Walk the Way of the Cross, Palm Sunday (C) -2016

[RCL] Psalm 31:9-16 Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or 23:1-49

In many Christian communities, today’s worship begins with a procession around the church grounds and perhaps the neighborhood as well – an appealing way to witness to the faith this Sunday before Easter, to be sure. The event may even garner coverage on the evening news or in the local paper. Still, no matter how sincere, procession, pageantry, and palm waving are in their way undemanding gestures, especially when nearly everyone at church is engaged in them. But there is of course no long-term commitment involved in such street theater. Just ask the people of Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday is all about involvement and commitment – and the difference between the two. Those who followed Jesus on the final leg of his journey into Jerusalem singing his praises were surely involved and caught up in the excitement of the moment. They were clearly aware of Jesus and his ministry. They no doubt liked him and the Gospel message of peace and reconciliation. And, they probably thought to themselves that here at last was a great prophet – one whom God had raised up – and one with a bright future in the faith-based power politics of the day.

And, to prove their interest and involvement, they lent Jesus their presence and their voices this special day. According to the Gospel of Luke – as we heard moments ago at the Blessing of Palms – one of them presumably even lent him a colt to ride on as he came down into the Holy City “from the Mount of Olives.” Echoing the words of the heavenly host at Jesus’ birth, they all proclaimed, “Glory in the highest heaven,” and spread their cloaks before him. They were involved.

But like all of us here today they likely also had their responsibilities and preoccupations. What might have been a fun outing one day, welcoming the latest prophet into town led quickly enough to the duties and errands of the next day and beyond. After all, there were mouths to feed and bills to pay. There was work to be done. By the time Good Friday had rolled around, no one was left to lay down branches or cloaks for Jesus, much less chant hosanna before him. All, including his disciples, had abandoned him. Jesus was on his own. Our own joyous hosannas this day are themselves soon enough muffled by the flat and sober recitation of the Passion narrative of Luke and the story of Jesus betrayal and death. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” turns with a start to, “Crucify, crucify him.” It is easy to be involved even today. Commitment alas is still something else entirely. Just ask Jesus.

From some of the earliest stories of Genesis to the later writings of the prophets, God on the other hand is always found to be firmly committed to God’s people, Israel. In our first reading from the Hebrew scriptures for instance, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “It is the Lord God who helps me. “Isaiah knows instinctively that God is always more ready to show mercy and lend assistance than we are to accept it. No matter the faults of the people – no matter how much they become sidetracked and preoccupied with mundane or even trivial concerns – the Lord’s Covenant, God’s commitment, remains unwavering. And, when the Psalmist laments, “I am in trouble,” and “forgotten like a dead man,” they can still console themself by turning to the Divine. “You are my God,” they declare without equivocation. “My times are in your hand.” Indeed, as we ourselves know, it is sometimes when we feel the most forsaken and abandoned that the Lord is closest of all. The emptiness of our hearts at such moments makes room finally for the presence of the One who will tolerate no competition from our myriad diversions and distractions.

Nor of course does Our Lord waver in commitment to us – and to all humankind. That is the message of Jesus’ Passion and death. Like the people of ancient Israel, we may be fickle or even erratic in our life of faith but Jesus never once fails us or lets us down. As Paul explains it in our reading today from his Letter to the Philippians, Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” There can be no greater commitment than that.

So, Palm Sunday takes us on a liturgical and emotional roller-coaster ride like no other day of the church year. The involvement of the crowds at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem challenges us once again to reflect on the commitment that led Jesus to give his life for our redemption. Amid the many “changes and chances of this mortal life” this or any week we dare not forget the Cross.

It would be easy enough for any of us to come to church on Palm Sunday, to “let sweet hosannas ring,” to gather a palm frond or two, head home, and not return until Easter Day. What a fine religion we have, we might be tempted to think: Palm branches and hosannas one Sunday, Easter lilies and alleluias the next. But if we did not pay attention to the Passion Gospel and the story of Jesus’ death we would have missed an essential piece – perhaps the essential piece. We would have missed the commitment and covenant that the whole story is about. We would have missed Good Friday.

