Walking the Holy Week Walk

Sermon for March 29, 2015 ||  Palm Sunday, Year B ||  Isaiah 50: 4-91; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; John 12: 12-16; Mark 15: 1-47||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

With snow still on the ground it’s seems hard to believe it’s Palm Sunday, yet somehow the bizarre weather simply adds to the surreal ethos this day always seems to have. Each year we begin our service in great celebration. Like the crowd on the dusty road to Jerusalem, we joyfully wave our palms and shout “hosannas” to the One who comes in the name of the Lord. But then, again like that crowd, in no time at all we betray him: By the time our service this morning draws to a close, we’ll have the disturbing sound of our own voices shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” echoing in our ears.

As if it isn’t horrifying enough that in less than a week the very ones who welcomed Jesus as their king, killed him as their sacrificial lamb. But liturgical time compresses the whole ugly affair into one hour for us– from his exultant entry into Jerusalem, to his humiliating crucifixion on a cross. Worse still, we get dragged along for the ride and compelled to “own” our part in it. “Hosanna! Hosanna!” we play-act with joy. But just an hour later, smiles wiped off our faces, things get ugly: “Crucify him!” we call out, “Crucify him!”

Then the reading of the Passion ends, and we return to life as usual. Or do we?

You know, I used to really dread Palm Sunday. It always seemed so sort of gruesome the way we go through this merry charade of rejoicing as Jesus’ arrives in Jerusalem—as if we don’t know what awaits him right around the corner. It’s always felt to me like an enormous exercise in collective denial.

But this year is different. This year I’m appreciating Palm Sunday precisely because it takes us from that climactic day in Jesus’ ministry when his approval ratings were at an all time high, to the dreadful day when—in the eyes of the world– he reached his all time “bottom.” This year, I’m appreciating for the first time, that just as we can’t really experience Easter without experiencing Good Friday first, we can’t really experience Good Friday without experiencing Palm Sunday first.

And we need it all. We need the entire narrative arc of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday, to Good Friday, to Easter. It is, after all, a microcosm of our own lives: from joy to sorrow to even greater joy… from well-being to suffering to redemption…from life to death to new life. We need to re-enact it liturgically, enter into it imaginatively, walk each step of it prayerfully —year after year after year until we learn by rote the rhythm of this saving story and can recognize it in our own lives.

This is our Exodus story, our salvation story, the one we tell and retell so that we, and our children, and our children’s children, remember God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. The one that reminds us over and over again, as we walk through the wilderness places in our lives, that as terrifying as they can be,we are walking from captivity to freedom, from darkness to light, from despair to hope—and that we are never walking alone.

In the gospel this morning John tells us that as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the disciples “did not understand” what was going on; but when Jesus was glorified—when he was resurrected—“then they remembered” what had been written about him.

Then they remembered. After Jesus was resurrected, the disciples remembered that everything that happened to him had been foretold in their scripture. But can you imagine how different their whole experience of losing him would have been had they remembered while still in the midst of the darkness, instead of on the other side of it?

Remembering, you see, is salvific in itself. That’s why the liturgies of Holy Week—like all liturgies—were designed centuries ago to bring the act of remembering to life. On Maundy Thursday we remember Jesus’s demonstration of servant leadership in the washing of his disciples feet, by washing each other’s feet, as he commanded us to do. We remember his institution of the last supper, as we break the bread and drink the wine of Holy Communion. And we remember his betrayal, loneliness, and arrest, in the stripping of the altar and the dark, empty church.

On Good Friday, by far the hardest yet potentially most spiritually enriching day in the life of a Christian, we remember Jesus’ suffering and death, and we consider our complicity in it. We sit with Mary at the foot of the cross, hearts set on not abandoning him like the others.

On Holy Saturday we remember the awful emptiness of life without him as we long for the exhilarating emptiness of the grave he will leave behind. At the Great Vigil of Easter we remember the light that came into the world that the darkness could not overcome by lighting the Paschal fire in the dark church. Each of us lights our own candle as a reminder that we are His lights in this sometimes-dark world. Then in the readings we remember the sweep of God’s action throughout salvation history.

And then it is Easter. We ring our bells, we sing our “Alleluias,” and we remember the Resurrection!

So this year I’m grateful for Palm Sunday. Grateful to remember the hope and the joy with which the crowds welcomed Jesus. Grateful to remember how excited they were, how happy they were that their long-awaited king had finally come. Grateful to imagine myself in the crowd that followed him that day shouting with delight, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And grateful for the opportunity to follow him the rest of the way, with all of you. Amen.

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