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SUNDAY SERVICES: 9:00 & 11:15 A.M.
Scripture - Luke 19:29-42a
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Palm/Passion Sunday, March 24, 2013
We began Lent six weeks ago by rubbing ashes on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. I remember looking into the eyes of many of you, rubbing my thumb in the black powdery residue of burnt palm branches and then as I sketched a cross on your forehead saying, "Janet, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." "Bob, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
I remember the lump in my throat when Camilla stood in front of me and I said, "Honey, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." I remember holding back tears when I got down on my knees to put a cross on the forehead of some of our young children and saying to them "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
One other thing I cannot forget about that night is what many of you said to me after I placed the ashes on your forehead and reminded you of your mortality. Many of you said, "Thank you."
Living in a death-denying culture as we do, it's not what you would expect. I'm not sure I can fully unpack the meaning of that "Thank you." It may not have meant the same thing to each of you who said it. It may have surprised some of you that the words "Thank you" rose to the surface and crossed your lips. "Susan, you are not going to live forever, you're going to die."
I suspect that one reason for the "Thank you" is because it is the truth. In a culture that idolizes image more than substance; in a culture that claims that happiness can be found in possessions; in a culture that celebrates self-centeredness at the expense of the common good; in a culture that contrives all sorts of rationales to ignore pressing problem it is good to hear a word of truth.
I suspect there is at least one other reason for the "Thank you." It is a crucial reminder that since our lives are limited, we dare not put off vital matters. The black soot and frank statement prompts us to ask ourselves: Am I on the right path? Am I following the way of Jesus?
Today is Palm and Passion Sunday, the day we remember the final week in the life of Jesus. It begins with his poor man's parade into Jerusalem. With a number of his followers in tow, Jesus has been marching toward Jerusalem for several weeks. He has planned his arrival to correspond precisely with the week of Passover when tens of thousands of pilgrims swell the population of the Holy City to several times its normal size.
Each year, Jewish pilgrims from miles around would ascend the hills to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival that was central to their faith. The Passover recalled the defining historical moment when God liberated the Hebrew people from an oppressive government. With religious and political passions running at fever pitch, the Romans - the current government holding the Jewish people in check - also crammed into Jerusalem to beef up the occupying army.
Pilate was the Roman governor who ruled the territory that included Jerusalem. Each Passover it fell to him to march into the city with additional Roman troops.
I suspect Pilate considered this the worst week of his year. His chief residence was in Caesarea Maritima, a stunning resort town on the coast of the beautiful Mediterranean, 60 miles away. He had to leave the tranquility of his seaside home to make a show of force in a city that was teeming with people who deeply resented him and all he represented. It was into this potential powder keg, that Jesus led his carefully choreographed procession.
Remember, the people have just witnessed the mighty and daunting military parade of Pilate who marched into the city on a mighty stallion surrounded by menacing Roman soldiers. It would have been an amazing display of power meant to send a message: "Don't forget who is in charge."
How could Jesus look like anything but a joke following such a display of power? By turning the joke on Pilate, Jesus follows Pilate's impressive show of might with political parody. Think Tina Fey does Sarah Palin. No, better. More like John Stewart does Darth Vader.
Rather than marching in on a mighty stallion, Jesus lumbers in on a lowly donkey. Rather than being surrounded by soldiers, his band is made up of the poor and outcasts. Rather than his followers brandishing spears and swords, they wave palm brunches. By having the guts to poke fun at Pilate's showy entrance, Jesus turns people's heads and prompts them to wonder about powers greater than brute force.
Pilate's intent was to declare that Caesar was their king and in charge of their destiny. But the followers of Jesus shout, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!"
The Pharisees who witness this parody know that Jesus is playing with fire. They fear Pilate will get word of what's happening and come down on all the Jews with a vengeance. That's why they say to Jesus, "Teacher, order your disciples cut it out!"
But his satirical parade has already made its point and it's too late to retract it. Jesus answers the Pharisees, "Even if they do not say another word, the stones would shout out the message."
Jesus was so full of God that he could not simply teach people to be good and to treat one another with kindness. He was full of righteous anger toward those in charge of the oppressive system that levied heavy taxes that kept the majority of people desperately poor. When he came to Jerusalem, the seat of power, Jesus was not ready to make nice. He was there to confront the Romans and their Jewish collaborators.
Luke tells us that as Jesus came near to Jerusalem, he shed tears over the city, saying, "If you had only recognized the things that make for peace!" And he did not mean merely the absence of violence, but also health, wholeness and well-being.
The day after his parody parade, Jesus marched to the temple. And you know what happened. He flipped the tables of the money changers and accused the temple leaders of turning God's house of prayer into a den of robbers because they were in collusion with the occupiers robbing the people of everything they had. Later in the week, these leaders would arrest Jesus and find him guilty of blasphemy. They would turn him over to the Romans who had the power to execute him. By sundown on Friday, he hung dead on a cross.
