Strengthened to Reach Forth our Hands in Love, Palm Sunday (A) – April 9, 2017

[RCL] The Liturgy of the Palms

  • Matthew 21:1-11
  • Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
  • Psalm 31:9-16

Today we take part in the Gospel story more than on other Sundays. While, there never is an audience in a worship service, that distinction is made clear on Palm Sunday. It may seem that there is no distinction between a congregation and an audience, but there is a vast difference. An audience gathers to watch a performance. A congregation is a group gathered for worship. Some of us have roles as readers, acolytes and even as preacher, but all of us are active participants.

On Palm Sunday, churches raise the congregations’ participation level. We begin this service reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We proclaim “Hosanna in the highest.” Then we take up palm branches and sing and process our way into church. The congregation plays the role of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. That was the easy part. But Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday, for on this day we recount the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. And the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem also took part in the betrayal, which followed that Friday.

Each week the congregation takes part in the worship. This happens in your hearts, and also in the words of the liturgy. Easy words usually. Words like, “Our Father who art in heaven” and “Thanks be to God.” Today, the liturgy puts some very different words in your mouth:

“Let him be crucified.”

“Let him be crucified.”

And the most daunting of all, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

Harsh words. Painful words. Words that seem to tempt God to take us seriously in a way we don’t want God to act.

On that Friday we now call Good, Jesus’ betrayal was complete. He had been deserted by his disciples and rejected by the Jewish leadership, as well as the crowd that had welcomed him so enthusiastically with palm branches and cloaks spread on the road. Mocked, beaten and finally crucified by the Roman officials, the man we call the King of Peace was put to death as a threat to the peace of Jerusalem. In starkest contrast to his welcome into the city gates, Jesus was taken outside of the city to be killed. Like all criminals, they did not want his death to desecrate the city. Jesus’ cross stood by the road leading into town as a warning to any other trouble makers not to follow in his footsteps.

Darkness covered the whole land from noon to three. Then Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In his humanity, Jesus’ betrayal was complete. In these words from the cross, we see how far the love of God extends. God the son loved us so much, that he would not give up on that love even when the cost was death on a cross. At Easter, the love of God is confirmed further, but on this day, we wait in an in between time in our readings, after his death and before the Good News that would follow.

Yet, our worship continues. It is traditional that there is no public confession of sins on Palm Sunday, because we already confront our sins so fully in the service itself. Instead of a confession and absolution, we read the words,

Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, “Peace I give to you; my own peace I leave with you:” Regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church, and give to us the peace and unity of that heavenly City, where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, now and for ever.

Then during the Great Thanksgiving, which is the second part of our communion service, the celebrant says,

For our sins he was lifted high upon the cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; and, by his suffering and death, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

And we continue not merely with words, but there are more actions as well. For even after we remember Jesus’ passion, especially after we remember Jesus’ passion, we are invited back to the table once again for bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

There are the words, “Take, eat” and “Drink this, all of you.” These words of invitation to get out of your seats and come partake of Christ’s very real presence as we remember his suffering and death. The story loops back from the passion to the table of The Last Supper with an invitation to join Jesus once again. We are given a chance once more to join our voices to that of the Centurion who proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Like the crowd that Holy Week, we can go from singing God’s praises to denying his presence and his power, and we can do it in much less time. The words and actions of this Sunday show something of our words and actions throughout our lives.

In subtle ways, we betray the faith that is in us. We deny Jesus by not speaking or acting when we are given an opportunity to say or do the right thing. Sometimes we deny him by saying and doing things that deny the Christ in us.

For while judgment and hate would have put Jesus’ to death, neither judgment nor hate get the last word in this liturgy as in our lives.

Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might coming within the reach of his saving embrace and those of us who have enjoyed Christ’s presence in Word and Sacrament leave our worship this day strengthened to reach forth our hands in love.

May God empower us to bring others into the knowledge and love of Jesus.

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting.

Download the sermon for Palm Sunday (A).

 

Sermons for the remainder of Holy Week can be found here:

Monday in Holy Week

Tuesday in Holy Week

Wednesday in Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

Walk through Holy Week with Jesus, Palm Sunday (A) – 2014

April 13, 2014

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

What does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or admitting that it could happen at any moment. To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome? And his making such a bold entry into the heart of the Romans’ stolen power surely bodes well for that project.

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the knowledge of how brief their acclaim will be. This is the point of no return for Jesus. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous. Jesus is deliberately provoking the crisis that will end with him nailed to a cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures today in worship, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves. The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified. The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is. While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with another’s pain, feels all too familiar.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

And it is a struggle. In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away. They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away. Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal. The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’” The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you. And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.

By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation. Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers. There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross. As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

But nothing happens. Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea. Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us. He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment our souls are torn in two. At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.

This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday. The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection. If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

Crucify him!, Palm Sunday (A) – 2011

April 17, 2011

Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The crackle of dried palms crunch under the feet of the crowd. The sound is but a faint crackle lost in the din of angry voices. The meaning of the sound is lost on the mob now shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him! CRUCIFY HIM!”

That crackle of dried palm branches covered by the shouts of an angry mob is the sound of a world turned upside down. The King of Creation and Judge of All Humankind put on trial before Rome’s puppet King Herod and their governor in Palestine, Pilate.

