Palm Sunday and The Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Amy Cox

Palm Sunday 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Mark 14:1-15:47

Psalm 31:9-16

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be aligned with your love, Oh God. Amen.
Good Morning. Welcome to the Sunday of the Passion, the Sunday of Big Emotion, the Sunday of Highs and the Lowest of Lows. This is the beginning of Holy Week, of our march toward the cross before God’s response is revealed on Easter morning.
What we hear in today’s passage from the gospel of Mark is the beginning of this march, the beginning of the closing chapter of Jesus’ earthly life.
Most of the people marching alongside Jesus don’t realize this is the beginning of the march toward the cross, of course. They are marching into the city of Jerusalem in joy, because they have been empowered. They are calling for a change, an upheaval of the status quo, a new era. They cheer on Jesus because he has been leading the charge. He has been welcoming exactly the people who have been hurt by the status quo, he has been preaching good news to the poor, he has been healing the deathly sick, and he has been speaking up to those in power and calling them out for forgetting basic compassion and care. Jesus has been sticking up for them, helping them, and, they believe, is going to rescue them, is going to be their new king.
And the people bring Jesus into the capital city like a king, riding high on a donkey, rolling out the red carpet in front of him by laying their cloaks and branches down on the dusty road for him to march on top of, and raising big palm branches like flags in a parade. Their big celebration is an explicit and very visible rejection of the current leaders and the values they have promoted.
Fast forward 2,000 years to yesterday, when crowds of people marched into a capital city raising big signs like flags and announcing a change, an upheaval of the status quo, a new era. A march where people with little political power spoke up to current leaders and explicitly and very visibly rejected them and the values they promoted.
The parallels between yesterday’s March for Our Lives to end gun violence, falling as it did on Palm Sunday weekend, and that first Palm Sunday march 2,000 years ago, have been uncanny to me.
Like the crowd 2,000 years ago, I followed the leaders of yesterday’s march to speak truth to power and call for a new era of peace, an era that values people more than political power, children more than economic power.
Also, I imagine like that crowd 2,000 years ago, I left yesterday’s march inspired, high from the strength and hope of the voices and actions of so many people who were calling for an end to a status quo that, quite literally, kills people. 800,000 people marched in Washington, DC, and there were hundreds of parallel marches around the world, including 10,000 people here in Portland.
I imagine that the followers of Jesus felt energized by strength and hope too. Their parade into Jerusalem meant that they were rejecting the powerlessness their religious authorities and the Roman empire had forced upon them. Jesus, through his preaching and teaching and ministry had shown them that they were, in fact, each and every one of them, a beloved child of God, no less valuable to God than the people in power. When the crowd chanted, “Hosanna in the highest heaven! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, they were cheering the reality that they were worth more than how they had been treated their whole lives. They were cheering the hope that a new era based on that was dawning. With Jesus at their side, the people marched right into Jerusalem, right in front of the authorities. In essence, they were telling those in power, “We are not going to let things continue the way they’ve always been, the way that benefits you at the expense of us. We are worth more than this.”
Like Jesus, these people were rejecting the values of domination that benefitted a few at the expense of many, and they laid claim to values of peace and compassion, especially for the weak and the suffering.
This is how I felt yesterday too. I carried a sign I had made, which read, “Children First, Gun Profits Last,” because those in the business of manufacturing and selling automatic rifles seem more interested in sales than in the safety of children, and I wanted to proclaim the value of those children. It was empowering.
The thing is, though, the gospel of Mark does not end with the triumphal march into Jerusalem. God did not simply kick the Pharisees out of the Temple and the Roman soldiers out of the country and replace them with the woman at the well and the blind man Bartimaeus. No. God rejected the entire system that places some people over others. And God did this by letting the system burn itself out until only God’s love remained. And that burning out is not pretty; it is the crucifixion.
Two thousand years ago, the story did not end with the triumphal march into Jerusalem, and today, the story does not end with the march to end gun violence. The crucifixion is coming. Just as happened on that Palm Sunday so many years ago, those who benefit from the current system will push back; they will try to silence and squash those who work to change it.
Before yesterday’s march even began, people were saying cruel, mean, homophobic things about some of the student survivors who spoke at the march in Washington. A spokesperson for the NRA taunted them by saying that the only reason they were famous was because they had been in the school shooting and that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Their lives may become threatened, if they haven’t been already.
The crucifixion comes.
We cannot challenge systems of domination and not expect those systems to push back. We are met by disapproval, hostility, even violence.
And we also cannot help but challenge these systems anyway. It is what we are called to do. It isn’t about anger, though that sometimes comes up, and it isn’t about obligation, though sometimes it helps to have encouragement. It is simply about following in the footsteps of those people 2,000 years ago who realized that they were as utterly important children of God as everyone else.
Now, you may not be called to march against gun violence. Maybe you are called to walk with people as they break the bonds of addiction, or with their families, or maybe you are called to reverse climate change, or maybe you are called to feed people who are hungry, or to protect children from abuse, or to help people find housing. Or maybe you are called to create a safe workplace—a safe every place—for women, or maybe you are called to do one of a thousand other things that reclaim the Garden of Eden. I don’t know what you are called to, but I know you are called.

