Palm Sunday 2011
Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio
German theologian Johann Baptist Metz argues that as Christians living in a post-Holocaust world, we can no longer worship with our backs to Auschwitz. Rather, he admonishes us to walk with Jesus in solidarity with those who have been victims in his name.[i]
At baptism, as we are raised to a new life in Christ Jesus, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” (BCP, 305) Thus, as we commemorate Palm Sunday and Holy Week, let us remember the last days of Jesus’ life on earth with our faces towards Auschwitz, the Sudan, Rwanda, The Congo, Armenia, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, El Salvador, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, our own country, and elsewhere with those who suffer and die from religious and ethnic hatred. Let us approach the gates of Jerusalem, the Temple, the Upper Room, the garden of Gethsemane, the court of Caiaphas, the palace of Pilate, the cross of Golgotha, and even the empty tomb, reading this sacred story against the grain of Christian triumphalism.
“Against the grain” is a phrase that means to go against one’s natural inclination or tendency. A person who does things in an unconventional manner, the opposite of what is usually done, especially if their methods are not generally approved of, is said to “go against the grain.” Going against the grain often means thinking or acting outside the box, and thereby altering the established pattern.
We often associate this phrase with planing against the grain of wood, thus running the risk of shredding it. However, sometimes we need to go against the grain. When you carve a brisket or a corned beef, you cut against the grain so that it does not tear. When you want an interesting pattern in a garment, you sometimes cut on a bias against the grain or the thread of the fabric.
Sometimes, standing up for what is right and good and just requires one to go against the grain. If Rosa Parks hadn’t gone against the grain, Black Americans might still be relegated to the back of the bus. If Susan B. Anthony hadn’t gone against the grain, women might still not have the right to vote. If Rachel Carson hadn’t gone against the grain, the environmental movement might not have begun. If Martin Luther hadn’t gone against the grain, the Reformation might not have happened. If William Tyndale hadn’t gone against the grain, we all might still be reading the Bible in Latin. If Galileo hadn’t gone against the grain, we still might believe that the world is flat. If Jesus hadn’t gone against the grain, we wouldn’t be here today. To go against the grain invites us to consider new paradigms for interpreting our past, understanding our present, and possibly saving our future.
To read against the grain challenges us not to accept a story on its face value, but to stand back from it and analyze it critically, possibly even adopting a position that is not automatically on the narrator’s side. To read against the grain compels us to look and listen to for the voices, experiences, and histories that have been omitted or suppressed, and to search for the gaps in the story rather than what is simply present in the text. To read against the grain calls us to question the norms and values that have informed the story and are presented as authoritative. To read against the grain insists that we acknowledge the bias, persuasion, and possibly even well-intended manipulation, within the narrative so that the author’s or editor’s values and ideologies are exposed.
Reading Holy Scripture against the grain invites us to hear the full voice and perspective of Abraham’s first son Ishmael and Hagar his mother; to interpret the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from the perspective of violence against the stranger rather than the condemnation of homosexuality; and to raise Mary Magdalene to her full stature and place as apostle, the one who first met the Risen Christ on Easter morning and believed.
Reading against the grain calls us to remain faithful to the hope and promise of the Gospel while confronting the evil done in its name. Beginning with Palm Sunday, continuing through Holy Week, our scripture and liturgy traditionally have been filled with metaphors and images that suggest a Christian triumphalism and an anti-Jewish attitude that fueled the Crusades, Genocides and Holocausts of the past, and continue to feed hatred, contempt and misunderstanding of non-Christians today. This is not the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to promote.
So how do we hold fast to the faith that gives us life, and at the same time remain faithful to those who have died perhaps because of its abuse? How do we honor the faith traditions of our neighbors and still claim truth to our own Christian faith? I think the answer lies in how we tell, hear and interpret the story. On this Palm Sunday, I once again invite you to read against the grain as you listen to the story of Jesus’ last days on earth.
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