"Seeing the False Self" (Mark 11:1-11)Mark Longhurst, March 25, 2018
Part of the Lent series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
“Seeing the False Self”
Rev. Mark Longhurst
Marh 25, 2018
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
I don’t mean to rain on the parade, but I always have an uneasy feeling on Palm Sunday. I enjoy waving palms like the next five year old, but on this Sunday, Palm Sunday, I’m always struck by incongruity. It’s the incongruity between the crowd’s Hosanna shouts and upcoming Friday’s bloody execution and abandonment. If I’m honest, Palm Sunday as a liturgical day feels false.
It feels false to me likely because I identify with the crowds. I know how fickle I am. Jesus knows just what he is doing, and never pretends to be anyone other than who he is. The crowds, and the disciples, however, vacillate dramatically. These same crowds spreading cloaks and branches on the ground, singing Psalms with all their might, are the same crowds who will shout, several days later, “Crucify him!” And we are no different. Their shouts are our shouts, their complicity in an Empire’s collusion to kill an innocent man is, too, our complicity.
I want to love God. I want to love God. I do love God, and on some days, I sing praise from my heart, and I shout Hosanna. Anyone who marched yesterday, or opened the New York Times this morning, witnessed a blast of authentic hope: youth of America functioning as the conscience of our country. And on other days, on other days, I’m less hopeful, it feels overwhelming to choose the way of love, the way of justice.
I, too, become swept up in the moment’s loudest crisis, and I too am swayed by what horror or false hope stringing people along today. In these moments, I am not living from my true Christ identity, my true self. I am not grounded – I am scrolling my data-vulnerable Facebook feed, I’m defending my opinions, I’m seeking to be right. But this defended self, the self we protect and with which we perform, and with which we seek safety, and with which we seek belonging is not or true or ultimate or even very important. You could even say it is false.
There are Christian contemplative teachers, such as the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton, or, Franciscan writer/teacher Richard Rohr, who have used this language of true and false self to talk about our identity in God. I’ve found it enormously helpful. Salvation or enlightenment, they say, is primarily about identity. It’s not a morality game of doing good things and refraining from doing other things; it’s not a worthiness contest about who can please God; it’s about knowing who we are. The true self, they say, is our united or whole self, the self that dwells in God, that rests in Christ; the false self, they say, is everything else.
The false self is our ego identity, whether positive or negative. Whether it is power, security, admiration, or simply the incessant drive to persuade ourselves that we are good enough, the false self builds its identity around what does not last, and what is, in fact, an illusion. I confess a little bit of bashful pride this week when I was nominated for the 40 Under 40 Berkshire Young Leaders award. It’s fun to be recognized, and I’m so proud of the work we’re doing together. But the false self always lies in wait, especially around awards and achievements and positions. And this is just a silly example, but if I were to take that award seriously, and start to believe that I’m somebody important, you can see how I would identify with being celebrated. And if I identify my identity is warped to become something other than God, something other than love, and when this happens I have misplaced or forgotten who I am. There’s nothing wrong with victories and trophies and hosannas, by the way, but they don’t really mean anything at the essential level of life, and they won’t matter in the slightest when we die.
The false self is often our job or career; or, it may be our winning personality; or it may be the way we posture ourselves in life to secure what we think we want; or it may be our opinions, which we defend more vigorously than is warranted; or it may be our taste in food and clothing; or it may be our political party affiliations. And this latter one, by the way, is particularly dangerous right now. You know that when liberals can right off conservatives as misogynist racists and when conservatives can write off liberals as smug, arrogant elites, that we are stuck, we have nowhere to go. That is the identity trap of the false self.
One way to contrast the true and false selves on this Palm Sunday is to consider the the nature of Jerusalem processions. Because Jesus’s procession on Palm Sunday is not the only procession, or the first process, to happen in Jerusalem. I’ve preached about this before, but at Jerusalem’s west gate there is likely another procession under way as pilgrims flock to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. This procession is Pilate’s procession: gold bedecks his horse, drumbeats fill the air, soldiers stream in step as far as the eye can see, they’re carrying spears, some are riding chariots, and the crowd are shouting out praise. This procession, Pilate’s procession, is all false self; it is intoxicating in its pomp and circumstance. It magnifies its might and it beats the war drum that Rome or America is first. This thinking says that anyone who dares think otherwise can get out of the way, or else.
