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Crying Out! A Sermon for Palm Sunday

April 17, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday, April 17, 2011

Isaiah 50: 4-9a           Matthew 27:11-54

We all know that today is Palm Sunday. We know this not only because it says so on the front of our bulletins but because we have participated in the drama which opened our worship. We played the part of the cheering crowds as Jesus’ disciples, represented by our children, entered Jerusalem with their teacher for the celebration of Passover. With them we cried out “Hosanna, Hosanna,” which means “Save us.” Those of us who have been journeying together through Lent know how desperately we need saving. On Palm Sunday we cry out in celebration (and with some relief) that we have found our savior. And this cry has shaped the first part of our service, in scripture, movement, prayer and song.

But this Sunday, Palm Sunday, which begins Holy Week, is also known on our liturgical calendar as Passion Sunday. And when we refer to this Sunday as Passion Sunday we acknowledge where this procession and the events of this week are heading. As we will sing in our final hymn, “Ride on, Ride on in majesty; in lowly pomp ride on to die.”

Passion Sunday was developed as a liturgical focus for congregations, like ours, who do not ordinarily meet for worship on Good Friday – though here I will pause to mention that you are most welcome to the Ecumenical Good Friday service held from noon to 3pm at St. Bartholomew’s Church where my clergy colleagues and I will be preaching on the seven last words of Christ.

Whether or not congregations have a Good Friday service themselves, passion is the subject of Holy Week. Traditionally, passion has been understood by way of its Latin etymology, to mean suffering, focused on the suffering Jesus endured during his crucifixion by the Roman authorities.

The intense devotional focus on Jesus’ suffering developed during the twelfth century flourishing of the faith, as people sought imaginative ways to enter into the Christian story. In an age when individuals and communities increasingly sought not just to understand their faith but to experience it, the traditional images of Christ the King, triumphant and victorious, crowned and extending his sovereign arms about the world, were gradually replaced with more realistic and sympathetic images of Jesus – first suffering, then dying, crowned with thorns instead of gold, and with arms stretched out not in victory but in pain. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the century I know the best, the 14th century, these images spoke powerfully to a people who saw intense human suffering in the form of the Black Plague, and repeated famines and wars.

Jesus, who for eight hundred years had been seen as the king of kings, victorious over all, was now experienced as Jesus, the man of sorrows, suffering and bleeding, like us, and for us. The risen and victorious Christ, prefigured in the Palm Sunday pageantry, was replaced by the crucified Jesus as the central image of devotion.

Many of you may recall Mel Gibson’s controversial movie “The Passion” from a few years ago, which drew heavily on this tradition. Regrettably, the movie itself was terribly anti-semitic. I in fact went to view it with Jewish clergy and professorial colleagues and we talked about the dangers of this film among ourselves and with our congregations and classes. But what I want to call attention to in this movie is not that anti-semitism or the surrounding controversies but rather the narrative approach that Gibson took with this film. By focusing attention on Jesus’ suffering, Gibson made the Holy Week story a profoundly personal one. We the viewers enter into this story by identifying ourselves with Jesus; by imagining his pain, his loss and fear even as we believe Jesus continued to trust in, hope for and love God.

But to narrow our focus of passion to Jesus’ suffering crucifixion or the other forms of suffering he experienced during holy week – betrayal, a rigged tribunal, torture, and his own doubt – is to miss a more common way in which we all use the word passion. Indeed it is to miss the predominant way that the gospels themselves seem to understand passion. And that is to care profoundly about something, to be stirred and moved from deep within, to dedicate ourselves whole-heartedly.

Jesus had another, far more all-consuming passion, a passion that filled not just a week, but his whole life. Jesus was passionate about the coming kingdom of God in which the poor are fed and the thirsty drink, the imprisoned are visited, the naked clothed, and the homeless welcomed into our homes. Jesus was passionate about the coming of God’s jubilee, God’s joyful reallocation of power and resources, which is good news to the poor, to political prisoners, and to all who are suffering or excluded by society.

And the passionate Jesus directs our attention to the suffering of God’s people. The gospel writers tell the stories: the woman who has been ill for twelve years, who had spent all her money on doctors who could not help her; Mary and Martha who grieve for their brother who had died; even the tax-collector, whose politics and hated job led to ostracism and ridicule from his neighbors; Jesus weeping over his city, Jerusalem, which does not know the ways of peace and which will not heed the voice of the prophets. The gospel writers invite us to enter into this suffering, and in so doing, to identify with the ministry of Jesus, a poor man sharing good news among other poor people.

Jesus had com-passion, a passion for and love of, God’s people. And his passion for the coming kingdom or empire of God is what moved Jesus. He knew that God’s empire, in which those who have been humbled by this world are lifted up by God, is fundamentally opposed to the empire of Caesar and all Caesars throughout the ages. He knew the danger of what he was proclaiming but he also knew the freedom and wholeness this message brought, not only to those who themselves were suffering, but also, ultimately to those who caused that suffering as well. It was this passion for God’s loving reign that, at the end of his life, he simply could not forsake, or turn his back on. Not because he was playing a role in some divine script that required his death, or in order to demonstrate superhuman endurance in bearing what no one else could bear, but quite simply because he could not imagine doing anything else.

Jesus believed in God’s vision of a world where each person has worth, each person is capable; each person does justice and ensures the well-being of all. And even at the worst moments he believed that what God is bringing about could begin immediately, right now. Jesus believed that what God requires from each of us is faithfulness to the in-breaking, happening, coming to be, of this vision, and that such faithfulness would greet God’s new day. Jesus embodied God’s reign in word, thought, and deed, because he believed that God was, in his day, doing a new thing – renewing the covenant with Israel, reshaping a people, reforming the world.

The Latin verb, passere, to suffer or allow, is a passive verb, reflecting the idea that something is done to us. In a similar way our passions are those dreams and desires that compel us, drive us, and define us. Jesus passion for God’s kingdom, God’s empire, God’s reign may have cost him his life, but much more importantly, it was his life. The gospel story, from beginning to end, is first and foremost about the passion of Jesus, and not just about the suffering of Jesus on the cross or during holy week.

As the church, on this Sunday and each day, we believe that God is calling all of us to a new and deep covenant of justice and well-being. Imagine the energy we would unleash for our church’s renewal if we understood Holy Week, not as a time to witness Christ’s passion, his suffering, but a time of realizing what Christ was passionate about?

What might our life and ministry look like if we “cried out” with Christ against the ways the powerful dominate the weakest and poorest among us? What if we “cried out” with Christ against the 21st century Caesars who balance our nation’s budget on the backs of the poor? What if we “cried out” with Christ until the hungry had food and the homeless had homes and the prisoners were accompanied? Such passion can be costly; discipleship can be difficult. But what would our church look like if we joined Jesus in his passion for justice and well-being and allowed it to characterize all we do and strive to be?

This Passion Sunday and this Passion Week, may we not be bystanders watching the spectacle of Christ crucified and shaking our heads. May we, instead, realize what Christ was passionate about and join our cry with his. Amen.

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