I love/hate Palm Sunday

Technical difficulties means this sermon did not get recorded, but you can read it below.


I have a love/hate relationship with The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  The love part of that relationship is relatively new.  There were years, many in fact, when I absolutely abhorred Palm Sunday: so much so, that I convinced my Rector in Foley that we should change things up.  For a few years, we didn’t read the Passion narrative at all on Palm Sunday.  For several more, we read it only after the service was over and we had processed back outside where everything started.  As it is written in the Prayer Book, the service felt too disjointed, bipolar almost, and I couldn’t bring myself to like it.  On top of that, it seemed like it gave people an out.  As if the church was willing to say, “We know that you won’t be here for the rest of Holy Week so here’s the Passion narrative so that at least you can hear it before you show back up on Easter.”  As I went digging for historical data to support my personal liturgical opinions, I came to realize that this was not actually what was happening on The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  What I found is that the reading of the Passion on the Sunday before Easter has been a part of our Common Prayer since the first Prayer Book in 1549.  I was forced, at last, to come to terms with the discomfort that comes with the whiplash of hearing shouts of “hosanna” one minute and “crucify him” the next.  This day, like the week it begins, is all about the extremes.

That first Palm Sunday, scholars will tell us[1], had its own whiplash effect.  On one side of Jerusalem, there was the parade that Matthew recounts in his Gospel.  Jesus came from the East, down the Mount of Olives, riding on the back of a lowly donkey.  The crowd that lined the streets was made up of the poor and the powerless.  They threw down at Jesus’ feet whatever they could find: some laid their cloaks on the ground, while others cut branches from nearby trees.  The palm fronds would have reminded the crowd of the Festival of the Tabernacles, which like the Passover, was a reminder of God saving them from Egypt and sustaining them in the Wilderness on their way to the Land of Promise.  They shouted out “hosanna” which means something like, “God save us!”  They associated Jesus with salvation, and they welcomed him as their king.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Pilate was entering the city riding on the back of a powerful warhorse.  Surrounded by chariots and armies of men, the crowds on the western edge of town praised Caesar as a king and a god, and celebrated the Pax Romana, the peace that came as the result of the mighty power of Rome.  These competing parades and the whiplash they created among the faithful in Jerusalem would mark the beginning of the end for Jesus.  Pilate left his beachside villa this week every year.  He came to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover to make sure nobody got any ideas about recreating the Exodus.  No Messiah figure was going to raise up an army.  No revolution was coming on Pilate’s watch.  And yet, there was already an uprising brewing.  It wouldn’t look like an army and power and might, but one does not parade into Jerusalem during Passover week without raising the ire of the powers-that-be.  So it was that throughout the week, Jesus found himself more and more at odds with the religio-political system such that, by Thursday evening, in the Garden of Gethsemane, it all came to a head.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is this.  Just as you can’t have the resurrection on Easter without the cross on Good Friday, you can’t fully experience the Passion narrative without the rest of Holy Week. We need the story of the Palm Sunday parade.  We need to hear the turning of the tables.  We need to feel the heat being turned up as day after day, Jesus returned to the Temple and challenged, head on, the brokenness of the system.  If Jesus just stumbles his way to the cross, we miss part of what the Passion is all about.  God had sent his Son to call the world back into right relationship, beginning with the Jews.  Through his Son, God invited the humanity he created to give up their idols of power, money, and prestige, and worship God alone.  Through his Son, God invites us to care for our neighbor.  Through his Son, God showed his judgment upon a world that had forgotten his commandments.  The poor were getting poorer as the rich got richer upon their backs, and like the prophets before him, Jesus came to show in his life that God desired something different.

And the like the prophets before him, Jesus died as a result.  The powers-that-be don’t take too kindly to the sort of in-your-face challenges that Jesus brought them during this most holy week.  The parade, the tirade, the teaching, and the growing crowd meant that Jesus had to go, and death on the cross was the best way to make sure something like this never happened again.  Throughout the course of this week, I hope you will take the time to hear the stories, to feel the tension, and to give thanks for the faithfulness of Jesus who, despite knowing what was to come, was willing to continue to take a stand for the will of God: to side with the powerless and the poor; to challenge the authority of Rome; to confront the teaching of the Temple; and to ultimately say, “Father, your will be done.”  This is a week of extremes: of highs and lows; of joys and sorrows, but it only works if we are willing to accept it all.  Walk in the way of his suffering and live in the tension his judgment, so that you can properly prepare to share the joy of his resurrection.  Amen.

[1] See, for example, Borg and Crossan, The Last Week p. 2ff.

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Jesus Christ is Lord – a sermon

UPDATE: the audio is available on the Saint Paul’s Website.

There were some technical difficulties this morning, and I’m still not sure I’ll have audio to post. This week will be full of posts, so rather than wait and inundate my dear readers, I’ll go ahead and post the text of the sermon now, and hopefully update with audio tomorrow.

