Palm Sunday With Your Friendly Jesus Person

So you want to know about Palm Sunday and why it matters to anyone, and particularly why Unitarian Universalists who are not “Christian-flavored UUs” would care about it.

Tomorrow marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem! And it is a total comedy/tragedy of errors. Of course, if your theology is that God planned everything to work out that way from the beginning, you don’t believe that, but I do. I think Palm Sunday is the numero uno day of the liturgical year when we can all regard with both horror and a sense of sad affection how vast the chasm between our own worldly hopes and expectations and the way God (the Holy) works in the world.

Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing, doing miracles. Mostly, he’s been doing the miracle of making disowned, unloved, untouchable human beings feel like they matter. He has been telling a community of occupied Jews that they’re part of God’s plan for a world of shalom/wholeness/peace/righteousness.

He has gotten really popular, and this is kind of a problem with the Roman authorities. They have put some of the Jewish priests into little positions of power — nothing too high up in Caesar’s administration, you understand –just high enough to keep an eye on their own, collect taxes from them, keep the thumb of control on them for the overlords. You know what I mean? Look around poverty-stricken, frustrated communities today. Look at the minor power brokers who keep the seething to a manageable brew of anger, pain, discontent.

Jesus isn’t one of those. His power is from the soul — from God. It’s unmistakeable. He shines with it. His power changes things inside people, who then feel empowered to change things outside of themselves, right? They gather around this guy in big crowds.

He’s dangerous.

Really dangerous. Because when you’re trying to keep society operating in that clear hierarchal way where the wealth and power are concentrated on the top with a permanently disempowered underclass, a guy like Jesus is a problem for you.

But here’s where the real pathos comes in. Jesus and his close community of followers (we know them as the disciples) are riding into Jerusalem to have their Passover feast there. The symbolism of all these Jews pouring into their holy city to observe the festival of their liberation from slavery makes the Romans a bit itchy, but they’ve handled this before, they have the boots and shields and billy clubs and crucifying nails all ready to go, and they have already well established that they won’t hesitate to use them if the Jews get too uppity. Does this remind you of anything happening anywhere in our world today?

Like William Faulker said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

The disciples are all psyched because they think Jesus is going to do some kind of  – I don’t even know, exactly, but let’s just say they think he’s going to do some kind of “Die Hard” Bruce Willis kind of savior thing.

But Jesus has no such intention. He is going to actually die hard, but not in a Bruce Willis kind of way. What he is going to do later in the week is gather his followers around him and institute a mystical ritual of remembrance by which he will promise to be with them in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine when they are gathered in his spirit. “Do this in memory of me.”

What will happen next is that one of his own people will turn Jesus in to the authorities, and a terrible calamity ensues, or the will of God ensues: it depends on your theology. That is what’s coming.

My own theology is that the events of Palm Sunday illustrate the breaking point between what the soul must do and what the world insists we should do (with a knife at the throat or a whip in hand for added persuasion).  For me, Palm Sunday is the story of how God is with us and within us even when we suffer terrible agonies in the process of choosing integrity of the soul over the brute machinations of the world.  The people waving the palms at Jesus have no idea what kind of internal struggle he is experiencing as he rides past them. The poignancy is almost unbearable.

Jesus is the soul teacher whose lessons are grounded in our political and psychological realties, which is why I follow him  as opposed to gurus whose teachings do not directly address political reality.

Palm Sunday is very, very sad for me. I need to experience this sadness as I consider Jesus’ own awareness of what is going to happen to him as he rides into Jerusalem, as I wonder what it was like to have his thoughts. I believe he knew the agonies that were on the way because he was enlightened about human nature and had painfully acute insight into his own particular context – not because God was whispering a script into his ear the whole time.

