Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Palms or Passion? - A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Some Sundays are easy to preach – this is not one of those days. The difficulty in preaching today is because of the tension in the two-fold nature of today – between Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.

We usually call this day, the first day of Holy Week, Palm Sunday. This is the day that we remember and celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, where he was greeted by a crowd with palm branches shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" (Matthew 21:1-11 ) Decades ago the Episcopal Church realized that many people were not coming to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services in Holy Week and so were going from one Sunday service of celebration (Palm Sunday) straight into another Sunday service of celebration (Easter) without any kind of experience of Jesus' death in-between! The joys of Easter cannot be fully felt unless you first work through the sorrow and terror of the crucifixion. Today, in the Episcopal Church, we have reached a compromise, calling this day the “Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” In the same service that we celebrate with palms we also read aloud the passion narrative (the account of Jesus' betrayal, trial, and death. There is a real tension between the two.

We feel far more comfortable with the palm portion of our service. The palms might bring back fond memories of our childhood, or frustrating memories of trying to fold palms into crosses and never quite getting it right. Seeing the children swing the palms around in our procession makes us smile, and it’s fun and happy to sing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” This is a celebration that we can appreciate – we want to be a part of that crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem.

The Passion narrative contrasts starkly – we might identify with the crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem, but we do not want to identify with the crowd that sent Jesus off to his death. I’ve been in congregations where the passion narrative is read as a play, and the whole congregation has to say “Crucify him!” I always had such a hard time saying that. I don’t want to say “crucify him!” and be a part of that crowd that betrayed and condemned Jesus.

I don’t like identifying with any of the characters in the Passion narrative. The crowd, Judas, and Peter all betrayed Jesus to varying degrees. The disciples are afraid and run off to save their own skin. The people with real power in the story, religious and political power are the high priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate – and they are not concerned about truth and justice but about themselves and placating the crowd. The people who come out looking best in the story, other than Jesus himself, are the women who stayed at the cross, one of the thieves on the cross next to Jesus, and a centurion – and I wouldn’t have wanted to be any of those people either.

The passion narrative is a very tough story to listen to because we don’t want to identify with any of those people who in any way contributed to Jesus’ horrific death. We don’t want to identify with even the good people in the story because they had to stand by helplessly as the person they loved died in agony. We must confess to the fact that we really do want to go from palm fronds to Easter eggs and chocolate crosses.

We might not want to try to identify with any of the characters in the passion story because it is a hard, painful story, but it actually is very easy to identify with the characters in the story. There may have been times in our lives when we are afraid and have run away from responsibility – like the disciples did. There may have been times in our lives when we have been so afraid like Peter that we have lied, sometimes we have lied not only to other people but even lied to ourselves. There may have been times when we, like Jesus, have been betrayed by those that we had considered a friend, and there may have been times when we have been the one doing the betraying, like Judas. There may have been times where we were like Caiaphas and Pilate – where we did not use our power and authority responsibly and we were more concerned about ourselves instead of truth and justice. There may have been times when we were concerned about truth and justice – but were powerless to act – like the women and disciples. There may have been times when we were like the soldiers and the thief who mocked Jesus when we have mocked those who have suffered recent misfortune, laughed when someone we don’t like had something bad happen – and there may have been times when we have been more like the other thief and have asked for mercy. If we dive deep into this story we can find plenty of experiences that we can relate to.

We want to move from celebration to celebration, from good time to good time – we want to move straight from Palm Sunday to Easter – but we can’t. I hate to tell you this, but Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem, have the Last Supper, get arrested, stand trial, and die on a cross in 20 minutes. This was a story that took days – and taking our time to go through the story is one way of honoring it and truly taking it to heart.

The church honors the passion by giving it its very own Sunday – but we can do better than that. Let Holy Week be a week, not merely one hour of one day. We have Holy Week services here – your bulletin contains the details – we have a Wednesday Morning Eucharist, a Maundy Thursday service in the evening, and for Good Friday we have stations of the cross for both adults and children as well as an evening service.

I know that not everyone can make it to these services – work and other obligations do not disappear simply because Easter is coming. But I encourage you to pray and to read scripture, either alone or with family or friends. You can find recommended readings for this week in our prayerbook, online, and on our blog. Let Holy Week be a week of prayer and contemplation for all of us – so that we might experience anew the joys of Easter next Sunday. Have a blessed Holy Week!