Choosing to Walk the Way of the Cross

Our website is mad at us, so today’s sermon can’t be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.


There is a bumper sticker on my car that pokes fun at those 26.2 marathon stickers.  It reads “0.0, I don’t run.”  That sticker used to be true.  It is still true that I don’t like running, but because of some behind-the-scenes-finagling by my wife, I now run for thirty minutes a few days a week with my friend Tony Smith.  Running is a choice that I have to make.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when my alarm goes off at 5am, I have to choose to get out of bed.  Having an accountability partner helps me make that choice.  I don’t want to let Tony down.  I don’t want him to have to run in the cold all by himself.  So, I choose to get out of bed, get bundled up, and go.  On any given day, it would be so much easier just to stay in bed, but in the long term, choosing to run is the better choice.

Running is good for my physical health, and so, by choosing to engage in the practice of jogging, I am making strides toward a better me.  The same is true for the life of faith as well.  We have to choose to engage in the practices of Christian formation.  We choose to get up on Sunday and come to church.  We choose to open a two-thousand-year-old book and try to understand it.  We choose to take time to pray.  We choose to take part in works of service for the betterment of our neighbor.  The motivation, more often than not, doesn’t come from within, but depends on accountability partners with whom we commit to take part in these practices that will help us grow in our relationship with God.  At any given moment, it might seem easier to skip saying grace or to sleep in on Sunday morning or to not bother with the Bible, but in the long run, choosing an active faith is the better choice.

As we heard in both the Gospel at the Liturgy of the Palms and in the Passion Gospel, during the final week of Jesus’ life, he had several opportunities to choose a different, seemingly easier path.  As the week began, the crowd was whipped up into a frenzy.  With shouts of “hosanna,” they threw down palm branches as a symbol of their honor and respect for Jesus and they proclaimed their hope that he might be the long-awaited King who would come to overthrow their Roman oppressors and restore the throne of David.  In that moment, Jesus had a choice to make.  It would have been easy to pull together a rag-tag army that, alongside his ability to perform miracles and raise the dead, could have easily marched into the heart of the city and thrown Pilate and his soldiers out on their tails.  With one, short sermon, he could have stirred the crowd into an emotional whirlwind and sent an angry mob to ransack the court of the Pharisees, stripping them of their religious power and authority.  At that moment, it might have seemed like using the might of his arm was the easier option, but in the long run, Jesus chose the better course.  It wasn’t that Jesus wasn’t tempted.  Mark tells us that he entered the Temple and took a good long look at all his options, but thankfully, he chose to return to Bethany and retire for the evening.

Our second Gospel lesson for today opens a few days of intense debate with the religious powers-that-be later.  As the final days of Holy Week unfold before our eyes, we see Jesus making almost constant choices to walk toward the cross, toward his death, toward our redemption.  Still basking in the royal parade from a few days earlier, Jesus had a choice to make in the house of Simon the leper.  Kings were anointed at their coronation.  As the crowd grumbled about the woman’s wasteful gift, Jesus could have affirmed his kingship and unleashed the revolution, but instead, he chose to see it as a precursor of his death that would usher in the good news of God’s salvation.

Again and again, Jesus made the choice to walk toward the cross.  On the night before he died, Jesus and his disciples made their way to a garden called Gethsemane.  There, he prayed that he might be able to choose a different path.  “Abba, Father, take this cup from me; yet, not what is my will, but yours.”  As Judas and a crowd of thugs approached and the crowds begin to scatter, Jesus didn’t shy away from what was coming.  Despite his prayer moments earlier, he chose to walk toward the mob and offer himself for arrest.   When the Council couldn’t find two stories that match, Jesus could have chosen to continue to remain silent, but in the end, it was his own confession of “I am,” that sealed his fate.  As Pilate peppered him with questions, Jesus could have chosen any number of ways to get out of the situation he was in, but he chose to remain silent, much to Pilate’s amazement.  Even on the cross, Jesus had a choice.  As the crowds mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe,” Jesus could have come down from the cross and walked away unscathed, but instead he chose to stay there, to suffer, and to die.  There were dozens of opportunities for him to choose an easier path, but again and again, Jesus chose to walk the way of the cross.

