Palm Sunday: Sunday of the Passion April 5, 2009

On this Sunday the Gospel story speaks for its self.  In many ways there is little I can add. However it is my privilege to try.  Today is a fractal sermon. You likely know that a fractal is a geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole, a property called self-similarity.  That is what I’m after, a fractal of the Gospel.

And I went looking for my fractal and I found it. It is Mark 14:51-52. And it goes like this, “All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”

Why on earth do I choose such an obscure and frankly odd passage on this day of Passion and Crucifixion? This is a fractal, a reduced-size copy of the whole. What do we have here?

Let us examine this fractal of the Good News and see what is here and why I think it is a whole piece of gospel.

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide.  “One more person we didn’t even know was there deserts. A certain young man was following him – “following” is a discipleship word – wearing nothing but a linen cloth. The guards catch hold of him, but he leaves the linen cloth and runs off naked. They had grabbed the cloth, but it wasn’t regular clothes, so he just ran out of it and into the night.

Some would say that this is Mark’s Gospel so it is John Mark himself.

In the ancient world a linen cloth might be used as a summer nightgown, a shroud for the dead, or a garment for those newly baptized in Christ. The linen cloth of the young man in 14:51 might allude to any or all of the three. He enters the story at night, when a nightgown might be worn – usually, of course, in one’s house. The Greek word for linen cloth, literally just linen, sindon, occurs in Mark only here at 14:51 (twice) and at 15:46 (twice) where it refers to the linen cloth brought by Joseph of Arimathea and wrapped around Jesus’ body before laying him in a tomb. The term “young man” (neaniskos) also occurs in only two places in Mark: here at 14:51 and at 16:5, where a young man (dressed in a white robe, not a linen cloth) tells the women that Jesus is not in the tomb but has been raised. Desertion as a disciple, death, resurrection. The mysterious young man who runs away naked seems symbolically connected to all three.

Linen cloth:

1.    Pajamas – light weight summer sleeping wear.

2.    Burial shroud – Joseph of Arimathea

3.    Baptismal robes – those baptized unclothed come up out of the water and were robed in white linen. We are baptized into the death of Jesus and into his resurrection

These three images are linked, I think. In the economy of Mark’s Gospel details are purposeful.

Young Man: the word appears twice in Mark.

1.    Our young deserter

2.    The young man (dressed in white robe) who tells the women that Jesus is not in the tomb but has been raised.

Our young linen clad man was a follower – a disciple word.  Follow me says Jesus.   Don’t just believe follow, not just words but deeds, not just posture but movement. Put your money, your very life where your words are.

We mean well. But we often cannot do the thing we will and even if we can do it can we sustain it? No, not very often, we mostly start and desert only to start again.

This young deserter is only the least known of a group who deserts Jesus in his time of Passion and death. The disciples who have more invested than our young streaker also desert, chief among the deserters is Peter, the Dean of Apostles.  Jesus had told him that this would happen. “No” said Peter, “Even if all leave I will never abandon you.” Before the Rooster crows twice you will deny me three times,” says Jesus.  And of course not long after the young man ran toward home, Peter warms himself by the fire in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and is confronted by a maid, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” Peter denied it, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” The rooster crowed. The maid continued, saying to the bystanders, “this man is one of them.” Peter denied it.  Again after a little time the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are an Galilean.” Peter began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” Just then the Rooster crowed a second time and Peter remembered. Peter remembered and broke down and cried. I don’t think this was a few tears, this is a man who has lost it, crying in the way that men hate to cry. He lost it. Why, because he has failed in the most important thing in his life.

Now Peter has failed. Now what? Jesus said this would happen. But let us remember what else Jesus had said to Peter that day when Peter said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. On that day Jesus had said that on that declaration and on Peter he would build his church.

Now that Peter has failed all he can hope for is that Jesus will be as right about that as he is about the rooster.

Now we are down to it.   We are at the fractal of the gospel, the very kernel, the very core of it all. What is that?

What you cannot will into being you can surrender into being.

This is the mystery of the cross.  Jesus by obedience, by surrender to death on the tree accomplishes what cannot ever be achieved by force.  This is the truth, beloved.

How do I know this to be true?  It’s like the Baptist preacher who sarcastically said to the Episcopal priest, “Do you mean to tell me you believe in infant baptism?” The priest replied, “I don’t believe it, I’ve seen it!”

Where have I seen it?  I’ve seen it among other places Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings.  No one gets into recovery by will power.  Holding your mouth just so and wishing real hard may save Tinker Belle but it doesn’t make for health.  People tried will power forever and all it generally produces is more shame and frustration.  But what is the first of the twelve steps of recovery?  Well, the first is, “ We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—(insert life) that our lives had become unmanageable.” followed by the second and third, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. And made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Last week I drove to Lexington Kentucky to visit family.  As I drove along I thought about this service and this sermon.  The Bluegrass Parkway is the route between Elizabethtown and Lexington triggered my memory of a day over thirty years ago that I drove on that same road on a winter’s day. The road was covered in ice and suddenly the car began to revolve 360 degrees. As the landscape of the bluegrass passed me I did a very strange thing.  I took my hands off the steering wheel and didn’t hit the brake with my foot. And the most amazing thing happened: the car righted itself.   If I had steered or braked I would have been in the ditch in the deserted countryside.

The life of the disciple is like driving a car on ice: almost everything that comes naturally is not the thing to do.  We have to learn to follow Jesus and much of it is counter-intuitive.  What we cannot force into being we can allow to happen.  We live in a laboratory of faith.  We are baptized into the death of Jesus and into his resurrection. This week we will live again the themes of Desertion as a disciple, death, Resurrection. This is our story.  What we cannot make happen we can allow to happen.


‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come out right.

“Simple Gifts” was written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. These are the lyrics to his one-verse song: