March 28

Green Light on Top

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 11: 1-11

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Said St. Patrick, “I arise today through a mighty strength”.


It is not so long ago that we greeting Jesus at his nativity, humming carols at home and lighting candles of hope in winter windows.  It is not so long ago that we witnessed his growth in wisdom and stature, in the knowledge and love of God, while as a teenager he taught in the temple.  It is not so long ago that this mighty young man Jesus stooped, fully human, for baptism in the surging river Jordan, the river of death and life.  It is not so long ago that we saw him take up his ministry among us, preaching and teaching and healing.  It is not so long ago that with Peter and James and John we saw him ascend the Mountain of the Transfiguration.  With him, up through the mountains have we climbed this Lent, step by step.

We are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers from enslavement to fear. From separation anxiety, survival anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety about anxiety. The good news carries us home, to the far side of fear.

Say, to profiles in courage.  One day you may be coming home to Boston.  You may fly into Logan Airport.  You may deplane and walk toward the exit. And there you will find a greeting from the past.  A visitor today to the cradle of liberty, the home of the bean and the cod, coming by air will walk underneath a bright portico at the Airport, adorned with the countenance of a familiar President, whose term of office was tragically foreshortened.   He is pictured pointing out a rocket on the launch pad.

You cannot help but pause. John F Kennedy.  Boston Airport.  A new frontier.  A profile in courage.   An entrance into a new place.  A homecoming lit up in green.  A New England place.  Like the Gospel itself, a new space, a newness of life. The familiar Presidential Boston voice simply says: ‘We do not choose to go to the moon because it is easy to do so.  We choose to go to the moon because it is hard.’ (He recalls O.W. Holmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference…). Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  For the same reason some choose the ministry, not because it is easy.   He evokes St. Patrick:  I arise today through a mighty strength.

Paul needed this strength.  Today Paul writes, alone in prison. His own missionary work, as we can overhear from chapter 1 of Philippians, is under revision and redirection by others who claim he has failed in certain key areas. His own personal future is more than cloudy, including the possibility of death, and again, his ruminations in the first chapter of Philippians bear this out. He acclaims deliverance for the captives, you and me, a saving drumbeat along the river of life. He has a sight line to the far side of fear.

Ane, he is unafraid, this Apostle to the Gentiles, to quote his opponents. His Gnostic opponents sang hymns, like that in the Poimandres. In these hymns they celebrated a great mind in the universe. They acclaimed the forms of God. They spoke of emptying and filling. They especially and repeatedly compared human life to enslavement in these writings and hymns. To be human is to be ensnared by the elemental spirits of the universe, to be at the mercy of the cosmic, that is historical and natural, forces all around us. To be human is to be humbled by death, even ignominious death. They sang the praise of a Redeemer, who was once preexistent in the form of God, who came to earth in human guise, and who returned to the father’s house, preparing rooms for his followers, and being the most highly exalted. The name beyond all names, the light beyond all lights, before Whom all bow…

Sound familiar? It sounds like Philippians 2.

Philippians 2 sounds like a Gnostic hymn. Paul may have lifted and used it, because his hearers know it and because it suits his message. It is a plundering of the Egyptians, a use of the cultural language of the day to convey great tidings of good news. You need not fear. You need not fear. God has broken in upon our fear, and invaded this life with liberation to live fully and lastingly! God’s beachhead is the cross. The cross is the presence of God in suffering. The cross is the love of God in suffering. The cross is the power of God in suffering, to free the captives—to free every human being—from fear.

I wonder if we can recapture, by the imagination, Paul’s decision to recite for himself and for his correspondents, a hymn to the faithful love of God that carries us over, to the far side of fear. Here is Paul.  Here is the outspoken leader of a religious movement charged with atheism, with rejecting the gods of the empire. Here he is alone in prison. Here he affirms what can only be affirmed by faith, the victory of the visible over the invisible, of God beyond the many gods, of Christ the failed messiah over the cross of his failure. He does so in measured, nearly serene tones.

