Throughout Lent we have been removing one item per week from the front of our worship space. It has been one way of visualizing this theme of “holding on and letting go,” letting go of the usual items that order our world, allow it to become completely bare, and then, soon, allowing resurrection to offer back to us life and color and vitality through the gift of Easter. Having five regular items that are up here made it be a good fit for the exercise. This now being the sixth and final Sunday of Lent, we have reached the point where it’s all cleared out. No worship banner, no tree, no arts, no vision banner.
You may have noticed in your bulletins that the sermon title is also completely blank for today. I would like to be able to say that I did this just as another way of emphasizing letting go of that one more thing, but the truth is that this was one of those weeks where the sermon had not yet chosen to name itself by 3pm Friday afternoon when Violet needed to print the bulletins. So there you have it. A sanctuary without decorum. A sermon without a name.
This Sunday does have the honor of having two different names, and it makes a pretty significant difference which one you choose to emphasize. It is Palm Sunday, the day of celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which the children have already helped us do. And it is also Passion Sunday, the day of remembering, anticipating, the events of Holy Week and Jesus’ death on the cross and his burial. There are two quite different tones here. If one chooses to emphasize Palm Sunday, one goes in the direction of celebration, praise, and rejoicing, joining with the shouts of the disciples and the crowds as they joined in the parade with the humble rider on the donkey, the King Jesus Float, making its way down the road into the city. If one were to emphasize Passion Sunday, one would head in the direction of solemn remembering, mourning the crucifixion, paying attention to the weight of the world placed on Jesus’ shoulders, the brokenness of our humanity and the economic, political, and religious systems that all conspired, and continue to conspire, to destroy life. Add to this the fact that nearly 1/3 – one third! – of the material in the gospels focuses on this one week in Jesus life, this final, parting memory of who he was and what he did – and one is left with quite a bit of material to cover. For the one preparing a sermon it’s sort of like a choose you own adventure situation. If you would like a Palm Sunday, turn to this page. If you would like a Passion Sunday, turn to this page.
The contradictory moods of celebration and lament signal some of the ways that paradox seems to be tied up into the very fabric of Holy Week itself. After his long winding journey through villages and countryside, healing and teaching about the kingdom of God, we finally celebrate Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem like that of a king. Only unlike other kings who would have processed into the city in triumphal procession with pomp and surrounded by full military might, Jesus rides a donkey, essentially lampooning the false powers of fear and domination by which kings tend to rule. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” King…Jesus. It’s a paradox. Two contradictory ideas that don’t seem to be able to hold together, but somehow do.
As everyone is shouting loud praises to God, the Pharisees order Jesus to do a little crowd control and order his disciples to settle down. Jesus answers them by saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Maybe they made stones differently 2000 years ago, but this sounds to me like a bit of a stretch. I’m not sure he could have picked something less likely to cry out. At least choose something a little closer to being alive. Maybe I could see the trees crying out. Or the birds. But stones don’t stand a chance – igneous, sedimentary, nor metamorphic. The Pharisees should have called his bluff.
Although we might also recall those odd words of John the Baptist back in the day when he mentioned that God could raise up from these stones children for Abraham. And it is also worth noting that when Jesus was citing the vocal powers of stones there’s a good chance he was evoking the words of the prophet Habakkuk. “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own! Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm. You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” These stones, it appears, are not shouting out with praise, but as witnesses to the scene of a crime. Habakkuk, deeply troubled by the losses of his people at the hands of their Babylonian captors, speaking to the Babylonians who have gained wealth by inflicting violence on others, seems to be saying that even if no one else will have anything to say about the matter, the stones in the walls of the mansions that have been built from the wealth of other nations will cry out. It’s hard to hide from a wall. If these walls could talk. Apparently, they can. The statement is keeping with the Hebrew notion that all of creation bears witness to the glory of God, as well as the sins of humanity. When the Lord gives the Torah to the Jews, it is said multiples times that heaven and earth will serve as witnesses that they have been given the Torah. If nobody else is around to be a witness, enlist the sky and the earth, call on a stone in the wall, or on the ground, to remember what is going on and to not let it be hidden for all of time.
Whatever is going on here as Jesus enters Jerusalem is so important that even if no human person, if no sentient being were to recognize it for what it was, then other parts of creation, even the stones, would record it and find a way to shout it out. Talking stones. Another of those contradictions that we can’t quite get our minds around.
