9 April 2017 – Palm Sunday

The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Palm Sunday
9 April 2017

The Liturgy of the Palms

  • Matthew 21:1-11
  • Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Psalm 31:9-16
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Matthew 26:14- 27:66

The end of our wilderness journey is in sight. Just seven sunsets separate us from the time of celebration… but what a set of days these last seven will be.Echoing promises of the tempter from Ash Wednesday, we enter into our final week of Lent with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—shouts of acclaim and the hope of Messiah taking David’s throne from Rome as an earthly king are quickly changed over the course of Jesus’ last week of cleansing the temple, challenging the temple authorities, and teaching and healing in the temple. We arrive in today’s gospel with Judas’ plot to betray Jesus, the last supper with Jesus and his disciples, the betrayal, with swords and clubs, and the second echo of temptation: to call on the angels to come to his rescue in the Garden of Gethsemane, which Christ answers by refusing to claim divine power in service to personal fear rather than in service to love. Abandoned, betrayed, denied, beaten, thirsty, and taunted, Jesus is faced with his final temptation issued by passers by, chief priests, scribes, and elders, to come down from the cross. Yet despite all that he has suffered, his last testament to Love’s integrity is courage in the face of state-sanctioned domination, torture, and execution.

For those unable to come to our Holy Week services this coming week, today is the culmination of our Lenten journey. It is the combination of the Palms, the celebration of Christ’s acclaim as teacher, healer, prophet, messiah, and ultimately his rejection when he doesn’t behave as the messiah the people have been brought to expect. It is the culmination of three years of teaching, healing, serving, loving, and ministry—of constantly undermining the systems of domination and oppression that rule the hearts as well as the bodies of his followers. It is the double-edged sword of a love that heals, draws in, lifts up, includes, and equalizes, and which, at the same time, defies the powers of fear, domination, and hatred that seek to harm, cast out, put down, exclude, and hoard power for selfish aggrandizement. Responding from the privilege of power and out of fear for what the abundance of God’s inexhaustible love both means and does to the carefully laid systems of our world, Church and State collaborated in nailing God’s love to a cross—as an attempt to silence it with force and with fear.

And to all appearances, on this day of Palm Sunday, God’s love has been killed and laid in a tomb, sealed by church sanction and state military for all time in the belly of stone’s cold embrace.

And here we are left, and here we remain this week, in the darkness of the tomb.

This coming week we’ll take each piece of today’s gospel reading in turn. On Maundy Thursday, we’ll join together with Christ and his closest friends at the Last Supper, to draw near with them as they share in the ancient Passover meal that coincides with Passover this week in our own contemporary world, and to examine the anguish of leave taking, the visceral fear of what must be endured both physically and emotionally in betrayal, abandonment, denial, humiliation, and pain. On Good Friday we’ll accompany Jesus and the few women courageous enough to stand with him at the foot of the cross, to weep, to watch, and to bear witness to the worst humankind has to offer in response to God’s invitation into relationship. And on the night of Holy Saturday, we’ll join together with Mary of Magdala to make our way through the darkness to the tomb of Christ for our Easter Vigil.

What do we say on a day like today that can do or say more than the stories themselves already tell us? Here we are, in the final week of our 40 day wilderness experience. We’ve journeyed with Christ, examined the condition of our hearts in relationship with God and one another, heard God’s invitation to come out from behind our walls of alienation and brokenness to find renewal, forgiveness, healing, and love; we’ve been invited with Nicodemus to go deeper with God and find what relationship truly means through the eyes of one for whom there simply is no score to keep, we’ve been surprised with the Samaritan woman at the well by our trickster God sneaking past our defenses and loving us no matter what, we’ve been given the perspective and opportunity to open our eyes with the man blind since birth and to reopen our lives and hearts to the relationships that matter most to us; with Ezekiel, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we’ve weathered the dark night of the soul and been reminded of the promise of the light to come, and today we draw from each of these desert lessons as we enter into the time of trial, temptation, sacrifice, and crucifixion with Christ.

