April 9, 2017: Palm Sunday
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Matthew’s Gospel continues…..
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw…. what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’* Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him..
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight oh God our rock and our redeemer.
The renowned Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge, calls Palm Sunday the “Trojan Horse” of the church year. And I get it. It has no legs of its own. It has no meaning on its own. Palm Sunday is the interstellar space between Jesus’ ministry on earth and his death and resurrection in Holy Week. Palm Sunday is a liminal space, as the Celtic Poet John O’Donohue might have described it. It is the blink of an eye between Hosanna Hey Sanna and Crucify Him!
Fleming Rutledge never really explains what she means by Palm Sunday as a Trojan Horse, but it makes me think about the contemporary strains of political resistance that are coursing through our national body politic at this juncture; the countercultural undercurrents of justice and mercy and self-sacrifice that are pressing against the grain of our national infatuation with winning at all costs and our vilification of enemies and truth-telling; our unscrupulous use of self-agrandizing military might, and unholy worship of personal wealth without limit; and, too, our rampant exclusivity that makes us fear everyone who is not…..us…whoever we think we are. Jesus was the ultimate resistor against all of this and more; against all things smacking of fragmentation and domination and empire; against all that tears at the fabric of God’s good world. Holy Week is our invitation to that resistance.
Maybe Palm Sunday is the Trojan Horse of our Christian tradition because it features the most humble flesh on earth entering the most powerful city on earth on the back of a mere donkey in an unfolding drama that will end with the God of all Creation hanging on a brutal cross; executed by God’s own children; willing to be executed for the love of those same children. Now that is a Trojan Horse; divine strength masquerading as mortal weakness in the most spectacular way. Let us take heed.
My very first Holy Week at St. Paul’s, in fact my very first Sunday at St. Paul’s, was 9 years ago today. And so this is roughly my 468th sermon from this pulpit, give or take a few weeks off. And as the regulars among us will attest, I preach pretty much the same sermon every Palm Sunday. In fact, I preach pretty much the same sermon every Sunday. I try to come at it from a different angle every week, but I really do have only one punch line. And this is it.
My one true message, my only message is that in Jesus Christ I have found ever-loving proof that God the Almighty Creator, Liberator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, is not only good and just, but longs for us with such passion that this divine Creator was willing to embody the pain of our flesh and die an excruciating death in order that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. And it is our integrity (as Christians) that is at stake when we do not intend and attempt, with every fibre of our being, to follow Jesus toward life and love; the dangerous, risky, thoroughly discomodious road to life and love.
Like a dog with a bone, this has been my singular story. But the problematic hinge of this story is always the sacrifice for love that we encounter in Holy Week. We always seem to get stuck on the sacrifice. In what way was Jesus’s death a sacrifice for love? Who sacrificed Jesus and for what?
For most of my own life I was taught that Jesus was offered as an intentional blood sacrifice by God to somehow make right something that went wrong in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of creation. This was, and still is in many respects, the teaching of “The Church.” That God sacrificed Jesus, sent him as a lamb to the slaughter, for the redemption of all human sin. But, as it turns out, that is not necessarily the only way to understand Christian theology. There is more than one way to hear the Jesus story; more than one way to answer the questions: how was Jesus sacrificed for love? Who sacrificed Jesus and for what?
Could it be that the sacrifice of Jesus’ life was more about living for dignity than dying as a ransom for some else’s sins? Did Jesus sacrifice himself by refusing to give up on mercy and radical Gospel hospitality to protect his own comfort and security? Maybe what Jesus sacrificed was his safety, which cost him his life; and not for our sins, but for our dignity.
And so here we are on this Palm Sunday, following Jesus into Jerusalem to the place where he will suffer the ultimate consequences of his sacrifice. This is our Christian narrative.
Ready or not we are walking into Jerusalem with Jesus. And the question is: are we willingly to go the distance with him? Holy Week offers us a space to wonder how much of our own safety and security and comfort we are willing to give up, to sacrifice for love. Not whether or not we are good enough or pure enough or on the right road or in the right crowd or doing the right thing. But whether or not we are willing to commit to sacred living, courageously sacred living; which will require some degree of sacrifice; which may require that we let go of everything but love….knowing that God will walk with us every step of the way.
This is a concept that flies squarely in the face of our national pride as the most powerful and affluent nation on earth; winners in every imaginable respect. We seem to think that we do not need to sacrifice, we just need to win! But our Christian narrative tells us that God does not love us because we are winners. God loves us because we belong to God, in all of our spectacular weakness. I believe that God does not yearn for us despite our fragility, our brokenness, our weakness, but because of it. Our weakness does not make us losers, it makes us accessible.
In an a-theistic world, a world without God, a world where human beings set the standards, human weakness will always and ever be a detriment to be overcome. Winning will always be the standard of strength. But in a world that is created by and for Love, a world full of the sort of love that God shows us in and through the life and death of Jesus, weakness is strength, weakness is an invitation to connect and engage, it is not an indication of failure and defeat. And when weakness is strength, we are called to follow as disciples, not to lead as winners. Our human fragility is, most certainly, by design…..and no human could possibly have come up with such a paradoxical design! That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!
Holy Week offers us a space to wonder how far we are willing to follow for love. Not whether or not we are ready. But whether or not we are willing. We cannot make ourselves ready for living a life filled with love. We will never be ready for the sort of sacrifice that will inevitably be necessary. But as soon as we are willing, God will make us ready.
And so I leave you, as I always do on Palm Sunday, with a poem written by my friend and mentor The Rev’d. Anne Fowler. The poem reminds us that Jesus was fully human, and that perfection, if it were a verb, would be an imperfect verb, that is to say, perfection is not something we have done or not done, it is not achieving right over wrong. It is not in any completed action, but in the way we respond to God in any given moment.
The poem is called Ready.
No one should be astonished
Is what he said.
He spoke as usual,
In a manner made for not explaining.
His few regrets –
A small procession he could have joined and didn’t,
A woman he should have loved, but would not risk.
Blessings no one might dream of.
For some days he was not ready,
And then he was.
And so, my friends, the question to ponder this Holy Week is: Are we?
© April 2017, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 the renowned Episcopal priest and author of several books of sermons including a wonderful commentary on Paul. The Undoing of Death.