Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012, Year B
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
So here we go again. Our annual journey into the challenges of Holy Week. If we were to be true to the narrative trajectory of Holy Week, the narrative handed down to us in the Gospels, today would look different. Over the course of Holy Week we celebrate the joy and memorialize the horror of the most famous week in our cultural heritage. The path leads us to joy into horror and back into joy. We start with the joyous and subversively triumphant anti-imperial entrance into the capitol on Palm Sunday. We then move to the pensive fellowship, restless prayer and midnight arrest of Maundy Thursday. This is followed by the interrogation, torture and death by execution of Good Friday, which runs into the profound mystery of Holy Saturday with Jesus’ descent to the dead. Finally we arrive again to the indelible Eastertide joy of Christ’s rising from the dead. From joy into horror and back into joy.
Our morning started on that trajectory. Our Liturgy of the Palms recalls for us the raucous if not joyful political theater our Savior enacted. It is how the week is supposed to start. But then, as we came in here to celebrate the Eucharist, things changed. What was our Gospel? Right… it was the Passion according to St. Mark. Does that strike you as odd? Today, Palm Sunday, is a remembrance of a joyful day. Sure, it is not without some apprehension of course, but today we are supposed to remember the bold statement against injustice that Jesus led his disciples into Jerusalem with. But look at the top of your bulletin, o n page 2. It says “Palm Sunday” and “Sunday of the Passion.” These are two separate memories. Why do we skip ahead to the Passion?
Honestly, the real reason is that not enough people go to church on Good Friday. Not here, but historically in the Church. It would not do if most of us experienced Holy Week as the Joy of Palm Sunday right into the Joy of Easter. It doesn’t work that way. We cannot have Easter without Good Friday.
Why? Why do we need Good Friday? Why does life take death? As I said last week, I do not know. I do not know why we seem to need that descent into the dark night, but the experience of billions of people over thousands of years across countless traditions reflects this existential fact that it is in fact darker just before dawn. Religion at its best helps us make meaning of life. It sometimes offers answers to ponder, sometimes rules to live by, and sometimes it gives us very true stories to remember in exceptionally deep ways. The Passion is one of those stories that we remember deeply in word, deed and sacrament. The Gospel readings we have heard over the course of this Lent have been inviting us into such deep memories, guiding us along the way towards this week “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal.” “Those who love their life, lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
What if “believing in something” means having some special trust and confidence in something. “For God so loved the world that everyone who trusts in him may not perish…” “…whomever follows his lead will not perish…” I follow people I trust. I follow feelings and ideas that I trust, too; most of us do. And those who want to save their lives, to save their current miserable, unengaged, unexamined lives, those who want business as usual, those who love their life as it is, a life this far from God, this far from justice and truth, you, we are doomed if that is our fancy. We are going to lose that life. But those who hate this kind of life, hate the way things are, who are fed up with preventable poverty and illness, whose skin crawls that some control obscene wealth while others have nothing. To those of us whose stomachs turns with the violence of scared governments and scared people, those in particular who are willing to stand up for those who cannot, to them, to you, to us, eternal life is promised. And, there is a Way to this, there is a Way to this life that we have been promised and shown. The Way, actually. The Way, the Truth, the Life is the long and the short of it.
The movement of Palm Sunday and the movement of the Passion, the Way of the Cross, these are part of the Way. They are memories of The Way, reminders of it, teachers of it. For the first decades of the church, they did not call themselves Christians, they called themselves followers of The Way. And The Way, The Way is a path laid out for us, and it is not an easy one, the Way always leads us through Good Friday.
On the Way up to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday Jesus proclaims his arrival as a moral authority over and against imperial domination, local collaboration, and religious complicity. He sees what is wrong with this world, he knows what is wrong with this world and with us, and he says, “Enough! Ya Basta!” And he forces the entangled hands of the powers that be. The Chief Priests, the Pharisees, and their Roman handlers take the bait: hook, line and sinker.
On the Way up to Golgotha on Good Friday, he bears not only the cross, but the sins of the world. It is not some gift he give us, he is not taking away our sins, but it is the principalities and powers of the world who are so corrupted, so ashamed of their station in life that they heap insult upon torture upon death on to the most precious of God’s gifts. When people are behaving as badly as the Priests and Pharisees and Roman occupiers behaved, most cannot help hurting others. It is a grotesque aspect of human power relationships. The spectacle of our Lord’s humiliation on the cross should bring to our minds shame, not glory. Shame that we are able to do something like that, or allow something like that to be done in our name. Shame at not caring for the least of these. Of humanity’s ability to ignore, excuse or even justify incredible suffering. Like our current Supreme Court’s debate on health care. The argument is about whether we are required to help our neighbor who is sick or injured or in need. For shame. Shame that Guantanamo is still open. That was supposed to be a priority. Shame that we are launching drone attacks not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also increasingly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Shame for the sins we have done and those done on our behalf.
These are the lessons of the Way that Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior leads us on. And He leads us there directly through Good Friday because our own complicity in the systems of domination and our own willful ignorance of suffering in the world is so deep that we must die to this life. We are so entangled in our patterns of thought and feelings about the world, that we must die to this life. We must descend into that dark night and be changed, be purged of our false attachments, cleansed of our petty aversions, cured of our constant delusions. We must follow Jesus through the great winnowing in order that we can see the truth that the vision of the world that we cling to is false, that the Kingdom is at hand for those with the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, the heart to feel it.
The Way of Palm Sunday and the Way of the Cross are both paths that we must walk on the Way of God. Jesus Christ took the first steps towards the narrow gate and the first steps up that dark hill, begging his disciples, begging us to take up our own cross and follow him. To do this, we must follow Him through Good Friday. We must follow Him through Good Friday and depart this life lived disconnected from God and move to a life infused with the Holy Spirit. We must follow Him through Good Friday, departing this life where reality is murky and distorted to a life where the true nature of things is experienced in Technicolor. We must follow Him through Good Friday, departing this life where we know right from wrong to a life where we know right from wrong and we do not tolerate the latter, no matter the cost.
This is the Way of Palm Sunday. This is the Way of the Passion, the Way of the Cross. This is the Way of Jesus Christ. And it leads us, ever leads us through Good Friday to the Glory of Resurrection, the gift of new life in God. A new life worth living, worth raising our children in, a new life worth sharing far and wide into the world. This is the Way, the Truth, the Life. AMEN