We are all called.
It does not matter how old we are, what our limitations are, or how weak and afraid we are. Abraham and Sarah were in their 90s, Moses had a stutter, and Jesus’ followers were poor people and women.
What matters is that we stick together and we walk forward. Some days our steps are baby steps; some days we march in the capitol. But if we lean on each other and we lean on God, we will always be moving forward.
Forward to the cross, and forward into glory.
Amen.

Palm Sunday & Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew:
Matthew 26:14- 27:66

 

 

When my wife, Phoebe, goes out of town, I often take the opportunity to go see horror films. A week ago, Phoebe and our three children were in Victoria, British Columbia for spring break, and so I went over to the Hollywood Theater to watch the horror/comedy movie Get Out.

I enjoy being surprised by art – by movies, by plays, by paintings – and so I chose to go to Get Out entirely based on its genre, based on a broad understanding of its subject matter or plot, and based on the recommendation of a friend whose opinion I really respect who simply told me:

Go see this movie.

And so I didn’t watch the trailer or anything – trailers tend to give away way too much. I just went.

I’d like to preserve the surprise for you as much as I can. This will be a sermon as much as possible without spoilers: if you are thinking of buying a ticket to Get Out – and I would totally encourage you to go see it, it’s actually the kind of horror movie that even Phoebe would probably like – you don’t need to plug your ears or recuse yourself from the church.

What I’d like to talk with you about this morning are two broad, spoiler-free elements characteristics of this movie that caught my attention. The first is something that I have been fascinated with for a while, and that is the use of horror to talk about a serious subject. And the second – and I’m less sure how to categorise this idea – is about how audience reaction completes a work of art, about how an artist might plan for that reaction and actually build that reaction it into her art.

First, horror as a vehicle for talking about something important. Horror – and I hope that I won’t shock or offend anyone by saying this – is an intrinsically silly genre. We are drawn to horror in part because it is a safe way of encountering something dangerous, of exploring our primal fears of death and of the dark and of decay. But we are drawn to horror as well to because of its marvellous, over-the-top absurdity. Monsters in their lairs and people jumping out of closets and guys wearing masks running around with hatchets are equal parts fearsome and ridiculous.

Because of horror’s absurd element, I was surprised and fascinated when I first realised that a lot of artists have used horror to talk about really serious subjects. The 2005 movie, The Descent, is about the aftermath of trauma; the more recent Australian film, The Babadook, is about grief; and Stephen King has long used his books to explore alcoholism, faith, loneliness, healing, parenting, aging, and so on. To paraphrase the movie reviewer Glenn Kenny, there is a lot of horror out there that is using its ridiculousness in a remarkably purposeful way.

Get Out is part of this unexpectedly serious tradition. In many ways, it is firmly rooted in the “dangerous cabin in the woods” tradition: young people leave the city and go into the woods and there they encounter fear. But Get Out uses the trope of the dangerous trip into the countryside to explore the thoroughly serious subject of race.

Get Out is about being black in America. Its primary character is an African American man in his mid-twenties, the sort of person whom we know is disproportionately likely to have a bad experience with the police, to go to prison, to be turned down for a job interview. The film’s director and writer, Jordan Peele, has said that Get Out had its genesis in his childhood, in a public school experience in which he was required to fill out a standardised form and check a box indicating his race. And he understood that the box that he was checking marked him as an outsider.