Jesus enters the Holy City of Jerusalem on a colt provided for the purpose by a stranger. Like the throngs surrounding him that happy day, perhaps he too was caught up and engaged in the moment and the spectacle. But days later, as we know only too well, he leaves the City for the last time not on a colt, much less a royal sedan, but on foot and carrying a cross, given over to the enormous task of winning our redemption one painful step at a time.

No matter where our life journey and its twists and turns may take us, as followers of Christ our voyage of faith leads most assuredly through Jerusalem and on to Calvary with our Lord. Like good pilgrims the world over and like Jesus himself, we too must walk the way of the cross. There is no other route home. For, only at the cross does our Lord at last turn our feeble involvement into the commitment and Covenant of Calvary and the assurance of our salvation.

Download the sermon for Palm Sunday.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!

 

‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’, Palm Sunday (C) – 2013

March 24, 2013

The Liturgy of the Palms (RCL): Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word (RCL): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Only in Luke’s gospel do we find this statement of Jesus from the cross. It is a truly remarkable statement. In fact, it may be the most powerful and transformative thing he ever said. And the really amazing thing about this statement is that it is a prayer. Abba, “Father.” The first words uttered by Jesus on the cross are a prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Now, we may suppose, to pray in a time of great pain and tribulation is not all that surprising. Turning to prayer in a desperate and terrifying time seems quite natural and instinctive. When the ground gives way beneath our feet, when some dire tragedy strikes us, when we feel lashed by bitter storms, it seems quite natural to cry out to God. In the midst of tragedy and in the midst of despair, we seem to instinctively cry out: “O God, Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us.”

But when we pray under such dire circumstances, it is almost always for ourselves. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain and tragedy and torment, we tend to cry out, “O, Lord, help me in my distress.” “O, God, save me from my struggles.” “Dear Lord, rescue me from my tribulations.”

What surprises us about Christ’s prayer on the cross is that he does not pray for himself. He does not ask for his own deliverance. He is taunted by others to save himself, who scoff at him and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, his chosen one.” But that is not what he prays for. He does not even pray for his family or his friends who will be left behind.

Rather, the first words that Jesus utters upon the cross are a prayer for the people who are putting him to death. The first people who come to mind, who are lifted up in prayer, are his enemies. Not himself. Not even his family and friends. But his enemies are first and foremost in his heart and prayers. And it almost goes without saying, it is not a prayer asking for God’s vengeance upon them, but rather a prayer asking God to forgive them.

A natural human response might have been to pray for the destruction of his enemies. But the first words Jesus utters are a prayer for the forgiveness of the soldiers who paraded him through the city streets and who nailed him to the cross. With his arms stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross, high above the murderous hands of the soldiers who had crucified him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

And with these words, with this prayer, everything changes. These may be the most revolutionary and transformative words ever spoken in human history. “Forgive my enemies, for they know not what they do.” With this prayer, Christ takes all of the hatred and all of the violence and all of the vengeance of the world and says, “Enough.”

Enough. We’ve had enough of the spiral of violence and counter-violence that just leads to more of the same. It has to end somewhere. Enough.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

With these words, with this prayer, Christ shatters the glamour of violence that blinds us in this world, and sets in its place a vision of reconciliation and peace. We remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he practiced on the Mount of Calvary. On the cross, Jesus prays for his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and everything changes.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the real world, and it was a world saturated and captivated by hatred and violence. In these first words from the cross, in this prayer, Jesus reveals God’s own costly love for the world, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship even in the midst of our violent world. In this prayer from the cross, Christ takes all of it upon himself, all of the hatred and all of the violence of the world, and he says “no more.”

No more. The deadly cycle of violence and counter-violence is broken, and begins to yield to a new world of compassion and solidarity and reconciliation. On the cross, we see God’s costly gift of love in the person of Christ, and in the prayer of Christ for the transformation of the whole world.

In this prayer, we see the truth of God’s love; the truth, as Daniel Migliore puts it in his book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that: “God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the deepest night of human savagery; that God’s forgiving love is greater than our often paralyzing awareness of guilt, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death.” In this prayer, in these words spoken from the cross, Christ opens up for us, even in the midst of our broken and violent world, a new future of reconciliation and peace.

The first words Jesus utters upon the cross are the prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And with this prayer, everything changes.

How long will it take until this weary world of ours wakes up and realizes it?

