Isaiah 50:4-9ª; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54
Like most of you at home, this is the first time in many years that on Palm Sunday, I have not been able to participate in the Palm procession. This ritual has been a part of Holy Week in the Anglican tradition for decades. However, today our current crisis, our new normal, precludes us from participating in a ritual so critical to the beginning of the most sacred time in the church. In my two years here at St. Monica’s we have only been able to walk this path of palm and cross together once. You may recall that last year, our 9:30 am service procession was rained out. This year, we must remain six feet apart and we cannot have more than ten people in the same room. Even so, the purpose of the ritual is so essential to gospel story we hear today, despite the fact the liturgy, and we are so distant this year.
However, like normal, we will enact the gospel narrative by having select parishioners read parts of the story, a story that in a way, puts each of us in the roles of the people present with Jesus 2000 years ago. However, you are watching it all played out from home, unable to fully engage in the Palm Sunday gospel narrative. So, I want to ask you to imagine you are actually here in the story itself and allow yourself to immerse your heart in the characters of the story. Bring into the present moment, the locale, the sounds, the smells, and the sights many of us would have experienced as a part of the crowd, or the group of Jesus’ closest disciples.
We participate in a story where we are the crowd shouting “All Glory Laud and Honor” and later end up crying, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” The story of the journey from celebration to cross makes present for us, our own struggle to follow Jesus. We struggle whether to choose palm or cross when we choose to follow Jesus. If we are honest, we all wrestle with the kind of Savior we seek even today, and we struggle with what kind of symbol we carry, the symbol of our discipleship; a palm or a cross.
Jesus’ first followers had a difficult time choosing which one to carry as well. The disciples with Jesus in the Garden were asked by The Lord merely to stay with him and pray, but they all fall asleep. When Jesus was arrested and did not resist his own apprehension, Peter forgot what Jesus taught him about loving neighbor, and he cut the ear off of one of the soldiers. When accused of being a disciple by the fireside, Peter the bold defender of the Savior denied him three times. Later, the crowd that cheered Jesus upon his arrival, when before Pilate’s judgement seat were asked for which prisoner they wished acquitted, they chose to call for the release of a violent insurrectionist in place of the innocent one, Jesus.
Jesus chose well which symbol he would carry. Despite shouts of “Crucify Him,” we later heard Jesus on the cross say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Others there chose which symbol they would carry. As the crowd taunted the tortured Lord they shouted, “You saved others, save yourself Jesus.” Then a criminal under the same penalty cried, “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Finally, Jesus spoke his last words, “Father I commend my spirit” and then, we hear another person choose which symbol to carry. We heard the soldier’s regret for his part in the drama, “Surely, this man was innocent.”
The crowd, his disciples, and others just sitting on the sidelines debated about who Jesus was, and in their struggle to choose him or reject him, they experienced cycles of adulation, rejection, and regret. Many of us do the same in this battle to be a disciple. As the baptized we journey in faith with Jesus every day, but the path of our discipleship is lined with both palms and crosses, and like the crowd, we often cannot decide what kind of Savior we really want.
We need the King of Hope
We are not that different from those early disciples. When they shared that meal of memorial with Jesus, it was only an hour later that they were arguing about who was going to be greatest among them. They seemed to forget his teachings and warnings about self-denial and self-giving love. It was as if they forgot all that he taught them and yet, they still had hopes of a power-wielding King, who would satisfy their own personal desires. I think we all struggle whether to choose the “king of the palms,” or the “king of the cross.”
To follow the “King of the Cross” means we choose the counter-cultural, arduous path of self-giving love, while rejecting the normative, tranquil path of self-satisfaction or self-preservation. When life becomes uncomfortable for us, and we all know that right now it is more than uncomfortable, how do we take a stand to protect the innocent, to bring justice to the oppressed, to claim peace in the midst of chaos, or to merely claim Jesus as the Lord of our lives? When we are so afraid, so uncertain, and so out of control, we must realize that we have the capacity to be like Peter and deny our affiliation. We also have the capacity to be like the crucified thief beside Jesus, who cried out in faith in his desperate circumstances.
Today, our world is very different. Our very lives are not what they were only a month ago, and in a month, things will be different still. It seems difficult to follow the Crucified Savior of the world now it seems because, we are afraid and we are isolated. We are anxious and many of us feel helpless to offer aid to those who are suffering from the pandemic. We want to be people of faith, but all of us are affected in some way by this virus and many of our families are suffering alone. I want to offer you hope today by encouraging you to face your fears, anxiety, and uncertainty and choose the way of the palm, and the cross. Right now, more than ever, what we all need is hope in the fact that that palms become crosses, and that transformation leads us to a new and better day.
Palms to Crosses
In my first parish after Palm Sunday, I walked into the parish hall after the Eucharist, and I noticed one of our youth making a cross out of her palm branch. I had seen the results of someone doing that before, but I had not made on in years. I walked over and commented on her creativity, and I asked her she was doing it. She said, we always make these on Palm Sunday, it reminds us that our Joy is in what Jesus did on the cross. I smiled and sat down with her and started one myself. Terri joined me later, then several others joined in and we were all around the table making palm crosses. Then, I realized something that day. We are not called to choose palm or cross per se. We are called to recognize that the joy and celebration of Our Savior’s arrival each day, only comes through the reality of his grace made real in his mutual suffering with us in our despair. The celebration and joy of his entrance requires that he join us in our suffering and in our death, and that is where we can find hope today.
The God who created all, stands with us today in the midst of this chaos, this fear, vulnerability, and death all around us. Jesus promises us that even in times like these, there is hope enough for a new day to come. Jesus promises that even in despair, we have courage. Jesus promises that even in loneliness, we are never alone. Jesus promises that even death has lost its power over us. We have hope, and the palm crosses are symbols of that hope, a hope that each of us can have right now.
So, can we follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, or will we stop in the courtyard near the warm and comfortable fire, and deny him like Peter. Honestly, none of us want to go that full distance to the disgraceful death of a cross, but thanks be to God, none of us have to do so, because we have God’s grace.
God’s grace is a gift we merely accept. We cannot work for it, do enough to gain it, or serve in enough ministries to manipulate it. It is the free gift of love from God, and it is ours, despite our capacity to reject the humbled Lord, who intercedes on our behalf saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” We have the grace of God’s presence with us in this time of tragedy and we can trust God’s love will never abandon us no matter what happens. When it seems like you are alone, when the television news is too much, and when you feel helpless and afraid, trust the King Jesus, the King of Palm and Cross.
(1) King, Michael A. “Holy Hate.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 23, Nov. 2007, p. 18.