A sermon for Palm Sunday
A note from Jamie Howison: Palm Sunday is one of the few times during the year that we depart significantly from the readings set out in the lectionary cycle. Whereas the lectionary has the church read first the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and then later in the liturgy the entire Passion narrative, we have opted to use this day as a way to basically set the stage for the coming week. This means that at the beginning of the liturgy we read the story of the entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11), followed a bit later by the story of the last supper and the move toward Gethsemane (Matthew 26:14-30). At the very end of the liturgy we closed by reading the story of the betrayal and arrest (Matthew 26:47-50).
t is difficult to imagine a more penetrating study in human psychology than the one that unfolds before us over the course of this coming week. We began with the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, when he is heralded with cries of ‘hosanna,’ or ‘save us!’ It is all about hope and possibility, though Matthew is careful to add that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem wasn’t universally received as a thing to celebrate. “(T)he whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’” Tonight we also read Matthew’s telling of the story of the last supper, a story in which the troubling figure of Judas plays such a significant role. At the end of this evening’s liturgy, the story of the arrest in the garden will be read, and again Judas plays an important role, as he betrays his teacher with a kiss.
- To listen to the sermon, simply click on the arrow
Judas is such a troubling figure, and his motivation is not entirely clear. Matthew suggests that Judas had serious second thoughts after he saw that Jesus was actually condemned to death, which suggests that he himself wasn’t entirely clear as to what he was doing. Luke understands Judas as being possessed by the Satan. John also sees the hand of evil at work in Judas, but also wraps that together with an insatiable desire for money.
Yet when I opened by naming these narratives as a penetrating study in human psychology, I wasn’t referring only to the character of Judas. You see, the story that will unfold over these coming days—in the Stations of the Cross on Wednesday, the Maundy Thursday meal and liturgy, and the Good Friday liturgy of the Passion—will move us from hearing the crowd sing out its brave and hope-filled hosannas to listening to its blood-curdling cry of “crucify him!” And while Matthew notes that the chief priests and scribes had convinced people to call for Jesus’ death, that hardly means we can blame them for what that crowd was prepared to do.
Judas betrays him, Peter denies even knowing him, his supposedly loyal followers run and hide, and those hosannas fold first into calls for crucifixion and then at the cross they become words of mockery and derision.
Set aside for a few minutes the question of what was happening for the disciples, what sense can we make of the crowds? They flocked to him for healing, and they delighted at those debates in which Jesus cornered the Pharisees and exposed the hypocrisy of the institution. News of what he’d done at the temple—clearing out the money-changers and driving out the merchants who always over-charged for sacrificial animals—had traveled quickly, evoking both delight and amazement at every retelling.
Maybe they had thought that here, finally, was a winner worth backing. Something was actually moving in the system, and for the first time in a long time it felt like things could change. Or maybe they just saw him as a wonderfully colourful character, with even more news and gossip-worthy qualities than most of the traveling preachers and would-be revolutionaries. The talk of the town for a week or two, and a good diversion from the pressures of day-to-day life. But the Roman soldiers are still rattling their swords, Pilate is still dictating the terms of peace, the religious authorities are firmly ensconced in their roles and making all kinds of back-room deals. If this peasant rabbi from Galilee keeps going at this rate, it will no longer be just a topic for market-place conversation. Don’t the soldiers seem a little more tense and uptight than usual?
Are we really that pliable? Are we really like that? I mean, how could any citizenry go from celebration and acclamation to derision and condemnation in the course of so short a time? Must be something wrong with them.
And of course, this was precisely the tragic and horrifying conclusion that informed close to 2000 years in the history of the relationship of Christians to Judaism. They are the problem; they killed Christ. For all of the astonishing wisdom and insight of the theologians and spiritual writers of the ancient church, there is an equally astonishing anti-Semitism in many of their writings. The Jews had failed their covenant, and now the covenant is made with a new Israel called the church. In the popular imagination, this came to mean that the Jews are lost, condemned, beyond salvation. It was believed that they had been rejected and given over to evil, and were now in league with Satan. Sub-human. Which means that they were disposable at best, and that persecution and even eradication was thought to be just, or at least justifiable.
Did the church cease to read the bible? Think of Genesis—“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—and Isaiah—with Israel proclaimed as “a light to the nations,” that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Think of Luke—in which Jesus is declared a “light to the gentiles, and a glory to Israel”—or Paul—“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite.”
You see, it was not and is not a case of something being wrong with them. These are all stories about us. Instead of asking how it was that a people could move so quickly from “hosanna” to “crucify him,” maybe we could ask how one of the most educated nations on earth could have engineered the execution of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals, and even mentally handicapped people? And how it was that so many otherwise normal people held jobs in concentration camps, took part in rallies, and sent their children off to join the Hitler Youth movement?
Or how white Christians in the American south took part in the lynching of black Christians? How in Darfur, Rwanda, Uganda, Bosnia, and any number of other places, one group of people has managed to justify carrying out unspeakable acts of brutality against another group? How members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment could somehow get so caught up in a culture of violence that it allowed them to torture and humiliate Somalian citizens? And they were in Somalia ostensibly as peace-keepers.
It isn’t a case of them. It is a matter of us. Don’t hear the words “crucify him” and think, “surely not me Lord.” Hear the words, and remember of what we are capable, and for what we are responsible.
Judas betrayed him, Peter denied even knowing him, his supposedly loyal followers all ran and hid. Or at least almost all of them ran and hid. On this point, the four gospels are all in agreement: the women who had travelled with Jesus and his movement not only didn’t flee, they were very much present even at the crucifixion itself. Maybe they stayed close because as women in that society they had so little status in the first place, they figured they had nothing left to lose. Maybe. But maybe the very fact that Jesus had granted them an unheard of status, treating them with dignity and respect, relating to them in friendship and sharing with them his teachings, prepared them to believe that they needed to be ready to lose everything for the sake of the One who had so transformed their lives through love. He had been so good to them, that in his hour of greatest need they knew they needed to be present, if only to bear witness to his suffering and to weep for and with him.
The mob crying out “crucify him” is us, but so too are these women. Matthew names Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee; women from the country, women from back home, who’d set out on the road with Jesus and his band of followers. They don’t run, and they are also us. Once he’s touched our lives, we can be like those women and not flee. But still, there is a bit of Peter in us, and I’d want to push and say there’s a bit of Judas, too.
I invite you to move into this Holy Week, acknowledging and wrestling with the deep challenge of that truth.