Weekly Preaching: Palm Sunday, 2018

March 21st, 2018

When we sit down to plan worship, we always entertain the question: are we doing Palm Sunday or Palm/Passion Sunday? I acknowledge we have to decide what texts to read; to read the full passion narrative out loud requires a total restructure of the service, which can be lovely and moving. At my church, we've interspersed reading a section and then music/hymn, sort of Lessons & Carols-like.

But the dichotomy is less clear to me than it once was. There is no Palm Sunday without an eye to the Passion, no festive entry that is simply party time. His entry is ominous, dripping with irony. He enters to die — the forces of evil are already arrayed against him. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their stellar The Last Week, explain how, with Passover due, Pilate with his Roman legion is marching into Jerusalem from Caesarea to the west, arms clattering, swords glinting in the sun, the thunder of hooves and chariots meant to intimidate, to quell any thought of an uprising with the huge crowds visiting the Holy City. Simultaneously from the east, as clear a counterpoint as you could imagine, Jesus enters — not on a war stallion, unarmed, not to intimidate but to unmask the powers, to conquer evil and hate with mercy and love.

Hosanna, heysanna!” from Jesus Christ Superstar captures the mood dramatically. For me, I love the fact that "Hosanna!" isn't a cheer. It's a prayer, meaning something like "Lord, help, please," or "Help us now." What was the tone of the Hosannas on Palm Sunday — as habituated as the people were by the Romans to stay quiet?

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I am pondering doing something ultra-creative (which frightens me a bit), building a sermon around What did Jesus see in trees? I started with the idea that when he saw palm fronds, those branches they waved at Palm Sunday, he liked them... but shuddered a few days later when what he'd seen in other trees were those strands of thorns (the dreaded zizyphus spina christi, with a bit of itchy, burning poison which would grace his brow on the cross).

Then I thought of Jesus and trees, period. He'd worked in wood with his father; The Last Temptation of Christ envisions Jesus making crosses for the Romans. Did he see building material? Did he see birds in the trees (which he spoke of so eloquently in the Sermon on the Mount)? I thought of Mary Chapin Carpenter's lovely "Only a Dream," recalling a childhood of looking up into elm trees with her sister; did Jesus recall his childhood? Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) might help... At Passover, did Jesus notice wood having been recently cut down for the fires of the temple altar or for the fires the Roman soldiers in the city used to keep the peace? Jesus wound up dying on a tree. I may delve back into that lovely medieval "Dream of the Rood," which tells the story of the tree that became the cross. Will I do this to break my own boredom of preaching now on my 37th Palm Sunday? or stick to my usual?

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David Bentley Hart eloquently articulated the humility that is God in The Beauty of the Infinite, how God “apparels himself in common human nature… brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds.”

Even the whitest, most prosaic preacher can indulge in a bit of a cadence this week. Something like Instead of a war stallion, he rode a donkey; instead of a palace he was born in a manger; instead of wielding spears and swords he was armed with nothing but love — and so forth. People love this, and it can capture the counter-cultural-ness that is the Gospel. Last year, with the election looming, I observed how Jesus is humble, courageous but not angry. Yet we fawn over leaders who are arrogant, and angry — and we are driven by fear. I might revisit that this year.

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The confusion that reigned on the first Palm Sunday is worth exploring. People were wrapped up in their fantasies about Jesus, about God, and about what deliverance would look like. The Epistle reading, Philippians 2:5-11 (a perfect Palm or Palm/Passion text, toward which I leaned in my sermon three years ago) clarifies what Jesus was demonstrating by entering the city on a donkey. The translation is fascinating: we typically hear “Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” But the Greek will allow for an even more insightful rendering: “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” Jesus’ humility, his lowness, his vulnerability — this is not temporary charade, no play acting whereas God’s 'real' nature is sheer, unadulterated power and might. This is God: the humble one; the infant in a cow stall; the abject, beaten, silent one; the nailed one.

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If you do the full Markan passion account, I’d commend Donald Senior’s brief and wise The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, a close reading of the text in context, beginning with “The hostility against Jesus was a result of Jesus’ own mission” (which he then unfolds for us), and ending with “The true identity of Jesus as God’s son is manifested not in acts of marvelous power but in an event seemingly devoid of any power, his passion and death." He also includes lots on what we do as a consequence, like “The cross is both what we have to endure and what we actively and deliberately take up.”

I will never again ponder the passion narrative with recalling Robert Jenson’s wise conclusion to his exploration of various theories of the atonement:

“The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back... The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”  

The question for the preacher is: Can I trust the story, or do I feel some compulsion to dress it up and improve upon it?

This adapted article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 

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