St. Michael and All Angels
March 24, 2013
In recent years, Palm Sunday has become the source of some debate. Online clergy forums discuss the integrity of focusing on Palms (“it is Palm Sunday after all!”). Others argue that we need to do the whole passion story (“what about people who won’t come to church between now and Easter? How will they prepare for the resurrection without the passion?”) Most commentaries cover all the bases by providing resources for both palms and passion. In addition to the theological debate, there is also the inward tension we experience. It is hard to focus on the parade when we know “the rest of the story”.
Adults tend to treat Palm Sunday as a kind of naïve kid holiday. We sit back and watch the kids wave their palms. We may half-heartedly wave our palms, then slink into our pews with relief that we can be done with that embarrassing display of emotion. If we choose to think of this as a Sunday about an historic parade that we nostalgically re-enact each year, it allows us keep our distance from the story and lets us off the hook somehow.
Garrison Keillor tells the story of his uncle who, at annual family gatherings during Holy Week, would read the story of the passion and death of Jesus. And each year, when he came to the verses describing Jesus’ betrayal he would burst into tears. The family would sit awkwardly until the man was able to continue reading. Keillor commented that his uncle took the death of Jesus “so personally.” He’d pause in his story, then add: “The rest of the church had gotten over that years ago.”
This is our story. But it is a story so powerful that it can’t be trusted to humans alone. If we don’t tell it, the entire natural world will. Luke says if we are silent “The stones will shout” reminding us that this story isn’t just about us…it’s about all of creation.
All of life is from God – the whole universe shares bane and blessing, life and death. We are knit together in such a way that if we were silent, the stones would cry out. Romans 8:22 describes the whole creation groaning in labor pains.
We have almost absentmindedly included creation into our understanding of Jesus’ life and death. When we tell the story of his birth, we talk about the camels and the sheep that gather. Matthew describes an earthquake at Jesus’ death while Mark and Luke tell of darkness that came over the whole land. But creation isn’t an afterthought – it is woven into the very fabric of God’s relationship with humanity.
The story of God’s love of the world through Jesus’ life can be scary. God’s awesome power overwhelms us and we find ourselves holding back. When God speaks, amazing things happen. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and God says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” and his ministry begins. Everywhere he goes, lives are changed, people are healed, those who are hungry are fed, and those who have been captive are set free. People are in awe of this man. From the earliest days, God spoke to the people, but God’s voice was not always welcome. In the Exodus story, the people are terrified by God’s voice and they beg Moses to ask God not to speak to them again.
I wonder if this is when God began to speak through creation. When those same people were thirsty, Moses struck a rock and water poured out. Could this be the voice of God speaking through the rock?
In the story, A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean’s father, a Presbyterian minister, explains the mysteries of the beautiful creation in early 20th century Montana where his sons fish, run and play. He tells them at times to stoop down and listen to the river. He says that beneath the river is the rocks, and beneath the rocks are the words. These words, he says to them, are the words of all creation.
God’s voice is everywhere, telling of an amazing love that cannot be stopped. It just doesn’t always come in the form we expect. In the first century, an entrance procession was customary. These parades would be accompanied by hymns and symbols that depicted the person of honor. In the case of Jesus, it was a colt and the tattered clothing that people threw on the road as he went by.
Mason Cooley said the rule of religion is that “purpose breathes even in dirt and stones.”
We stand at the cusp of a difficult and confusing week. All of Christianity comes together here: death/humiliation and life/exaltation.
For those early followers who witnessed Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, everything rested on it – either God’s kingdom would be established on earth or their hope would be shattered. Jesus was the king of all who were oppressed and suffering. He shared their hardship, relieved their suffering, accepted them when everyone deemed them unacceptable, gave them hope and embodied God’s love for them. His entry into Jerusalem was a moment filled with fragile possibility.
It is hard to go on believing in God when life doesn’t give us what matters so dearly to us, but there is always danger when we attempt to chart a course for God. God was about to do something powerful and wonderful, but that day the disciples were looking for a different kind of king.
There is an old story about a man hiking in the mountains enjoying the beauty of the fall scenery. He stepped too close to the edge of the mountain and started to fall. In desperation, he reached out and grabbed the exposed root of a gnarled old tree on the side of the cliff. Terrified, he saw that he was about 50 feet down a sheer cliff and about 1000 feet from the floor of the canyon below, and just barely hanging on. If he lost his grip, he'd plummet to his death. He cried out repeatedly, "Help!" But there was no answer. Finally he yelled, "Is there anybody up there?" A voice replied, "Yes, I'm up here." "Who is it?" "It's the Lord." "Can you help me?" "Yes, I can help." "Then please help me!" "Let go. If you let go, then I will catch you." The man looked up, then back down at the canyon floor. "Is there anybody else up there?"
Jesus was not the kind of king they wanted, but he was what they had. He would save them beyond their capacity to imagine, He would bring them life and wholeness…he already had in profound ways. The people gathered and shouted praises. This man had healed them and cared for them. He had shown them a powerful love.
The Pharisees were threatened. They tell Jesus to quiet the crowd, but shushing an excited group of people welcoming the Messiah would not stop the eternally significant moment taking place. We cannot stop God’s love. Following Christ goes beyond words and spills out of our lives. We are living, breathing instruments of God’s grace.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass says that “you cannot imprison the word of the Lord”. It is simply written into the fabric of creation bringing life and love to all. God’s purpose will be accomplished. One of the most beautiful illustrations of this is found in Isaiah 55:10-13: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
So often in the church, we act as if the story is over. We dust the cover of our Bible and open it to tell what happened long ago and far away. We miss God’s voice in our midst here and now. The United Church of Christ really captured this with their campaign called “God is still speaking”. Much of this campaign is based on a quote by Gracie Allen – “Never put a period where God has placed a comma”.
We stand on the edge peering into Holy Week. The story is not over…it is just beginning. The song of God’s great love for the world continues this day and into the week. But the song is not finished. It is powerful. It is ours. It belongs to all of creation. Do you hear it? All of creation cries out to sing of God’s great love. Let us join in the song and step into this devastating, yet hope-filled week.