This morning in class we focused on worship in 2 Chronicles 7:12-22, and asked what difference it makes who or what the object of our worship is. What difference does it make whether we worship this or that deity? Why does the God of Israel make such a big deal out of who the Israelites choose to be their object of worship? And we thought of lots of things: worship orients us to God, and God “is a jealous God” and demands our exclusive worship – which, we noted, might make God one of the kind of people we wouldn’t want to be bff’s with in real life if God were a person – and a few other things. And then we thought: what difference does it make in a person’s life what they holds as their highest value? What difference does it make in our lives if what we care the most about is being popular? Or getting more money? Or having people think well of us? Or whatever … Will that affect our behavior? Of course, we know it will. If we think of “worship” as “acknowledging someone or something as our highest value,” then we know that who or what we worship makes a difference.
And in the case of ancient Israel, the “other gods” on offer were [so I learned once upon a time, maybe correctly] mostly gods of fertility, of well-being and prosperity, vs. the God of Israel, who was first and foremost a God of freedom, freedom for “justice and righteousness,” the justice of loving the neighbor as oneself and all of that, with the well-being and prosperity being a consequence of that, supposedly.
So then in church it was Palm Sunday, and we had to walk while singing – always a challenge. We all made it to the choir loft. And the lay worship leader of the day began with some thoughts about the text (Mark 11:1-11), and how Jesus was coming into Jerusalem as a king, and it was customary for kings not to come on war horses but to demonstrate that “they came in peace” and I drifted off into thinking about how people were thinking Jesus was the Messiah and were thinking there was going to be a big battle one of these days between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – whoever they were at that time, because there is always a specific context. [Being a Gentile myself, if I’d been there in the 1st century Mediterranean world, I suppose I would actually have been living in Britannia covered with woad, resenting the Romans from a whole other angle. But that wasn’t what I was thinking while I wasn’t really listening to the lector, I was thinking of how …] Walter Benjamin (who was quoting Kafka) said
“The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary, he will only come after his arrival, he will come not on the last day, but on the very last day.”1
And of how there was going to be some kind of battle, of course – at least, this is one way of telling the story of the passion-crucifixion-death-and-resurrection of Jesus, a way that story is still told and with which church-goers are intimately familiar. “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won,” as we sometimes sing … though not during Lent.
And of how, as far as we can see, the strife is not o’er and the battle is not done, and how of how much strife it takes, really, to win a battle like that. These days it’s commonplace to notice that communities are a lot less homogenous than we used to imagine. Almost no group we know of has just one “us,” all “shared values and commitments.” Any group we can name these postmodern days is also a “field of contending narratives and perspectives and interests” and all that. It made me wonder how all together those cheering crowds on Palm Sunday really were, how many were reveling in the “messianic light,” how many were going to go home to the 1st century Mediterranean world equivalent of social media and call the Jesus party people stupid and crazy, how many were counting the minutes till they got off crowd-control duty and could get back to the barracks …
It was never going to take less than a long time for “every knee to bend …” at the name of Jesus. It takes a long time for even one knee to bend, come to that, even when it’s our own and we want it to. The “field of contending narratives and perspectives and interests” goes all the way down to the individual – at least in my experience of wanting to be able to do things that I want to want to do but don’t want to do … yet. I think I’ve turned the corner on quitting smoking after 14 years, but so far I’ve had less success with loving my enemies. Or even, on really bad days, the people who live in my house. I still need the Messiah, every day; I doubt that I’m alone in this.
But we are not more fragmented or inconsistent than the 1st century disciples. Our pastor reminded us that the first Palm Sunday probably looked like everything was going “just the way it was supposed to,” in the messianic expectations of those 1st century disciples, who then proceeded to betray and abandon and deny the Jesus they said they loved and served. “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven,” we say, every Sunday, and I believe this and trust it and often feel it, and I am sorry for having so much to be forgiven for. But if I were really sorry enough to stop doing it, or not doing it as the case may be, I’m sure it would make the people who live in my house a lot happier.
But before I had really stopped thinking about this it was time to sing “What Wondrous Love Is This,” so we rose once more to the challenge of singing while walking, and our choir director stopped playing the piano, so just the voices of the choir and the congregation echoed in the sanctuary.
“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity, I’ll sing on …”
It’ll be a long day, that very last day.
1 My source for this is Giorgio Agamben; I’m pretty sure it’s in The Coming Community, but it appears online in Agamben, “The messiah and the sovereign: The problem of law in Walter Benjamin,” in Walter Benjamin: Philosophy: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, Peter Osborne, ed. (London: Routledge, 2005) 482. (on Google books)