Palm Sunday--Palmy Passions and Passionate Palms: Living the In-between
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Palm Sunday—Mark 11:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16 Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-39
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Palm Sunday is one of days in the liturgical calendar that at first glance can’t seem to make up its mind. On the one hand, we are waving palms, shouting hosannas and yelling out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The liturgy of the palms is a moment of joyful recognition, and thanksgiving. It is a moment that testifies to seeing, naming, and celebrating the loving presence of Jesus in our midst. On the other hand, we also hear the passion narrative proclaimed as our gospel—an account of all the different ways we—as confused, violent, and broken humanity—fail to see that the Galilean peasant with the dusty feet who eats with all the wrong people and touches those from whom polite society says we should keep a safe distance is the Son of God. The passion is the climax of a story of tragic misrecognition, blindness, and captivity to the cycle of violence that killed God’s only son and continues to spill the blood of innocents every second of every minute of every day.
So which is it? Is this day, marking as it does our entrance into the sweep of the liturgical drama of Holy Week, about recognition and seeing, or mistaken identity and blindness? And who are we in this story? Are we the joyful palm wavers screaming at the top of our lungs in thanksgiving for the revelation of God-with-us? Or are we the jaded, self-enclosed, blood-thirsty crowd who’d rather free a common criminal than miss a chance to see Jesus crucified? Is this liturgy a schizophrenic mash-up that can’t make up its mind, or does the holding together of these apparent opposites tell us something about our lives as a community, and our relationship to Jesus that we need hear and sit with?
Needless to say, I think we often sell the framers of these liturgies short. We think that there is something wrong with the liturgy (besides being too long) that hopefully a future prayer book revision will sort out. The Church, we tell ourselves, is hopelessly muddled, and until we get it sorted, it’s probably just as well to worship at the Church of the Holy Comforter with a nice pot of coffee nearby and the weekly news roundup on the television. Such is the hubris of our age. But what if this liturgy is actually telling us something important about what it means to journey with Jesus? What if, instead of being a mixed-up liturgy that needs streamlining, this day shows us the truth? What if the Church, as the Bride of Christ, is actually showing us something essential about what it means to a human being, and how we might move closer to God?
The complex, messy reality that Palm Sunday sets before us is a reflection of our complex and messy lives. Think about a time in the last week when you’ve sought, seen, named, and celebrated Jesus’ loving presence in your life. It might be out in the mountains on a hike, or watching the twinkling of the valley lights at night. It might be in a friendship that’s been reconciled and renewed, or in the cooing, baby-food smeared face of a grandchild navigating mashed peas for the first time. Those are the palms—moments when the sheer goodness and giftedness of being alive penetrate our hearts and joyful thanksgiving, and full-throated praise come bubbling out of us without a second’s thought.
Now think about a time in the last week when you felt the absence of God. It might be the end of a relationship. Another school shooting in a culture addicted violence. A gnawing sense of loneliness and isolation. It might be the dissolution of a project we’ve worked hard at for a long time, and the collapse of our best-laid plans. It might be the doctor, with a note of worry in her voice, asking us to come back in for more tests, or a parent who doesn’t recognize our face anymore. Those are the crosses—moments when being human, just getting through the day in one piece, seems an insurmountable task reserved for saints and superheroes.
Palm or passion? That is the question. And, although we know deep in our hearts that this is not an either-or type question, the pull of wanting life to be one or the other is almost irresistible. Why? Because if life were one way or the other, we’d at least know what expect. Things would be orderly and predictable. We could make plans and not have to deal with the intrusions of illness or be surprised by irruptions of grace. One thing Palm Sunday puts before us is the reality that our life is both palm and passion. Our lives are littered with moments of Jesus’ loving presence made manifest to us. With practice, and a little help with from our community of fellow travelers who can help us discern, we start to see that we are woven into a sacramental tapestry in which even the most mundane of acts—washing off the dust from our feet, chewing a piece of bread, taking a sip from a cup—reveal and manifest God’s unconditional love for us. But our lives are also punctuated by periods where we can’t for the life of us see or feel God’s presence anywhere. Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross is our cry. We seek Christ but all we see is a criminal and we find ourselves joining in the chorus calling for blood in spite of ourselves. We gnaw, not on the bread of welcome, but on the bread of tears and drink bitterness by the bowlful.