As is typical in horror, the Get Out begins in a fairly realistic or naturalistic place – the racism and micro-aggressions that the young man encounters in the movie are based on reality, on a tragically commonplace story – and then the film accelerates into something more magnified or exaggerated or intense.

Because horror movies – like adventure movies and romantic comedies – invite you and me as audience members to identify really heavily with the protagonist, the overwhelmingly white crowd around me in the Hollywood Theater had the singular experience of accepting Jordan Peele’s invitation to spend two hours looking at the world through the eyes of a young African American man.

From the safety of our seats in the Hollywood Theatre, my fellow white people and I got to have the horror of racism directed at us.

And that leads me to the second thing that caught my attention in Get Out, and that is how audience reaction completes a work of art. Jordan Peele is a really smart filmmaker. And my suspicion is that, in this movie, he is using our heavy identification with the lead character to turn a mirror upon us. Yes, through this film, Peele hopes to build up empathy between white folks and people of colour. But I suspect that Peele is simultaneously interested in obliging white folks to examine the ways that we carry ourselves in the world, the way that we think, the way that we act, the stories that we tell about the world and about ourselves.

Get Out presents white people with a deep temptation. Having spent two hours having this intense vicarious or simulated experience of being black, the temptation is to say: I understand what it is to be black in America. The temptation is to say that, because I cheered for the hero, because in a way I was the hero, I am absolved of my complicity of racism in America.

Peele makes particularly effective use of the tropes or the rules of horror in shaping audience reaction. In many ways, Get Out follows the narrative arc or rules of horror really closely, including ending the movie with cathartic violence, with the satisfaction of revenge. And Peele seriously tempts the audience into assuming our pre-assigned horror role of cheering for this violence, of celebrating as the hero with whom we identify engages in violence. During the screening that I attended, there was actually applause during a moment of violence, during a moment when one of the villainous white characters was killed. I saw an interview with one of the actors in the film who said that this kind of cheering is commonplace during screenings of Get Out. Somehow, our absolution is tied up with our approval of the onscreen violence.

These are the moments when Peele turns the mirror on us hard, when challenges his audience, when he challenges us to ask ourselves:

Who am I watching this movie?

Who am I to imagine that two hours with a bag of popcorn in my lap somehow has allowed me to understand the African American experience and that it has absolved me of my participation in racism? I am walking out of the theatre as white as ever, as free from anxiety about being pulled over as I drive home as ever. Who am I to cheer for violence? Do I really think that redemption or justice looks like turning violence away from one person and onto another? Yes, Get Out flips the script from the movies of an earlier era, wherein the violence is initially perpetrated by a person of colour – think about Westerns, about Cowboys and Indians – and then the audience satisfaction comes when the white folks get revenge. In this case, it is the person of colour who gets revenge.

But does that reversal make the violence better? Does that make the violence okay? Is violence good or holy provided that the right person, the member of the right group, is its victim?

Maybe the reason that I am so drawn to this film, is that it seems to me that a lot of the strategies that Jordan Peele uses in creating Get Out are the very same strategies that Jesus uses in the last week of his life, that Jesus uses beginning today as her rides into Jerusalem.

So. Jesus is a member of an occupied and an oppressed people. He is almost assuredly poor – his parents can’t afford a room or a crib when he is born, his friends are predominantly subsistence labourers, fishers, and farmers, and tradition has it that Jesus himself has followed his Dad into the carpentry business. Jesus is a person of colour and the occupying soldiers are white people. The Son of God, in other words, lives on the margins.

But as he enters Jerusalem today, Jesus takes on the role of king, he – and could we think of Jesus as artist or director, in this moment? – he performs the role of king. His entrance into Jerusalem is an imitation of a royal procession, maybe a satire of a royal procession, in which a peasant rides into the city like a conquering hero. Jesus is seated not on top of a stallion – the budget won’t allow for Jesus to get one of those – but on top of a donkey or a colt or maybe, somehow, a donkey and a colt at the same time.