Why did Jesus do it? From the moment he set his sights on Jerusalem, he knew what the outcome would be. Those in power would not tolerate his challenge. They would do what it took to silence him. Why did he do it? His commitment to God's agenda for justice was so passionate and his love for each person was so fierce that he would not give in to fear.
In the final days of his life, Jesus suffered the betrayal of friends, the humiliation of rejection, the agony of torture and the torment of feeling utterly alone - cut off from friends, cut off from family and feeling as if he were cut off from God. What kind of savior is this?
A few years after his death, writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote: "We proclaim Christ crucified." We North Americans who prefer to leap from Palm Sunday with its palms right over Good Friday's cross to Easter with its lilies. We who prefer to ignore suffering and death and proclaim only the resurrection, would surely write, "We proclaim Christ impressive and successful!" But Paul wrote, "We proclaim Christ crucified."
While many want to think of God's power in terms of the power to keep them safe or the power to give them what they want, the Christian faith reveals God's power in terms of love. If you love the way a parent loves a child, you make yourself vulnerable. It is in the suffering of Christ that we witness the true depth of God's love for us. It is a love that does not love from a safe distance, but a love that makes itself vulnerable to pain.
Several years ago, the son of Yale theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff, died. The professor wrote a book that revealed his wrestling with God's role in the death of his son. At one point he talked about the Old Testament belief that no one can behold God's face and live. Wolterstorff writes, "I always thought that this meant no one could see God's splendor and live." But a friend suggested that perhaps it means that no one can see God's sorrow and live. It might be too unbearable for any of us to truly know the depth of God's sorrow because God is willing to share our burdens. It resonated with Wolterstorff's experience and so he wrote, "Perhaps God's sorrow is God's splendor."1
In the suffering of Jesus, God feels the intense pain of innocent suffering. Isn't one who is present with us in our suffering more helpful than one who stands at a distance? In fact, isn't God's presence with us in our suffering the source of our healing?
A writer tells of a woman in Charleston who met the black housekeeper of a neighbor. She said to him, "I was sorry to hear of Lucy's death. You must miss her greatly. You were such good friends."
"Yes'm," said the housekeeper. "I'm sorry she died. But we weren't friends."
"What are you talking about," said the woman, "I've seen you laughing and talking together lots of times."
"Yes'm that's so. We've laughed together and we've talked together, but we were just acquaintances. You see, Miss Ruth, we've never shed any tears. Folks have to cry together before they are friends."2
C. S. Lewis called Jesus "the tears of God" because God does not remain untouched by our suffering. As Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, God weeps with us.
We are dust and to dust we shall return." Life is limited and life is not pain free. But in Jesus' refusal to dodge suffering, he assures us that we never face sorrow alone. Sometimes we feel as if our burdens will crush us, but God is with us when we must walk through valleys as dark and frightening as death. God shoulders part of our burden, and helps us back to our feet after we have fallen.
"We are dust and to dust we shall return." It is a hard truth that could drive us to despair. But life is not ultimately hopeless because God's love for us is measureless, and the transforming power of God can give bring forth a new day.
Prayer of the People
By Anne Ledbetter
God of palms and parades,
We thank you for the pageantry of life -
For a band of baseball players returning to the field, a fleet of gowned graduates sailing through commencement, a host of precious children leading our preamble of praise.
God of parable and paradox,
We bless you for Jesus the Christ who was born to peasant parents, and entered Jerusalem as monarch for the masses.
He debated torah with the scribes and Pharisees, and declared sinners forgiven.
He fasted in the wilderness for forty days, and feasted with tax collectors and prostitutes.
He taught the fullness of your grace, and the mystery and immediacy of your kingdom,
He embodied your law of love, and healed on the Sabbath.
He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and you exalted him as your Son, our salvation.
God of passion and rebirth, we praise you for signs of resurrection all around us - the return of the robins to our lawns, colorful crocus breaking ground around us, forsythia shrubs ready to burst into flame.
But let us not whisk to Easter without walking through Holy Week.
Let us not show up at the empty tomb, without sharing supper in the upper room, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, or standing at the foot of the cross.
Make us ever mindful that the kingdom of our Christ is a realm where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Help us follow in his footsteps - emptying ourselves and living as servants of your sovereign love.
Make us bold to stand up for the oppressed, to liberate the imprisoned, to heal the afflicted, comfort the forlorn, restore the broken, and be ambassadors of peace.
We open our hearts, minds and souls to you this day, praying for your Spirit to convict us with your truth, companion us on our journey, compel us to entrust our lives to you, and convince us of your abiding power and presence and peace.
For we pray in the name of the One whom we follow into this Holy Week, and who continues to share His life with us, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying,
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
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