From Palms to Passion (Palm Sunday, Year B)

This coming Sunday is one of the most exciting and dramatic of the church year.  It is both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, and through the readings, we relive Jesus’ final week of life.   We watch and cheer as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey, and we wave our palm branches, singing and shouting joyful Hosannas.  And then, in only a few minutes, the mood shifts, and we find ourselves falling asleep in the garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prays.  We gasp in dismay as Judas greets Jesus with an embrace and a kiss, only to step back and watch his teacher and friend be arrested.  We watch as Peter cuts off the ear of one of the temple guards and as Jesus heals the man on the spot.  We hide, fearing for our lives, and perhaps with Peter, we deny that we know Jesus, because we are petrified with fear.  We join the mob that clamors for Jesus’ death: Crucify him!  Crucify him! And we follow the spectacle, as Jesus and the other condemned criminals make their way to Golgotha.  We jeer at Jesus, What, you can’t save yourself? We revel in being terrible, awful, broken people.  We take our fear and turn it inside out, wearing it as aggression and offensiveness.  We act like disobedient children.  And from the cross, as he hangs in terrible and humiliating pain, Jesus prays, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Well, of course we know what we’re doing, Jesus of Nazareth!  We’re taking care of a dangerous prophet, a madman!  Didn’t God tell us how to take care of false prophets?  We saw you teaching, and we heard you mouthing off.  The scribes and the priests, they told us how you claimed to be the actual son of God!  Do we look stupid to you?  Do you actually think we’d believe that God would come here, like a person?  This world is dirty, unclean.  It is no place for God!  No, God stands apart and takes care of us from afar.  We don’t need your kind here, confusing our children and teaching dangerous things.  Someone might think you spoke with authority, but you don’t.  You’re just Joseph’s son, you’re just a boy from Nazareth.  And this is how we take care of crazy boys from Nazareth who can’t keep their mouths shut.

Taking part in the liturgy of Passion Sunday can be a disturbing experience, and yet, this may be the most important and vital Sunday of the church year.  Because many churches have a dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel — where members of the congregation read the various parts, and where everyone present reads the part of the crowds — this is the Sunday when we come to learn that every single one of us has a part in crucifying Jesus.  This is not a pretty thing to learn about oneself.  No matter how much we protest that we weren’t even alive two thousand years ago, we know that we still bear some of the guilt for this.  When we shout, Crucify him!  Crucify him! part of us knows that still today, we crucify Jesus.

We crucify Jesus when we act out of impatience or anger or fear, rather than acting in love.  We crucify Jesus when we scorn the homeless man standing in front of the grocery store.  We crucify Jesus when we seize and hoard, but refuse to care for those who have nothing.  We crucify Jesus when we stand by as a crowd takes on an individual, physically or verbally, and we do nothing.  We crucify Jesus when we ignore our elders in the hospital and nursing home.  We crucify Jesus when we put people to death, when we revile and condemn anyone.  We crucify Jesus when we shut people out of our lives.  Jesus told us that when we take care of others, we are taking care of him; when we reject others, we reject him.  Every act of rejection, every act of not-love, every time we turn a blind eye, we stand with the mob shouting, Crucify him!  Crucify him!

It doesn’t feel good to confront this in ourselves, does it?  This isn’t happy stuff, like consider the lilies or blessed are the peacemakers.  This is the real thing; this is earthy; this is human.  And at the same time, there is another side to the real thing.  Because Jesus did not end on the cross.  His body died, but Jesus lived on.  We know the rest of the story; we know what’s waiting for us on Easter.  We still have Holy Week to slog through — the gritty, dirty, awful realness of Jesus’ last days as a human with us — but we know that on the other side, there is redemption.

Redemption is a big word, isn’t it?  I don’t think most of us have a clue what it means.  These days, we hear the word used mostly about coupons: Redeem before 5/31/2009. So we turn in the coupon at the grocery store, and we get a free candy bar.  In the story of the Passion, we turn in Jesus at the cross, and we get free eternal life.  It sounds more like we’re redeeming Jesus, but we’re taught that, in fact, Jesus is redeeming us.  The word redeem is much bigger than 50-cent-off coupons and free candy bars.  There are redeeming values and redeemed mortgages.  We redeem our promises or redeem the engagement ring from the pawn shop.  God promised the people of Israel that God would always love them and care for them.  God promised a caretaker, someone who would come to them and guide them, make Israel to be a light to all the nations of the world.  God promised that God would put our sins behind God, that God would wipe our failures away.  God promised that each of us is worth something.  So God redeems these promises.  God redeems us from the pawn shop.

The thing is, each of these acts of redemption requires an exchange.  When God redeems us, we exchange our sin and brokenness for God’s overwhelming and perfect love.  And God doesn’t redeem us if we don’t want it: this exchange is available to absolutely everyone, but is not forced on anyone.  If I’m happy with my sin, thankyouverymuch, then God will allow me to continue in it.  God will mourn this, of course, and will try to win me back.  But it remains my choice.

This is an amazing act of trust and faith on God’s part.  We’ve been known to take pride in treating people like shit, heaping sin on top of sin.  We have CEOs who reap wages 40 times higher than the secretaries who answer the phones for them, who live lifestyles of lavishness and decadence.  We have football stars earning millions of dollars a year who take pleasure in training and forcing dogs to fight each other.  And look what we celebrate on Passion Sunday: when God sent Jesus here as a person, we killed him!  We threw God’s perfect gift of love right back in God’s face, and we reveled in the sheer crapulence of this act.  We so, so, SO do not deserve this — and at the very least, if God is going to redeem us, we certainly don’t deserve to be given a choice on the matter!

But God loves us.  God forgives us our heaps of sin.  God weeps when we hurt each other, when we continue to crucify Jesus two thousand years later, and God cries tears of joy when we return and apologize and try to make things right.  God believes in us, even when we don’t want to believe in God.  On Passion Sunday, we take part in the most egregious rejection of God that has ever happened: the crucifixion of God in a human body, the son of God, Jesus.  And even on Passion Sunday, even as we shout Crucify him!, God believes in us.  God forgives us, God weeps for us.

God loves us.

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