Palm Sunday matters a lot to me as a Unitarian Universalist because it speaks to me about the hollowness of trying to do social reform from a place that isn’t grounded in the soul. You know why? Because the powers of the world (what Paul called “powers and principalities”) must be met with more than good organizing and a vision for better days. I find in the Biblical prophets and in the gospel narrative, clear and compelling evidence that a just and equitable society is not just a mushy liberal fantasy but how GOD ACTUALLY WANTS US TO SHAPE REALITY in accordance with some kind of cosmic law. I mean, when I think of how Jesus encouraged us to live, and I look at the environmental crisis we’re in, I think, “Yea, laugh if you want, sophisticated folks, but if the Western world had actually adopted Jesus’ code of conduct (“don’t store up treasures on earth,” etc.) we wouldn’t be in this mess at all.”

And speaking of ears (which we were a paragraph ago), there is an amazing moment coming in the melee of Jesus’ arrest (technically Maundy Thursday, if you’re looking to observe Holy Week) where Peter whips out his sword and slices off the ear of one of the servants of the high priest Caiaphas who has busted up their dinner party. Guess what Jesus does! In the midst of this chaos, he stops and reattaches Malchus’s ear!! This miracle only happens in the gospel of Luke, which is my favorite for lots of reasons (more women stories, for one), and it is one of my favorite gospel moments. On one level, it’s a fantastic Jesus moment of correction: “No, reality isn’t supposed to be this way, so let me fix reality for a moment to show you what it needs to look like.” On a symbolic level, it’s wonderful that he reattaches someone’s ear, the body part responsible for listening and hearing. What do you make of that?  I make of it that we need to be able to “hear” each other (whether we are hearing or deaf people, it’s not literal) rather than lashing out with our swords.

Palm Sunday gives us the triumphal ride into Jerusalem with the rock star messiah Jesus being “hosanna’d” by crowds waving palms (kind of the first century messianic welcome version of holding up your lighter at a concert). It leads us to the quiet, holy mystery of the first communion during the Last Supper (I have always wondered why we don’t call that event the First Communion instead of the Last Supper, actually. I mean, if we call the death day of Jesus “Good Friday,” it would certainly be consistent). We’ll be checking in later in the week to talk about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. At least I hope I will have time to. If I don’t get to Maundy Thursday before Good Friday, at least you know a bit about it. Unitarian Universalists do not traditionally host Maundy Thursday services, although some do. It is the traditional time of year to have Communion for many of our New England congregations. Some of our congregations host a Passover seder and I have attended a Passover/Maundy Thursday combined observance in one of our congregations.

And so I will leave this here. Thanks for your interest and companionship. Would love to hear from you.


Recommended reading:

The story of Malchus John 18:10–11Matthew 26:51Mark 14:47; and Luke 22:51.  Pastor Brad McDowell’s Palm Sunday sermon.  Journalist Sara Miles’ memoir of how randomly deciding to take Communion one day changed her life: Take This Bread.

Posted in Theological Reflection | 4 Comments

Walking Through Holy Week With Your Friendly Jesus Person

If I was the Apostle Paul, I would start this letter with something like, “Dearly Beloved in Christ.” And then I would write some brilliant, heart and soul-searing advice about how to be the Church together. And then I would run from the Romans and wind up getting arrested while preaching the gospel in a pagan center like Ephesus and then go to prison and get beaten and tortured and continue to write staggeringly insightful and loving epistles on, like, my blood-stained garment (I don’t think they gave Paul paper in prison, right? And they didn’t even have pens back then) that I would sneak out the window to a waiting messenger who would then take it to the Jesus people in the city it was intended for, and my words would survive and be translated into many languages and people would read them many hundreds of years later and be very touched by them.

But I am not the Apostle Paul. I am Victoria Weinstein and I am sitting in a study on the top floor of a little house in Lynn, Massachusetts, typing into a keyboard while rolling my right foot around on a frozen water bottle, because I have plantar fascitis. I will not be risking my life by talking about Jesus of Nazareth, because everyone has heard of Jesus of Nazareth already, and a lot of people they know and understand everything that happened to Jesus of Nazareth (P.S. Important Things About God!) and are total asses because of this (there will be cuss words in these next posts — please understand that I am committed to total authenticity here, and I apologize if it offends you), and some people are wondering about what happened with this whole Jesus thing, and some people are sick and tired of the whole story and wish it would go away already, and you, dear reader, you have expressed curiosity about it.