And you and I: Jesus’ audience. We stand on the side of the road and we shout Hosanna, we shout our adulation. Somehow, this brown-skinned peasant, this impoverished member of an occupied people has become the hero of our story. On this day, it is easy to see the world through his eyes. It is easy to imagine ourselves elevated high into the air, seated on the donkey above the crowd.

In less than a week, Jesus will be elevated high into the air again.

This time as he is nailed to the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus will be sent to the cross by another crowd, a crowd that is hungry for blood, a crowd the celebrates violence, a crowd that shouts Crucify him!

Scripture doesn’t tell us how many people are in both crowds, how many of us shout both Hosanna and Crucify him! But my guess is that a good number of us, to our shame, are in both places.

And through his action, through his sacrifice, Jesus invites us, challenges us, to ask ourselves:

Who am I watching all of this? Who am I participating in all of this?

What does it mean to see the world, however fleetingly, through the eyes of one on the margins? What does it mean to be passive when violence is done to that marginalised person? Maybe even to facilitate and to benefit from the systems that do violence to that marginalised person? What does it mean when, as Jesus tells us in this story and throughout actions and his parables, the one on the margins, the one to whom the violence is done, is the Christ himself?

Great stories change us. A movie like Get Out changes us. And the greatest story of them all, the story of the Gospel, changes us. These stories of solidarity with those on the outside, with those who endure violence, change us not because the two hours of Get Out or the 28 chapters of Matthew magically eradicate our privilege and make us completely understand what it is to be black or poor or gay or live under occupation.

That’s way too simple, way to neat, way too easy.

These stories change us because they show us injustice. Because they invite us into empathy for and solidarity with the one to whom the injustice is done. Because they turn a mirror on us and show us our passivity or our complicity in injustice. Because they invite us to have the deep and humble curiosity to ask: Who am I watching all of this? Because they invite us to change. To participate with Jesus in grace and love and hope and life. To participate in resurrection.

Palm Sunday & Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 19:28-40

 

*

 

Then the whole multitude began to praise God joyfully, saying,

Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord! 

Then they brought Jesus to the place the place of a skull.

And they crucified him.

I was a young adult when I first came to church. And I remember looking around at the liturgy and feeling equal parts fascinated and intimidated and inspired and mystified. Being in an Episcopal church for the first time was a bit like being at a square dance where everyone else knows the moves really well: I suspected that I had fallen a Do-si-do or a Promenade an Allemande Left behind the rest of the congregation. And a lot of the time I wasn’t all that sure why we were Do-si-do-ing at all. Why do we stand up for the third Bible reading but not the first two? Why do some people keep on crossing themselves? What do the costumes that the people up front are wearing mean? In the confession, why do we say that we have one “heart” but then declare that we have multiple “selves” – shouldn’t they both be plural or both be singular?

As I got more familiar with the tradition, I learned the answers to some of these questions, I found out that some of them are more or less unanswerable, and I accumulated still more questions. One of the big new questions that I had was about this day: Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, or Palm and Passion Sunday.

It was that third category with its and that particularly perplexed me. I could understand Palm Sunday with its triumphal entry into Jerusalem, all of us waving our palms and throwing our coats on the ground and cheering and singing as Jesus rides through the gates. Palm Sunday was like a parade for Jesus. And I could understand Passion Sunday, in which we stand in the crowd and then at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies. But I couldn’t understand the two put together. It felt a bit like getting an invitation from a friend in which he explains that, in order to save money on the reception, he was combining his wedding with his uncle’s funeral.

Is this a day of mourning or a day of celebration?

It turns out that there was actually good reason for my confusion. Today we are keeping two separate feasts that are layered on top of one another. Up until about halfway through the twentieth century, it was pretty common in liturgical churches for Passion Sunday to fall a week ago, to take place on the Fifth Sunday of Lent and, thereby, to usher in a 2-week mini-season called Passiontide. When Passiontide was retired in 1959, the reading of the passion story moved a week forward to today.

Now, I don’t know how the folks who crafted our liturgy decided that Palm and Passion could coexist, what conversations and arguments they had before merging these feasts and the stories that go with them. But the more years that I encounter Palm and Passion Sunday, the more that I appreciate their decision to do so. Not because I find the intersection of these feasts less confusing than I once did but actually quite the opposite – because I increasingly believe that the confusion, the dissonance, the paradox of triumphal entry and crucifixion together has something important to say both about the Gospel story and about the human condition.

