Weeping in and for Jerusalem: A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, 2016

There’s an abrupt, shocking transition in our liturgy this morning. We begin in excitement, joy, and celebration with the liturgy of the palms as we re-enact what is called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Then suddenly, at the doors of the nave, our mood changes as I recited the powerful words of the collect:

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Holy Week is a time of intense emotions for many of us as we find ourselves thrown into the midst of a familiar story nearly two thousand years old. As liturgy, as ritual does, the movement of our bodies this week, the familiar words and hymns evoke not only the events that took place in Jerusalem that year, they also evoke all of the other year that we have participated in this story and in a way evoke all of the countless other Christians who over the millennia and across the globe this week, participate in the same story.

There are so many ways to approach this week, the story which we have heard and in which we are participating. There are characters to whom we might pay close attention and with whom we might identify. There is the portrayal of Jesus himself—so rich in this gospel, a portrayal shaped profoundly by the gospel writer’s concern. We experience his calmness in the face of arrest and execution; his forgiveness, his healing power in the midst of the chaos of arrest; his final words, and the way he dies. Jesus is in control of everything around him, even while the violence surrounds him, the turbulent chaos of crowds and injustice impinge upon him, and from him flows love and mercy.

Of all the things I’ve noticed while reflecting on the text this week, the repeated presence of one emotion has caught my attention. Perhaps it was triggered by the gospel we heard a couple of weeks ago in which Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Lk 13:34-35):

34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’,

Those verses foreshadow what we do today. Both in the acclamation during the liturgy of the palms: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and in the repetition of Jesus’ lament for the daughters of Jerusalem as he carries his cross to Golgotha. It’s an incident that only Luke records, and it’s worth repeating:

A 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.”

But it may also be that Friday’s Downtown Stations of the Cross attuned me to the theme of weeping. This little episode is the theme of one of the stations in the traditional devotion of the Stations of the Cross, and it was one in ours as well which bring the traditional stations to life on the streets of our city and connect Jesus’ experiences and our devotions with the struggling and suffering in Madison. To think about the weeping women of Jerusalem in Madison is to be reminded of the plight of single mothers, of victims of domestic violence, of mothers who mourn the premature deaths of their children to the violence of the streets.

But that is not the only place in Luke’s passion narrative where weeping is present. After Peter denies Jesus, Luke tells us that he “wept bitterly.” And Luke adds that after Jesus’ death, the crowds who had watched his crucifixion went home, beating their breasts.

Weeping appears elsewhere in traditional devotions connected with the crucifixion. One of the most famous hymns to Mary, the stabat mater has as its first stanza:

At the Cross her station keeping,

stood the mournful Mother weeping,

close to her Son to the last.

Our liturgy may move us. As we wave our palms and shout hosanna, as we listen to the dramatic story of Jesus betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, as we sing the hymns connected with this day, we may find our emotions overwhelming us. For some, those depth of those feelings may have a great deal to do with things that are going on in our lives, or the lives of our friends and families. Some of us are grieving the death of a loved one, some of us are facing illness or the illness of a loved one. We may be struggling with work, or with difficult or broken relationships.

We bring all of that with us today. Some of us may be near tears, but those tears are for ourselves, or a loved one, and have little to do with the drama that is taking place here in our worship. For some of us, the emotions that are welling up in us are a product of our own brokenness, our sins, our personal shortcomings, our feelings of guilt. Some of us cannot name, cannot identify what in us is causing our pain. Others may be unmoved by all of this. We’ve enclosed our pain and suffering behind an impenetrable wall. Our hearts have grown cold and stony.

Whatever we feel, wherever we are today, the story we’ve heard invites us in. It draws us in, makes us participate. Whether or not we are weeping today, the story of the cross confronts us with our own brokenness and pain. It confronts us with the suffering, pain, and evil of the world. It shows us the oppressive power and might of imperial injustice, as well as the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by his closest friends. It is a story that encompasses the human drama at its most grandiose and evil and yet, in some ways, at its most petty and small.

And still, through it all, we see Jesus, calm, peaceful, forgiving. In the midst of it all, the pain and suffering, the injustice and evil, Jesus offers his love to the world, and his forgiving word to his executioners. Through it all, Jesus offers his love to us and his forgiving word to us. May this day, this week, be for all of us a time when we experience that love and forgiveness in all its depth and power, that our brokenness might be healed, our tears wiped dry, and our joy complete.






The Collect for Palm Sunday

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Way of the Cross is the Way of Justice: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2015

On Friday, a group of us from Madison’s Episcopal churches walked the stations of the cross in the downtown. The Stations of the Cross are a traditional Roman Catholic devotion, consisting of prayers and meditations commemorating Jesus’ journey from his condemnation to death to his burial. Traditionally there were fourteen stations, and they are a common fixture in most Roman Catholic, and many Episcopal churches, with images depicting each of the stations mounted on the walls of naves.

