Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palms and Passion

I find it interesting that the Lectionary gives two options for the 6th Sunday in Lent this year, i.e., Palm Sunday.  One can choose between “the Liturgy of the Palms” and “the Liturgy of the Passion” for preaching, teaching, and worship. 

As one would expect, the former utilizes the gospel passage of “The Triumphal Entry” from Matthew 21, which is the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt (thus fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy), and the crowds of people are cheering for him exuberantly, waving palm branches and throwing down their cloaks in front of him.

It is kind of like the New Testament version of a ticker tape parade being thrown for conquering heroes in battle or championship sports teams.  Basically, imagine the massive Chicago Cubs parade and rally last fall.  That is precisely what is going on here.  And the object of the people’s affection, their “conquering hero” as it were: Jesus of Nazareth.  Maybe something good can come from Nazareth, after all. 

This seems to be, almost exclusively in my experience, what is preached and sung and taught on Palm Sunday every year.  I mean, it does make sense.  And it is a delightfully happy scene.  Who doesn’t love that?  Plus, it’s good for getting the tithes and offerings up.

But the Lectionary does offer an alternative:  “The Liturgy of the Passion.”  The gospel passage utilized here is also from Matthew’s gospel, but begins with the betrayal of Jesus by one of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot (chapter 26), and ends with Jesus’ burial (chapter 27).  In my experience, not a lot of people choose this story to tell on this day.  It is dark, gloomy, foreboding, and it does not end with any sense of hope at all, let alone triumph.  Who wants to hear a story like that?  And it certainly doesn’t help pay the salaries and budgets.

Next Sunday, on Easter, there is but one choice in the Lectionary:  The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Full of hope, full of life, it is a story that preaches itself, really.  God can overcome anything.  Even death.  That means there is nothing left to fear, and that love always wins.

In between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, though, a radically different story is taking place.  No championship parade like on Palm Sunday.  No MVP Award like on Easter.  Only a slow, daily descent into the Hellish realities of human existence on earth.  Conflict.  Battles.  Wars.  Lies.  Betrayals.  Death.  Destruction.  Hopelessness. 

This is the story told in the alternative Lectionary passages for this Sunday.  But most of the time, these are skipped in favor of the Championship Parade.  Why?  If I was going to be cynical, I’d suggest as I did earlier that you simply “follow the money, honey.”  And there is probably much truth in that.  But I think the greater reality is, we humans would prefer to have happiness without suffering, victory without sacrifice, achievement without struggle, joy without pain, life without death.

But the Good News is not that there is life without death, but that there is life after death.  If it were possible, we would desire this path to be taken from us – but the Way of Jesus is the only Way.  And the Way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross, the Way of Suffering, the Via Illuminate – the Way of the Least of These.

So on this, Palm Sunday, may we remember that there is but one Way…Jesus…and to walk in Jesus’ path is to take up one’s cross daily and follow him.  The good news is not that there is no death and no suffering, but that in the midst of the hopelessness that accompanies these, Jesus is there, never leaving us, never forsaking us.  We face down our fears with love.  And love always wins.  Like Abraham and Sarah, we hope against hope, and in God’s time, our faith will be rewarded. 

May it be so.  Amen.

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