Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

March 16, 2008
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 31:9-16
Reading 3: 
Philippians 2:5-11
Reading 4: 
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
By Rick Marshall

Discussig the Text
In this last Sunday before Easter, we will look at the passion texts rather than the triumphal entry texts. We are not ready to celebrate the power of God coming because we don’t understand it yet, at least not at this point in the narrative. What is evident in the triumphal texts is the celebration of the wrong kind of power that people want to attribute to Jesus and to God. Jesus understands the misunderstanding. It is the power of King David that the people want, the power of empire and domination and coercion, national security. Little did the people know at this point that this kind of power comes to nothing in the end, only death. The passion narratives put to rest any hope that failure and death can be bypassed or avoided.

There is no denying the reality of death, no guaranteed happy endings. Death is not an illusion, a veil through which we pass, continuing on with life. If we rush to Easter and the resurrection, we easily forget that death is real. We all walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And the reality of it is powerfully expressed in the psalm for today: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I an in distress; my eye is wasted from grief, my soul and my body also. For my life is spent in sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” We don’t know what the speaker’s circumstances were, perhaps the unrelenting fear of death, but the words are familiar to the loss and grief of death. The prayer is a request for God’s grace and an acknowledgement that the speaker’s life is in God’s hands. The prayer is an act of resignation to whatever the future may hold. Such resignation may very well be the first step to entrusting life into God’s hands.

As the Matthew text moves us to the brink of Jesus’ death, a dark pall settles over the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples. They have come together to celebrate Passover, but the event turns into another thing all together. In Jesus’ hands the symbols of bread and cup take on a deeper meaning, a different direction, a new set of references. The mood of the narrative focuses, getting tighter, even claustrophobic, as we approach the inevitable death of Jesus. If this was a movie, the director would focus tightly on Jesus’ face, then on each disciple’s face, the camera lingering on each, slowly letting the words and the actions unfold with deliberation. The story prepares us; we are all too familiar with the dynamics of execution. We can smell the death chamber. We can hear the marching feet of the soldiers, the quiet swish of the authority’s robes calling legal proceedings to order, the stone cold echo of empty streets, the wind coming up the hills from the desert. There is also a divine silence settling over the scene. Where is God? Jesus feels the silence mostly powerfully on the cross. The scene is a tableau, frozen in mid-action at the precise moment: Jesus’ hand holding out the bread to the disciples, to us; Jesus holding the cup, offering a sip to his disciples, to us. Stop action. Hold. Hold. Bring in Leonardo to capture the moment with color and light. My body will be broken…for you. My blood let…for you. We hear the frantic scraping of paint brushes on canvass for a thousand years straining to capture just this moment.

What a contrast in mood with the Isaiah text. There the writer expresses such confidence in the presence of God. “Morning by morning (the Lord) wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught…. For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded.”

The Philippians text is a clear statement of what it looks like to entrust one’s life into God’s hands. The drama of the passion narratives show this, but Philippians states it more abstractly. Truly trusting God requires self-emptying, subjecting one’s self to whatever may come, even death. Of course death. Death is required. What Jesus is saying is that a choice for life requires the recognition of the need to go down. Downwardness is the movement of this text, going down in order to come up. The set piece from Matthew, the tableau at the table, shows the mood, the frame of mind, the dynamics of going down, and the trust required by it.

Process Theology and the Text
The process idea of perpetual perishing is a recognition of the reality of death and it’s pervasiveness in life. In fact, each moment that we experience comes into being and then fades into the past, only to experience a fresh moment which also passes. That is the basic rhythm of life, the experience of death and life, passing and receiving, losing and gaining. The energy behind the unfolding of everything is that creating transforming power that brings new life out of all experiences of death. God’s power is the lure of the future, pulling death into new life. We cannot have life without death. In this way, death is required.

Preaching the Text
Truly entrusting our life into God’s hands is a very difficult thing to do. I don’t know where we get the idea that trust is easy. “Let go and let God.” “Give yourself to Jesus.” Sometimes we think that trusting God means we are guaranteed to continually go up and not fall, or drop, or descend. It’s like jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, trusting that the parachute will open. I’m afraid of heights and it would be sheer terror for me. We move into our unknown future, and sometimes it can be sheer terror. Trust takes courage, even—maybe especially—in God.