I’ve always had trouble with Palm Sunday, or as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer actually calls it, “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.” It is such a disjointed day, trying to capture in about an hour of liturgy, two of the major highlights in a week filled with non-stop action. Some of you remember when it wasn’t such a hodge-podge. Back when the 1928 Prayer Book was in use, the day may have been “commonly called Palm Sunday,” but following the long tradition of Cranmer’s 1549 Book, there was nothing Palm-y about it, unless you were the rare soul who spent two-and-a-half-hours attending both Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, and even then, you only heard the Triumphal Entry Gospel lesson. By the 1970s, people had stopped giving up their entire Sunday morning to attend interminably long church services. For most, the Sunday before Easter was like any other, only with a slightly longer Gospel lesson: The Passion was read, a sermon was preached, bread was broken, and everybody went home ready to take a few days off before returning on Wednesday for the Stations of the Cross. Meanwhile, liturgical historians had stumbled across fourth century evidence of ancient parades on the Sunday before Easter, in which people waved Palm Branches and remembered Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Thinking that we should do the cool things people did in the early Church, they added the Liturgy of the Palms to a service that was really about the Passion Gospel, and voila, we’ve got the disjointed mess that is “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.”
In an attempt to ease the messiness, several years ago Keith and I decided to take Holy Week seriously as a whole week. We fudged this service just a bit by pushing the Passion Gospel to the very end, making it the transition moment from our shouts of “Hosanna,” to the week-long struggle that will end with shouts of “crucify him!” No matter how much fudging we do, however, the liturgy for Palm Sunday is still, in my opinion, a disjointed mess. Like Jesus riding two donkeys at the same time in Matthew’s Palm Sunday account, we attempt to straddle the majesty of the King of kings parading into Jerusalem and the “so-called” King of the Jews being whipped, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross. As I once again struggled with this awkward balancing act, I went back the lectionary and found myself drawn to the Philippians lesson for two compelling reasons. First, it reminded me of the hymn, “He is Lord,” which we sang every Sunday after communion in the somewhat charismatic parish of my youth. I can still see Father Bill standing behind the altar, arms raised high in the air as we sang, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Second, and more importantly, this beautiful mid-first century hymn about Jesus the Christ can help us embrace today’s weird mix of joy and sorrow.
We hear this lesson from Philippians 2 fresh off the high of rustling palm branches and “all glory, laud, and honor.” Jesus is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In other Gospel accounts, he’s named the King of Israel. On Palm Sunday, Jesus had everything he needed to take over the Temple, overthrow the Chief Priests and mount a battle against the Romans. He was at the height of his power and authority, but he knew that military might was not his calling.
“Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” Despite his followers’ claims, the Pharisees’ fears, and Bible sub-headings to the contrary, Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is really anything but. Imagine the scene as Jesus clumsily rides into town on a too small, still nursing female donkey with her foal in tow while a mish-mash of country-folk shout out “hosannas” as they throw their dusty coats and some broken down palm branches on the ground. This parade has nothing on the one happening across town as Pilate enters on his warhorse, surrounded by chariots and pomp. Especially during Passover Season, the Roman’s exploited their power through taxation, coercion, and military might. On the contrary, Jesus “emptied himself,” giving up all worldly authority he could rightfully claim in order to fulfill his destiny.
“… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Here’s our moment of transition into Holy Week. In a world where humility is seen as a sign of weakness, even here in what seems to be his most glorious moment, Jesus submits himself to God’s plan for salvation, preparing himself for the ultimate act of humiliation on Good Friday. Jesus won’t just die, he’ll be spit upon, dressed in purple robes and openly mocked; he’ll be scourged, whipped, and beaten; he’ll be dragged through town with a heavy wooden beam across his shoulders, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, and raised high up in the air for the whole world to see. His death is one of the cruelest and most degrading in the history of public executions, but it is there, in the depths of his humiliation, not at the height of his triumphal entry, that God lifts Jesus up to his rightful place of honor and glory.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Deep within one of the oldest hymns of the Church, we find the most ancient creed that Christians have, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not Lord as the Romans used it, as in master and slave, but Lord, as in God. Jesus Christ is God. In his crucifixion, Jesus proves his obedience to the will of the Father and is granted the very name of God, YHWH, which a devout Jew like Paul would never utter, choosing instead to call him Lord. Jesus Christ, who alone is both fully God and fully human, through torture, humiliation, and death is raised up to the very throne of God so that we too might one day gain our inheritance as beloved children.
As we embark on this week, this Holy Week, it is helpful for us to remember that Jesus’ place as King of kings and Lord of lords didn’t come in some fancy parade, but through a most gruesome one. As the days go by this week, as the controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leadership becomes more and more intense, I encourage you to ponder Jesus’ unwavering devotion to his Father’s will. In a world that is not that unlike first century Jerusalem, where humility is eschewed for power and authority, I hope you’ll recall Christ’s example of self-emptying love. Whether you are here with us at every service this week, or reading along through the morning emails, my prayer is that you will take a few moments each day to consider Jesus’ mighty acts of humility, and on bended knee, confess and give thanks that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The whole city was in turmoil

More literally, the entire city quaked as Jesus entered.  Given my proclivity to believe (with some reservations) the Palm Sunday narrative of John Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book, The Last Week – that there were dueling parades between Pilate and Jesus happening on Palm Sunday – I’m reading this line with great interest this week.

