“Lent Through the Ages: Palm Sunday”

March 25, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
March 25, 2018

“Lent Through the Ages –Palm Sunday”
Luke 22: 14-34

I don’t know how you feel about Palm Sunday, but I am here to tell you that for me it is always the most confusing day in the church calendar. It has the festive feel of a prelude to Easter – with palm branches swaying and people singing “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Yet, Palm Sunday also has the dark and down, old, cold shadow of Good Friday looming on the horizon, with its smell of death and its sound of silence. In fact, the only way to get from Palm Sunday to Easter is straight through the darkness in between – shortcutting the pain of this week that stretches before us will only short-circuit the power on the other side.

It is ironic that Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday. There is the celebratory parade of palms intermixed with the Last Supper, the Betrayal, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Trial and the Crucifixion. It’s all here mixed together.

What do you make of Palm Sunday? Is this day good news or bad news? On the one hand, on the first Palm Sunday all kinds of people clearly recognized something about who Jesus was and either acclaimed him or abhorred him, depending on who they were and whether they perceived him as good news or bad news. On the other hand, the very same folk in the very same week came together and collude to kill Jesus. You almost have to fasten your seatbelt; so abrupt is the transition from celebration to crucifixion, from waving palms at Jesus to nailing him on the cross.

The irony is unmistakable. It’s written into the Biblical story.
• Jesus presumably chooses to eat his final meal with his betrayer and his denier. And they are supposed to be his friends. .
• Jesus goes to the garden to pray that the “cup be taken from” him, yet his prayer goes unanswered and his friends fall asleep.
• The treasurer of his ministry sells Jesus out to the very people who enslave the Jewish people in the society.
• The man upon whom Jesus built the church – a church that has lasted thousands of years – that man denies that he even knows Jesus.
• Pilate – himself a well-known sadomasochist – offers Jesus an escape from the ugliest of deaths, and Jesus’ own people cry for his execution.

This is how part of the story is told in Luke’s gospel…

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” Luke 22: 14-34 NRSV

For the last two weeks, Paul and I have been sitting with several families from UCC who have been in transition. We have the privilege of meeting with couples who are planning their weddings and their marriages. The last couple of weeks, we have been spending a tremendous amount of time with people who are in the dying process. Most of you have experienced it or will at some point – a major transition in a family – someone moving, someone dying, someone separating from the family. It’s hard. A grief process. Even when it’s good, it’s poignantly sad.
The last vacation together.
The last spring break.
The last choir concert.
The last family picture.
The last birthday.

When Jesus sat with his disciples that last evening, I imagine he had some of those thoughts…
The last time we’ll be together as a group.
The last time we’ll eat bread together.
The last time we’ll relax around a table.
The last time we’ll drink wine together.
The last time I can impart a lesson to help them.
The last time I can give them hope for the future.

That must have been why he said, “With fervent desire I have planned to eat this Passover Meal with you.” In another translation Jesus says, “I have longingly desired to eat with you.” The Living Bible proclaims that Jesus said, “I have looked forward to this hour with deep longing.” The Revised Standard Version uses the words “earnestly desired.” Dr. Gerard Brungardt, wrote that “hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, no matter how it turns out.”

Why would Jesus have deep longing, fervent desire, to have a final meal with this bunch of yahoos? Among them was the one who would deny knowing him when he needed an ally, another who would take silver from the Romans just to identify him with a kiss, and a whole batch of others who would take turns falling asleep when he asked them to be with him.

And why would he look forward to eating his last meal? He apparently knew what was going to happen to him – it was clear he was on his way to death. Why would he show such passion about attending his last meal?

Jesus spoke about betrayal – never denying the reality of violence and evil in the world. With full knowledge of the violence, he is determined to maintain his softness of heart. This is especially poignant to us today. Our world is increasingly violent and disconnected. It is up to us to recognize the reality while maintaining our softness of heart. Jesus teaches us to limit our intake of ugliness and intentionally build into our lives the experiences that will keep us empathetic and loving.

Follow my example, he says. Right before this, he had announced that one of his friends would betray him and that one of his friends would deny him. But he encourages them to love each other. He had invested everything in them. When he died, it was up to them. His stories, his wisdom, his goals and hopes and dreams were all in their hands. He tells them he has prayed for them to be strong and to have unfailing faith. He claims promises for them and blesses them.

This is like each of us – when we say goodbye to a parent or a spouse who is dying. We are left to carry on the traditions and the messages and the stories of those who go before us. It is a sacred duty. That is why it is so important for us to set aside days to remember – to visit graves or to celebrate their lives. It is critical that we tell their stories and re-enact those things that were important.

The shadow of death is present, even in the excitement of a palm procession. John Leax says, “I write this on a day given to remembering the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem. This year the day seems empty and abstract. The events of the week are too overpowering. The knowledge that Christ’s entry led directly to his Crucifixion looms too grimly ahead. This seems the strangest holiday of the year, a celebration of misunderstanding. In this world, the dominion has not yet come, though our hearts long for it and our lives incline toward it.”

What happens next has been told a million times, by all of these movies and musicals and plays we have discussed this year.

It was up to them. Just like it’s up to you and it’s up to me. What will we do with the stories he told and the lessons he taught and the faith we’ve inherited? Will we walk away from this day unchanged… or will we go on to learn more and grow and mature in our faith? What difference did it make that Jesus lived? It’s up to the motley crew to decide… and as imperfect as they (we) are… it’s up to them (us).

Will death be the final word? A New Zealand Prayer book has this prayer: Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
The people waved palms
With shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
We may still walk beside you even to a cross.