The truth is that both of these reality are true. We live in the in-between space of palm and passion. It’s messy. It’s uncomfortable. It’s risky. We live there because that where Jesus is-in loving self-offering and communion with his Father who is love regardless of the circumstance. Jesus opens himself, and allows himself to become radically vulnerable. So that’s one thing that our liturgy today calls us to—a willingness to let our guard down, to open, to receive, to become a place of welcome to all that comes our way in the knock-kneed faith and hope that even in the midst of apparent darkness, loss, isolation, and fear—God is with us, sharing in our suffering, transfiguring it, and making a way through. We come to know that even in the furnace, the song of Christ is singing. We come to see that figure of the fourth amidst the flames. We increasingly come to live from a place of deep peace that welcomes good fortune and failure, first place and falling flat on our face.
But our readings for today also show us something important about our relationship with Jesus. In the full version (which you can thank me we didn’t read) we see in Mark’s account of the passion a flickering back and forth between moments of closeness with Jesus and moments of betrayal and desertion. The woman with the alabaster jar, pouring out the costly perfume over Jesus’ feet in a moment of intimacy that makes us squirm is followed immediately by Judas’ bean-counter cost-benefit analysis. The scene of communion with Jesus’ very body and blood—take and eat, drink this all of you—is followed by the pronouncement that the one who will betray Jesus is at table with them at this very moment. Peter says he’ll never deny Jesus, and then proceeds to fall asleep in the garden after Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to stay awake, to watch and pray. And of course, there is that holding together of the acclamation of Jesus as, “One who comes in the name of the Lord,” and then calling out to crucify him, mocking him on the cross.
This day is not just meant to show us that God is with us no matter what through our palms and passions, accolades and abject failures. That is certainly true, but it’s meant to show us something a little more uncomfortable about ourselves as well. It’s meant to show us that we—like Peter, like Judas, like the mob-minded crowd swept up in a delirium of blood-lust, like the soliders who mock Jesus and cast lots for his clothes—are fickle-minded, and fallible. Our capacity for acting mechanically out of blindness, habit, or by simply being distracted, has disastrous consequences. We join the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” each time we fail to honor the inherent dignity of another person as created in the image and likeness of God, and each time we live from unforgiveness. We join the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” each time choose the comfort of silence over the risk of speaking out against injustice or oppression. We join the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” when we wall ourselves off from transformative encounter with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, and turn the open door of God’s welcome into a padlocked gate. This is just who we are. It’s hard, in the face of such an unflinchingly honest portrayal of our capacity for desertion, betrayal, and lynch mob violence, to see how the phrase “happy clappy Christians” ever came about. If we hear the passion, and if we allow ourselves to see ourselves in it, it’s the most sobering account of our capacity for destructive violence ever written. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Palm Sunday asks us to hold the palms of life and the crosses that we inevitably experience together. It asks us to see, name, and celebrate the ways we share intimacy with Jesus’ loving presence and honestly acknowledge before God the ways we often pull back in fear out of a desire for safety, security, predictability, and control. We live in that in-between space of the palmy-passion and the passionate palm. It’s the place of vulnerability, of opening, of receiving, of walking by faith and not by sight, and going up the mountain with Moses into the dark cloud. It’s the way that knows no way but the following after Jesus down the road of love and welcome, of knowing Jesus and making him known, of being loved and opening our arms in love that everyone, everywhere might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Live the in-between and you’ll find that Jesus lives there too. Live the in-between and you’ll find that Jesus is living his life in and through you. Live the in-between and you’ll find those outlandish words of St. Paul—“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,”—aren’t poetry, but who God made you to be.