Matthew is clear that the turmoil isn’t about Roman oppression or the fact that Passover is coming, but rather it is because of Jesus.  Jesus enters town on a donkey and the whole city trembles.  Matthew only uses this word three times in his Gospel, all within the last week of Jesus’ life.  In fact, he is the only Gospel writer to use this word.

  • Matthew 21:10 – our lesson for this Sunday – “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?'”
  • Matthew 27:51 – just as Jesus gives up his spirit – “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
  • Matthew 28:4 – when the guards see the angel at the moment of Christ’s resurrection – “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

Clearly, Matthew saves this term for only the most holy of moments.  This quaking, shaking, turmoil is sign and symbol of the supernatural work that God is up to in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It is unsettling, this Jesus stuff.  It causes people to be in turmoil, even the ground the shake, because it changes the fundamental relationship between God and humanity.  God is invested in us.  In the person of Jesus Christ, he has made himself fully aware of the plight of humanity, and redeems it.  He removes us from our bondage to sin and death, he shakes the foundations of our lives, and calls us to new life, resurrected life, in him.  If that doesn’t put you into turmoil, I don’t know what will.

 

Contemplation

Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality: through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(The Collect for The Liturgy of the Palms, BCP p. 270)

Proof I was once a contemplative (c. 1996) Photo Credit - Kim Logan

Proof I was once a contemplative (c. 1996) Photo Credit – Kim Logan

I Googled the word “contemplation” this morning and found an unexpected definition.  “Contemplation, noun, the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time.”  I’ve always associated contemplation with the mind rather than the eyes, assuming that contemplation was simply a fancy way of saying deep thought or even meditation.  As I contemplated this definition (I literally stared at it), I began to realize that this word choice for the Collect for the Liturgy of the Palms was very profound.  I can’t find proof that it was done with any real intent, but Hatchett does point out that when this prayer moved from the Wednesday before Easter in the 1928 BCP to the Liturgy of the Palms in 1979, the word was changed from “meditation” to “contemplation.”  I like the change.

Holy Week is meant to be experienced rather than pondered, meditated on, or theologized about.  The Special Liturgies for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are each filled with visual images that can and should be contemplated.  The waving of the palm branches recalls for us the stark contrast between the military might of Pax Romana and the humble donkey that Jesus awkwardly rode into town.  The washing of feet reminds of the suffering servanthood of Christ.  The adoration of the cross on Good Friday invites us to contemplate on how God took a symbol of torture and shame and redeemed it into the sign of our salvation.

I hope you will take time for real contemplation in the coming days by being a part of a faith community that is walking the way of the cross with sacrament, sign, and symbol this Holy Week, for it truly is the way of life and peace.

The Problem with Biblical Literalism

Every three years, preachers get the chance to chuckle at poor Matthew’s interpretation of the prophet Zechariah.  We laugh because we’ve all been there before.  In attempting to interpret and understand texts written by people who lived long ago in vastly different cultures and contexts than our own, we are bound to make mistakes every once in a while.  Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday is our cautionary tale.

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me…’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

Tradition tells us that Matthew was a tax collector.  Hebrew by birth, his education and working environment were distinctly Roman and his preferred language was probably Greek.  Whether or not you actually believe that Matthew the Apostle was also Matthew the Evangelist, the attribution of Matthew to this Gospel tells us somethings about the community in which it was used.  It was most likely a Greek speaking, Gentile church.  Their understanding of the Hebrew scriptures would have been limited and certainly come from the Septuagint.  Like many Christians today, they would have had little ability to understand the nuances of Hebrew prophetic poetry.

So when “Matthew” took Mark’s version of Palm Sunday and tried to spell out for his community why these details were important, he misunderstood Zechariah’s parallelism and read the prophecy literally, which meant that in order to fulfill this prophecy, Jesus had to enter Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal.

A rare photograph, taken by Matthew, of Jesus’ triumphal entry

In order for an evangelist to make sense of the Biblical narrative for his/her hearer, it is imperative that (s)he work hard to understand the original context.  It opens the text and allows it to come alive for modern hearers.  By seeing how our particular context differs from that of the original biblical story, we can begin to see how these stories can continue to speak to our lives even thousands of years later.  Of course, it takes time and energy to do that research, and preachers tend to have very little of both by the time Lent 5 rolls around.  I’m praying for my preaching readers especially this week, that they might have the time to look deep into the text and make the story of Jesus alive for their congregations this week.

*This post isn’t possible without the work of Carl Gregg on Patheos.