As Holy Week begins for us, we too have to choose.  We can leave this place, having heard the Passion Gospel, comfortable that we’ve experienced all we need to in preparation for Easter.  We could, very easily, sit comfortably amidst another busy week and not engage in the work of spiritual disciple and formation.  But that is not what we prayed for today.  Instead, our prayer for this Palm Sunday is that God might grant us grace to walk the way of the cross with Jesus.  Ultimately, it is a choice that each of us will have to make.  Each day, about noon, we will have to decide if we want to give up our lunch hour to hear the story of Jesus’ walk toward the cross.  On Thursday, each of us will have to decide if we want to engage in the uncomfortable practice of foot washing, our annual reminder that Jesus’ commandment to love one another requires us to get up and do something.  Several of you will make the choice to lose a few hours of sleep, keeping watch in the chapel and giving thanks for the choice that Jesus made on our behalf.  This is a week all about making choices for an active, engaged faith.  It may seem like the easier option is to just stay home, but in the long run, as we choose to walk the way of the cross together, we will be blessed to find it none other than the way of life and of peace.  Amen.

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The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ

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Seriously, don’t see this movie

Have you ever wondered why we call the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and death his “passion”?  You haven’t?  Oh, well then, you can probably skip today’s post.  I know I have, and since it has been a while since we’ve had a patented Steve-Pankey-Speaks-From-Ignorance-Etymological-Study, let’s dive in.

Passion comes from the Latin word pati which means “to suffer.”  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the transition to mean “strong emotion or desire” didn’t occur until the late 14th century, but it seems to be the definition of preference some 700 years later.  While it seems clear that originally, the title of Passion was used because of the suffering Jesus endured during those 18 or so hours, I’m intrigued by the double meaning the newer understanding of passion gives us.

The way Mark tells the story, it doesn’t seem as though Jesus has a whole lot of agency in the crucifixion.  Other gospel writers spin the story differently, but in Mark, we hear Jesus praying to Abba that the cup from which he is to drink might be removed from his lips.  There is no sparring with Pilate over who is in control of the situation, like we hear in John.  And at the end, as Jesus cries out, it isn’t a word of completion, “It is finished,” but a cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” that emanates forth.  It would seem for Mark that the passion of our Lord is only about the suffering.

And yet, there are glimpses of Jesus’ deepest desires.  As the unnamed woman anoints him for his death, Jesus praises her for “doing what she can” before his death.  As Judas approaches with a cohort of Roman soldiers, it is Jesus who walks towards them, offering himself freely.  When the Council can’t find two stories that match, it is Jesus’ own confession of I am, “ego emi,” that seals his fate.  Through it all, it seems clear that Jesus could have stopped it from happening, but he chose to see it to the end, so that the world, through him, might be saved.

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” is the key verse to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  It is also key to understanding Mark’s version of the Passion.  In everything that happened that week, Jesus is serving the larger goal of inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  That was his passion, his strongest desire, and that passion led him to the Passion, his suffering for the salvation of the world.

Save us, we pray!

The those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In the Episcopal Church, we use lots of unfamiliar words.  With some education, this is done well when we strike the balance between embracing the mystery of holiness, while helping newcomers find their way through the narthex and into the nave for Holy Eucharist.  During Lent, we forego the use of word alleluia, but our liturgy, especially on The Sunday of the Passion *colon* Palm Sunday is rife with the word with which it is often confused:

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I am often asked why we can’t say alleluia during Lent, but hosanna is ok.  Its context within the Liturgy of the Palms is a helpful teaching tool.  As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, it would be easy to see this scene as nothing but a joyful victory parade, but upon further review, we realize that this is actually the humble entrance of one who has come to offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole world.

Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem riding on a white stallion or in the back of a jewel encrusted chariot.  Rather, he arrived in town atop an unbroken colt.  This animal was not a symbol of power and control, but a humble beast of burden, only borrowed by our Lord as a means of transportation.  The imagery must have been clear to the crowd, for even as they laid down palm branches along the path as a symbol of honor and respect, they cried out not “Alleluia” or “Praise to God.”  The cry of the crowd, as they watched their long-awaited hope ride into town was instead, “Hosanna” or “Save us, we pray.  Sure, maybe they thought salvation would look like a military victory over their Roman occupiers.  Perhaps they hoped that this Passover Feast would be a second opportunity for release from bondage and oppression.  But they didn’t assume that, and give praise to God.  Instead, they simply asked for God’s help and salvation.

We who will remember the events of that day would do well to know the word we will sing in the refrain of “All glory, laud, and honor.”  From this side of Easter, it would be easy to let our sweet hosannas be a cry of victory, but it doesn’t take too long to see that the world is still very much in need of God’s saving love.  Save us, we pray.  Save us from our idolatry.  Save us from our greed.  Save us from our scarcity mindset.  Save us from our selfishness, our oppression of others, and our bondage to sin.  Save us, we pray.  Hosanna!

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

Maybe I’m growing up.  Maybe three summers at Sewanee are taking their toll.  Maybe I’m just getting soft.  Whatever the reason, I found myself advocating for a return to reading the Passion narrative in its properly assigned place in the Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy.  I honestly couldn’t believe my ears were listening to my own voice.  After years, almost a decade of vocal opposition to the conflation of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I was arguing to go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” in a matter of minutes.  Someone should check my temperature.

Of course, this return to 1979 Prayer Book prescribed normalcy (The 1928 BCP has Lent 5 as “Passion Sunday” on which the Passion was not read and the Sunday next before Easter as “Palm Sunday” on which the Triumphal Entry was not read, but the Passion was) won’t be without some added drama.  Prior to the 10am Family Service, we’ll begin 8 blocks from the church at the corner of US-98 and AL-59.

We still may detour around First Baptist. ;-)

We still may detour around First Baptist. 😉

In the good Sarum tradition (Hatchett, 224) we’re going to make a big deal about the Palm part of Palm Sunday, before making a big deal about the Passion part of The Sunday of the Passion, which will most likely have the effect of making the Passion feel that much more strange, which I’m beginning to think is the point of it all.

Holy week makes no sense.  That God would die on a cross as a traitor to Rome, having been handed over by one of his closest disciples, makes no sense.  That through that death on a cross, God would defeat death makes no sense.  That three days later he would be alive again, able to walk through walls yet capable of being touched by his disciples, makes no sense.  Going from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” doesn’t either, and I’m beginning to realize that’s OK.

Part of what makes us human is the desire to follow God.  Part of what makes us human is the desire to follow the devices and desires of our own hearts.  In the course of our daily lives, we go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” and back again more times than many of us would like to admit.  The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday makes that point clear.  We are sinners seeking after a merciful God.  We shout “Crucify him” by our actions while crying out “Lord save me!” with our lips and in our hearts.  As Paul says, we do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we want to do, and yet God is faithful, full of compassion and his never-ending love will never end.  That’s the good news of Palm/Passion Sunday.

2 Ears to Listen and 1 Mouth to Speak

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Me, back when goatees and small glass were cool. OK, they were never actually cool.

It has been pointed out to me, more than once, that I have two ears and only one mouth.  The suggestion being that I should listen twice as much as I talk.  I get around this by having 10 fingers, so I can type five times as much as I listen and ten times as much as I talk.  I like this plan because I’m not a great “off the cuff” speaker, but I’m a fairly decent writer who can orate my thoughts once they get down on paper.  What does any of this have to do with Palm Sunday?  I’m glad you asked.

In the Old Testament lesson appointed for Palm Sunday, Year B, we hear these words from the prophet Isaiah.  “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”  Two ears and one mouth.

Those who profess to speak on behalf of God, whether as prophet, preacher, teacher, or simply disciple, are first and foremost those who listen for God.  So often we set about the work of talking and forget about the call to listen.  God desires a listening heart.  He desires to share his will with the world, but in order to do so, we have to listen to his teaching.  We do that through prayer and the reading of Scripture.

