Sunday, April 17, 2011

So it begins: the descent into Holy Week, marching with palms

Painting by Marilyn Barton
This year we are trying something different this year at St. Paul's for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Instead of hearing the entire Passion in one sitting, we are pausing in the Upper Room with Jesus and Peter and our palms. The gospel lesson we are hearing will be the first part of the Passion according to Saint Matthew. I am hoping we let each day of Holy Week unfold for us, one scene at a time.

On Maundy Thursday, we will hear John's gospel and the washing of feet. On Good Friday, we will take this theme a step further. Beginning at noon, seven people from our congregation will describe seven scenes of the Passion. Then, on Saturday morning, we will mark the descent of Jesus into Hell. On  Saturday night, the darkness will be pierced with the first proclamation of Easter.

I hope you will join us for all of it. To set our first scene, here is the description from Matthew of the procession of palms into Jerusalem, followed by my sermon, and then the gospel lesson for today. May you have a blessed Holy Week.

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Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 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. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
"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."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 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!"
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee." 
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Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011

And so it begins: 

Palms, a Passover dinner, and words that Peter will live to regret: I will never deny you. Never. Not me. 
Today we enter the swirl of Holy Week, entering again into an ancient story of hope and betrayal, courage and cowardice, fear and tragedy. We descend again into the valley of the shadow of death. 

We will hear again Peter’s boast, and we will hear again how he collapsed and denied the One he followed. 
Because we know how the story comes out, we might be tempted to skip past each of these scenes, and get straight to the lilies of Easter. 
This year, rather than reading the entire Passion narrative from start to finish – jamming all of Holy Week into a single reading – today we are doing something different. 

Today we stop here in the Upper Room and hold onto our palms. We stay with the people who are with Jesus. At that moment, they don’t know the end of the story, and they are yearning to know what comes next. They come with the deepest hardest questions of life and death, and so do we.
This Holy Week, I would like us to let their story unfold a little more slowly, one day at a time, and enter into each scene one frame at a time. Maybe by doing this we might notice something we’ve never noticed before. 
Today, we hold onto our palms. 

Imagine, if you will, that there were two processions into Jerusalem that day. The idea is plausible; New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan propose this idea of two processions as an exercise of historical imagining to bring into sharp focus the importance of these palms. 
So imagine this scene: At one end of Jerusalem, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, rides into the city on a big white stallion, surrounded by marching foot soldiers clad in armor, carrying shields, swords and lances. 

They push people out of the way, and anyone who is slow is trampled under foot.
The historical record tells us that Pilate was known as a particularly vicious governor, even by Roman standards, and given to shows of raw power. 

He regularly executed anyone whom he perceived as a threat, or anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. He ruled for 10 years, from 26 to 36 C.E. until he was recalled by Rome for his misrule. 
Palm Sunday, India 2006, BBC News
At the other end of the Jerusalem, picture another procession: A Jewish holy man, Jesus, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded people wearing not much more than a tunics and sandals. 

By some estimates there are as many as 200,000 pilgrims – mostly poor peasants – who flood into the city following this holy man. 
The best description of this contrast I’ve read comes from our own Beth Molmen, who sings in our choir, and wrote the reflection for today in our Lenten meditation booklet: 

The procession of brute power, Beth writes, shows how: “Anger begets anger, hatred begets hatred, and violence merely continues the endless cycle of violence, the passing of earthly power from one ruler to another.” 

The procession of palms is sharply counter to that. As Beth writes: “The non-violent response described in today’s readings undermines that cycle, rejecting human structures of power and conflict.” 

In this tale of two processions, the Roman authorities most certainly would have seen the peasants and their palms as a direct threat. The Jewish holy man would have been arrested ASAP, as indeed, he was. 
The Romans would have seen this march of palms the way the British saw Gandhi’s salt march to the sea; or the way segregationists saw the march of black Americans across the Selma bridge; or the way the Soviets saw the Solidarity marchers in Polish shipyards, or the way Hosni Mubarak recently saw hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo. 
Every one of those marches changed the world. 
As we enter Holy Week, we do well to remember how courageous were these peasants who carried palms on that day long ago. We call them “holy” now, but they were not unlike you and I. They didn’t have all the answers, they certainly had doubts, but they kept marching anyway. 
There are many ways to march. 
We, too, are called to take up our palms, literally and figuratively, and take them beyond these walls to do work we’ve been given to do. There are times when it is necessary to oppose power structures that exploit and harm people. 

And there are times when we are called to quietly care for people in their pain and need, in our homes or the workplace, and in our community and in our world. 
Marching with palms will not always be easy, and there will be missteps and setbacks. 

Perhaps that is the point of Holy Week, to sharpen our awareness of a loving God who marches beside us, who goes with us into the deepest darkest holes of life and death and gives us strength – especially in the setbacks. That is why it we call this a holy week. 
The rest of the story will unfold in this Holiest of weeks, and it is my fervent wish that each of you will come experience this week in a way you’ve never experienced it before.

I hope you will return for the story of Maundy Thursday and how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, becoming their servant – and come get your own feet wet. 
Then, be with us for Good Friday and hear about the scenes at the foot of the Cross. Seven people from our congregation will tell us the story from seven perspectives, beginning at noon on Good Friday. 

That evening we will hold the haunting medieval service of Tenebrae, with its chants and readings as the lights dim.

On, Saturday morning at 9am we will mark the moment when Christ descends to the depths of hell itself to free everyone from the bondage of death. 

Then, on Saturday evening, the Great Vigil of Easter begins by lighting a fire outside, and following the Paschal candle into the darkness here inside as we wait for the first proclamation of Easter. Remember to bring bells. 

And our celebration will continue the next morning on Easter Sunday. 
Today, though, there are palms, and the remembering of the Last Supper, and the words of Peter: “I will never deny you.” 
We remember again moments of great courage, and moments of great frailty when even, like Peter, in our best of intentions, we falter. Soon enough, we descend to the valley of the shadow of death; and we will come face-to-face once again with the hard questions of life and death. 
Easter will come, but not yet. AMEN.

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The Beginning of the Passion According to Saint Matthew
(Matthew 26:14-35)

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'" So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me." And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, "Surely not I, Lord?" He answered, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" He replied, "You have said so."

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
`I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'
But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee." Peter said to him, "Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

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