You are wondering what Easter is about for me, and for you, and I have offered to take you on my own Holy Week journey, starting from today, which is no special day but a Wednesday night in Lent.

I want to make it clear to you that I am writing these posts as a friend who is also a minister, who is also a Unitarian Universalist, who is also a Christian. Who is mostly, for the purposes of these posts, a lady who loves Jesus and who has 100% crazy irrational beliefs about what happened during Easter. So let me say from the start that it’s totally okay with me if you part ways with me at any point in this journey but I hope you won’t, because it’s lovely to be together whatever our beliefs or non-beliefs. I have been a Unitarian Universalist all my life, and a woman of Jewish heritage, and a Christian officially since 1999 (when I was baptized), and I am very used to people being freaked out by my beliefs: either offended that I am not Christian enough, or offended that I am Christian at all, or offended that I am a Christian who reads Tarot cards and has witchy powers and practices (I can’t help any of that), or offended that I am a Unitarian Universalist with unpopular opinions who dares voice them.

I like labels when they’re useful, and those of us who want to work as ministers in any legit official capacity need to identify as some flavor of religion, so that’s fine with me. I am a Christian-flavored Unitarian Univeralist, or maybe a Unitarian Universalist-flavored Christian.

Here’s why: Jesus is my personal Lord and savior.


But kind of not!

Let’s break this down, because that’s fun. Now that I’ve shocked you, let me help you up off the floor and ‘splain.

Yes,  ”personal Lord” is taking it too far. I love the majesty of the word LORD, especially in the context of considering creation itself. When I look at mountains, for instance, LORD is the best word I can come up with for what they evoke.  But “personal Lord” is kind of cute. It’s like Jesus is a little pocket version of that LORD-energy of the universe that I mostly think of as God. I kind of like that.

“Savior” is a nice term for someone whose spirit presence, teachings and love guide and guard and sustain me like Mr. Jesus does. I don’t believe my soul needed or needs saving in the conservative Christian sense (and I take Jesus’ own preaching on that subject in his first century apocalyptic Jewish context), but I could honestly say that Jesus “saved” me from dipping my toe into a variety of religious traditions and never getting deeply immersed, challenged or transformed by any of them (and not for lack of desire or trying). Thanks for saving me from wandering around the religious marketplace hungry and thirsty and lonely, Jesus!

Since a whole bunch of the Christian world would totally deny my legitimacy in the faith, I am also fine just identifying as a “Jesus person.” I don’t really like “Jesus follower,” because I so often walk right off the Jesus path and wander into the wood or stop for a really long coffee break to people-watch or go shopping or something and totally ignore Jesus, it’s really not fair to say I’m a follower. I’m a terrible follower. I’m a devotee and lover of Jesus. If you want to read more about that, find the book Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I wrote one of the chapters.

Another reason I’m a Christian-flavored Unitarian Universalist:

I love the Bible and I read it all the time – mostly the Christian scriptures. I think about it all the time. It’s the best book ever put together by the most dysfunctional species on the planet and maybe in the entire cosmos. Can you imagine any other species coming up with this range of evil,  betrayal, stupidity, agony, and transcendence? I love lions and everything, but they just don’t have our variety. The Scripture of the Lion: “We got born, we nursed from our mom, we hunted stuff, we tumbled around, we learned how to hold other animals down with our paws and tear them apart with our teeth, we slept, we woke up, we formed prides, we had some alpha male battles, we were created awesome so we didn’t really evolve into anything much different than we were a million years ago. We had no moral dilemmas. We didn’t like dying but we didn’t fear death.” Done.

