Sermon for March 25, 2018: Palm Sunday, The Suffering Servant (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 14

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The other night while I was cooking dinner, Gary, who was checking his email, called out, “I just got an email from you.” “Really,” I asked, “What did I have to say”? “Actually,” he told me, “it’s not from you. It’s from Marj Leeds on your behalf. She says you are a slave driver and are making her get people to be in the Passion on Sunday.” “Well,” I said, not missing a beat,” you write right back and tell her she has no idea how much of a slave driver I really am – and by the way why not be the centurion? He gets to say, “Surely this man was the son of God.” “I told her I didn’t care which part I did,” he said. So she made him a soldier – which is not, I would like to point out, typecasting in any way.

This casual attitude about the casting for the dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday is new for me. For years – long before I was ordained – I sweated the moment when the rector or head lay reader would approach me and ask me if I would take a certain part. “Please,” I would think to myself, “not ‘Servant Girl’ again!” Every year though, no matter what other part I might play, I was always part of “The Crowd” – and I always played that role with what I would describe as “painful enthusiasm.” I shouted out “Crucify him!” as loud and as meanly as I could – because I was told at a very early age that that was the role I should identify with – that I, as a Christian, was responsible for Jesus’s death – that I killed Jesus.

It took me a long time to realize that many, if not most, Christians hadn’t been raised with this belief. Many Christians, in fact, avoid saying the words at all –distancing themselves from those “other” people from long ago who caused Jesus to suffer and die. But the truth is that we are those people. The people that cried out for Jesus to be crucified were not “bad” people. They were human beings who lived in a certain time and place. They believed what they had been told by their religious and political leaders – that Jesus was a crazy, radical who was intent on undermining the financial and social security they had worked hard for. That Jesus advocated for a whole new way of life, one in which people lived together in communities of shared belief rather than family and cultural ties. That Jesus was dangerous, because he encouraged people to engage with individuals of the lowest social status and to treat them as equals. They were afraid of losing what they had and angry with Jesus for making them feel bad about it, and they wanted him to suffer for it. Can you really blame them?

I can’t – because it’s likely that I would have done the same thing- which is the point. It’s why we are all part of “the crowd” – why we all are required to cry out – “lock him up,” “make him pay,” “let him suffer,” – “crucify him.” Over and over again our catechism tells us that Jesus suffered and died for us. Today is the day we are asked to own that, to feel it – to understand that suffering and pain are part of the deal, because without them there is no redemption, and without them there is no resurrection.

No one likes to suffer – nor to see others suffer. That’s why the question of suffering is such a significant theological issue – and why all of our scripture texts this morning have something to say about it. Today’s passage from Isaiah is actually called a song of the Suffering Servant. There are several of these in the second half of the book of Isaiah and, although no one really knows who the writer is referring to, many people have read it as a prophecy of Jesus’s future suffering. That’s because Jesus, like the servant in Isaiah, was willing to suffer – and to teach others through his suffering.

The word that is used in Greek is “kenosis” or “self-emptying.” Jesus, who was fully human as we are, emptied himself that he could teach us how to find our way out of the pain we endure because of our humanity, and to teach others “to persist in the face of life’s struggles, finding new energy to continue on the path that God would have people follow.”[1] Suffering also teaches us to trust in God, to put our times in God’s hand, as Jesus did. As hard as suffering is, when we share it with God and one another, we learn to lean on God, and we learn to hope.

Does this mean that we should seek out suffering, as some theologians have suggested? I think not. In our passage from Isaiah, “it is important to recognize that the path of suffering love is…willingly endured [but not sought out]. This text is not a call to remain in suffering or abuse because one thinks abuse is somehow part of God’s ‘purpose.’”[2] I do not believe that God causes us to suffer to punish us. I believe that God is with us in our suffering – and that God can help us become stronger and better as a result of it.

The other important thing about suffering that we forget is that it “is not limited to individuals. Communities such as congregations can also suffer because they stand up for what is right or offer ways out of captivity. This is true in our day as the church is buffeted with many issues that sorely divide its people. The message of love and hope in the face of determination to stay safe in the status quo [is] very necessary.”[3] That is what St. Paul is saying to his friends in Philippi; when he tells them, “Let the same mind be in you” he is talking about the collective mind. “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by definition, communal.”[4] Thus, we must, as a community of Christ, consider the meaning of the suffering around us. “We come to understand, for example, that our call is not merely to bear our own cross, endure our own crucifixion, as Jesus bore his. The cross of Jesus, we believe, signifies the suffering of all human persons – that burden that Jesus…took upon himself… [This means that] Christians are called to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer – [and most especially those whose]…suffering that is the consequence of injustice – the kind of suffering that does not have to be, that cries out for an end not in death but in change.”[5]

Each year as we each take our part in the story of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity not just to witness his suffering, but to share in it by acknowledging our part in it. We are the crowd - but, unlike those who stood at the foot of Jesus’s cross and watched him die, we have the chance to empty ourselves of those things that hinder our ability to act as he did – hatred, prejudice, and, above all, fear – because the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. We must allow ourselves to feel his suffering and our shame so that we, as a community, can learn to truly follow his way, crying out not “crucify him,” but “Hosanna! Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord.” AMEN.

[1]Jon L. Berquist, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 161.

[2]Richard Floyd, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 162.

[3]Woody Bartlett, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Le