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

Acting the roles of Palm Sunday in daily life, Palm Sunday (C) – 2010

March 28, 2010

The Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 
The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

There’s nothing more exciting than a spectacular parade. Television spectaculars, like the Oscars are something of a modern equivalent. We watch excitedly as new stars are born and see them surrounded by the press and adoring followers. We love heroes. We love following their lives and marvel when they buy big homes and jet around the world.

It is also true that we get something of a thrill when these modern idols are exposed. We revel in their destruction. Somehow it makes us feel better to know that the person who filled us with awe is just another fallible, flawed human being.

Palm Sunday in the drama of lessons and ritual takes us from adulation to betrayal and desertion. We know that the very crowds who shout “Hooray” will yell “Crucify him.” One of Jesus’ closest followers will betray him. Most of the disciples will desert when things get tough. The religious leaders, convinced that they are protecting Judaism from the upstart prophet will plot with cynical Roman politicians to kill Jesus.

When Jesus begins his journey into the Holy City, he is soon surrounded by excited crowds. They have heard that this prophet heals, feeds, raises from the dead. Perhaps he will solve all their problems. Perhaps he will throw the occupying Romans out and restore the Jewish Kingdom. Is this Man indeed the Chosen One?

Others have pronounced themselves to be the Messiah and have proven to be no such thing. Yet the hopes, aspirations, and demands of the people remain high. Maybe this time God will act. Jesus’ followers were caught up in this excitement. All their fears about Jesus entering Jerusalem, his words about being killed there, are forgotten in the excitement of the reception. They must have felt very important, those disciples, as the crowds cheered. One tortured soul, Judas, perhaps hangs back a bit. We don’t know his dark motives. Was he jealous? Had some truth Jesus said to him hurt him and driven him to revenge?

In a few short days the crowds will decide that there’s nothing in anything Jesus says or does that is good for them. The disciples, or almost all of them, will separate themselves from Jesus and run for cover. Judas will betray his Lord. The religious leaders and politicians will handle the matter with speed, and a man will die.

As the Eucharist ends today, we can almost feel the dark pall of evil. There’s no happy ending in the lessons. The roller coaster surge of the liturgy leaves us down and shaken.

We may well ask ourselves which role we play in this human drama. Do we test God, Jesus, the Spirit in terms of “What is in it for me?” The crowd did. Do we resent the way the Faith accuses us and wish we could silence Jesus, as Judas hoped? Do we run from Jesus and hide behind self-preservation? How ironic it is that the religious leaders and most of the disciples acted from self-interest. The Chief Priests convinced themselves that an unholy murder was justified to safeguard the institution. The disciples perhaps convinced themselves that if the work was to continue, they should protect themselves from arrest and punishment.

Over and over again in the long story of the church, Christian people have acted the roles we encounter today, not just on Palm Sunday, but in the daily life of parishes, dioceses, and the national church.

The question posed by that old African American song, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” points not to St. John and the Marys, but to the rest of us. How often have we deserted our church when we haven’t obtained the things we think we need? How often have we turned on priests or fellow Christians when they have spoken the truth to us? How often have we put the institution before Jesus? How often have we just run away when things got tough? These sins are alive and well and flourish today as they did then.

This isn’t an outdated story. This is life.

For a moment, just a moment, it is good that the lessons today end with death, with no hope, with Jesus alone and dying. For in this Holy Week, which begins today, we have much dying to do, and dying hurts, and dying risks the end of everything. Yet as a community of Christians here today and as individuals, it is, as St Paul tells us, “in dying that we live.”

Let us then offer our selfishness, corporate and individual, in Jesus to God as we walk to the Cross. Then in the silence of Good Friday we wait.

 

— Fr. Tony  is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

A time of confusion, suffering, and betrayal, Palm Sunday (C) – 2007

April 1, 2007

Isaiah 50:3-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

After hearing a presentation as profound as the Passion Narrative, mere words seem almost like an intrusion. Our reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday turns us from the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy city Jerusalem, and calls us to face the grim reality of Holy Week ahead.

Easter is there, beckoning, at the end of this week’s mystical journey. But until then, the church enters into a time of confusion, a place of suffering, and a context of betrayal, fear, and pain. Were we on an airplane journey, our flight crew would caution us to fasten our seat belts, as turbulence – not just some “bumpy air,” but real turbulence – surely lies ahead.

