Richard Maxwell

Palm Sunday A
13 April 2014
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’ve been thinking about this Sunday for quite a while and wondering what I would say to you about it this year.  In year’s past I’ll confess that I’ve always been a bit confused about today.  We begin with such joy, remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem . . . and then we quickly move to Jesus’ crucifixion and death.  Why do we do all of this in ONE Sunday when ahead of us, we have all of Holy Week to get through?  In the past I’ve thought it was for the people who can’t observe Holy Week by going to church services, because of jobs or other commitments, and so on one Sunday, Palm Sunday, those people have the opportunity to prepare for Easter all at once.  Maybe that is in fact the case.

But this year, I’ve been thinking, rather differently about today, which is also called Passion Sunday.  I’m trying to see Palm Sunday from Jesus’ point of view and two different things have helped me with this.  First is a sermon by the Rev. Whitney Rice, some of whose ideas I’ve freely stolen.[1]  The second thing that helped me in my thinking about today was a bumper sticker.

Driving to church one morning last week, I stopped at a red light behind a large SUV.  As I assume we all do, I was checking out the stickers and decals stuck on the back of the car.  I know, for example, that the family owning the car has a daughter and a son because of those little stickers people put on their windows representing family members.  Then I noticed a bumper sticker.  In big white italicized letters it said, “Jesus.”  Underneath, in smaller letters was written “your life leader.”  Okay.  I noted that the background was blue and red with some stars . . . obviously indicating our national flag.  And then I noticed that above “JESUS,” printed in smaller letters so that I almost missed it, was the word ‘elect.’  Ohhhhhh, I said to myself . . . “Elect Jesus, your life leader!”  I suppose, this motto could be read as “choose Jesus to be your guide through life,” which I certainly have no objection to.  But because of the flag allusion, and maybe because of the order in which I discovered the words, I read “Elect Jesus!  He’s your leader” as if he were running for political office.

At the next red light I almost got out of my car to discuss this bumper sticker with the driver of that SUV.

Whether it was meant or not, what I heard when I read that sticker was something like, “Elect Jesus to run the country.  He’ll shake up Congress and make ‘em get to work.  He’ll squelch our enemies and make us safe.  He’ll bring peace to the world and we’ll all be healthy, wealthy and wise.  It’s that thought that brought me to think of Palm Sunday.  Because that’s exactly the way people welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.  They were expecting a worldly king who’d run those lousy Romans out of town.  He’d reestablish Jerusalem as a great capitol and Israel as a great country.  The days of David and Solomon would return and all would be well!  How lonely Jesus must have felt in the middle of all that ruckus.

You see, before his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus had tried many, many times to explain to his friends what was really gonna happen.  He said it in several different ways, and just before arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus directly told his friends once again what the future held: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”  It seems, however, that his friends never really understood him.  And the ecstatic crowds that greeted Jesus will soon face a crisis of faith: Instead of starting a revolution, very quickly this Jesus gets himself arrested.  If this Jesus is not the Messiah they expect and want, can he really BE the Messiah?

Today we receive a reminder – just as Jesus’ friends did before Jerusalem – of how the life of the earthly Jesus is gonna turn out.  Today, the beginning of Holy Week, is a day when we can try to give up our illusions of what Jesus may do for us, and walk with him to his crucifixion.  Today we can make a choice, to confront the ways in which we betray Jesus, and to love him as we join him in his struggle to endure what is coming . . . or  . . . we can hide, unwilling to let our hearts be torn in two along with the Temple curtain at the time of Jesus’ death.

If the entry into Jerusalem was difficult for Jesus, witnessing the lack of understanding of the crowds and even of his own disciples, tomorrow, Holy Monday may have been even worse.  The Gospel reading for the day describes the dinner Jesus had with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus . . . yes, THAT Lazarus, the one Jesus brought back from the dead.  Maybe Jesus wanted to see these friends, whom he clearly loved so well, one last time before the agony that was to come.  Maybe the human Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing, to give him strength . . . to prepare himself for his own death and resurrection.

It as at this dinner that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair.  Judas Iscariot criticizes her for wasting the perfume and not selling it and giving the money to the poor.  Surely, Judas’ anger could only remind Jesus of Judas’ betrayal . . . which Jesus knows will occur soon.  And Jesus’ defense of Mary reveals how heavily his approaching death is weighing on him:  “Leave her alone.  She bought it 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.”  From Jesus’ point of view, Mary is preparing him for burial.

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues.  Once again, Jesus tries to explain what is about to happen.  Once again, people fail to understand him.  Eventually, as if he’s speaking to himself, Jesus says, “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.”  In this statement, admitting that he is troubled, yet knowing what he must do, the conflict in Jesus is revealed:  his human fear warring with his divine conviction.

The Gospel for Wednesday heightens the inner conflict for Jesus.  For the first time, Jesus speaks to his friends not only about his death, but also about the betrayal that will lead to his death.  Again we hear that Jesus is troubled in spirit, and declares, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”  The reason why betrayal is so very painful is that true betrayal can only come from someone who is known and loved.  A stranger cannot betray you . . . nor can someone betray you who hates you and always has . . . not in the strictest sense of the word.  Real betrayal comes from someone one knows and loves.

By Friday morning, the situation is out of control.  Jerusalem is in an uproar.  Confusion and chaos rule the day.  Only Jesus understands what is happening.  And again, imagine how alone he must have felt.  The events of the past week have been leading inexorably to THIS . . . to his crucifixion.  And Jesus is the only one who has understood.  How alone he is.

Today, Palm Sunday, we hear about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  And we also are reminded of the Passion that is to come.  Today we have a choice to make, the choice of whether or not to walk with Jesus through the week.  We can choose to hide and ignore the events of the coming week.  Or we can choose to accompany Jesus.  The latter is not an easy choice.  It is perhaps even a dangerous choice.  It is certainly a painful choice.  But the choice to walk with Jesus is also the only life-giving choice.

Accompanying Jesus through the coming week means staying with him through his death.  The Gospel says that at the moment of Jesus’ death the Temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom.  At that moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ was torn in two.  It may be that our own souls will be torn in two as well.  That is the risk we take being present with Jesus through Holy Week.

But Jesus’ life is not the only thing 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 great 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 and pain of the coming days, if we are willing to be present with Jesus through his solitude and suffering, then the healing that we experience with his Resurrection will be twice as deep . . . we will ourselves experience new life.


[1] A sermon for Palm Sunday found on the website “Sermons that Work.”

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