Palm Sunday 2018
March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday 2018

Passage: Mark 11:1-11

It’s a common lament amongst priests that the church is full of people on Palm Sunday and even fuller on Easter, but is relatively empty on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Saturday’s Great Vigil. The complaint, of course, is that people get the “feel good” parts of the story with none of the suffering, none of the sacrifice.

But even if you do come to all of the Triduum services, you’re still missing a huge part of the story – you’re missing Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday – all the things that happened to turn a cheering crowd into a jeering crowd, demanding crucifixion.

That’s why we structured today’s liturgy as we did – to be explicit with how Jesus behaved that final week. He knew what he was doing and knew full well what the consequences would be.

But even with our lengthy readings, we can still overlook just how important this last week of Jesus’ life was. Do you realize how much space the gospels devote to this week? Matthew and Mark each commit about a third of their gospel to it. For Luke, it’s about a quarter. And John (our patron saint!) allocates half his gospel to this last week.

For three years Jesus preached what the Kingdom of God was all about. For three years he lived what the Kingdom of God was all about. He revealed a kingdom of mercy and justice. He revealed a kingdom where those who are most vulnerable and despised in this world are cherished and invited in to belong and participate in the life of the community. He challenged our love of rules and taught us, instead, to repent and love our neighbors. And all along the way he called the people to join him, to share in this upside-down way of seeing and living in God’s world.

And the people loved what they saw and were receiving from this long-hoped-for Messiah.

And then came the Week of the Passion, the summation of his entire ministry, when Jesus’ message took on a very different tone. Beyond proclamation, beyond demonstration, he now began a prophetic ministry of outright denunciation.

On Monday he shows up in the temple courts and overthrows the tables and rejects the whole cultural system that had built up around temple worship. For good or for ill, this was the only way people had ever experienced worship, and he rejects it all – with violence! You can just imagine the furious conversations that erupted all over Jerusalem Monday night, and the energy that was galvanizing against him.

So it’s no surprise that on Tuesday, when he returns to the temple courts, the chief priests and the teachers and the elders accost him, “What on earth do you think you’re doing? What authority do you have (you upstart Messiah from Nazareth!)? And he answers so shrewdly that they’re silenced. Then he preaches a parable denouncing them, and they knew he talking about them. And from that point on they were ready to arrest him. But he didn’t stop there. He took on the Pharisees and Herodians as well. And then the Sadducees – all the people who held power in Jewish society came under his public rebuke.

In Matthew’s version of the story Jesus is even more severe. Seven times he repeats, “Woe to you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites” and goes on to call out these “blind fools” for their hypocrisy. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,” he says at one point, “you hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full dead men’s bones…You are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:37-28).

Is it any surprise that Jesus ended up on the cross?

And the thing is, as much as we claim to be on Jesus’ side – a s much as we claim his words and teaching to be the principals by which we live – the reality is not nearly so tidy as all that. We are such complex people.

We have faith and we have love. We really do – and everywhere it appears is a thing of beauty, of God-in-us.

And we have doubts.

And, yes, we have our own share of hypocrisy.

But here is where I need to interrupt myself. This is where, in the original draft of my sermon, I came down very hard on all the hypocrisy in the church. But for the past few nights when I’ve gone to bed, there’s been a gnawing in my spirit that the tone of my sermon was off – that there was something inappropriate in my critique. And this morning, as I lay in bed, still stewing, it became very clear where I was in error.

Sure, there is hypocrisy in the church, across the board.

But if we are to receive Jesus’s ministry of denunciation accurately, we need to be clear about who he was denouncing: the elders, the scribes, the priests, the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees. In short: all the leadership of the religious community in Jerusalem. It was the leaders who came under his scathing rebuke because they were the ones responsible for representing God and the nature of God’s kingdom. And to that task they utterly failed. For what they taught and what they modeled was a very worldly display of self-righteousness, vanity, legalism and disdain of those who were different.

And if this is what the religious leadership displays, then it is natural for those they lead to adopt these same vices as virtues. But even more scandalous, it becomes natural to believe that this is the nature of God himself. And for Jesus, that outrage was worth tearing the temple apart, and being crucified.

