A SERMON FOR
THE SUNDAY OF THE PASSION: PALM SUNDAY
APRIL 5, 2020
TRINITY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
It is right to praise you, Almighty God, for the acts of love by
which you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ
our Lord. On this day he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in
triumph, and was proclaimed as King of kings by those who
spread their garments and branches of palm along his way.
Let these branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that
we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our King,
and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life; who lives
and reigns in glory with you and the Holy Spirit, now and
Baruch Haba (Blessed Is He Who Comes)
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Blessed is He who comes
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Who comes in the name of the Lord.
The verse which I just shared with you is from one of the very first Messianic Jewish songs that I encountered, and was composed by one of the best-known musicians of that movement, Paul Wilbur. I quickly grew to love this song. It seems to be a surprising mix of major and minor—of happy and sad. It seems entirely appropriate for today.
When I think of that crowd which celebrated the arrival of our Lord and which welcomed him into the Holy City of Jerusalem, on that first day of Holy Week, I can not help but recall that they were Messianic Jews. At that point, there were no Christians. There were those who loved and followed Jesus, there were those who anxiously prayed for the coming of the Messiah—though there was no unity in thought as to what the coming of the Messiah would mean—and there were those who were afraid and threatened by the movement which Jesus had begun. The latter group were happy with the way that things were-or else had made some accommodation with those in power and were afraid of change.
For each of these disparate groups, Jesus had provoked a crisis. His words and actions forced them into making a choice. He confronted power, injustice, and oppression. That is never a safe thing to do! There is always a price to be paid for those who call out for justice, righteousness, and peace.
The difficult thing for us who celebrate the transition from Lent into Holy Week is that as Paul Harvey famously reminded us, “now, we know the rest of the story.” It is challenging for us to remain focused in the moment and to allow the events of Holy Week to unfold for us. It is almost as if though we need to deny ourselves the knowledge of what is coming in order to really enter into each of the transformative experiences of the week.
The current celebration in most of the liturgical churches in an uneasy balancing act between two worlds. We celebrate both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday on the same day. The two celebrations are quite unique and, in a way, complimentary. Yet, there is a level in which they remain distinct. Because the tradition of reading the Passion on this Sunday was intended to prepare us for Holy Week by giving us a kind of “heads up” about the importance of each of the days of the Paschal Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ; the celebration of Palm Sunday somehow seemed to get “lost in the mix.” The two Gospel readings which we here today begin with Palms, but soon move—and quite quickly—into table, garden, cross, tomb, empty tomb in a garden, and Post-Resurrection appearance. It feels like a kind of marathon. By the time that we finish reading and listening to the Passion, we have forgotten about the beginning. Palm Sunday is overlooked and forgotten in light of what follows.
Today, I would like to reflect with you on what the events of Palm Sunday might have meant to each of those three groups I mentioned at the beginning, and on what all of this could mean to us-here and now.
The Liturgy of the Palms, which tells the story of the Triumpful Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, shares a most fascinating Psalm, Psalm 118. Dr. Brant Pitre, a renowned Roman Catholic Biblical scholar explains that for First Century Jews, this Psalm had become identified with hopes for the Messiah. And so, whenever the Psalm was prayed, it was connected with hopes for deliverance and rescue by God. That literally is what the word “hosanna” means.
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.
In the Gospel of Matthew though, there is a slight twist to the words, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!
The unruly crowd which greets Jesus welcomes him as a descendant of the House of David, and this has clear messianic overtones. Each King of Israel had been anointed with blessed oil on the day of his coronation-thus the literal connection to the word “mashiah”: which means anointed one. The surprise, though, is that the reference to palms had another connotation. Psalm 118 cries for the messiah to be greeted with a procession of branches (or palms) which will ultimately lead to the Temple where he will offer a sacrifice on the altar. Some understood this to mean that the messiah would also be a priest. In any case, the very optimistic and hopeful liturgy which unfolded on Palm Sunday reverberated with clear hopes The crowd repeatedly cried out, “Hosannah,” save us, rescue us, deliver us.
I wonder what the followers of Jesus thought of all this? I suppose that many of them were excited that the Rabbi, whom they loved so dearly, appeared to finally be getting the honor, respect, and acknowledgement which they thought he so profoundly deserved. This “over the top welcome” must have seemed too good to be true. They began this Holy Week full of hope. They had made it. Jesus had made it. He was now a power to be reckoned with. For them, this may have been like an inauguration. Now they waited excitedly to see what Jesus was going to do and how he was going to begin to push for the changes which had been at the heart of his prophetic ministry for several years. I can only imagine too, that in a more self-serving way, they were wondering what their own reward would be for having faithfully followed him from obscurity to this meteoric rise to fame.
Among the others, who greeted Jesus that day, there were some who hoped for the coming of the messiah for other reasons. One group were incipient rebels and revolutionaries. They had daily suffered the abuses and cruelty of the Roman occupation and were filled with a zeal for independence and freedom. Like the Maccabees before them, they longed to throw off the brutal yoke of the oppressor. They waned to restore the throne of David—or at the very least political and military independence. There was a desire to return to the “glory days” of David and Solomon—when Israel had been at the peak of power and influence. For this group, Jesus showed promise of become a rallying force which would unite the people into a rebel army.