The Bible is the account of God’s interaction with humanity from the beginning.  It is a story about his love for his creation, and about how he hopes to restore the world to his perfect will.  In it, we find advice on how to live in the Kingdom by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6.8); by loving God and neighbor (Mt 22.37-39); by serving the least (Mt 25.40); and by repentance (Acts 2.38).  Through prayer, the listening kind rather than the talking kind, we learn God’s will for us in the specificity of our lives.  We might find him calling us to reach out in ways we had never expected or to talk to those we had never even seen before.  Through listening, we grow in understanding, and in time, we may be called to speak a word.  That word, spoken through one mouth, must always start with two open ears.

His Mercy Endures Forever

The portions of Psalm 118 selected for use at the Liturgy of the Palms are a perfect choice.  The bookend of verse 1 and 29 which are the same phrase, repeated verbatim, make it an ideal Psalm for the Triumphal Entry.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

The second half of that phrase includes one of my favorite words in all of Scripture – hesed – which is translated as mercy, but means something even fuller and richer than that.  This word speaks to the steadfast love of God, a love which is from everlasting and will continue on forever.  It isn’t just that his mercy endures forever, but that his steadfast love, his never-ending compassion endures for ever.  It is a double promise: never ending love that will never end.

It’ll sure look like it has come to an end.  In the course of the liturgy, it’ll take mere minutes before the hesed of God dies on the cross.  In the life and ministry of Jesus, it’ll be just a few days before the people will reject the mystery of God’s steadfast love for the security of the Pax Romana.  Like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, grumbling against God and Moses and wishing for the good old days of slavery in Egypt, the crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover feast will seek out the stability of slavery over the vulnerability of freedom.

How often do we make that same choice?  We choose the comfort of our own selfishness or our own victim-hood narrative or our own self-righteousness over the perceived insecurity of God.  Yet the promise of God is love that lasts forever: a never ending love that will never end.

Hosanna!

As my children get older, the time we spend listening to CDs of children’s music grows shorter and shorter.  I can’t say I’m that sad to see this particular era of their lives go away: listening to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” on repeat can get a little monotonous; but still, like every phase in their young lives, there is some wistfulness for the way things were.  That, and the ever repeating HSK&T has merely been replaced by “Shake it Off” or some other bubblegum pop song.  There is still one CD that gets lots of airtime in Mommy’s Car, the surprising combination of Fisher Price’s Little People and Sunday School Classics.

Featured on this album are such classics as “Arky, Arky,” “Father Abraham”, and Give me Oil in my Lamp (Sing Hosanna), which our Music Minister, JKT, has declared “a perfect Palm Sunday song.”  I’m not sure of that, but this is the “perfect Christian song lyric video.”

Sunday School songs are full of teaching opportunities, and “Give me oil” is no exception.  The word that makes up most of the refrain, a word we will hear repeated during the Liturgy of the Palms this Sunday, Hosanna, is one of the Church words that we use, but I wonder how many people actually know what it means.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines Hosanna as “(Heb. ‘O save now!’ Greek form of the Jewish cry used in the procession of the Feast of the Booths (Ps 118.25-26).  In the New Testament it is associated with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).”  Bibleworks translates it as “Save, we pray!”

Hosanna is a cry of a people totally dependent upon God.  It’s use in the Festival of the Booths serves as a reminder of the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness when food and water came from the hand of God alone.  Hosanna, Save us, we pray, is the cry of a people who realize that it is only by the hand of God that salvation is possible.  It is a peculiar cry for those of us who live in ease in 21st century America; a people who often forget that our gifts aren’t the result of our own hard work, but rather, the effect of God’s saving grace poured out upon us.

Every Palm Sunday we are reminded that Holy Week is the story of God’s saving love for us.  We cry out, “save us,” and God does so, even as moments later we cry out “crucify him.”  The irony is that the cross, a torture device inflicted on God by humans just like us, is ultimately what saves the world.  Hosanna indeed.