This sermon served mostly as an invitation to my congregation to observe holy week–with all of its ups and downs, to its full extent.
Well, we’ve made it. Today is, as I’m sure you’re aware, Palm Sunday–the start of Holy Week. It’s a day of celebration. A last hoorah of sorts. Theologians and scholars have long delved into the scriptural tellings of this story in an attempt to figure out just what it meant for Jesus, and for us. Most agree that this story, while able to stand alone, is far better heard in the context of the whole of the passion narrative.
This is a story about Jesus’ humanity. It’s a story about a man who knew what was coming, and needed strength to face it. His return to Jerusalem, the triumphal entry as it’s called, offers the human Jesus that strength.
It’s a story about our humanity. These are the crowds that five days later would turn on him. It’s a story about our own fickleness, our weakness, our ability to acknowledge the good in someone, in something, and forget about it in the blink of an eye.
It’s a story about walking. In all of the Gospels, is the first physical manifestation of what’s coming.
Luke’s version of the triumphal entry appears in the middle of Luke 19 just after Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus, you remember him: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he! But John’s version is a little different. If we look at the Gospel of John, for instance, we find Jesus turning to Jerusalem early on. The Disciples know something is coming, but it isn’t until they reach Jerusalem that they realize something big is on its way.
We’ve been reading from John recently. You remember the story last week, yes? Mary anoints Jesus’ with nard, an expensive perfume. Anointing is hugly symbolic for the Jews of the time: Kings were anointed. The dead were anointed. Just before that, John tells us the story of Lazarus. You remember this: Lazarus had died and was dead four days before Jesus brought him back to life. It’s all part of the story we’ll be part of this week. It foreshadows what we know is coming. The women approach Jesus: if you had only been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. There’s a moment this week, when we will hear Jesus utter similar words, words of human suffering, of wanting things to be different, of knowing they can’t be. We’ll witness Jesus’ raw emotion as we did last week. We’ll cry with him.
While Jesus was it Bethany (during the visit when Mary anointed his feet), he, according to John, sent his disciples to get a donkey from the next village over. Do you know there’s a reason it was donkey and not a horse. Kings rode horses when they left for war. But when Kings would approach towns as part of a peaceful mission, they would ride a donkey. So, the Prince of Peace rode into town on a donkey.
You heard the story. There were palm branches and cloaks. The crowds chanted the words “Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Words we spoke this morning from Psalm 118, words we speak every time we share communion.
But this day is more than donkeys and palm branches. It’s the beginning of the end, and so of the beginning.
Let’s walk through Holy Week together. It all starts today. Like a roller coaster, the high of today makes the low of the latter part of the week all the more meaningful. We’ve sung songs today of celebration, but soon it will be time to turn toward the cross. So often churches want to skip this part. They want to jump to the resurrection. I recall passing a church on the way to on Palm Sunday service that advertised their Easter Cantata for that night–for Palm Sunday evening. But you see, that’s a problem. Because if we’re following it all the way through, if we commit ourselves to the story, the resurrection doesn’t matter if Jesus hadn’t died. Do you see, we’ve got to join Jesus in his suffering. There has to be an element of sitting and waiting and watching. There has to be uncertainty, a twinge of doubt that is overwhelmed by the hope of a promise.
Soon, we’ll gather here on Thursday evening. Maundy thursday. The name comes from the latin, mandatum meaning commandment. We’ll hear the stories of the last supper and of the words of Jesus offering a new commandment–to love one another as he has loved us. We’ll gather around the table sharing this gospel feast. Literally. We’ll have chairs up in the chancel area, and you can choose to take communion at the rail or around the table.
After we share the meal, we’ll watch as the symbols of our faith are stripped away, piece by piece. It’s beautiful symbolism, really. The closer we come the cross we find those familiar symbols are no longer there to give us faith, that soon, we, like Jesus, are going to have to go it alone. That night we leave in silence, knowing what will happen the next day. Wishing there was something we could do to stop it, to avoid it. Realizing there’s no such action to take.
The next day, Friday, we’ll gather in this room in the dark at noon. We’ll hear the passion story told in word and song. We’ll sit clustered together, a little too close for comfort. But this isn’t a day to be comfortable. It’s a day to hover close to the ones you love. A day to come together as a whole and pray. A day to remember the sacrifice, and to be grateful for it.
And then it’s time to wait. We, like the women waiting at the tomb, have little to do but wait. It’s the part we like to skip the most, the waiting. But in a way, it’s the most critical part of the whole week. It’s the part of the week that makes us sit in the uncomfortableness of what’s happening. This is why we can’t jump ahead. Yes we know what Sunday holds, but that coming Sunday, Easter Sunday, isn’t here yet. We’ve got to wait, we’ve got to mourn, we’ve got to encounter Jesus’ death for his resurrection to matter.
Early Sunday morning, we will hover together on top of a hill in Brooklyn and we will proclaim Jesus risen from the dead. But friends, the fact is, we aren’t there yet. That’s the story we claim as our faith. But to get there, we’ve got to claim this story first. This story that Jesus lived our life, faced our fears–that he new our joys, our hope, our love, our uncertainty, our doubts–that he faced our death, and still the tomb was empty. Can you hear the hope in that? What that empty tomb means when we put it in perspective.
Welcome to Holy Week. A week filled with emotion, faith, hope, love.
Six weeks ago, we started on a journey toward a hill far in the distance. With ashes on our foreheads, we were each invited to observe a holy Lent. As we’ve journeyed, we’ve become pilgrims of sorts– listening to stories of Jesus ministry and time with his disciples–each week bringing us closer to the cross, each week bringing us closer to God. And now we find ourselves here, at the start of the week that changed everything.
So it seems appropriate to start this week the way we started this season, with an invitation.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: The early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a week of remembrances of the suffering of our Lord.
This is a time to hear the story retold in our midst. It is a time to pause from the secular world and focus on the holy. This is a week during which the time slows and events millennia old become real to us today.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe this holy week: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.
I invite you to throw yourself into the story, to let it become your story. Find a labyrinth and walk it. As you follow it’s path, journey inward to all the places God knows. Meditate on the stations of the cross. As you pray over the last hours of Christ, remember that those last hours were spent for you. Come to the services. Hear the Gospel. Remember the sacrifice. So that when Easter comes, and it will come, we each can share a new appreciation for the gift we’ve been given.
I invite you to walk with Jesus through these next days, and so walk with over one billion people around the world and countless more through time who have remembered these days similarly.
I invite you to observe a meaningful holy week, filled with prayer, gratefulness, and hope.
In the name of the Father, and the Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.