Sunday, April 17, 2011

Community Wide Palm Sunday Service

 Picture by Patrick Carr

Palm Sunday takes us from adulation to betrayal and desertion. The very crowds who welcome and revere Jesus then begin to yell “Crucify him.” One of Jesus’ closest followers will betray him. Most will desert him. The religious leaders will plot with Roman politicians to snuff out the very life of the one who brings hope.

Jesus begins his journey into Jerusalem surrounded by adoring crowds. The people throw their cloaks on the ground to protect him from the mud and scum on the streets.  They wave palm branches as they cheer and shout, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  This crowd has heard of his healing, his feeding of the hungry, his miracles.  Now he will solve their problems.   He will be their King!

Yet in just a few short days the crowds will turn on Jesus.  Nothing he will say or do will be good enough.  The disciples for the most part will desert Jesus and go into hiding.  And one will even betray his very life by handing him over to the religious and political leaders.  The entire matter will be handled quickly and Jesus will die. 

As our today’s festivities end, we too may feel the dark pall of evil. There’s no happy ending to being a part of sending someone to his execution.

The question posed by that old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” points not to the Judas, Peters, Johns and the Mary’s, but to us. How often have we left our churches when we haven’t gotten those things we think we need? How often have we turned on our brothers and sisters when they have spoken the truth to us? How often have we put our institutions before Jesus? How often have we just run away when things got tough? These sins are alive and well today just as they were then. 

In this Holy Week, which begins today, we have much dying to do, and dying hurts, and dying risks the end of everything. Yet as Christians we know that as Paul says, it is “in dying that we live.” 

A central figure in the passion narrative is Judas.  The betrayer.  The one who handed Jesus over to the authorities.  We stand in condemnation of him and his actions.  Yet do we not do the same thing?  Do we not betray Jesus each time we choose to turn a blind eye on the hungry, the naked, the sick, the prisoner?  Do we not betray Jesus each time we fail to share the Good News of God in Christ?  Do we not betray Jesus when we choose trappings instead of worshiping our lord and savior?  

Today we stand in the judgment seat and condemn Judas and by doing so are we not acting as God and betraying Jesus and his mercy?  The savior who forgives us as he dies?

That is what makes Holy Week so difficult.  We play a part in it.  A central part in it.  Jesus didn’t die for that unknown person.  He died for me.  He died for you.  We don’t want to look at that do we?  That is why Holy Week is so hard to walk through.  Because I put Jesus on that cross.  It makes me want to hide from the week and all that will come.  

And yet we are called to get closer during this week, to take part in remembering the entirety of our salvation story in its pain and its glory, to imagine the mystery of a God whose love is so great that he shares living as we do and experiencing the pain and isolation of the cross in order to bring us the priceless gift of eternal life. 

Many of us work hard to avoid suffering; we have difficulty dealing with tragedy, loss, and death itself.  Some of us will skip Holy Week all together, preferring the joy of Easter Day.  We are challenged by this week to look more closely at ourselves, to come closer.  We are called to stand with Mary and John at the cross.   In a way we cannot explain, the Cross changes everything for us and for the world. Our loving God forgives us and desires to make us new. 

What we do today is not only tell a story of an innocent man going to his death; we re-enact our own trial. A trial which begins with God declaring in Isaiah for us to present our case. What have we to say for ourselves? Is not God, God? Has he not protected us in the past? Has he not fed us and nurtured us? Is he not God? Why have we separated ourselves from him? Why have we not acknowledged who he is, and humbled ourselves before his presence? The stage is now set, let the liturgy now present the facts. How we confess with our lips, but deny his rule by our lives. 

In the death of Jesus upon the cross; we are found guilty. No one came forward to rescue him. No one stayed when he was arrested. We could not be found.  We had all run away so that none of this can touch us.

That is not the end of the story, however. We are found guilty of separating ourselves from God, of betraying him and ourselves. But the story does not end there, the sentence follows. The sentence is not what we deserve, but rather what we need to live. The cross of Jesus Christ becomes not a sentence of condemnation for those who used it to separate themselves from God, but rather an instrument of forgiveness and mercy. 

The sentence is pronounced by Jesus himself: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Jesus forgives us, and asks the Father to forgive us as well. We deserve death, we have chosen to separate ourselves from God, but God spares us because he knows who we are, and what we are capable of. 

This is a difficult week as it should be. We are asked to look in the mirror, see who we are and what we are capable of, both good and bad. Yet even as we see ourselves in the story we tell today and through this week, we are reminded that this day and this week are not about us; they are about God's love for us. It is about a God who longs to be in relationship with us, as we are, and as he created us to be, and what he is willing to do to see that happen. This day and this week are about a relationship with God made possible by his love. 

Enter this week in humility. Expect to see yourself in the frailty of people like Peter, Judas, the soldiers, and Pilate. Enter the week in joy, anticipating the power of God to work in and through our frailty to make us new through his mercy. Enter the week in thanks, for the hope we have depends not upon ourselves but upon a loving God who won't let us go, regardless of our sins.

Almighty and everliving God,
in your tender love for humanity
you sent Jesus to take our nature upon him,
and to suffer death upon the cross,
giving us an example of great humility:
Mercifully grant that we too may walk in the way of the cross, and share in the resurrection;
through the one who is our Saviour and Redeemer
and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
(Adapted by the Sisters of St Helena)

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