There is another procession that echoes in Mark’s tale of Jesus’s Jerusalem entry. This other procession is not a Roman procession. Rather it’s a procession rooted in Jewish peasant history; it’s the revolutionary procession of Judas Maccabeus and followers after having securing victory over their Seleucid imperial oppressors and taken back the city and region in the 2nd century BCE. And when Judas Maccabeus and his revolutionary followers take back Jerusalem and process, they rededicate the Temple; they “cleanse” it from imperial occupies, all while carrying branches and palms. Branches and palms, you see, are not simply cute. They are revolutionary.
Now, this can be confusing, because Mark is doing something interesting. He’s referencing the revolutionary roots of Jerusalem processions, mocking the imperial pomp of Roman processions, all while offering a unique and loving and still subversive and third way, a Jesus way. There are a fair amount of allusions to the revolutionaries here; these are the verses that function as “wink wink, nod nod” for the inside crowd, the original hearers, who would have picked up on these signals. Mark stops Jesus, for example, near the Mount of Olives. Well, what was to happen at the Mount of Olives? There was cranky and old prophet named Zechariah who had a vision about what would happen on the Mount of Olives: God would launch an offensive against Israel’s enemies. “I will encamp at my temple to guard against marauding forces,” Zechariah says, “The plunder that the Empires took from you, Israel,” Zechariah says, “will be divided and returned, in your midst.” In other words, liberation, freedom, is at hand and reparations, finally, are about ready to be paid, and it’s all going to begin at the Mount of Olives. And by the way, Zechariah says, your king is riding before you on a donkey.
Jesus’s procession is different. It is the antithesis of Pilate’s parade of idalotrous power, and it is also different from the parade of Simon Maccabeus. Mark alludes to these processions, but in alluding to them, overturns them. Jesus rides into Jerusalem vulnerable and undefended, from a peasant village called Nazareth, marching alongside the poor, the formerly blind, the once demon possessed, and women. Jesus is led by the people who do not have a voice or vote yet, and this is absolutely a march for their lives. Jesus will even do nonviolent direct action in the temple, he will “cleanse it.” But Jesus is not Pilate, and Jesus is also not the violent revolutionary pursuing justice by any means necessary. This is not what Jesus is about. This is not what love is about. This is not what the true self is about.
We can’t blame palm wavers for getting caught up in the moment. We can have sympathy with the crowds, then and now, looking for Jesus to liberate or “save” them with a quick fix. One prayer and you’re done, you’re in, soul bound for heaven. We can have sympathy for the many people across the world today tempted towards nationalism, those who think that a “strong man” will somehow save them. The effects are catastrophic, but the desire is human, and the impulse comes from a false sense of identity, from forgetting who you are.
But Palm Sunday still leaves me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach, because when we celebrate on Palm Sunday, most of us are not celebrating the failed king, wounded, nailed on a cross, betrayed by his friends. Most of us are not considering the political cost it will take for these young people to lead the country in going up against the NRA, or the courage it will take for people of conscience to lead our country away from the brink of war. It might get much worse before it gets better. Most of us would prefer to celebrate victorious Christ, the triumphant Christ, the winning Christ, which, ironically, is not the true Christ. As if we could go from Palm Sunday to Easter and have Jesus never be never crushed, as if pretending we are strong makes us invulnerable. (You’ll never find Vladimir Putin on a donkey, that’s for sure.)
The true self lives in union with God and the world. It sees that our deepest reality is not about me, but about oneness, and whatever diminishes that oneness, including our fear of death, is the false self. To quote Buddhist poet and teacher Stephen Levine, our fear of death, comes from “the imagined loss of an imagined individuality.” (Rohr 49) But we’re not used to thinking about God Christ in this way. Christ is not Jesus’s last name; or Christ is not only the historical Jesus, what we can extract from these texts with our rational minds; Christ is not only a loving presence that “lives in my heart;” Christ is, as the doctrine of Incarnation teaches us, the spiritual dimension of reality, or the, unfolding unity of the entire world, in which my deepest self participates. These days, of course, such unity is hard to come by; but our current crisis does not make it less real or true.