It is the novelist Jeanette Winterson who gives us the extraordinary turn of phrase, “the nearness of the wound to the gift.” Winterson argues that literature and mythology offer us one character after another whose hurt or limitation is, somehow, the very thing which frees her or him to act in a powerful and a transformative way. Likely the most famous contemporary example is Harry Potter, whose early-life injury and abiding loneliness set him apart and anoint or ordain or commission him to later defeat his nemesis, Voldemort. I bet if we were to crowd-source other examples, we could pretty quickly think of a fifty or a hundred more: Achilles, Oedipus, Luke Skywalker, Lisbeth Salander, Katniss Everdeen, Little Orphan Annie – who else? All of these characters carry their wounds and their gifts close together.

In my own non-fictional and largely non-magical life, I have sure known wounds. I am pretty confident that everyone in this room can say the same. To live is to get hurt. When I was a child, as I wrote recently in The Chimes, I was a pretty regular target for the bullies. When I was a young man I moved to a new city in the hopes of making a living in the performing arts, and there I experienced a protracted period of loneliness and underemployment; I think that there was one month when I had a total of two days of work and a similarly bare social calendar. When I got a little older, I sat with friends in their unexpected and untimely dying.

I’ve heard it said that we can’t remember pain, but I tell you what: when I think back on those days it’s hard for me not to flinch or to wince.

But here’s the thing. When I look back on those days I also recognise that they brought with them incomparable gifts. If I know anything about empathy, it is because of the cruelties of the schoolyard. If I know anything about what scripture calls the wilderness, it is because of my time of underemployment and isolation. If I know anything about grief and about healing, it is because my friends died too young.

Now, I want to be careful here, because in no way do I intend to imply that there were “some good things” about being bullied or being underemployed or witnessing death. There were not. And nor do I intend to imply that there are “some good things” about your wounds: there are not some good things about having cancer; there are not some good things about being mentally ill; there are not some good things about burying a parent or a spouse or a lover or a sibling or a friend or a child. No there are not. I insist that there are not. We are not talking about a facile theology in which every cloud has a silver lining, in which everything happens for a reason.

What we are talking about is paradox. The paradox via which, even as these experiences of hurt remain unequivocally awful, they are also our teachers; they offer us lessons that we can find in no book and in no classroom. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that the time that they spent in a hospital bed after a serious injury or illness was also a time of profound spiritual insight. I have lost track of the number of alcoholics who have told me that their sobriety had its beginnings in the darkest crisis. I have lost track of the number of people who have told that me that sitting beside a bed in a hospice was a an incomparable blessing.

This is the nearness of the wound to the gift.

The paradox of wound and gift close together – of Palm and Passion close together – is one that can be pretty hard for us to understand in our culture. We live in a culture of mandatory optimism. It is a culture that celebrates material success as getting progressively better jobs, making progressively more money, driving progressively nicer cars, having progressively fancier phones. And spiritual success is much the same, right? Over the course of our lives, we intellectually assent to the ideas that God wants us to intellectually assent to, we follow the rules that God wants us to follow. And if we do that well enough and long enough, God rewards us, first in this life and then later on in heaven. We are always moving from success to success, always moving upward.

Except that the Gospel tells us that the path to God doesn’t look that way at all. The Gospel tells us that, to borrow the words of Richard Rohr, the path to God is one of descent: it inescapably passes through suffering, through loss, through rejection, through unfairness, through the cross. Jesus’ triumph is indivisible from his death. It is no different for you or for me.

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Week during which we will name Jesus’ last days and the love and loss and pain and betrayal and friendship and joy that runs through them. On Thursday we will remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ service as he kneels before his friends and washes their feet. On Friday we will remember Jesus before Pilate and then on the cross. On Saturday will stand outside of the tomb and look upon the grief and the possibility that it holds. In Holy Week we will name the nearness of the wound to the gift.

Today we begin.

I wonder. I wonder if Palm and Passion Sunday, in all of its confusion, in all of its dissonance, in all of its paradox, might be the perfect way to begin this week. As Jesus walks through the gates to cheers of the crowd, he knows that the place of the skull is not far away.

Is this a day of mourning or a day of celebration?

Yes.