Sermon / April 9, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is in one sense a day of deep irony. We see Jesus enter Jerusalem and he is applauded by the same people who, four days later, turn against him and demand his execution. They say they want him. Then they decide otherwise.
And so these palms serve as an omen of Jesus’s fate and as a symbol of our infidelity to him. For centuries, the church has ritualized this deep irony by making the ashes for Ash Wednesday by burning the palms from the preceding Palm Sunday. And so the palm in your hand today may be the ashes on your forehead next year.
But we shouldn’t overlook the Collect for today, in which we ask God to help us “that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby [we have been] given life and immortality.” How do we enter Holy Week with joy, given what we know?
Perhaps you have seen the figure of Jesus riding into Jerusalem that’s in the Cloisters. It’s a life-sized painted wood statue of Jesus sitting on a young colt, his legs dangling awkwardly almost to the ground. It’s placed quite close to the reception area, right near that counter where you buy your ticket, so it’s almost the first thing you see when you come in.
The expression on Jesus’s face is interesting. You might be tempted to call it stoic if you didn’t look closely. He wears the expression of a man who knows exactly what he is doing. He doesn’t look frightened or confused. It almost seems like he is looking at something no one else can see, something both far way and deep within himself.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem to change the world by turning it upside down. He goes there to give the world what it needs, the joy and wholeness in God that he was born with and that we call “salvation”. This is his work during Holy Week. Day by day, he goes more and more deeply into himself until on the cross, he makes his joy ours. And when the soldier pierces his side with a sword, this joy literally flows out of him, into the world. It is his life’s blood.
Holy week is about the final battle between what we think we want, what we think life is all about – that is, power and control and success and money and health and an unblemished life and the regard of others, or whatever your personal brand of that is, whatever fiction you live your life by, whatever mad plan you have to try to make it on your own by plowing over other people, because as we all know you don’t need a Tomahawk missile to kill someone – and what God knows we most need. Holy Week is about the final bloody battle when, at great cost, the deepest longing of the human heart comes alive and is secured for us. Sound sentimental? It’s not. Because nothing other than joy will ever make you a human being. Nothing other than joy will ever make you happy. Sound weird? Not if you admit that most of us live without joy most of the time. Most of the time most of us are just wandering around, trying to find something that will solve our lives and make us feel real. Some of us do this until the day we die.
The writer Frederick Buechner tells a story that gives a small glimpse of this joy. He says:
“In the Ken Burns series on the Civil War that public television put on, there were a number of scenes of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. The old men came back one summer day, Confederate and Union veterans both, to commemorate the occasion, and there were many ancient movies of them as they moved around jerkily through the grainy light-struck film, eating, listening to speeches, talking over old times and swapping stories. The most moving part of it to me was the reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. There were no pictures of it as far as I can remember, but the sound track described it in the words of somebody who had actually been there at the time it was reenacted. The old Union soldiers took their places among the rocks on Seminary Ridge, the old Confederate soldiers took theirs on the farmland below, and after a while the Confederates started to move forward across the broad, flat field where half a century earlier so many of them had died.
‘We could not see rifles and bayonets,’ the eyewitness account said, ‘but canes and crutches,’ as they made their slow advance toward the ridge with the more able-bodied men helping the disabled ones to maintain their place in the ranks. As the Confederate troops got near the Union line, they broke into one long, defiant rebel yell, and then something remarkable took place. ‘A moan, a sigh, a gigantic gasp of disbelief rose from the men on seminary Ridge’ is the way one eyewitness described it. Then at that point, unable to restrain themselves, the Yankees burst from behind the stone wall and flung themselves upon their former enemies. Only this time, unlike fifty years earlier, they did not do battle with them. Instead they threw their arms around them. Some in blue uniforms and some in grey, the old men embraced one another and wept.”
Buechner continues: “If only the old men had seen in 1863 what, for a moment, they glimpsed in 1913. Half a century later, they saw that the great battle had been a great madness. The men who were advancing toward them across the field of Gettysburg were not enemies. They were human beings like themselves, with the same dreams, needs, and hopes, the same [loved ones] waiting for them to come home, if they were lucky enough to come home at all. What they saw was that, beneath all the fear and hostility and misunderstanding that divide human beings in this broken world, all humankind is one. What they saw was that we were, all of us, created not to do battle with each other but to love each other, and it was not just a truth they saw. For a few moments, it was a truth they lived, It was a truth they became.”
The most ancient hunger of the human soul is to become that love. Jesus saw that love and he lived it, always. Even when we lost sight of it, it was always in his field of vision. And he took that love to the cross, where it prevailed, because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is what we mean when we say that Jesus died for us. He never, ever gave up on us. And for that we have good reason to be joyful, even on this day of foreboding.
As we go through this week, give some thought to whatever there is in you that opposes this love. Because it is there. Cast down the armament that keeps you from embracing God and your neighbor. Remember that no matter who you are, we’re all just people. We’re all wounded. We’re all just trying to make it across that battlefield. This week, for once, get out of your own way so the light of Jesus can get to you. Because when there are no obstacles in us to receiving the light, the light that is always shining will shine through us.
And come back to church this week. Come back, come close, and bear witness to the light that, even on the cross, shines in the darkness. It’s the story of Jesus. It’s your story, too.