We can’t know that any of the people are the same. One crowd could have greeted Jesus as a King when he entered Jerusalem and another crowd could have shouted for Pilate to put him to death. But in centuries of Christian preaching and teaching, the two crowds are seen as one; not because of solid historic data, but because of instinct forged in the fires of life experience.

More than once in history crowds have been known to turn even more quickly and to just such violent effect. The mob wants you as King, and then they want you dead. In the meantime, all you have to do is not live up to expectations. Jesus came to Jerusalem, yerushalayim [NOTE TO READER: PRONOUNCED “yeh-roo-shah-LIE-eem”] in Hebrew. Literally it means “foundation of peace,” and Jesus arrived on a donkey as the King of Peace. There were hosannas that day, but the crowd didn’t want peace. They wanted violence. Years of oppression at the hands of Rome in general and Pilate and Herod in particular had taken their toll.

Yes, Rome brought work, water projects, road projects, and Herod’s endless building projects. And with all this came the pax Romana, the peace of Rome. But for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that fateful Passover, the peace was peace for Romans, not peace for Jews. The back-breaking tax burden contributed to the nagging feeling that the arrangement between Rome and Jews was nearing a flash point. This deal left them free to practice their faith, but there were signs of strain.

Pilate had given a small show of force by placing Roman standards, or military ensignia, within his palace so that they could be seen within the Jewish Temple. The Jewish leadership saw this as placing idols in sight of their holiest of holies. This was an affront to their faith. Jews revolted. Pilate had them put to death. More Jews rose to take their place until even Pilate had to stop killing. A governor can only put so many people to death and still govern. Pilate relented and an uneasy peace returned.

It was into this uneasy peace that Jesus rode on a donkey as the crowd shouted Hosannas and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” So much for the peace.

Whatever else we want to say about Jesus, he was put to death as a threat to Roman rule and the Jewish King Herod’s control. Jesus’ teaching turned the world upside down and this threat to the way things work could not be tolerated by those in power.

The specific accusation in our gospel reading is that Jesus was the, “King of the Jews.” Could he be a king in place of Herod in Jerusalem and the Emperor in Rome? Not possible.

In Matthew’s account of the Passion, Pilate is particularly reluctant to put Jesus to death. Perhaps this is because of his wife’s dream. Or having already put quite a few Jews to death, he learned along the way that it is best not to incite the crowds during a festival. With Jerusalem’s population swelled by all who came to the capital for the Passover, this is no time to get an angry mob going.

Pilate offers a choice. Following his custom of letting one prisoner go free, he asks whether that man should be Jesus, who is called the Messiah, or Jesus Barabbas. The choice in the Aramaic of the time is quite stark. “Barabbas” is not a name but something like a nom de guerre, a revolutiony’s nickname. It means “Son of a Father.” The dramatic irony is that we are to see the crowd choose Barabbas, the “son of a father,” instead of Jesus, the “son of the father,” our father in heaven.

When given this choice, the mob shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Pilate abdicates to mob rule, hoping that the anger of the mob will spew out over Jesus. Pilate literally washes his hands of the matter, hoping the mob will leave him and his palace in peace.

This is where the gospel accounts of Jesus differ from most of human history and literature up until this time. Jesus’ story was not the first story of redemptive violence. It was, however, the first time the story played out like this. Usually, it was the people who knew what was best. The one outsider, the one who wanted change, was put to death and order was restored. The crowd was right. The one agitating for change was wrong. Violence against the one person restored order, and peace returned.

Yet the idea of killing Jesus to bring peace is clearly found here in Matthew. The equation is: unanimity plus one. We all agree with one another, except this guy preaching that we should love everyone – sinners and outcasts alike. So the formula was simple: remove the one, and unanimity returns. The status quo is preserved.

In the gospels, we read of an innocent victim. And even though the whole world on that day seemed to be set against him, the one man, Jesus, was still right. It was possible for everyone – every person against him, every follower of him, everyone – to be wrong and for Jesus to be right.

It’s still true. So often, Christianity is judged by the ways Christians act. It is hard to separate Christ from Christians. Yet, we may all act wrongly, and the truth of Jesus still remains true.

This is part of the way the world was getting turned upside down in Jesus’ life and ministry. You could no longer count on common sense. For sense has never been something we humans held in common. You could no longer count on “what everyone knows.” You could not count on what “they” said. If Jesus was and is God made man, then it was possible for the one suffering at the hands of the many to be right.

There would have been voices on the edge of the crowd. People who wanted to speak and remained silent. There would have been voices of reason in the angry mob – voices silenced by the shouting crowd, by fear. Their silence equaled consent. Remaining silent in the face of injustice is a way of standing with the unjust. Many in the mob that Good Friday did just that.

As the sky darkened that noon when Jesus hung on the cross, there would have been those who felt foolish to have ever proclaimed Jesus as a King. Some had waved palm branches and shouted at the tops of their lungs, who would now wish they had remained silent. From the joy of that Sunday entrance, to the darkness of the Friday we call “Good,” the crowd went from praise to derision. When Jesus failed to vent their anger at Rome, the violence turned against the son of David.

By three o’clock, the darkness of that day is complete, and Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is time for the crowd to go home. The dry palm branches crackle under their feet as the mob shuffles home, vented of their anger. The promise of hosannas now crushed into dust.

The earth shook, and few heard the words of the centurion as Jesus died, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” The only voice of hope to be heard until Jesus own feet stepped on the dust of those palm branches three days later, proving that love could conquer even the anger of the crowd and the sting of death.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia.