Friday, March 14, 2008

Sermon: Palm/Passion Sunday (16 March 2008)

Palm/Passion Sunday: 16 March 2007
(Mt 21:1-11/Ps 118/Is 50:4-9a/Ps 31:9-16/Phil 2:5-11/Mt 26:14-27:66)
What Just Happened Here?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever seen a film that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be: a comedy/drama, action/romance, “chick-flick”/thriller, musical/documentary, science fiction/biography? I’ve seen a few and I always leave the theater asking, What was that all about? I’m convinced that whoever writes those disorienting conglomerations was in charge of today’s liturgy. This is simply the most confused and confusing day in the entire liturgical calendar. Some days I like better than others, but this one – well, it’s in a category all its own. And the academy award for most perplexing liturgy goes to – and here there’s a dramatic pause as the envelope is opened – Palm/Passion Sunday! No great surprise there – it was really the only contender.

Just a look at the name – at least in the Revised Common Lectionary that we follow – shows the confusion: Palm/Passion Sunday. Well, which is it? The two events the day commemorates – the Triumphal Entry and the crucifixion – don’t really have much in common except a geographic location and some of the same, central players: that and they are both central events in the great drama of redemption. But they are separated by several days in time and by light-years in attitude and emotion.

We begin the liturgy with bold, triumphant proclamations:

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We read and re-member the Gospel account, wave our own palms, and march in procession singing Psalm 118 with a voice of triumph, a shout of deliverance.

On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.

God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.

If we are paying careful attention – not letting the emotions of this exalted moment run away with us – that last verse might hint that all is not as it seems: form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar. Our parade with its waving palm branches is going somewhere; we are marching to the altar. That’s where something is sacrificed. That’s where something dies. This triumphal parade might end well for everyone else, but not for the Lamb. Caught up in the mob mentality of the moment we might miss that subtlety.

But the liturgy won’t allow that. It suddenly changes tone and rhythm, changes signaled by a prayer.

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us an example of great humility:
Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering,
and also share in his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

And before we know it we find ourselves shouting not “Hosannah!” anymore but “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Our triumphal procession has turned to death march in a matter of moments and the soft green of the palm branches has changed to the hard brown wood of a cross. The blessed King who came in the name of the Lord – those were our words, remember – is crowned with thorns and ascends his “throne” in the presence of his subjects – two petty criminal or failed insurrectionists: Hail, King of the Jews! Darkness comes, an earthquake shakes the hills, our King shudders out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” with his last breath, and dies. And we are left wondering, like his scattered disciples, how this all went so badly wrong so quickly. What just happened here?

It is all so quick in the liturgy – the timeframe so compressed from Triumphal Entry to Crucifixion – that I become disoriented. The emotions are so powerful, so raw, so mixed, that I’m left numb: what am I supposed to feel? It’s a case of overload.

So, why put all this together in a single liturgy on a single day? It is a concession to the priorities of modern life. We are no longer a society, no longer a people, whose hours and days and seasons are structured around the church and its observances, around the faith and its ancient ways. It’s difficult now to gather all the saints together several times in a single week – even during Holy Week. The liturgists were concerned that, if this Sunday were reserved exclusively for the Triumphal Entry and next Sunday for Easter, then all those good folk who could not attend the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday would miss the church’s observance of the Crucifixion of our Lord. And that is to miss the Gospel, because the cross lies dead-center the Gospel, dead-center our faith. Better to risk this whiplash effect of Palm/Passion Sunday than to risk excluding the cross. And this compressed liturgy does have one saving grace, I think: It does force us to confront the centrality and scandal of the cross and to grapple with the question, What just happened here? How are we to understand the cross of Christ?

Faced with these questions, I start with a confession of total inadequacy. The cross is the great mystery of God revealed in these last days and anything I say about it will always be inadequate. I am simply not up to the task. But that does not excuse me from it – or you, for that matter. We must speak of the cross, we must grapple with it, we must bow before it, we must embrace it, and ultimately we must take it up and bear it ourselves – inadequately, yes, but necessarily, for ours is a cruciform faith. Even more, no matter what we say about the cross, it will always sound like foolishness; if it doesn’t, it is not cross we are proclaiming.

For the word of the cross is foolishness to the ones who are perishing, but to those of us being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and I will set aside the understanding of the intelligent.”
Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since the world through wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who believe. Jews ask signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Jesus having been crucified – to Jews a scandal – a stumbling block – and to Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18-23).

What just happened here? God unleashed his power and wisdom into the world in the form of a God-forsaken man dying on a cross at the hands of a brutal empire and a corrupt religious establishment – in short, at the hands of sinful men like you and me. But to what purpose? What accomplishments can the cross boast? What meaning has the cross?

To the extent that we can understand the cross, we must center its meaning in Jesus’s own understanding of his death. And that understanding is not abstract but thoroughly storied – embedded in the central and formative story of God’s salvation of his people in the Passover. Jesus could have avoided his death by simply slipping out of Jerusalem as the plot closed in on him: escape to Galilee, keep a low profile, and all would be well. But he chose to accept his death – he even went so far as to provoke it – during the festival of Passover precisely because he wanted to establish his death as the fulfillment of Passover.

Every Eucharistic liturgy reminds of us of this. The raw materials of the Eucharist – bread and wine – are the symbols of Passover: unleavened bread and the cup of blessing. The fraction anthem said or sung when the bread is broken – a selection from the hymn Pascha Nostrum (Our Passover) penned by St Paul to the Corinthians – makes explicit the relationship.

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Jesus – and the earliest expression of the church – understood his sacrificial death as the fulfillment of the Passover. For Jesus – and the earliest expression of the church – the cross meant for the world what the Passover meant for Israel. And that is the most basic answer to the question, What just happened here? God provided, in and through the cross of Christ, a new Passover for the whole world, a new Passover which accomplished on a global, cosmic scale what the original Passover accomplished on a local, national scale: liberation, citizenship, worth, and relationship.

When in the Passover God acted with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm against Egypt, he liberated Israel from an oppressive and brutal regime, a regime that ultimately destroyed all those it first enslaved. He broke the bonds of oppression and set the prisoners free – something that God, and God alone, could do. God took these slaves, these “beasts” of toil and burden, and made of them a sovereign nation, a people of God, a kingdom of priests. God purchased Israel’s freedom with the currency of Egypt’s firstborn sons, death for life, and gave worth to every son and daughter of Israel: You, Israel, are now my firstborn son, says the LORD. And God brought his children into relationship with him; he made with them a covenant signed by law and sealed by circumcision: I will be your holy God and you will be my holy people. This was Passover to Israel: liberation, citizenship, worth, and relationship.

Now listen to St Paul as he describes the work of God for us in and through the cross of Christ.

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross (Col 1:13-14, 20, NRSV).

All the paschal elements are there in their fullness. When in the cross of Christ God acted with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm against sin and death, hell and the grave, and all the powers of darkness, he liberated us from their oppressive and brutal regime, a regime that ultimately destroys all those it first enslaves. He broke the bonds of that oppression and set all the prisoners free – something that God, and God alone, could do. God took us -- former slaves and worse still, enemies, objects of wrath – and made of us a sovereign nation, a people of his own choosing, a kingdom of priests to the glory of God the Father. God purchased our freedom with the currency of his only-begotten Son, death for life, and thereby gave inestimable worth to every father and mother, son and daughter, to every brother and sister of the Crucified One: You, beloved, are now my children, says the LORD. And God brought us, his children, into relationship with him; he made with us a new covenant signed by grace and sealed by the cup of the new covenant in the blood of Christ: I will be your holy God and you will be my holy people. This is the cross, the fulfillment of Passover to us: liberation, citizenship, worth, and relationship. Is it any wonder that St Paul, in his proclamation of the gospel, determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, a message of foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved the power of God.

Do not ask me why it had to be this way; I do not know. Do not ask me how the cross accomplished these things; it is a mystery. But ask me what just happened, and this I proclaim with all the faithful in every time and place, in heaven above and on earth below: Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast.


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