The Bible is the family photo album of the Western world and I can’t stop looking through it and going back with a magnifying glass to look some more. To wonder which side of the family I most resemble (it changes as I age). To re-read the scary and disturbing parts because they’re so horribly fascinating. To get high on the glory of the visions of the prophets and the mystics (John of Patmos! Joseph!). To laugh at the jokes (Proverbs! Jeremiah’s snark! Jesus’ snappy retorts!).  But most of all, I read the Bible to stand in solidarity with the ultimately impossible human project of naming the God-thing. God is an experience and an encounter, and we keep trying to define it as a noun. I won’t try to do that myself but I sure do appreciate those who did. Those are the parts I read over and over and over: the parts where human beings directly encounter God and try to explain what that was like. In Jesus, I feel like he had a direct encounter with God that was his whole life, and what happened after he died, and then happened to his community of followers after that, and then that happened to the communities that formed after that, and so on, down to me and my community.

I love all kinds of communities and treasure their sacred stories. I’m not interested in making people Christian at all. I’m REALLY interested in helping groups of people become communities. I don’t care who or what we are or what we believe: communities save. If you want to know my deepest religious conviction, I believe that the thing that gathers us into communities is God. It is holy. It is “deep calls to deep.” I have been having direct, unmediated experiences of God all my life, but it didn’t amount to much of anything until I was called into a life of community. Community is where the God who speaks to us by our lonesome pulls us out of self-absorbed mystical musings and makes of us a people.

This would be a good time to say that I consider Easter the most important and serious time of year to reflect on how God makes of us a people. It’s about Jesus’ individual path, yes, but Jesus didn’t have an individual story — he had a story on behalf of the community, the ecclesia, the koinonia. If you know that I am a scholar of the congregational covenant tradition, that will not surprise you. The Easter narrative that starts on Palm Sunday has its origins in Passover, when God makes the monotheistic nation of Israel a people. So, this is really, really my time to totally give in to my amazement at that miracle, which I really experience as miracle every day in my work.

With all that love for the Bible, I have an appreciation for other sacred scriptures like Nature, and Shakespeare, and poetry and Sondheim. As a Unitarian Universalist, I get to shape worship around multiple sacred scriptures, and if I was a Christian minister who had to preach from the Bible every week and craft the liturgy around it, I think I would miss the other scriptures a lot.

When I’m in a Christian community, I love how easy it is to talk about spiritual matters, because everyone shares a common language. You can pray without prefacing your prayer with a lot of euphemisms (“O, Source Of Life, O Spirit of Community, O My God Are We Ever Going To Get Going On The Actual Prayer”), you can sing Jesus and Christ-y songs and not worry about them being too Jesusy Christ-y. That’s a nice experience, although I have noticed through the years that you can’t really assume that just because you’re all ostensibly Christian, you’re all on the same page about anything theological. We have entered a new age of eclectic spirituality where pretty much everyone you meet outside of the Bible Belt has a variety of religious influences. They’re Methodists who do yoga and go to a medium in Salem to talk to the dead, and they have a little Buddhist meditation altar set up at home. This is why I really love shared spiritual practice best, where you all go and try to do something in common (or read something, or work on something) and then you come together and do theological reflection on that activity. That’s where I experience God-time most: in conversation and listening and sharing the scary work of surviving life and coping with mortality.

So that’s a little bit of background. Now let’s talk about Palm Sunday. Are you ready? Any questions?

Posted in Theological Reflection | 6 Comments

The Transient And the Permanent: Symbols and Logos

The conversation and controversy about the new UUA logo has not quieted yet.  I received a very poignant message today from my dear friend, the Rev. Cynthia L.G. Kane, that has me thinking a lot about the difference between a symbol and a logo. Cyn is a Navy Chaplain and she writes,

I’m writing to you, dear friend & colleague, because you will listen & actually have a gift to perhaps be heard. I’m sick about this logo. It’s not a symbol & as one of the not-invited stakeholders, it’s not * my* symbol.

