Sermon for Palm Sunday
We’ve now entered the most important week in the entire Christian calendar. Holy Week. Next Sunday at this time, the church will be all alleluias and celebration. For people who have observed some Lenten discipline there might be some extra celebration, as you resume your more familiar coffee-drinking, ice cream eating, chocolate-savoring patterns… or maybe mark your return to Facebook.
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But there’s a lot of terrain to cover between now and then, both liturgically and spiritually, and to jump from tonight straight to next Sunday is to miss out on what that tougher landscape might have to teach us.
The way we structure our worship this evening, we’re essentially setting the stage for the week. You’ve already heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, marked by those hope-filled cries of “hosanna”—in Hebrew, “save us”—and now you’ve just heard the story of the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples, followed by his agonized prayer in Gethsemane. As the reading came to its conclusion, Mark gave us a glimpse of the next episode: “Get up,” Jesus says to his tired followers, “let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” At the end of tonight’s liturgy there will be one more reading, which tells of the arrival of Judas and an armed crowd, who will arrest Jesus and haul him away to the high priest. That reading will end with the flight of the disciples into the dark night—“All of them deserted Jesus and fled,” Mark tells us—and from there the week will unfold.
Which is why it is so important we not jump from here to next Sunday. To go from the arrest and flight of the disciples straight to resurrection is to miss the depths of the larger story. Jesus died. He wasn’t going through the motions in some staged play, as if just resting quietly off to the side until the cue came to reappear for the triumphant grand finale. He died.
Oh, you might say, but we know the grand finale; we are a resurrection faith—an Easter people—and we know that death does not have the final word. And we might know that, and we should claim our identity as an Easter people. But not just yet. Christianity is not simply a resurrection faith; it is a death/resurrection faith, and we are a death/resurrection people.
We might know the triumphant grand finale, but the disciples and the others—Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ own mother Mary—they knew only death and loss. From the moment of Jesus’ arrest through to when his dead body was placed in the tomb, they knew only the horror and heaviness of broken hearts, lost hopes, shattered dreams. For all that the gospels tell us that Jesus had spoken to them both of his death and his defeat of death—that he would “be killed, and after three days rise again”—it is abundantly evident that they had no idea of what he was talking about. On that first Good Friday, he was simply dead.
Think on this, too. Whatever Jesus understood about his own future beyond the grave, his prayer in Gethsemane is not simply “not my will, but yours”; it is first “Abba, Father… remove this cup from me.” “He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther [into the garden], he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” These are not the words of an actor in some stage play heading seamlessly to a victorious conclusion. These are the words of a man in agony.
Think, too, on this. According to both Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ dying words are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—words the African-American culture critic Stanley Crouch once called “perhaps the greatest blues line of all time.” Jesus is surely citing the opening sentence of the 22nd Psalm, but that doesn’t mean the words are any less his own. At that moment, these despairing words of abandonment were the only ones he could grasp hold of and utter, for his death was a real death, and the God he knew as “Abba, Father” felt utterly absent.
We cannot—we must not—rush too easily to Easter. During the course of this week, we have two different opportunities to immerse ourselves in the hard story of the Passion. On Wednesday evening you can come to the church anytime between 6:30 and 8:00pm, and join a small group in walking the station of the cross; in actually walking the story through, step by step. On Good Friday you can come at 4pm for a liturgy that incorporates spare music, story, word, and silence to move us into a confrontation with this hard and costly story.
Between those days, a good number of us will gather in the parish hall for the Maundy Thursday story/meal. Because it is a meal, there is always as good deal of life and laughter on that night, yet right in the middle of things we stop and recount and reenact a piece of the story told only by John: “Jesus got up from the table, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” “I give you a new commandment,” he said to them; in Latin a new mandatum or mandate, from which we get the word Maundy. And that new commandment is “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It is a most poignant legacy for Jesus to offer his friends on the eve of his death.
The Maundy Thursday meal ends abruptly, and we move from the dinner tables into the church to prepare it for Good Friday. As the 22nd Psalm is read aloud, we’ll take down the hangings and the banners, remove the candles and other things that usually decorate this space, and then leave the church in silence. What begins as a rather festive meal ends in solemnity, in other words; the kind of solemnity needed for the telling of the Passion story.
Embrace this week as fully as you can, so that there is no easy jump from hosanna to alleluia. Along the way, may you learn and know something new from this story; whether it is something new about the Jesus you seek to follow, or something new about your own self.