A Palm Sunday Tribute to Marcus Borg

During our Palm Sunday service featuring New Orleans jazz, Pastor Brooks concluded a lenten sermon series on Christian thinkers who can help point us toward God. Listen now to this sermon focused on Marcus Borg.

Sermon Scripture—Matthew 21: 1-11

Last Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, the public memorial service for Marcus Borg was held. Borg had died in his Portland-area home on January 21st at the age of 72. After retiring from Oregon State where he taught for 28 years, Borg spent a few years as Canon Theologian at Trinity where his wife was a priest on the staff. Ordination was not a requirement for this position, and his wife told him that the title “canon” was simply a fancy way of saying “big shot.” During my first three months as the pastor at this church, I remember going with a small group of our members to hear Borg speak at Trinity with his longtime collaborator John Dominic Crossan. Afterward, I recall feeling that I needed to read more of Borg’s books. I have since read more of Borg’s books, but the feeling still hasn’t left me. As much as ever, I feel like I need to read more of his writings.

For me, Borg was the greatest writer of our time when it came to presenting a compelling vision of Jesus and progressive Christianity. Borg had been part of the Jesus Seminar that was founded in 1985 and became famous for its search to determine who the historical Jesus was. The seminar would vote on which words and acts of Jesus were likely to have been authentic and which were likely to have been myth. As you might imagine, some controversy ensued. In one case, a group of Christians in Gary, Indiana publicly burned copies of a newspaper that dared to report the seminar’s findings.

While Borg and his colleagues have at times been portrayed as attacking the very tenants of faith, many of those who have read his bestselling books have had the opposite feeling. In fact, some say they wouldn’t be Christians today if it were not for Borg. Borg came out of the Jesus Seminar as an evangelist for the value of biblical scholarship for Christians. He sought to prove that scholarship could enrich and deepen our faith rather than destroy it. As part of this effort, he ultimately authored or co-authored 21 books. His book The Heart of Christianity became a favorite of church book groups, and one of our own book groups read it not long ago.

For me, Borg was especially helpful when it came to thinking about the Bible. There were three critical insights in particular that I got from Borg’s writings. The first was his understanding and appreciation of “myth,” an academic term that does not refer to lies but to the stories people use to convey the deep meanings of life. Borg was able to show that viewing parts of the Bible as myth, rather than historical fact, was not to belittle them as some kind of paltry fiction. Instead, he excelled at talking about how myths could be spiritually true even if they weren’t literally true. He explained that myths are “stories about the way things never were, but always are.” To illustrate this, Borg once related how he will sometimes ask his audiences how many of them listen to “The News from Lake Wobegon” with Garrison Keillor. Often many of them do. He then asks, “Are these true stories?” Immediately, his audience would get the point. Borg explains, “We all know that Keillor is making them up, and yet we hear truth in these stories. We find them not only entertaining, humorous, and often moving, but often recognize ourselves and people we know in them.”

A second insight Borg gave me was how we think of the role of the Bible in our faith. He once made the following analogy: In Buddhism, there is a metaphor that speaks of the teachings of the Buddha as “a finger pointing to the moon.” Just as the finger is not the moon, the teachings of the Buddha are not the ultimate object or goal. What is important is what the teachings point toward. Likewise, Christians sometimes confuse the Bible with what it is pointing toward. As a result, the Bible becomes like a God in itself. In this Lenten series, we have been talking about Christian thinkers who point us toward God, and for me, Borg is the one who tells us that the Bible can be our great resource for pointing us in the right direction, if only we understand it in the right way. Borg was a firm believer that the Bible was foundational for Christianity. It is through the Bible that we get the language and the stories that reveal God to us.

The third insight that Borg gave me was to understand the Bible in its proper context. When I began this sermon series, I knew that I wanted to finish with Borg because I have always loved how he places Palm Sunday in its proper context. In a book with Crossan, he points out how there were two marches into Jerusalem that week, perhaps even on the same day. In one march, Pontius Pilate arrived with his army. They arrived on chariots and warhorses. They arrived to put down any rebellions inspired by Passover, the Jewish celebration of their exodus from Egypt. They arrived proclaiming the might and power of the Roman Empire, an empire that they asserted would bring peace to the world. They arrived proclaiming their emperor as Lord and Savior, as the Son of God. Their march was designed to provoke subservience, fear, and intimidation.

In contrast to Pontius Pilate, Jesus led his own march. Instead of evoking military might, Jesus evoked a weaponless humility. Instead of riding on a warhorse, he rode on a donkey. Whereas the Romans saw the donkey as a beast of burden to be scorned with jokes and derision, the Jews saw the donkey as a symbol of royalty, but not just any royalty. As our scripture indicated earlier, this king brought a peace that promised to end all wars. So it is that Jesus arrived bearing the promise of a different empire, the Empire of God or what we typically translate as the kingdom of God. Instead of being frightened and intimidated, the crowds responded with adulation and celebration. The crowds were the ones who proclaimed Jesus as their king, as their Lord and Savior.

When we consider how Jesus’s Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem was immediately followed by his overturning of the tables in the temple courtyard, it is easy to then see why Borg describes these two public acts as “the tipping point.” They are what provoked the authorities to arrest and crucify Jesus before the week was over. When we understand Palm Sunday in its proper context, our whole understanding of Holy Week changes. It is no longer about Jesus paying the price for our sins. It is about Jesus challenging an empire of injustice and violence. It is about the origins of a faith that seeks to radically transform the world. Borg believed that Christianity had a twofold purpose: to comfort and to challenge. On the one hand, “deep trust in God provides comfort in times of trouble and tragedy.” On the other hand, “loyalty to God, involves confronting and challenging” unjust and violent systems. Borg declared, “That was central to Jesus… [and] Christians are called to participate in his passion for a different kind of world.” Through Biblical scholarship focused on the historical Jesus, Borg ultimately arrived at a place very similar to where liberation theology arrived.

Borg’s journey wasn’t just intellectual. It was also a matter of his personal faith. His last book came out a year ago and was entitled Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. The idea for the book came from a sermon he preached on his 70th birthday at Trinity in Portland. His positive spirit shines in the opening pages. He wrote, “At seventy, I primarily feel gratitude. Each extra day feels like lagniappe, a Cajun French word that means ‘something extra’—like the cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the hot fudge on top of the ice cream.” He asserted that he enjoyed his days more than ever before. He believed life was “too short to spend even an hour feeling preoccupied or grumpy or out of sorts.” He additionally noted that at the age of seventy he felt empowered. He had reached the point in life where he felt it was about time to talk openly and without hesitation regarding his convictions, about what matters most. His book made me want to ask, “Wow, when do I get to be 70?”

I once read somewhere that Palm Sunday is a day that gives us a final boost of encouragement as we embark on the difficult, final days of Jesus’s life. It puts a little jazz into our step as we march into Jerusalem. Perhaps, the secret to a good Palm Sunday is that we all need to be like 70 year olds or maybe 80 and 90 year olds. We can march and celebrate with gratitude. We can also march and celebrate with a sense of conviction, a conviction that the message and ministry of Jesus still matter, a conviction that our lives are richer and more meaningful when we are marching to his tune, a tune that sometimes makes us dance, and a tune that always leads us to love. I know Borg helped me to hear this tune, and I hope he might have helped you as well. Amen.

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