Text: Luke 22:14-23:59
Weddings. Funerals. Marital counseling. Protests. Engaging in civil disobedience. Congregational meetings. My profession offers me almost daily a wide-range of experiences to live in the tension that life presents. Take for instance the day the groom dashed out of the church 20 minutes before the wedding was to start, telling no one where he was going. Thirty minutes later, 10 minutes after the wedding was to start, he returned breathless. I asked, “Are you okay man?” “Oh yes,” he replied. “I forgot the rings and had to go back to the apartment to get them.” That, my friends, is living in the tension.
Or take the time when an only child faced with burying his father struggled to decide whether to have his father cremated or not. The father had not made his wishes known and, being an only child, the son really didn’t have anyone to consult. After struggling with what to do, the decision was made for cremation. The funeral director brought in all the necessary paperwork and everything was signed. Decision made. Cremation would proceed. Very early the next morning I received a frantic phone call. The son had been up all night and had decided that his father probably would have preferred to be buried rather than cremated. The next 15 minutes were some of the most tense-filled moments of my life as I frantically tried to get the funeral director on the phone. By the sheer grace of God, there was time to reverse the decision. Living in the tension.
There are many more examples I could give…like the night I got called to the jail because junior and his buddies decided to go joy riding on the local golf course. Mom and dad were sitting at the jail wondering if maybe junior should spend the night in jail. That night, sitting between parents ready to exercise some tough love and a 16 year old crying crocodile tears, there was a lot of living in the tension.
But one of the most memorable moments of living in the tension came in this sanctuary one Sunday morning during worship. I’m sure some of you will remember the moment. Mahan, the then pastor, was about five minutes into his sermon when all of the sudden a man sitting near the back of the sanctuary stood up and began yelling obscenities. You could feel everyone in this sanctuary holding their breath as Mahan, from the pulpit, tried to talk to the man and calm him down. As Mahan tried to reason with the man, he only grew louder. It was the first time, and maybe the only time, I had ever witnessed Mahan not being able to “get control” of a situation. After a few moments, Janice Siler (Mahan’s wife), walked over and sat down beside the gentleman, gently placed her hand on his arm, and he immediately calmed down. But for those several minutes the tension in this place was palpable.
We are living in a time when daily tensions in our nation are just as palpable as that day was for our small community. As political tensions break out in violent protests almost weekly, you can feel our nation holding its collective breath. Racial tension in our country has never been greater in my lifetime. The voices that are perpetuating anti-immigration and Islamophobia are only increasing this racial tension that threatens our country with more violence and unrest. But it’s not just racial tension. The tension is tangible on the faces and heard in the voices of people living in Flint, Michigan, whose families have been poisoned by the drinking water there when officials knew all along of the dangers. And the collective tension that is felt as we approach electing our next president is profound. But it’s not just tension “out there.” We are living with our own tension as a church community that is sometimes just as palpable. Tensions that are raised when we struggle to be tolerant and respectful of one another when we disagree. Tensions that are keenly felt in our diversity and generational differences. Tension that makes us uncomfortable when we encounter our differences in our ideas and practices of how we minister to the stranger. Yes, if America is living in the tension, so then are we Pullenites, blessed and cursed as we are by living in such interesting times.
There is tension, too, in the Palm Sunday story. There are two narratives we can follow on this Sunday as we anticipate Easter. We can enter the Christian narrative by way of waving palm branches with shouts of hosanna or we can engage in the passion liturgy with the looming cries of crucify, crucify, and while these are parts of the same story, there is tension. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey there is political tension. As he sits with his disciples around the table to have his last meal with them, there is personal tension. Indeed, regardless of which narrative we choose, the narrative that carries us into Holy Week is a story of living in the tension. So first of all, let’s simply name that then and now are times of living in the tension—both political and personal.
We cannot and must not ignore that for Jesus, on that first Palm Sunday, the mood was intense and full of conflict. As Marcus Borg has reminded us, there were two Palm Sunday processions happening—one coming from the east and one from the west. The parade coming from the east side of town was a motley crew of characters riding on makeshift floats. The other one, coming from the west, was a military procession demonstrating both Roman power and imperial theology. One represented a kingdom of justice and humility; the other represented a kingdom of dominance and power. Both parades were making a political statement in the midst of tremendous growing tension between Jesus and the establishment. Given our current political realities, this kind of tension feels very real and very close.
The other story we encounter this day, the one Karla read, is the passion liturgy. And it is this liturgy that recounts in more detailed and personal tones what it is like live in the tension that life often presents. The tension between betrayal and being true to one’s self. The tension of following one’s heart or the expectations of others. The tension between going with the crowd or doing what we know is right, even – and especially – when it makes us unpopular with others. The tension in how our choices affect others. The tension that grips us and makes our stomach turn upside down when we must decide whether to hold on or let go.
The passion narrative is rich in character and plot with moments of great tension. There is Jesus and his disciples sitting around the table sharing the Passover meal. As he offered to them the cup and bread he talked about the suffering he would endure in the days to come. It was during this meal that the first tension arose. Luke calls it a dispute. The disciples began arguing among themselves as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. Jesus’ response to their argument only increased the tension already felt. To their arguing, he said, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Those words create tension for all of us.
The second tension surfaced as Peter professed his undying loyalty to Jesus. In fact the exact quote from Peter is “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” To which Jesus responded, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” Lest we be too hard on Peter, let’s be honest, it happens to us, too. Sometimes living in the tension causes us to withdraw to places of safety and denial. It’s not to be judged. It just is.
The next moment of tension occurs when Jesus goes off to pray, which Luke tells us was his custom. He prays to God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” I want to come back to this in a moment and I will, for I think it teaches us something crucial about how we live in the tension. But at this point I just want to name that with each verse from here on you can feel the tension building. The disciples fall asleep while Jesus is praying. The crowd becomes more violent with unrest breaking out. A slave of the high priest has his ear was cut off. Peter goes on to deny knowing Jesus three times. The unrest intensifies, the tension mounts, and the crowd begins mocking Jesus and beating him. After being handed back and forth from Pilate to Herod back to Pilate and with the cheers to crucify him growing louder and louder, Luke says, “Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted.” And we know the rest of the story.
As I read this story this week, the question or wondering that tugged at me was how Jesus lived in such tension and remained true to himself. As I made my way through this narrative, I was struck over and over how the tension kept building and building with each turn of the story. It felt familiar. On the political side, I admit to being a news junkie. The first thing I do in the morning, and often the last thing I do at night, is consult the news. And more than ever, for the past few months, the news reads like a soap opera heading for a Friday afternoon cliff-hanger. The tension just keeps building. Who is in? Who is out? Where was the latest shooting? The most recent protest? Who said what? How did she respond? What will happen next? What, in God’s name, will happen in November? We are living, I feel, in a moment of American history when we can easily relate to the political tension rising.
And what of the rising personal tension? I fear many of us are far too familiar with this side of the tension as well. When a relationship is faltering, and each action, however innocent or isolated, becomes a bead in the broken strand of expectations and hope. When a friend is spiraling into self-destruction, and we can only watch as they up the ante day after day, and week after week. When we can sense on the back of our necks that our job is not secure, and we watch as the dominoes fall that mean they fire you, or they will orchestrate your choice to leave. We live in these personal tensions—they are real.
But I want to come back to the prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden. He prays, “If you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” What might this prayer teach us about living in the tension of these days—tension that is palpable? I believe that within this prayer, Jesus gives us what is perhaps the most difficult yet most important piece of practical life advice we could ever hope for. My shorthand for this advice is “both/and.” So often as we experience tension we fret and we fret over what to do, or as the serenity prayer puts it, what we can change and what we can’t. And we think of those things – what we can change and what we can’t – as mutually exclusive, as we think of our engagement – changing or accepting – as mutually exclusive. But that is not what Jesus says in this prayer. Jesus asks for what he deeply desires – deliverance – AND he accepts the outcome. I will go a step further and say that in asking, Jesus acts. Acting and accepting are not opposites, nor are they excuses for doing only one or the other. I believe this prayer that Jesus prayed in the most vulnerable and tension-filled moment of his life teaches us that we must act, AND we must accept simultaneously. Never has it been easier to say something that is so difficult to do. But that is the path Jesus leads us to. I cannot control the November election. But I can no sooner do nothing about it. My choice is to do everything I can to influence the election AND to begin right now telling myself the critical narrative that regardless of what happens, God’s kingdom is here now, and God’s love is always available. I cannot control the lives of those I love, but my conscience knows that I must do what I can. I can support them. I can be present to them. I can fight with them when necessary. AND I can trust that they are held in God’s embrace just as am I. This is what it means to live in the tensions of our daily lives. And so we move into this Holy Week knowing that we are to act, and we are to accept–that there are places to hold on and places to let go—for that may be the only way to live into the tension of these present days.