Sermon Title: “Deserted” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  The diverse stories and experiences which are represented by the shoes on the chancel have brought us together as travelers on the road.  At the beginning of this service, we covered that path with palm fronds — a symbol of preparation for a procession of celebration and royalty.  Beth Sollenberger and I have our opinions about these particular fronds, formed by our experience in CA and FL with hefty 5 ft long palm branches, but hey, you take what you can get in Indiana in March.  We know that the adoring crowds which lined the streets on Palm Sunday are nowhere to be found on Good Friday — unless they are in a crowd calling for Jesus’ death.  I guess you could say, with fronds like this, who needs enemies?

The path which is now covered with palm branches will be nearly empty at the end of the week, and the companions who have been with Jesus, his disciples, will all be headed away from the cross, These shoes will be pointed in the other direction, to some safe hiding place, away from the action and betrayal on the hill of Golgotha.  This morning we are back to Mark’s account of the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  This anticipates some of what we will share here at Creekside on Thursday evening.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem — which we celebrated today as Palm Sunday — is in chapter 11.  In the next three chapters Jesus clears the Temple in Jerusalem, has his teaching challenged by the scribes, shares parables, teaches about his own persecution, has religious leaders plot his death and connive to pay-off one of his disciples, Jesus has a meal with his disciples in nearby Bethany, where a woman anoints his feet with costly perfume.  This is in the space of four days.

When I read these chapters of Mark, it feels like the action is being compressed into a very short amount of time: like a thriller novel hurtling to its conclusion, with characters who don’t seem to take time to do anything except move from one action sequence to another.  This action is happening during the week of Passover, when observant Jews are getting their homes ready and preparing special foods in order to celebrate God’s deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.  You’ll remember that deliverance came through the blood of a lamb which was killed and had its blood placed above the door of the house.  Of course Jesus would observe this Passover meal with his friends.  Rather mysteriously, Jesus sends two of his disciples into the city of Jerusalem, to be met by a man carrying a jar of water, who will lead them to a room where everything has been furnished and made ready.  Those disciples prepare the food and set the stage for what will come next.

Before the meal, when everyone is seated, Jesus announces that one of the disciples is going to betray him.  We know it’s Judas Iscariot, because Mark told us that about 10 verses earlier.  Presumably, Jesus knows who it is, too, but Jesus does not name him, or even ask him to leave. The table Jesus leaves that uncertainty of his betrayer’s identity hanging over the meal which is about to start.  That is an awkward way to begin the table conversation for sure, with the disciples looking around saying to each other, “It isn’t me, is it?  It must be you.”  What happens next has been imitated in practice, memorialized in art, and fought about in theology for nearly two thousand years. 

Foods in the Passover, or seder meal include roasted lamb, a hard-boiled egg, a ground fruit and nut mixture that looks like the clay used to make bricks, unleavened bread, horseradish, and parsley.  There are glasses of wine drunk at three different times.  Jesus chose not to use the bitter herbs, a sign of the Hebrews’ suffering, or most of the other Passover foods to prepare his disciples for what is to come. Jesus used only two of these, the bread and the wine, as illustrations of his body and blood.  The action of taking, blessing, breaking or pouring, and sharing has been repeated daily and weekly and monthly and yearly as a way in which Christians participate in the body and blood of Christ, and a way in which we become the body of Christ.  We will share in a meal and in that communion of bread and cup this Thursday evening.  It is a way of remembering, not only in words, but in our actions, that we are also Jesus disciples, invited to the Lord’s table.  It may also be a reminder that Jesus allows us to sit at the table even when he knows what is in our hearts.  We try to come worthily, but Jesus does not turn us away.

This Thursday evening we will also remember some of what happens after that meal.  The Passover celebration typically ends with singing a psalm — usually one of the Hallel psalms from the end of that collection.  Mark says, “When they had sung the hymn . . .” as if his readers would be familiar with that format.  So, “after the benediction . . .” Jesus and the disciples went to the Mount of Olives, across from the Jerusalem Temple.  Jesus tells the disciples, “You will all become deserters.”  Which is a pretty harsh thing to say, especially because in Greek, the word is skandalizo — can you hear the root word of scandal in there?  The disciples will not only be cowards who run away and leave Jesus by himself, they are going to act in ways which are embarrassing and shameful: they will become a scandal.  Peter, predictably, takes issue with this characterization, and fires up with “others may desert you, but I will not.”  Other people might act in a scandalous way and be the subject of judgement and scorn, but I’ll stay right here by your side.

We all, as Beth noted at the beginning of the service, love a parade.  Waving palm branches, shouting praise, feeling good about being part of this big thing which is happening.  This is part of the Christian life and the story of Jesus, for sure.  It is not the only part.  This story, as told by Mark and the other gospel writers, contains some of the greatest pain that is humanly possible.  Not only the physical pain of being beaten and whipped and nailed to a cross, but the emotional pain of having  friends turn away when support is most needed — especially right after they promised “I’ll always be there for you.”  The betrayal of false witnesses, and being convicted and sentenced to death in spite of being innocent.  The spiritual pain of feeling so alone that it seems like even God, who has been part of your every action and every breath, has deserted you.  This is the story we will hear from the gospel of Mark after our Love Feast and communion on Thursday evening.

We need to hear this part of the story for a couple reasons: first, without Jesus’ death, there is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday.  The Jesus we celebrated on Palm Sunday, with acclaim and hope for an overthrow of the Roman Empire and political freedom, is not the Jesus we see on Good Friday: a convicted criminal, hanging on a cross.  That Jesus is a scandal: someone we’d claim to never have known or been associated with.  No, not me.  I don’t know Him.

Another reason we need that Jesus is because we are deserters.  Oh sure, we have good intentions, and we are genuinely happy to wave our hands and sing praises, but when the going gets rough, when we step away from the parade route and into messy situations at work or with our families — some of which we may have caused — or look for ways to escape and numb the pain we feel or the pain we cause, we turn our backs on Jesus.  We act in scandalous ways — we do things which would be embarrassing or shameful if other people knew about them.  So we conceal that behavior, or blame it on other people, or try to justify it some other way.  We are no better than the disciples who left their Lord; we may be no worse, but we have all added desertion to the pain of the cross.

And finally, we need Jesus’ death on the cross because it is how we are redeemed.  We are a scandal: broken and sinful.  Jesus’ death, for us, while we were still sinners, is the way we are bought back for God and made whole.  This does not mean we are made perfect — we fall away and have to find our way back again and again — but the grace of Jesus Christ is our way back on the path.  Jesus died for me, but also for every other traveler on the road.  If I have accepted that grace for myself, then I can share with others that our sin and pain and death do not have the last word.  Our scandal does not define who we are. We are redeemed.That is why we need this story.  That’s why we tell the story of the wondrous cross.