A sermon that takes into account all the texts for this Sunday seems to have a basic movement downward, or at least the awareness of the downward pull. A sermon could point out the almost desperate need in our society to be always going up. Success. Self improvement. Things getting better every day in every way. Promotion. Saving for the future. Building for retirement. A better life. Golden years. While I write this there is a great deal of resistance in our country to name our current economic condition as a “RECESSION,” a very bad word. We cannot admit the idea of going back, losing ground, contracting. It is anathema to us. It reveals our powerlessness, our utter lack of control over life, the radical openness of the future. Fear takes hold. We don’t want to fall.

The need to go down is most poignant at a funeral. We can’t avoid it. The visual shock of seeing a loved-ones’ body in a casket, poised over an open grave, knowing that it will be lowered into the ground, covered with dirt and a head stone put into place, and that will be the end of things. So final, so inevitable, so against our sense of upwardness. A sermon could point out the basic rhythm of life as it is described in the Bible. Loss and gain, letting go and receiving, death into life. And the power of God that is behind all of it can be trusted. It is the nature of the future to be unknown, open, unpredictable. Let us fully admit that we cannot control the future. Admit powerlessness. We do have power in the present moment how to choose to orient ourselves to the future. We can be fearful or trusting.

Or a sermon could focus on the symbols of transformation, the bread and the cup, and how these symbols work. What theological history is behind them, leading up the point of the narrative moment? Passover is an over-arching theme. But how are the symbols reinterpreted in the narrative, in Jesus’ hands? And how have the symbols changed since then? The idea of Transubstantiation is absurd to many. It is based on substance philosophy which is no longer valid in its traditional interpretation. Science reveals a world of events rather than a world of inert, impassive matter. The idea that the substance of the bread turns into the actual body of Christ and the substance of the wine turns into the actual blood of Christ belongs to another philosophical system. This kind of mystification does not help in approaching this story. In fact, it deflects us from the real power of the symbols, and that is the way they point to God’s power of transforming death into new life, which is a deep mystery in itself, but it is a mystery of life and not some philosophical mystification. The theory of Transubstantiation is human effort to control the power of these symbols. The idea of Transubstantiation need not be either attached or defended in a sermon, but awareness of it as an issue can lead us more intentionally into the narrative.

The bread and the wine, if taken metaphorically, can be offered as symbols of transformation. Broken body, blood, grave. The process of death is all too familiar. The question is not how we stop death, but simply contemplating the mysterious power that brings new life out of it in ways that are surprising and unexpected. How can such brokenness be transformed into wholeness? How can death be transformed into new life?

Another dimension to the power of these symbols is their meaning in the context of a worshipping community. Remembering the story together, singing hymns and speaking prayers all in preparation to take these symbols quite literally into our bodies, is a powerful gesture. Even on a natural, physical level, the act of eating say and apple and how the nutrients of that apple are transformed in our digestives system into energy for the body is quite a mystery in itself. Sure it can be explained biologically. But the deeper dimensions of life sustaining itself and where it all comes from remains beyond our ability to fully comprehend. The act of ingesting these powerful symbols of bread and cup into our bodies, our selves, transform them in our lives in deep, profound ways. We eat the story. We ingest the history. We partake in a communal feast of life. The physical act of eating in order to sustain life points to the larger act of eating the symbols of the narrative. They then become part of us. Sometimes a blessing before a meal calls attention to the profound act of eating food, taking it into our bodies, knowing that it will be transformed into sustaining our lives. The story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is taken into our lives in the act of participating in the bread and the cup. The act itself, in the context of a worshipping community, is transformative.

Children and the Text
The point of the talk with the children can be the rhythm of life: going down and coming up, losing and gaining, letting go and receiving, death and life.

Have you ever heard the saying “what goes up (wait to see if they can complete the saying)….must come down”? Have you ever let a balloon go and watch it go up into the sky. It goes so high that you can’t see it anymore. It goes up and up and up and where do you think it goes? Well it eventually comes down somewhere else. Do you know of anything that goes up but never comes down? Maybe a space ship, shot off to another planet. But most things we know of that go up must come down. Name some things that go up and then come down. Airplanes, for example. Try to jump up without coming down. You can’t.

Are there other things that go down and then come up? Yes, all living things. Plants and trees. Talk about other ways of going down. When bad things happen to us, we might feel down. When people get old their bodies start to run down. Talk about how things go down and how things come up. Point out the basic rhythm of things and how God is part of it all and how we can trust God when we are going down or when we are going up.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.