His attention is captured by the servant Christ, here so like the figure in Isaiah. To be a human being, for Paul, is to be captive under the control of malignant powers, to live in a world in which the human being has too often fallen prey to powers that are aligned and arranged against what is truly human.  In days, like today, following the racist slayings in Atlanta, and following the senseless slayings in Boulder, and clouded by our abject unwillingness as a people to confront gun violence, and guns, and violence, we can readily, fully, even without sermonic amplification, hear Paul in Philippians.

Yet, as one himself immersed in fear, Paul, seized by Christ, is set to singing in his prison cell. Maybe today, given our fears, we may hear something of his happy news.  I arise today through a mighty strength. Meditate this Palm Sunday on what in the past has brought you strength, what brings you home.

The west side of Syracuse New York includes Tipperary Hill, the only neighborhood in America where the green light is on top of the red light in the stoplight.  The green light is on top, just so you know.  Especially coming home that light guides and illumines.  The streets on Tipperary Hill are named for poets.  Tennyson, Bryant, Milton, Coleridge, and Whittier, Whittier the street where my dad grew up.  He said he was the only Protestant on Tipperary Hill.  That was an exaggeration. He said he had to fight his way to and from school every day. That was an exaggeration.  He said all his classmates grew up to be priests or policemen.  That was an exaggeration.  He said the streets of Tipperary Hill were the birthplace of great leaders.  That was not an exaggeration.  I give you Theodore Hesburg, born on Tipperary Hill, for 35 years the President of Notre Dame. I look forward to coming home again, someday, say this summer, to a place of poetic memory, a poetic topography.  Speaking of Whittier:

I know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise

Assured alone that life and death God’s mercy underlies

And so, beside the silent sea

I wait the muffled oar

No harm from Him can come to me

On ocean or on shore

I know not where His islands lift

Their fronded palms in air

I only know I cannot drift

Beyond His love and care


And now the passion.  And now it is time to come down from the mountain, to take the full measure of this Man, the Son of Man, and to have the courage to let Him take our full measure, too.  The crisp air and vistas of the mountain pass have fed our souls.  But now it is time to head home, and turn our face to Jerusalem.  It is not so long ago that with Peter and James and John we saw him ascend the Mount of the Transfiguration.  With him, up through the mountains have we climbed this Lent, step by step.  And now the passion.

The road down the Mount of Olives, or down any mountain, can tax the traveler.  It reminds us all of earlier homecomings.

Odysseus walking the last few miles to Thebes.  Socrates walking to the center of Athens and the cup of hemlock.  Richard the Lionhearted sailing the English Channel, heading home.  A prodigal son, scuffling up the last mile of country road toward a dreaded homecoming.  You, returning at last to whatever you have long avoided, wandering as you have in the Galilee of the rest of life.  At last, there is an Emerald City, and the road home.

Today, we raise a question.  What was Jesus’ state of mind, what was on his mind and heart, as he entered the Holy City?

It is perilous, even arrogant, at this late date and from this great distance, to try to imagine Jesus’ state of mind as he descends the Mountain and enters the City.

Albert Schweitzer, before he went of to heal the jungle sick, showed convincingly how inevitably errant are all such attempts.  More recent attempts, like those of NT Wright and Marcus Borg, only confirm Schweitzer’s thesis.  We paint our own inner lives into the life of Jesus, when so we try to see what cannot be seen in Scripture.  That is, against some more popular work of recent years, I still fully agree with Schweitzer.  And yet, particularly at this point in his journey, on Palm Sunday, at the entrance into the Holy City, and on the threshold of his own death,  we are haunted—are we not?—by the desire to see what Jesus saw and feel what he felt and sense what he did sense, coming home.

Now Jesus is walking down into the city, down off the mountain, and down into the heart of his destiny.  He is going to his grave.

Some of the Gospel today, as Jesus heads home, is too true to be good.  For He is not at home, not at home, in a world of injustice, abuse, violence, and death.  For him, in such a benighted world, there is really no place like home.

Jesus is heading home. As are we all, though, it seems sometimes to be a conspiratorially well-kept secret.  We all are walking down the Lenten mountain and into our lasting, our last future.  Every one of us is going to die.  We are going home.

Here are two possible sentiments in Jesus’ heart and mind as he descends the Mount of Olives.