In this dark and difficult time, we will do what we Christians always do in our liturgy: we will commemorate historical occurrences and celebrate divine revelation. And we do so, not so that we can suffer as Christ did, but because we participate in a gradual unfolding of a single divine act. The world has been redeemed – once and for all – and each and every one of us has already been saved through the grace of Jesus Christ.

And this entire saving mystery is before our eyes each day. Our liturgy, our commemorations, our enactment of Holy Week serve to manifest but one part of that great mystery more concretely. We celebrate Holy Week as we observed all of Lent – not as if we had never been redeemed, but as having the stamp of the cross upon us, seeking to be better conformed to the death of Christ, so that the resurrection may be more and more clearly shown through us.

The redemptive love of God reaches its height in the sacrifice of the cross, and the church issues forth in glory from the resurrection that follows. But the church does not die again this Good Friday, nor rise again this Easter. Rather, the church remembers these ancient events, and through this remembering participates more fully in the plan of salvation.

The mystery of the church’s year is a whole, of one piece. The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is one event. And the path of humankind from sin to salvation is one continuous action.

And so, let us set our face on Jerusalem, that heavenly city where Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Let us fasten our spiritual seat belts in preparation for the rough ride of the coming week. And let us look ahead in certain hope and joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of all Scripture, the coming of the reign of God, the return of Christ in glorious majesty.

And until that time, we have a mission and ministry: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. To assist us in that most daunting task, the church provides this yearly remembrance so that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.

In this, Holy Week is a mysterious paradox. Begun today in triumph, with people waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” as Jesus enters Jerusalem, it has already shifted into that dark time of suffering and death.

The great omnipotent God who created the universe, who has existed since before time, and will continue to exist after everything we hold dear has come to ruin, who sees all and knows all, who became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ: this same God is now hanging nailed to a cross in the mid-day heat.

The God who caused floods, who spoke through earthquakes, wind, and fire: this same God now chooses to submit to agony of the most extreme severity.

The God who led the people of Israel out of captivity, stayed with them as they wandered in the desert, and guided them to the promised land: this same God now gives himself up to death.

It may seem odd at first that an all-powerful God would choose to go through such an ordeal, that the highest power of all would choose not to act, not to rescue, not to save.

Yet for us as Christians, this is no contradiction. For Easter is immanent, already on the horizon. We know that just a week from today we will be singing out in joy again.

For those first-century Palestinians, however, the outcome was far less certain. They had no idea that the tomb would be empty on Easter morn. No, they would have cried with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For us, this is a powerful reminder that miracles happen in God’s time, not ours.

So often, we become like those ancient Israelites, taunting God to demonstrate mighty power at our command. They said it this way: “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

For most of us, the words usually sound something like this: “If you really are God, take away the cancer now,” or “If you love me, God, lift this burden from me,” or “You who are so powerful, why won’t you just give me a little help?”

Worse yet, we become like those chief priests, scribes, and elders. They said, “Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

Our bargaining typically sounds like this: “If you will just heal this disease, I will believe in you,” or “Deliver me from this horrific situation, and I will be ever faithful,” or “Just let me have this one thing, and I will show my thanks by making a generous donation to your church, O God.”

But God rarely responds with a quick fix for our problems. And God does not make bargains with us. God’s saving help does come to us when we really need it – but not necessarily when we think we need it. Miracles do happen, but in God’s time, not ours.

Sometimes, we need to experience the depth of our iniquity before we can appreciate the joy of our many blessings. In the Twelve Step movement, they speak of needing to “hit bottom” before recovery is possible. In our Christian vocabulary, we affirm that we need to suffer death before resurrection can occur.

This is part of the pilgrim journey for us this Holy Week. Like Jesus, we give ourselves up to death, so that we, too, can be resurrected. We die to sin, to selfish ways, to all that has held us captive. We let go of our need to control, of our anger and our envy, of our intemperate love of power, status, and wealth.

And we give in to the love that will not let us go, to the power that will indeed come to our aid when we truly need it, and to the sure and certain hope that God is already doing more for us than we can ask or imagine.

So let us once again muster the courage to look into the face of death this Holy Week. For us, darkness has now come over the whole land, and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. And the only way out is to trust in God alone, saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates is associate rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York City and a Ph.D. candidate in liturgical studies at Drew University.