Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm/Passion Sunday sermon

I'm preaching this morning for the awkwardly named Palm/Passion Sunday. There's a challenge with this festival every year - how much of the story do you tell? If people only come to hear about the palms and the hosannas, and then come back for Easter, they're missing a vital part of the story (yes, that cross thing matters). At the same time, I think it's important to respect the integrity of the festival of Palm Sunday and not steal from Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

So, I tried to balance the royal entry with the Passion narrative. We had three gospel readings for the service. Matthew 21:1-11 was the processional gospel, telling the story of Jesus' royal entry into Jerusalem. During the Word section of the service, we read Matthew 21:23-46, emphasizing Jesus' conflicts with the religious authorities and their desire to get rid of him. (We also used Psalm 118, which tied in nicely with the "chief cornerstone" image.) Then at the end of the service, in place of a benediction, we read Matthew 26:1-5,14-25. This ends ominously with Jesus predicting his betrayal and Judas saying, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" Jesus responds, "You have said so." The congregation then leaves singing "Jesus, Remember Me." My hope is that this sets the stage for Holy Week, reminds us that the triumphal entry is not the real reason Jesus came to Jerusalem, and leaves people feeling unsettled.

Anyway, somewhere in the midst of all of that is my sermon. And here it is for your reading pleasure:

Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We celebrate many festivals and holy days in our church year. Our greatest holiday, Easter, is just a week away. We celebrate Christmas, Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus, the Transfiguration. We have a day commemorating Pentecost and a day to celebrate the Holy Trinity. We have a Sunday to remember the Reformation and we have a Sunday to remember the faithful who have died.

Yet out of all our festivals, today's might be the most confused. The church has taken to calling this day Palm slash Passion Sunday. We call to mind Jesus' royal entry into Jerusalem, with palm branches and crowds shouting "Hosanna!" Yet we also remember Jesus' conflicts with the authorities of his time, his betrayal, his arrest, humiliation, and eventual death.

So what exactly is this festival, this Palm slash Passion Sunday, all about? Do we remember Jesus as the powerful Son of God, the heir to the royal line of David? Or do we remember Jesus as the lowly one, betrayed, going to his death? We could ask the same question about this whole week, this Holy Week, that stretches ahead of us. What do we remember about Jesus - the royal entry, the last supper, the betrayal and arrest, the cross? The empty tomb that we know lies at the end of this journey?

I think the celebration of this holiday is so complex, even confusing, because we have a God - a savior - who is complex. Jesus defies expectations at every turn. He refuses to be pigeonholed, refuses to be limited. Jesus constantly surprises us by being so much more than we expect him to be.

Look at the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. By calling him "the Son of David" and shouting "Hosanna!" they are praising Jesus as a king. Jesus is lifted up as the heir of the royal line, stretching all the way back to King David. The crowd identifies Jesus as a political figure, a promised Jewish king in opposition to the foreign Roman rule. Yet Jesus will upset their expectations, for a royal heir should not be shamefully executed. Jesus does not come to Jerusalem as an earthly king.

Look again at the priests, the religious authorities in the Temple. Almost as soon as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he goes to the Temple - the heart not only of Jewish religion, but Jewish life. The chief priests and elders try to trap Jesus with their words, try to contain his power and authority. But Jesus will not be contained. In fact, he turns the situation around and traps them in their words instead. His parables about the two sons and the wicked tenants are clearly meant to shame the religious authorities. The priests are a like a child who claims to do the will of the parent but actually does nothing. The leaders in the Temple are like tenants of an absentee landlord, who think they can seize the inheritance by killing the heir. Their own words condemn them when they say, "The landlord will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

At the end of our service today, you will hear the story of Judas, who tried to contain and control Jesus by betraying him. Yet Jesus cannot be stopped even by the authority of the Roman Empire or the very power of death itself. No limitations can restrict him. No expectations can encompass him. Jesus is a surprise to everyone, whether the crowds, the priests, or his own disciples.

Sometimes, our clearest expectations are completely reversed. The expectations of the crowds, the priests, even Judas, are turned on their heads by Jesus. I’m reminded of a Native American story about Coyote. Now, Coyote is the trickster character, the one who’s always trying to fool or ensnare others. But more often than not, Coyote gets his comeuppance. In one story about Coyote, he sees a rabbit out in the open. He sneaks up behind a log to get a closer look. The little rabbit sits there, very still, brown-grey in color. Coyote laughs to himself—this rabbit is oblivious, it has no idea what’s coming. Coyote craws quietly around the log, getting closer and closer to the rabbit. Finally, he pounces, mouth wide open—and breaks all his teeth, for it was not a rabbit but a rock he was hunting. Just when our expectations are the strongest, sometimes we are in for a shock. Perhaps the people who watched Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, the priests who eyed him in the Temple, were about to find out that he was not a humble rabbit, but a stone—the chief cornerstone, as Jesus himself says.

So today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion. We celebrate a complicated festival today because we worship a complicated God, a God who defies expectations and breaks free from every limit. This is good news! But it should also be a word of warning to us. How do we try to contain God? How to we try to limit Jesus? What expectations do we have that will be turned on their heads?

From time to time, we are like the crowds shouting "Hosanna!" outside the city. We assume that God will solve our civil and political problems, taking charge over human affairs. We claim that God favors our nation, our people. We set God up as an earthly king.

From time to time, we are like the priests, thinking we can trap God with our words. We try to bargain with God - promising our loyalty in return for God's support. Or we act like those wicked tenants from Jesus' parable. We believe that we can behave wickedly and manage to steal the blessings that God provides.

From time to time, we are even like Judas. When God does something we don't like, something that frightens or intimidates us, we turn our backs. We refuse to follow where God is leading. We would rather betray God than accept God.

We have so many expectations of God - expectations of what we think God should do, and expectations of what we think God shouldn't do. Expectations about what God accepts and what God rejects. Expectations about what God wants - either from us or from others. Too often, we try to force God into a box of our making.

Yet Palm/Passion Sunday, this awkward festival, reminds us that God will not be contained. Whether we expect a king or a dead man, Jesus will surprise us. No matter what kind of box - or tomb - we try to force Jesus into, he will burst free in the most unexpected ways.

Jesus will always surprise us. This is good news indeed. It frees us from our limiting expectations, our petty ideas of what God can be. Because God is far greater than we can begin to imagine. The crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem thought that an earthly king was the greatest possibility. The priests and elders couldn’t imagine a new reality. Yet God brings us this new reality, this new life. If we allow ourselves to be surprised by Jesus, the humble king, we will step into a new life with him.

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