace established by victory and violence, but the peace that comes when we refuse to commit violence altogether.
Not the peace that comes from breaking others down so far they can’t possibly rise up to hurt us…but the peace that comes from refusing to push others down at all.
Not peace through violence, because the sad truth is that all violence ever truly begets, is more violence.
“You want peace?” asks Jesus. “Then you need to break the cycle. Stop fighting with your enemies and learn to love them. Bless those who persecute you. And be of good courage. Don’t cower in fear lest they drag you to the cross. Take it up yourself and follow me. Let them see that the worst thing they can do pales in the face of what God can do.”
And then Jesus allows them to do their worst to him. Like a lamb to the slaughter he lays himself bare, and in their frenzy to keep the poor, impoverished peace they have come to settle for -the only peace they know – they hand him over. They hang him on a cross. And they leave him to die.
But the worst thing is not the last thing.
“Father, forgive them,” he says, as they nail down his hands.
“Father forgive them,” he says, as they nail down his feet.
“Father, forgive them,” he says, “for they know not what they do.”
I think we still don’t, not really. We don’t know what to do with our sin, all those ways we fall short. We don’t know what to do with our fears, all those specters that cause us to lash out; hurt first, lest we be hurt.
Some of us are afraid to die. Some of us are so afraid of what we’ve done that we want to die. We’re afraid to lose. Afraid of being shamed. Afraid we’ll be abused, misunderstood, betrayed, or abandoned.
We’re not living in denial. We know that this life is precious and short and we’re not living it as well as we should be. We know how screwed up we are. How screwed up the whole world is. We just don’t know what to do about. Which is maybe why Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day to get himself killed.
On the cross, Jesus took on all those fears. On the cross he embodied the very worst that can happen to us by drawing the very worst out of us…by allowing us to do our very worst to him. And then he did the most radically, subversive thing he could possibly do. He forgave us. He forgave us then and he forgives us still.
In his brokenness, Jesus heals us. In his weakness, he strengthens us. Because there on the cross he shows us that the worst things within us and the worst things that can happen to us are no match for the grace of God that’s has been poured out for us.
If he can forgive us then we can forgive ourselves and one another. That’s what we can do about all the brokenness within us and around us. Forgive as we have been forgiven. That’s how you break the cycle. That’s where the healing the starts. That’s how you turn things around and start living well.
Five and a half weeks ago, we smeared the ashes of last years palms on our foreheads. We remembered that we are sinners who are going to die…nothing but dirt and dust, dust and matter. But we placed them there in the sign of the cross because in spite of all our failings, we are dust of great matter to God.
“Ashe are what a fire cannot burn,” says Sara Miles. Ash reminds us that there is always something left with which God can work. Those ashes, that cross, they remind us that death does not get the last word. They remind us that sin does not get the last word. They remind us that our fear, our hate, our violence and brokenness..none of that gets the last word.
Because the worst thing is not the last thing.
Not the worst in you or the worst in me.
The worst thing is not the last thing.
The last thing is forgiveness.
Thanks be to God. Amen