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Palm/Passion Sunday Reflections

April 20, 2011

Below are two reflections from Palm/Passion Sunday at First Presbyterian. One was near the beginning of the service, the other at the end, as we moved into Holy Week.

“Welcoming Jesus” Matthew 21:1-11 © 4.17.11 Palm Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Peter was on cloud nine. His latest upload to Jew Tube had gone viral in no time. People loved the healing of the two blind men in Jericho. All that shouting and crying! And the close-up of Jesus’ face as he responded to their plea to be given back their sight! Wow! In addition to his own videos, CNN—Canaan News Network—had caught it all. Couldn’t have asked for better publicity.

He hoped he wasn’t overloading the Twitter feeds of those who regularly followed the progress of Jesus and the disciples as they made their way to Jerusalem. It seemed he was on his smart phone all the time now. If not tweeting, then posting to Faithbook.

Now they were nearing the Holy City. The apostle checked his IotaPhone for the schedule. Bethphage was their next stop. This visit should put the little town on the map; it would be more now than just another suburb of Jerusalem. The vendors would be ready by now with the T-shirts that said “I Was There: Triumphal Entry,” along with the bobble-heads and other assorted memorabilia.

The crowd should be pretty good. There had certainly been plenty of interest expressed in Jesus’ visit, judging by the comments on Faithbook and the number of people who liked their page. The independent pilgrimage website hosanna.com was giving the event four Stars of David, which meant “don’t miss this.” There people could view videos of Jesus’ miracles in other places, see where he was at any particular moment by downloading the “Jesus tracker” app or e-mail a message to him. Great marketing tool! Worth every penny of the price Peter had negotiated.

Thank goodness, too, for Donkey Finder. He had gotten the app from Cellular Middle East. All the other disciples asked him, of course, “Where’d you get that app?”

Peter snapped out of his reverie when a tone on his phone alerted him that Jesus, accompanied by his other senior staff people, Andrew, James, and John, was just about ready to go. Showtime!

You’ll forgive my little fantasy, I hope. But I wonder if the event might have happened that way if today’s communication technology had been available. The reality, of course, is not so grand. Rewind 2000 years to the spring day when Jesus and his followers made their way from Jericho through the village of Bethphage on the famous Mount of Olives. Though he was the Son of God, our Lord was riding the lowliest of animals. Though he was a monarch of the greatest power, he did not come with the trappings of kingship and military victory; he had no riches and there were no official delegations of dignitaries to greet him and give him the key to the city. Indeed, even the animal he rode was borrowed, just as his tomb would be. His followers sought to show their devotion by laying down before him the very clothes off their backs, along with branches they cut from the surrounding trees. Hardly the entrance of a celebrity in the style of our day, or indeed of any era. Yet that day Jesus came into Jerusalem was the beginning of the most important week in human history, when the drama of salvation would be fully played out and brought to its completion. The account of the event may have gotten buried on an inside page of the Jerusalem Press in favor of a piece about the latest decrees of Pontius Pilate, but it was news, writ large.

So that’s the story. But what does it mean for us? Maybe a clue is in the response Jesus told his disciples to give anyone who questioned them about their commandeering of the animals. They were to say: “The Lord needs it.” This is in some way a text about responding to the call of our Lord to minister to him. In the first century, answering that summons could mean giving him a donkey to ride or, like the apostles, trying to ensure his comfort as he rode. Later, it would mean wiping his bloody brow in a brutal procession through the streets of Jerusalem or carrying his cross when he stumbled or volunteering a newly hewn tomb for his body. Today, Jesus himself said he is with us in the most vulnerable among us, namely, the poor, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, the ill-clothed, and the left-out. When we seek to meet their need, we are ministering to him. So the question we must ever be asking if we are to live this Palm Sunday text is “what are the needs of those in whom we meet Jesus today”? Will it be clean water or food to eat? A decent, affordable house? An understanding ear or a voice raised in advocacy? Will it be money to support a cause or hands to help after a disaster? How will we respond when we hear “the Lord has need of it”?

But there’s another theme here worth considering. There were some risky acts of devotion going on in the story. One was cutting branches and placing them in the road. Sounds innocent enough, but in Israel such branches were used to welcome a victorious monarch. So the people were making a subversive political statement: Jesus is King, not Caesar. Dangerous to do under the watchful eyes of swarthy Roman soldiers armed to the teeth.

The other act was the laying out of cloaks to welcome Jesus. I’m taking the cloak as a symbol of everything that brings security. Consider: the cloak gave protection against sun and against cold. It was against the law to take a person’s cloak as collateral for a loan unless you gave it back by nightfall, so essential was the garment to survival. In Isaiah, a cloak is deemed as necessary as bread. The prophet Ezekiel imagines God covering Israel with God’s cloak to hide Israel’s nakedness and shame. To give up one’s cloak, then, to lay it out before a leader, however temporary the gift, was to say that you offered up your very survival into his or her hands; you depended on that person for your well-being. That which meant life itself belonged, in this instance, to Jesus.

