Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palms or Passion?

Matthew 21:1-11
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately. " 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 "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." 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

There has been a big battle among preachers this week over whether we should focus on Palm Sunday or treat this Sunday as Palm/Passion Sunday. In seminary I was taught that we really should do Palm and Passion together because many of our churches won’t have Good Friday services. And that means that for many we will go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter without ever having Jesus suffer on the cross. I was taught “Without the crucifixion there can be no resurrection.” Those were the same arguments I saw on line for doing the whole Passion today. While those in opposition spoke of rushing the season and living in the grief of Holy Saturday all this last week instead of letting the events progress as they actually did. Sort of like putting the Christmas decorations out before the kids had gotten home from Trick or Treating.

Every year since I came to Delhaven we have celebrated Palm/Passion Sunday. Some years we have had our choir concert on Palm Sunday, so the music took us through the entire week including Easter celebrations. Some years I have preached and have taken us through the entire week up to Easter, forcing us all to struggle through the week with the image of Jesus, bloodied and broken, laying on the slab of rock inside Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. One year I even did a dramatic presentation as one of the women who followed Jesus.

My decision – and I like to bring you all along with me on these theological and liturgical decisions – is to do Palm Sunday this year. We’re going to be together on Thursday evening for supper and a Maundy Thursday service that Kate will be leading. And we will be praying all day, from noon to midnight, on Good Friday. Even though we may not all be in the same room at the same time during these events, we will be observing Holy Week in our homes and hearts, in our prayers and actions. This year for Palm Sunday we will stay in the day, lauding Jesus the rabbi from Nazareth as king, the way the crowd at the gate of Jerusalem did. We will take this opportunity to sing alleluias during Lent and forget for just a brief moment all the troubles that surround us. We will look to our king and believe that everything will be great almost immediately! – just as the crowd at the gate of Jerusalem did.

Me, I LOVE palm Sunday. It’s all about hope for the future, maybe even more so than Christmas. Welcoming the king of kings into my life, my heart, my soul. Celebrating that he is entering the city. Like the crowd, having no idea what is going to come later in the week but after a lifetime of suffering and waiting – wow! Here he is! The last will be first and the humble will be made great.

I was reading Ann Lamott’s “Plan B” this week and she says she just can’t deal with Good Friday. She is a resurrection kind of person. Well, me too. I think we have enough of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in our lives. We have enough pain and crucifixion and grieving and suffering and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Palm Sunday helps us get ready for the resurrection in a way that no other celebration can do – Palm Sunday leads us in that direction, even though the crowd didn’t quite have the right idea of how Jesus was to be King.

In ancient times, the prosperity of the land was believed to be tied directly to the king. A good king, a righteous king, a king who loved his land and his people and cared first about their wellbeing, would rule a land that prospered. For example, the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Joseph was a good king because his people were well cared for despite the fact that there was a famine. He listened to Joseph’s interpretation of a prophetic dream. He prepared for the famine and made sure his people were fed throughout that long seven years. King Jehoaichin of Judah, on the other hand, was not a righteous king. He cared only for his own power, he disregarded the plight of the poor and ignored the prophets. The Babylonians carried him away along with the nobility and priests and all the wealth of the land. Now, we know that he wasn’t the first unrighteous king in the land. He was the last in a line of bad kings, kings who cared only for their own comfort and power, and who didn’t listen to the prophets who kept trying to bring them back to the ways of their God. In fact, from the time of Solomon onward, the Bible only tells us about one king who was righteous, who had the Temple re-dedicated, re-instituted the celebration of Passover and had the Law of Moses read aloud from the steps of the Temple. In his time things were looking up a bit. Alas, his descendents returned to the ways that displeased their God and so, eventually, they were overcome by might of Babylon. From that time until the time of Jesus there hadn’t been any really Good kings. In fact, the kings they had ruling them were mostly puppets of some empire or other. The people of the land were looking for a messiah, a king who would return them to the glory days of David and Solomon, when their nation had wealth and power and the respect of their neighbors, when all the poor and widows and orphans were cared for, when judges spoke with righteousness and didn’t always make decisions in favor of the most powerful. This is the king they welcomed into Jerusalem that day. This is the Messiah they proclaimed, laying their cloaks and palms in the street in front of him.

Frankly, we sometimes have trouble understanding Jesus as King. Oh, we speak of him as Lord. We give him king-like titles. We sort of shake our heads at the poor, ignorant folks of his time who couldn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said his kingdom is not of this world. And we are quite sure that he is the King of Heaven. King of the Afterlife. But that’s not quite it either. He is the king who leads us into a world that is radically different from the world he, and we, inherited. He is the king who models how we, his people, are to live, just as any good king does. He is the king who could have described himself with these words from Isaiah 50:

4 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.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

What kind of king brags of having the tongue of a teacher? The kind who wants to lead his people into a new way of living. The kind who says to them, the way of the world is not the way of God. Let me show you how to live in God’s kingdom. The kind who says, it’s going to be hard, and there will be sacrifices made. But don’t worry, I’m going to show you how to live through even the worst of times. I’m going to show you how to love even the worst of people.

As I get to this point I realize how very difficult it is to celebrate Palm Sunday without the Passion. Because you see, we know what comes next. We know that the adoring crowds will melt away, that even his followers will run and hide when he is taken from their midst.

But we also know how he faced his trial. We know that when one of his followers pulled out a sword, Jesus made him put it away. We know that Jesus even healed the man he injured, a man who came to arrest him. We know that he spoke not a word in threat or anger even when he knew he was being wrongfully accused and tried in an illegal court. We know he gave his back to those who struck him and blamed no one for what he was enduring.

We know . . . he was human. Which means that anything he could do, we can do. I know that when stuff happens, when tragedy comes into our lives, when oppression is looming large and we are called upon to be like Jesus, our first reaction might be “Well, yeah. But I am not Jesus. I can’t do what he did.” And maybe that’s true. But we can model ourselves after what he did, because he is our king, now and forever. He lived to teach us how to live, he died showing us how to face even the worst oppression and adversity, standing proudly for what we believe is right. Confronting evil with good, confronting violence with peace. As with anything else worthwhile that we learn how to do, living this way takes practice and dedication. It is difficult, but it is doable.

Jesus is our king. He is not the Once and Future King. He is not a king who lived a long time ago and will come back someday to be king again. He is the King of the world. He is our king, day in and day out, in good times and evil. He is the king who came to teach us how to live in love and justice, to bring us close to God, to set us free from the tyranny of anger and oppression, to shower us with God’s grace. Let us celebrate our King, waving our palms like the crowd at the gates of Jerusalem, singing Hosanna and crying out Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the God of Israel!

Blessed Be the God of Israel 135

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