Even calling this Holy Week feels like a bit of a bad joke – or at least should give us a clue as to the backward, upside-down Christian sense of how we understand the world. The week, the events that unfold between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Easter morning, serves as something of a microcosm for much of what is unholy about the way that we relate to each other as human beings. As soon as Jesus rides into the city he makes a bee-line for the temple, the center of the economic life of the Jewish people. This was also common for the king who entered the city in triumphal procession to go directly toward the temple to make a sacrifice and confirm his rule over the local people with this offering to the diety. But Jesus’ entry into the temple isn’t all that congenial. Rather than bless this institution, he tries to shut it down and drive out those who are buying and selling, who have used their positions to profit from those who could no longer afford to buy their offerings or pay their taxes to fulfill their obligations. We know a little bit these days about takeovers of economic institutions and the problems that come when they are deemed too big to fail, when we are all too wrapped up in dependency and co-operation with their workings that we can’t seem to form it into a system that builds wealth for everyone instead of being a den of robbers – as Jesus calls the temple. Later in the week we encounter enhanced interrogation techniques used against Jesus through the flogging and dragging him before councils. Jesus suffers the death penalty alongside criminals, though he himself is innocent. The stuff of Holy Week is around us all the time, on the front page of newspapers, and, it couldn’t be much farther away from being holy. So why do we use the paradoxical language? What is it that makes this a Holy Week?
The earliest believers began to find expression for some of these questions in the words of a hymn they composed. I’d like to call it a beautiful hymn, but we have no idea how it sounded. We just know the words, this poetry that the apostle Paul includes in his letter to the Philippians. It is a beautiful thought to consider that these deep truths about Christ are best expressed in the beauty of music and poetry, something that can’t quite be contained in common speech or language. The words to the hymn go like this: “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped on to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Now imagine that in four part harmony. It’s the lowering, the humbling, the emptying of Christ that is being honored here. The putting aside any efforts of self-preservation, and allowing oneself to fall, and finding that when one falls, one falls into the arms of God. One can follow the downward mobility going on in this movement. The form of God, lowered to the form of humanity, lowered to the experience of death, lowered to one of the most humiliating and excruciating forms of death – even death on a cross. Which then swings, almost effortlessly, into the words that follow: “Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name.”
It’s the same motion, the same movement happening in the poetry of the book of Isaiah, this prophet to the Jews in exile in Babylon. “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher…The Lord has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks those who pulled out the beard: I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:4-6) There is here also a putting aside of efforts for self-preservation. Only rather than being a continual lowering that is happening, it is just more and more of one’s body that is involved in the giving over. First the tongue, then the ears, then the back, cheeks, beard, and face. And once it is all given over, this light of hope bursts into the picture: “The Lord helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced….Who will contend with me? It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
All of this feels very counter to the forces of evolution. We survive in this world, we believe, because of our strong efforts to preserve our own well-being. To protect our family, our clan, our nation. The species who have survived are those who have been able to adapt to changing environments, who have been able to ward off threats from other species, sometimes violently, who have raised themselves, rather than lowered themselves. It’s a peculiar kind of thing to be honoring one who went the other direction. Who cut against the grain of so many of our tendencies and put it all out there in such a vulnerable position with nothing protecting him from the self-preservation motives of all of the forces he was confronting.
To walk into Jerusalem and face death with an air of victory about you, even as your life is taken from you, and for us to recognize that as a victory, as a signal of hope, to believe that our salvation is somehow connected with that act of powerless power…… If we’re not feeling the paradox, then we’re not paying attention.
I’ve recently heard it said that the gospel message can be summarized in this way: Love wins. Forgiveness works. Grace is free. Peace is possible. Love wins. Forgiveness works. Grace is free. Peace is possible. Pick out any one of those phrases and you could point to situations in the world where it appears that it’s not true. Where love isn’t winning. Where forgiveness isn’t working. Where grace is sold off to the highest bidder or the loudest lobbyist. Where peace feels impossible.
If we are to believe this gospel, receive the gospel as a gift, it will be because we do recognize something deeper than what meets the eye. A stronger current at work underneath all of these forces. A way of being more true to what it means to be human. A voice speaking of another way and luring us toward its poetry and harmony. Sometimes the voice may be about as loud as a shouting stone, which I still have trouble picturing, but there are other times, I believe, when it becomes clear to us that this is really the only way to live. The only way to bring holiness into our unholy lives. The only king worth bowing to.
And I’m pretty certain that each of you are here, still sticking with this whole church gig, because you’ve already experienced some form of this in your life, or at least have a hunger or a hope for this all to become more real. You’ve known a love that has felt like the most transformative force you’ve ever encountered. You’ve known forgiveness to work in healing a relationship. You’ve been extended grace and it has meant everything. You’ve had glimpses of peace being possible, even amidst conflict.
The bread and the cup in front of us this morning is the tangible sign that this is not all just a fanciful idea, existing somewhere out there. This is tangible, tasteable stuff. Something we can sink out teeth into. Something that provides real sustenance and strength for the journey. Something at the source of life itself. The profound simplicity of bread and drink, body and blood, given for us. Provided for us. Offered to us as a gift ready to be received over and over again.
During Holy Week we witness one who entered into the contradictions of our lives and offered us not judgment, not condemnation, not even a five point plan in how to make it all better. But one who offered bread, and offered his life, that we may live, and walk in the way of the gospel.