In betrayal at the hand of one of his twelve closest and most trusted friends, in desperation in the garden of Gethsemane, in abandonment with the desertion of his disciples and Peter’s denials, despised by those who just a few short days ago shouted his acclaim, scourged and nailed to the rough wood of the cross by the soldiers, Jesus dies the death of one utterly scorned—a death reserved for insurrectionists, traitors, and enemies of the State.

Last week we talked about loss and the dark night of the soul, which Christ’s followers, disciples, friends, and family have just been plunged into themselves in today’s gospel. For us, seeking meaning in Christ’s death outside of the context of resurrection is an exercise in spiritual anticipation. For them it was the simple reality of losing the one on whom hung all their hopes and dreams for the realization of centuries of messianic prophecies. Their coming golden age of peace and prosperity was just nailed to a cross and laid in a tomb, dead. Rome had killed God’s anointed one. Had Rome really won out over God? Were they wrong about Jesus? What just happened?!

The beauty of this day is that in the blessedness of the cosmic cliff-hanger where we’re left, we are faced with the question of what it all means if it simply ends in the tomb.

We’ve talked a bit this Lent about Jesus not being the messiah people expected, a theme we’ll return to periodically throughout the church year. Rather, he was the Messiah God expected. The kingdom of messiah, as it turned out, is God’s kingdom—a kingdom no one can ever possesses, and yet is everyone’s to give away, precisely because reaching out in love and care to those around us is how we bring God’s kingdom to life in our world. The messiah who takes on worldly powers to usher in a reign of peace and prosperity happened… but not in the way it was expected. Jesus didn’t come with swords and take David’s seat as king. He came healing, bringing people back together with God and one another, he came with fellowship, with bread, with hands and heart open and without bowing to the fears of society that kept people powerless and oppressed. He took on the systems of domination and oppression and overturned them without spilling a single drop of blood—other than his own.

So what does it all mean? What is this Palm Sunday phenomenon that traces the rapid path from the triumphal entry to the tomb?

Taking a step back from our Western roots, as we did on our first Sunday in Lent, we take a step back also from the belief that God had to kill Jesus as a sacrifice to pay for our sins. The banking system of payment for sin is one we’ve talked all through Lent about both Jesus and Paul working against. Yet, as our Eucharist claims, and as Paul recognizes, there was a Sacrifice made by Christ in dying on the cross. There was a willingness to suffer the ultimate penalty for loving as God loved, heedless of the consequences. Today those consequences are made manifest in Christ’s being forsaken utterly, and killed by those who feared, fought against, and sought to snuff out a love that was too open, too abundant, too egalitarian, too unconditional, and simply too radical for them to comprehend, accept, or to allow it to rob them of their power.

Christ sacrificed himself not just for us as we seek to repair the breech we’ve opened between ourselves and God, but also to us as an offering of God’s love that has the courage to face the worst of our retaliation in fear against a love that threatens to open us and remake us in every encounter.

Christ’s sacrifice, in this regard, is not that of a selfless victim, powerless against those seeking to harm him. Rather, it is a conscious and self-giving act of courage and a continuous outpouring of love in the face of fear and oppression. Given the choice between submitting to fear and tempering his proclamation of Gods’ love, or standing courageously behind all that he had taught, been, and lived, our Christ faced the ultimate penalty to show us that no power in all of creation will ever stop God from loving us.

And so on this day of Palm Sunday, as we journey with Christ from apparent triumph in shouts of acclaim to apparent defeat in death, what we discover is quite the opposite. Where we began, the powers of fear and domination demanded answer in kind, and the people’s shouts of acclaim anticipated the expected confrontation and show of divine power in retribution. Where we ended was the true victory—of love’s ultimate and most courageous sacrifice in the face of fear and oppression, to not simply force it into submission, but to undo for all time the power of fear to separate us from God’s love.

If Israel’s Passover was out of slavery to Egypt, ours, through Christ, is out of slavery to a fear that allows our hearts to be closed off from God’s love. Called to love as Christ loved, called to love as God loves, we stand in that same gap, faced with the same choices—to give in, or to keep the feast.

In the words we remember at every celebration of Christ’s self-giving and Eucharistic love, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast!