Years ago the Coffee County School System employed tests in the elementary grades called the SRA and the CRT. My favorite part of these tests was making associations, recognizing connections. I love seeing how things relate, connect, and interconnect. This Sunday we have two gospel readings. It’s the only Sunday in the Church year where we get gospel readings that move us along from celebration parade to funeral procession. It’s a day when the readings seem not to connect, relate, or interconnect. We watch Jesus go from “a colt that has never been ridden” to a “tomb where no one had ever been laid.” We see Jesus go literally from colt to grave.
Jesus mounts the colt and the parade begins here:
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:28-40 NRSV)
And in time the procession takes this form:
23Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” 3Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” 6When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
13Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” 18Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” 19(This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” 23But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
26As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
44It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. (Luke 23: 1-49 NRSV)
And the procession ends in the grave here:
50Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, 51had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (Luke 23: 50-56 NRSV)
What begins in celebration ends in ruin. A ride that begins on a never-been-ridden colt ends with a ride into a never-been-used grave. What begins as palm ends as passion. It looks like one huge disconnect, but truly it connects. And the Church knows this to be the truth. The Church knows something about this truth; which is why, no doubt, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship page 256 we see this day called Sunday of the Passion Palm Sunday. You get palms. You get passion. You get ’em both together.
And we know something about that pattern don’t we?
April 10, 1912 people cheered in Southampton as RMS Titanic set sail. She sank to the bottom of the northern Atlantic 5 days later. Palms and Passion.
December 17, 1938 people celebrated the discovery of nuclear fission by German scientist Otto Hahn; 7 years later the world sundered as a fission bomb destroyed the cultural center of Christianity in Japan. Palms and Passion.
1953 saw the rise of a powerful young preacher and non-violent activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose sermons began that year with, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” to be followed by sermons like, “Rediscovering Lost Values,” February 28, 1954, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” November 4, 1956, “Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957, and “Our God Is Marching On,” March 25, 1965 . A bullet killed him on April 4, 1968. Palms and Passion.
The late ’50s and early ’60s gave birth to an amazing band called the Beatles. The lyrical stylings and song writing talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the stuff of legend. Their music spans generations and this blogger can name no fewer than 35 of their songs off the top of his head, but John’s voice fell silent by a gunshot on December 8, 1980. Palms and Passion.
April 12, 1981 Space Shuttle Columbia was born. She died upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over Texas February 1, 2003. Palms and Passion.
April 4, 1983 Space Shuttle Challenger was born. She died in a fiery hell just beyond Florida January 28, 1986. Palms and Passion.
My parents fixed up and moved us into a new home in 1975. It burned to the ground in 1976. Palms and Passion.
My parents bought a new home in 1977. It went back to the bank—foreclosure 1979. Palms and Passion.
1990 I asked a girl to marry me. She accepted, then later declined. Palms and Passion.
2008 I wanted to attend a specific seminary. 2008 I wound up at a different one than planned. Palms and Passion.
What are some of your palms and passion moments? A pregnancy full of hope, then it miscarries? A dream car, then a wreck? A great degree earned, no job opening? A beautiful child who proceeds you in death? A restful retirement plan, then a drop in the Dow? Palms and Passion.
Palms and passion are where we live. They are part and parcel of what it means to be alive and to really live in a world that craves risky love. And isn’t it true that we seek to have only one part of it—the palms part—the celebration?
Isn’t it true that we’ll do almost anything to avert the passion? We’ll even invent an American brand of Christianity that holds up just about anything flashy, material oriented, and false in our efforts to avert the passion part. And it makes sense that we’d live and think in an Americanized Christian fashion—for who wants to die? Really, when was the last time you saw people out in a cemetery holding a pro-death rally? To embrace the reality that death is a part of the Christian life is to become vulnerable. And to be vulnerable is the only way to present risky love.
We have to come to terms with something that Jesus totally grasped—we are vulnerable and are called to live our life in vulnerability. And being vulnerable is no bad thing. Writer, Brené Brown, crafted a book called, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Her book challenges us to get real and become vulnerable. One powerful line (among many) says,
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Vulnerability is the path Jesus took. He did not choose either “palms” or “passion.” He chose the both at once. A Jesus with only “palms” is a Jesus with only a party. And that is not real. A Jesus with only “passion” is a Jesus with only a grave. And that is not real, either. For fully divine Jesus to be fully human, and therefore relatable and real, Jesus has to be living and experiencing life that is both “palms” and “passion.”
Christians need to live a life that is both “palms” and “passion” to show the world an authentic view of Jesus at work in all aspects of our human life and condition. We need to hear both of these gospel texts preached on Palm/Passion Sunday. No picking and choosing either processional gospel OR passion gospel; it’s not about choosing which text to proclaim—it’s about showing an authentic view of Jesus living as we live—right there between the palms and the passion, between the never-been-ridden colt and the never-been-used grave.
It really gets down to vulnerability. It’s about coming to terms with the realities of who we are, and what life looks like, and what it means to belong to others and to God. And of that Brené Brown says, “…true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” And this blogger stands convinced that getting to that place means going straight between the palms and the passion—-just like Jesus, even if it means that our lives place us upon the back of a metaphoric never-been-ridden colt, even if they end in a real or metaphoric never-been-used grave. And we know this is true, don’t we? Oh we’ll try to avoid it, especially that grave part, but it makes it no less true.
So preachers, what ‘ll it be this Sunday? The palms alone? The passion alone? Why not be risky—get between the palms and the passion—it’s where we are called to dwell and it’s where Jesus dwelt, too.
Well said, as always.