Palm Sunday A – Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66
Have we been readied for this Holy Week? That is, are we “ready” to enter it as we are invited today? “Could you not stay awake with me for one hour?” Jesus asks his disciples today. And so he asks us too. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard,” (Is. 50:6); “be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress…my strength fails because of my misery…I am the scorn of all my adversaries…I have become like a broken vessel…fear is all around,” (Ps. 31:9, 10, 11, 13). These words from Isaiah and the psalmist today can make me shudder — but sometimes, I hear them, and I barely take notice.
It’s odd how that can happen – paying attention; being indifferent, to the same thing of God. Surely most of us, some time or other, maybe regularly, have had a wonderful experience in the face of God. At the service, for instance. There are certain hymns that, when I hear them at the Eucharist, move me to tears, 9 times out of 10: “Come down, O Love Divine”, “Come My Way, My Light, My Truth”, “There is a Redeemer”. I hear this, and I feel, “Yes, there is God, and God is love, My Lord and my God!” I know someone who told me that, in the silence around the proclamation at the Eucharist, “Christ our Passover is Sacrificed For Us!” in that echo, there is always the power of God’s presence for him. Or maybe it’s receiving the Eucharist, or sitting in quiet afterwards, or hearing the children’s choir sing, or a special chant from the past…
Surely some of us have these wonderful moments of divine experience. And we cling to them, we search them out, we get frustrated because they don’t come more often, or we don’t do the service the way we used to and it doesn’t come up, or what’s wrong with me that I don’t feel that way anymore, and I just sit here, and nothing “happens”.
Then again, there are those for whom these experiences never come at all. And that’s just fine, because religion isn’t about experiences. And I don’t like those hymns anyway. And I just come to church to pray; what’s all the fuss about. Or maybe, I’m tired of the emptiness, but I don’t know what to do to change it. What’s this God stuff, this Jesus stuff, this Church stuff really about, because I don’t feel anything. Why am I here? Should I even bother to come back?
We’re funny people: we desire these experiences of God, we run from them, we search them out, we hold them at arms distance, we wish we had them, we’re glad we don’t, we’re sad we don’t, we’re mad we don’t, we don’t know what we want. We’re funny people.
Palm Sunday is really for the funny people we are. I mean look: we start out, with the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and we cry out, enthusiastically, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And then, just a few minutes later, we join in the crowd’s change of heart. We look up at the one we welcomed, and we think with Peter, “I tell you, I don’t know who he is!” And then, as Jesus stands there before us, we gather our voices with the people and yell out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Maybe funny is the wrong term. We’re mixed up people; we’re people who are divided in our hearts. Inside of us: love, hatred, excitement, ignoring. At one moment we’re joyful, but then we’re completely bored; we’re eager, then tired, open, then closed, seeking, then withdrawing. We’re not funny, really, as anybody knows who has had friends or family, or been a friend or a family member, or been a Christian even. We’re divided, deeply divided down to the bottom of our hearts. And it’s twisted on the strangest basis. It’s possible to look at someone’s shoes, I’m told, and then just feel like you hate them or not.
I was reading Martin Luther King, Jr. the other day. It was a portion of a sermon he preached on “loving your enemies”. He says that one of the reasons we can love our enemies is that they’re not all bad. Inside of them, somewhere, is something good, something noble. Oh, you can’t see it, it’s covered, it’s squished and stomped on maybe. But the good is there, because the good and bad is in all of us. Look at yourself: there’s good, but down there is stuff that’s very bad, very evil as well. We can love each other, in part, because we’re like each other; we’re all mixed up with light and dark. We’re all divided in our hearts. We’re all at war within ourselves, fighting, running, challenging, resigning (cf. James 4:1).
You know, Palm Sunday is the most dramatic day in the church year, congregationally speaking, anyway. Look at all of us: we’re waving palm branches around together, we’re shouting and barking in unison, in a kind of corporate play. Anybody who didn’t know us – and a few who do – would think we’re very weird indeed! It’s like celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday by wearing funny hairdos and heavy black dresses. What, are we nuts? Waving arms and shouting out, “Give us Barabbas!”, “He said He could save others; let him save himself!”
I knew a man in a Bible study we were having and we were talking about the Crucifixion, and about how each of us would have joined the crowd and called for Jesus’ death. And the man was a little puzzled and indignant and said, “I don’t think I would have done that!” That wasn’t the interesting part. The interesting part was what everybody else said in response, almost in unison, “Oh yes you would!” This month, as you have probably heard, they are marking 20 years since the terrible massacres in Rwanda. There are stories in the newspapers, photo-spreads, and the rest. I know people who were part of that. The ones who picked up a machete I imagine, or herded people into the buildings to burn, or simply hid and tried to stay away and do nothing. I know them because they were my students, or my colleagues.
“Oh yes you would!”
Is this funny, this stuff? This play, this drama, this mixture of enacted light and dark? No, it’s not funny at all: it’s real life.
And that’s what’s happening today: real life, the life of the human heart, your heart, our heart, at war, tied in knots, grasping, retreating, desiring, rejecting. As if, on Palm Sunday, the Church pulls back the curtain: Ladies and gentlemen, enter into real life. Here, on the threshold of Holy Week, the real you, everything in you, all of it, your real life now becomes God’s real life. Really His.
So, give it to Him. Let Him take hold of it. Let Him carry it and you. Yell, shout, laugh, cry, stand aside, pout, look blankly, be indifferent and bored, be frustrated, be joyful, be filled with regret, with longing, with wonder and questions, with sadness or hope. The real you – take a moment and think who that is — the all of you, has become the Real God’s, His. Really His.
You give it to Him and now watch and see what He does with it. Watch what He does with you and me. Watch. For, “Truly, this man is the Son of God”. And what he has done and will do to you is the holiest thing in the universe.