I spent a good portion of my 3 years at Arlington National Cemetery updating the Veteran’s Affairs “Emblems of Beliefs” with our then symbol. I spent hours pounding pavement, pressing flesh, & presenting our case. (That it only took nearly 3 years & no act of Congress is rather amazing.)

The c. 1985-2005 double ring chalice is the one that all UU veterans have as their headstone’s “emblem of belief”. The stone carvers told me of the challenges (& expenses) it took to get the ring spacing just right in their carving mold. Changing a letter head logo is an easy feat in comparison.

The irony (?), moot (?) point about this tale is no sooner did it get approved than the UUA came out with the IEC (improvised exploding chalice, we military type affectionately call it). [Cynthis is referring to the latest UUA logo. - PB]

Given that IEC has had a short life, I for one will await for the next administration who’ll likely want to put their stamp on our history – and in the meantime take comfort in that which is etched in stone.

I sympathize with my friend’s sense of  loyalty to the sacred nature of the flaming chalice symbol, but there is a difference between a symbol and a logo, which I hope will help her manage this moment with less hurt. First, let me talk about the UU problem with symbols.

I believe that Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable with symbols because we are the spiritual heirs of two Christian heresies (Unitarianism and Universalism) and therefore have an institutional ancestral memory of rejection/exclusion of/from Christianity’s forms and symbols. In this century, UUs are mostly comprised of come-outers from Christian religion, which means that there’s a lot of individual anxiety about symbols to add to our ancestral anxiety about symbols. Tough combo.

Our individual anxieties about symbols as individuals seems to me to be pastoral issue that I think our ministry needs to address more directly. UUs need to learn to deal in a more constructive and productive way with the strong emotions symbols evoke. Our ministry needs to actively encourage and facilitate this process.

While I would encourage us to move to a higher level of maturity in responding to symbols, I am much more sympathetic to the broad discomfort among UUs regarding logos. Logos and symbols are two different entities, but in this latest controversy they are being conflated. A logo is not a symbol: it is a particular iteration of a symbol or set of values that communicates an organization’s identity in one design element. In the Theodore Parker language of the “transient and the permanent,” the logo is the transient. The symbol is the permanent.

I’m glad that so many UUs have a visceral sense of dismay about the very need to “brand” ourselves. That means that our reverence muscle is strong. There is nothing wrong with that. But I will say, as I have said to many religious communities that have had the same visceral reaction against creating a logo and a brand for themselves, “Creating a logo is just a way of waving your hand in public to greet the general public. It in no way has to cheapen or commodify what you do in your actual community. The logo gives people an opportunity to connect with you. It doesn’t represent your community’s capitulation to consumer culture.”

So I would like to say to my friend Cynthia that I think it’s beautiful that our military Unitarian Universalists and any others who would like to, can claim the interlacing circle chalice symbol as an emblem of belief and etch it permanently on their headstones, wear it as jewelry, print it on their skin as a tattoo or use it in their churches on letterhead or orders of worship. I hope that particular iteration of the chalice symbol remains with us for a long time. However, a logo is meant for another purpose: it is a more ephemeral interpretation of a symbol (or design) that communicates an organization’s identity at a certain point in time.  Quite frankly, it should be updated now and then in order to read as fresh and relevant to its era. Whether or not the tulipvaginaphallusbomb logo feels fresh and relevant is a matter of personal opinion. But while I think it is deeply meaningful for the military to remind the UUA (and all of us) that we have preserved a particular interlacing circle chalice design on the tombstones as a religious symbol and emblem of Unitarian Universalist faith, I hope no one will feel that an updated logo is intended to negate or replace that design. We might think of the interlacing circles as the “classical” symbol and the more current logos as the “2014 UUA logo.” Two different things meant for different purposes.

I love that Chris Walton brought his wonderful blog, Philocrites, out of the retirement home for this latest post on the new logo. He talks about the beacon as another indigenous Unitarian Universalist symbol. Great contribution, Chris! Long live Philocrites!


Posted in Integrating Mission and Image, The Church, Unitarian Universalism | 2 Comments