And as we enter this Week of the Passion, Jesus’ critique of the religious leadership in our country is just as timely as ever.

The writer Michael Gerson published a sharp critique this week of the leadership within his own segment of the Evangelical church.[1] And like Jesus, his critique lands squarely on the head of its leaders. He laments how prominent voices have embraced the president’s depiction of evangelicals as “a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules...Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully.” And these leaders have “embraced this self-conception. “Their justification is often bluntly utilitarian: All of Trump’s flaws are worth his conservative judicial appointments and more-favorable treatment of Christians by the government.” But they have gone much further …. “They have basked in access to power and provided character references in the midst of scandal.” They dismiss his offensive, unregulated rhetoric as “authentic, successful & down to earth” and all the while “defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity.….[These leaders] are providing religious cover for moral squalor – winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints.” And as for his racist behavior, Gerson continues, “I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong … supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.”

But lest you think I’m pointing my finger at “all those other” kind of Christians, let me be just as blunt at the failure of our Episcopal leadership in this generation. We are just as wed to a kind of nasty, self-righteous political dialogue. But even more lamentable in our church is the leadership’s failure to foster any kind of serious commitment to faith formation as followers of Jesus. Earlier this week I was looking at a website for a prominent, well-funded Episcopal church in the United States. It was a beautiful website because they had a full-time staff person employed to maintain it. They had four full-time priests, lots of full-time administrators and property managers, and just one children’s minister and no one for teen or adult formation. So I read the job descriptions of all four priests and not one of them had any connection to spiritual formation.  So long as people come to church and worship with our well-ordered liturgy, so long as they pledge, and so long as they support liberal political agendas, then that’s all we’re asking of them. Once that’s in place you can do as you like with the rest of your life. We like to pride ourselves as being a “thinking church” – where it’s safe to question small-minded or traditional theology. But in reality, it appears to be no more than an excuse to be released from any serious commitment or responsibility to grow and be transformed by our faith.

And again, lest I be guilty of pointing my finger at all those “other” Episcopal priests, let me be clear, that I am complicit in this same culture. I am guilty of my own share of hypocrisy as well. Every time I read a story where Jesus takes on the “chief priests” I shudder. I know the title of my profession all too well and deservedly come under Jesus’ rebuke. I am just as prone to choose comfort and security and self-righteousness to defend my reputation and my spending habits and my political opinions.

It is we Christian leaders who should tremble most during the week of Christ’s passion. We are the ones who have been charged to represent God and the Kingdom of God with integrity and vulnerability. And if we leaders are going to be honest in our discipleship as followers of Jesus, we’re going to have to be brave enough and humble enough to face just how deeply entrenched we are in the Kingdom of this world. For these allegiances are very strong and claim far more power on us than we’re comfortable admitting. Repenting from these self-serving addictions must be a serious endeavor because – far more than church – it is the culture that has formed us in how we think and what we believe and what we value.

Following Jesus is not easy. How could it be, when he has already warned us that following him with any integrity will at some point require us to take up our cross?

I remember being in Israel, walking some dusty trail. I was watching the dust collect on my sandals and praying, with many impassioned words, that I wanted to walk as Jesus walked and live like Jesus lived. And then I rounded a corner. There before me stood a huge cross. And I realized with dismay just how thin and undeveloped my prayers and my discipleship actually were.

Jesus got himself killed because he called out the hypocrisy its leaders who claimed to be following God, who had all the right words and all the right costumes and all the right ceremonies, but were – in truth – far more committed to the values of this world.

But we are following Jesus who offers another way. Love God. Love your neighbor. Lay down your life for the other’s good.

It all feels like cost, I know. It all feels like sacrifice and loss. And I suppose in some ways it is. Jesus certainly wept in the garden, begging his father in heaven that, if there were any other way than the way of the cross, could he please have that instead.

But what else are we to do? The way of Jesus is the truer way. And should we actually arrive on the other side of loss we might finally discover it to be the way of riches and joy. Certainly the day is coming when we will arrive on the other side of death and there before the throne of God, what do we hope to show for this life God has given us?

[1] Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic, April 2018.