First.  He looks back upon his ministry and feels that he is homeless. He has found no lasting nest on earth, no lasting crib, no lasting domicile.   He has found opposition and rejection.  He has encountered misunderstanding and criticism.  To a harsh world he has brought a gentle manner.  To a wolfish world he has brought the labor of love.  To a selfish community he has brought the summons to service.  To an inconsistent dozen disciples, he has brought the steady presence of peace.   He has not found a home, no home for Jesus, descending the Mount of Olives.   He has even said of himself, “foxes have their holes, and birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Some of greatest sentences ever written in English are devoted, in Hamlet’s soliloquy to a similar ennui, a similar existential vagrancy.

And those of us who have been shot out of the saddle, riding for a righteous cause, as we dust ourselves off and bind our wounds, we do so in the best of company, in the company of the crucified, for whom, on this green earth, as yet, there is no place like home.   Today you may feel shot out of the saddle.  But let me ask you something.  What other saddle would have rather ridden?  Some losing causes are worth support even in defeat.  I would rather be shot out of the right saddle than to canter comfortably all the live long day in the wrong one.  So, dust off, bind the wound, and get ready to ride again.  It is a warning.  This last 52 weeks has been one long warning.  Just because we were alive last year is no guarantee that we will be next year.  We have not a person, dollar, idea, day or dream to spare.  Not one.  And it is, let us confess it, an uphill pull.

Second.  There is something else alive in this homeless homecoming.  Frederick Buechner compares the feeling of faith to the feeling homesickness, that longing for the feeling of home.  Faith is a heartfelt longing for the comforts of home.

Jesus looks forward to his passion and feels that he is going home.  He is not yet home, but going home. He has come and now he must go.  He tarries for a while, but he is going home.  Only the greatest of the Gospels, that of John, fully and resoundingly displays this sentiment.  But it is present, muted, in Mark as well.  Jesus must endure the cross, just as we inevitably must endure tragedy, accident, betrayal, injustice, failure and death.    We have the finest of company, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, when we endure life’s damaging darkness.  Some have lost loved ones to death, this past year.  Some of lost beloved institutions to death, this past year.  Some have lost beloved dreams to death, this past year.  Jesus walks beside you.  Jesus walks beside you. In fact, this is his peculiarly chosen path, his way, his way of the cross.  All of the passion, all of the passion music of Lent, all of it, all the way to the cross itself, acclaims, in passion, the compassion of God in Christ our Lord.  God has a passion for compassion.  God has a passion for compassion.   So Jesus looks forward—does he not?—to the completion of his mission, to the last word in the soliloquy, to the transition to glory.  Again, only John has fully held this diamond.  Only he sees the cross as glory, without remainder.  Only he has Jesus say, on the cross, as we remembered last week, “it is completed”.  But Mark too senses Jesus homesickness at his homeless homecoming.  His longing for God.  And we sense it too, because we feel it, too.

Some of the Gospel today, as Jesus heads home, seems too good to be true.  This greatest of passionate tragedies, the cross of Christ our Lord, is the passageway, strangely, wonderfully, to our heavenly home.  He dies as we die.  And we die with Him.  We all die.  We are not even temporarily immortal.  Yet, attendant upon this road down the mountain and into the city, there resounds, softly at first, a carol of grace, a carol of love, a carol for all, like we, who are going home.   And we are.  Going home.

This homesickness, this spirited sense that home is over the next street, up the winding trail to the cross, this hunger for home, this is what Paul meant elsewhere:  this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. 

You know, we came far closer on January 6 to a final moment in the American experiment of democracy than, on the whole, we have yet fully to internalize, than, thus far, we are willing to admit.  We just do not want to face it.  We will, over time.  Yet coming home, as a country, in the weeks following, perhaps it helped to awaken us to hear, coming home, reminders of a green light on top, reminders of a mighty strength:  not the example of our power but the power of example…history, faith and reason will show us the way…we are defined by our common loves (Augustine)…there is a cry for racial justice 400 years in the making…and…especially…and hope and history rhyme (Heaney).

One way or another, are you coming home today?  If so take with you the breastplate of St. Patrick.  Said he:  I arise today through a mighty strength. Said St. Patrick, “I arise today through a mighty strength”. Said St. Patrick, “I arise today through a mighty strength”.

Sursum Corda:  Lift up your hearts!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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