There was a second group of onlookers that day. These were the poor, the needy, the broken dregs of society who were struggling just to survive. In a world in which they felt overlooked, forgotten, ignored, and devalued, they found in Jesus “good news” which seemed too good to be true—God did love them and care for them after all. They actually did have value and worth. They were not so much concerned with political and military concerns–they literally longed for enough bread and water to make it through the day. In Jesus, they had found someone who spoke kindly to them, who was unafraid to touch them–filthy and sick as they were. They had also found someone who made the lame walk, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear. He had restored dead Lazarus to life! Jesus was not afraid to interact with women, with lepers, with foreigners, and sinners. His love was inclusive, welcoming, and generous. For the first time, they were able to imagine a future in which they too would be included, loved, and valued. Because it was–and Matthew is quite clear about this–the final days of preparation for the Pilgrim Festival of the Passover–Jerusalem was filled with Jewish tourists from all over the Mediterranean.
On the sidelines, watching all this, were the “powers that be”; the Roman authorities, the party of the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, and other Jewish religious authorities. There were also curious, and alarmed, representatives of competing Jewish sects; Pharisees, Essenes, and numerous others whose identities have been lost to history. Each of these groups viewed Jesus as a threat, as someone who was in danger of “upsetting the cart,” as he had earlier upset the commerce of the Temple. This was a moment in which they realized that these dangerous messianic hopes must be crushed—and the sooner the better, before things really got out of control. There is a fascinating lyric from Jesus Christ Superstar in which Judas attempts to reason with Jesus and to warn him, “I am frightened by the crowd. For we are getting much too loud. And they’ll crush us if we go too far.”
The Good news for us, at the beginning of this Holy Week, is that in Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Son of David, God has truly come to us. To love us, to forgive us, to heal us, to strengthen, and to empower us. God has come to enable us to become a force for good, for inclusion, and for generous loving service to those in need. God has come to break down walls and barriers. God has come to establish justice, equality, and freedom. God has come to lift up the lowly, the forgotten, the poor, the hungry, the widow and orphan. God has come to welcome the foreigner, the stranger, the “other.” In God’s family, and house, all will be welcome. And so, like those who found new hope in Jesus, we cry out, “Hosannah Son of David.” Save us, rescue us, deliver us!
In the days to come, we will walk with Our Lord through the Streets of Jerusalem.
On Maundy Thursday. we will gather in the Upper Room to celebrate the last Passover of Jesus, and his last Supper. Here Jesus will institute a New Passover and will identify himself with the Bread and Wine of the Seder. He will wash the feet of his disciples and give us a new commandment that we must love and serve each other. We will journey with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Garden of the oil press, on the Mount of Olives. We will fall asleep as Jesus struggles to accept the cost of love and service. After a time of anguished prayer, he will surrender in love and absolute trust to his Father.
On Good Friday, we will be in the crowd loudly shouting, “crucify him,” as Jesus is tried, condemned, humiliated, tortured, and then publicly executed. Or else, we will be among those who are frightened and who run away.
On Holy Saturday—the Sabbath–we will gather at the tomb, numb, cried-out, heart broken and full of anguish, as all our hopes seem to crash around us in defeat.
That night, at the beginning of the first day of the week, the day of the New Creation, we will gather in the dark to welcome the light of Christ. We will follow the Paschal Candle, the new Pillar of Fire, to the altar. We will hear the Exulset, that Hymn of Deliverance, that Hymn recounting Salvation History, that Hymn which welcomes our Messiah to save and to deliver us, here and now. We will join with Sisters and Brothers who will, through the saving waters of Holy Baptism, cross through the sea into the New Exodus. And, we will hear that glorious Easter Proclamation, “Christ is Risen. Christ is Truly Risen.” We will join with those women and other disciples at the Empty tomb to encounter our Risen Lord.
In this Holy Week, we will face obstacles. In a time of pandemic, we will not be able to assemble together as God’s beloved Children. Many among us will be ill and in danger. Some, sadly, will be dying. Others will be risking their own safety to care for those who are ill; doctors, nurses, health care personnel, first responders, and family members.
This year, as every year, we will also be called to reflect on the ways in which this annual celebration of the core mysteries of our faith, as followers of Jesus. has been twisted over so many centuries into anti-Christian acts. For centuries, these Holy Days were the most terrifying and fearful ones which our Jewish Sisters and Brothers experienced in so many parts of the world. After hearing the Proclamation of the Passion, Christians ran into the ghettoes and shtetels and began pogroms of violence and hatred against the very family of Jesus.
I conclude with a final thought which so often has reminded me of what Holy Week, and what Christianity are ultimately all about, “Holy Week is not so much about how much Jesus suffered, as it is about how much Jesus loved.”
Baruch ha ba—Blessed is Jesus, our Messiah, who comes—who comes to save, deliver, heal, and restore us–in God’s name-b’Shem Adonai.