Continue reading

Palm Sunday

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Love, Cynicism, and the Cross: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2014

Palm Sunday is an experience of liturgical whiplash. We begin with joy, celebration, with loud hosannas and singing, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” But the mood shifts as we enter the nave and sing Ride On! Ride on in majesty.” It’s a hymn that begins with the Triumphal Entry but ends with a foreshadowing of the cross:

In lowly pomp, ride on to die

Bow thy meek head to mortal pain

In the same way our own emotions and participation shift, too, from praise and joy to condemnation as we shout with the crowd in Jerusalem, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Continue reading

“Jesus, Remember me:” A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2013

“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

We’ve been singing those words to a simple melody the past few Sundays during communion; we will continue to do so through Maundy Thursday this week. It may be that you found both the words and music monotonous; you may have found them meaningful. It may be that you had no idea where they came from, what they meant, or why we might be using this chant from the ecumenical monastic community of Taize, France. Continue reading

Godforsaken–A Homily for Palm Sunday, Year B

April 1, 2012

“Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As I reflect on Mark’s version of the passion narrative that we just heard, I marvel at the enigma with which Mark presents us. Mark gives us little to work with, and what he does give us is profoundly unsettling. In Mark, there is nothing of the familiar Christian understanding of the cross as Jesus dying for our sins, there is no mention of sacrifice, no substitutionary atonement. Instead, Mark challenges the careful reader and the thoughtful Christian to wrestle with the tragedy and the horror of the crucifixion.

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to understand what the crucifixion meant for Mark, we need to begin here, with this question. According to Mark, these are the last words Jesus spoke on the cross. How were they meant? Did Jesus speak them in anger, or resignation, fear or despair?

How are we to understand them? For Christians who know anything about the faith, interpreting these words literally is nonsensical. How can God forsake Jesus? After all, Jesus is God. Remember though, Mark was writing without the benefit of 2000 years of theological baggage, before the centuries of debate and speculation that eventually led to our understanding that Jesus was both human and divine.

Mark meant those words absolutely literally. They are the culmination of the passion narrative, because for Mark, Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by all of his disciples. Most of the disciples fled at his arrest, and Mark dramatizes their flight by a puzzling mention of a young man whose robe is torn him from as he tries to run, and he ends up fleeing naked. Peter made it to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house before deciding that “the better part of valor was discretion,” denied he knew Jesus and fled the scene. So at the cross, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was alone, surrounded only by his executioners. There were, according to Mark, women, female disciples, watching on from a distance, and they would be the first to return.

Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by his closest friends, and for Mark, that is precisely the point. Thus the question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” dares us to wonder whether Jesus felt abandoned by God.

But Mark answers that question immediately by giving to the centurion the famous line, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And again, Mark leaves no room for debate or discussion. He says quite clearly that the centurion was looking directly at Jesus and that it was because of the way in which Jesus died that led him to make that confession. By the way, it is the first time in Mark’s gospel that a human being confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.

A few weeks ago, we heard a passage from earlier in Mark’s gospel where Jesus told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified and that if they wanted to be his disciples, they needed to take up their cross and follow him. That’s the message of Mark’s gospel, that’s the meaning of the cross. For Mark, Jesus death is the awaits those who would follow him. It was a death brought about by Jesus’ challenge to the political and religious authorities of his day.

That message is hard to hear; it was hard to hear in the first century, and because of that when Matthew wrote his version of Jesus’ crucifixion, he toned it down considerably. But it has been hard to hear throughout the history of Christianity and for that reason we have over the centuries developed alternative interpretations, many of them.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We, the readers of Mark know the answer to the question Jesus asks God. God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead. But the resurrection for Mark did not lessen the power of Jesus’ death. It gave it meaning. If he had not been raised from the dead, Jesus would have been no different from the countless thousands of others that Rome crucified over the centuries.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Those words of despair and abandonment will accompany us this holiest of weeks. We will hear them again, on Maundy Thursday, as the altar is stripped. We will say them then, as we read together Psalm 22. And again, on Good Friday, we will say them together as we remember and reflect on the crucifixion.

Jesus’ question cries out to us across the centuries. It challenges our faith and devotion; it challenges our experience of Holy Week. We think we know what it all means. Christians have wrapped it all up in a tidy package to make sense of it. But that question, if asked seriously, challenges it all, turns our lives and our faith upside-down and inside out.

This week, we are invited to walk with Jesus as he walks toward the cross. He has bid us to take up our crosses and follow him. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to accept his vision for the world, his vision of the kingdom of God. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to be faithful to that vision, to reach out in love to all, come what may. As we make our way through Holy Week this year, I pray that all of us experience anew and with power Christ’s love for us and that we share that love with the world.