It was the disciples who made the first gesture of that sort. And that’s instructive, I think. In every congregation, every organization, there are people who set the tone, who lead the way. They may be invested with formal power, like church officers. Or they might be folk who by the strength of their example, the depth of their spirituality, the authenticity of their lives are the pacesetters. In some places, some communities, the tone set might be only a discordant competition among voices vying for control. But in the best and most effective churches, the example set by the leaders is one of energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. They are the ones who show their dependency on God, who lay out their cloaks.

But laying out cloaks did not merely belong to the disciples, and today it’s not the only the act of leaders. It was and is for everyone. So what will you lay before Jesus today? Maybe it’s your resources of money or time, greater or smaller in quantity. But however much of either you have, you can’t seem to let them go because there are just too many important things to spend those dollars on, too many important items that fill the calendar. Might be your comfortable viewpoint that gives you solace in the midst of change and confusion, even if it means closing your mind to new possibilities and fresh thoughts. Perhaps it is your pain, emotional or physical, which by now has become your friend, the way you know you still can feel something, the way you know that in all the hurt you have experienced, you are still surviving. Your cloak might be any of these or none, but you have one. And so do I. Will we lay it before Jesus, surrendering that which we depend on most into his care, saying “I belong to you, Jesus. I trust you to care for me.”

The 19th century hymnwriter J.W. Van Deventer captured this spirit in a familiar hymn, which we can all make our prayer this morning:

“All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live.

“I surrender all; I surrender all; all to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.”

++++

“When the Cheering Stops” Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-17 © 4.17.11 Palm Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was a hot, humid April evening in 1980. In San Salvador, about sixty worshippers had gathered in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence for Mass. The celebrant that evening was Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had built the hospital for terminally ill cancer patients. In his homily, Romero spoke about death and the need to dedicate one’s life to the cause of peace and justice. He called on the soldiers in El Salvador in the name of God and in the name of the nation’s suffering people to stop the repression that went on day after day.

The archbishop finished his message and moved to the altar. As he raised the chalice in celebration of the Eucharist, a single shot rang out. Romero fell, mortally wounded by a fragmenting .22 bullet. The assassin was no doubt a professional, hired by one of the right-wing death squads to eliminate the Catholic leader.

Why was he killed? The archbishop had been one of the most outspoken among an increasing number of activists in El Salvador. He was originally regarded as a conservative, a guardian of the status quo, but then he began to speak out more and more against the tyranny of the country’s rulers. He criticized the violence perpetrated by the left as well, but mostly he talked about the practices of the right-wing junta. He advocated land reform and had written to then-President Jimmy Carter to beg the US not to send military aid to the government.

Romero was willing to be a martyr for his beliefs and for the people he loved. He once said: “I am prepared to offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. If God accepts my sacrifice, I hope it will be a seal of liberty and a sign of hope.” Tragically, his murder did not end the bloodshed and civil war in El Salvador. That would not come until 1992 after the deaths of 70,000 people.

In his willingness to stand up to the powerful and to die for the poor, Romero was following his Lord. By riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus was sending a message to both the Romans and the Jewish leadership that he was a servant. His style and methods were in clear contrast to the military force of the Romans and the co-opted sell-out religion of the Jewish Council. Jesus came not with chariot and prancing steed, but on a lowly beast of burden. In so doing, he identified himself with the humble and vulnerable, who must depend on God for everything. In the language of the ancient Christ hymn in Philippians, he came not as one who held on to what was his, but as one who relinquished every right. His life was on the other end of the spectrum from the power-brokers and the self-righteous, because he depended totally on God, in complete obedience.

The Philippians were not thrilled to hear such a thing. They were power-proud folk. Proud of their status as a Roman colony. Proud of being Roman citizens, with all the attendant privileges. When Paul started talking about Jesus being a servant so obedient that he went to the cross, the Philippians were disgusted and shocked. Crucifixion was for scum and slaves, people with no standing in society, who got what they deserved. But Paul insisted that at the very heart of their salvation and the life of faith was such a dishonorable, humiliating death.

I suspect we’re no more likely than the Philippians to want to listen to the apostle. Maybe that’s why we’re constantly tempted to skip over Holy Week, to make Palm Sunday into a little Easter. We go ahead and celebrate the victory of our Lord a week early. Maybe that’s because Holy Week is painful and scary, and there is already too much pain and fear in our broken world and lives. If we could forget or ignore that Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday, the beginning of Christ’s suffering, then maybe we could forget too that following Jesus may, indeed, will, lead through suffering.

The Church always lives in tension between Palm and Passion Sunday. We’re tempted to court popularity or maintain the status quo or abandon a hard message in order to get members or money or influence. But Passion Sunday reminds us that the way of obedience is to follow Jesus in popularity and disfavor, in joy and in sorrow, even to death if need be. It calls us to live for others, out there beyond these walls. It asks us to proclaim a gospel that is gift, but also demand. We’re called to live our lives as an acted parable, to go with Jesus even when Triumphal Sundays turn into Crucifixion Fridays, and the cheering stops.

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