Palm Sunday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday)

Well, that all turned rather abruptly. From Hosanna to Crucify in the blink of an eye. This crowd that had greeted Jesus with such enthusiasm, now calls for his very life.

And while we often skip over the parade of palms that marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into1999_10208680678005109_7187044833214358620_n Jerusalem, it’s worth pausing for just a moment to reflect upon the euphoria of that day. The sheer joy and jubilation of those welcoming Jesus. There were high hopes for this man, hailed as a savior, welcomed as a king. People had heard the stories, they had witnessed his acts, his words of wisdom were well-known.

And the palms spread along his path were symbols of admiration and adulation. There’s something we love about this image because we think, “Finally, they get it. Finally, Jesus is getting his due. Finally, they recognize Jesus for who he is.” We equate large enthusiastic crowds with validation for his message. And that pleases us.

But here’s the problem with this model: Jesus didn’t come into the world to attract admirers. He didn’t seek to build up his base by drawing large crowds. He wasn’t concerned with the optics of success.

No, Jesus didn’t seek admirers but followers. He sought people who would follow him not just when things were going well, but when things didn’t go according to plan; not just when things were joyful and euphoric but when things turned dark and tragic. And they do.

This coming week we must ask ourselves whether we will be admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus. Holy Week brings us face-to-face with the question of whether we are content to call ourselves people of faith when it’s on our terms or whether we are disciples of Jesus willing to follow him when it’s inconvenient or difficult or painful. Are we fair-weather Christians who love to wave palms around and proclaim “Hosanna” or are we disciples of Jesus who recognize our complicity by crying, “Crucify?”

It’s easy enough to follow Jesus when things are going well. When life is smooth. When the parade is heading down the street and we’re surrounded and buoyed by the support of others. It’s harder when life takes a turn. And there’s a health crisis or a relationship fades or we’re confronted with conflict at work or home. Jesus knew full well about life taking a turn. That’s what this day is all about as we move from Hosanna to Crucify.

Yes, we can and should admire Jesus. But if we stop there, we’re missing the invitation to truly transform our lives. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, writes about the difference between being an admirer and a follower of Jesus: “A follower strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”

The Christian life is not an intellectual pursuit. It is about the entirety of our souls. We can’t follow Jesus at a safe, emotionally-detached distance. We can surely admire him that way and that’s a good first step. But Jesus wants all of us, not just part of us. To follow Jesus takes heart and soul and mind and full immersion.

So, the invitation has been extended. How will you respond? That’s the question we live with every single moment of our lives. Will you keep your distance or fully engage with Jesus? Will you be willing to make sacrifices or will you play it safe? The possibility of radical transformation awaits as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. As we prepare to follow Jesus.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

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Palm Sunday 2002

Palm Sunday
March 24, 2002
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

Listening to the story of Christ’s passion always frustrates me. The ending never changes. And there are various points where I want to jump into the story and shake some sense into the characters so that the outcome will be more to my liking. Every year I wait for a different conclusion – Jesus escapes or his divinity is recognized before the crucifixion or he invokes God to take him down from the cross. But the ending is always the same: Jesus is left hanging on the cross to die. And we’re left helplessly and hopelessly watching from the sidelines.

The following are some places in the passion narrative that I find especially frustrating. I’ll bet I’m not alone. First, we enter the Garden of Gethsemane. “Stay awake! What’s wrong with you? I don’t really care how tired you are, don’t you have any idea what’s about to happen here? Rest some other time.” Peter, James, and John are human, they’re weak, they also don’t know what’s about to take place. We do. 

The arrest of Jesus. The disciples start to fight with the chief priests and the crowd. Jesus stops them and tells them to put their swords away. “Jesus, please call on those twelve legions of angels you say God would provide if only you asked. You could subdue this mob and get away.” Like the disciples, our first instinct is anger. We want to put up a fight because we know Jesus is falsely accused. But Jesus knows that the unveiling of God’s plan doesn’t always match our own wants and desires.

The encounter with the high priest. Jesus stands silent before his accusers. He is mocked, spit upon, and beaten. “OK, Jesus. You didn’t run away when you had the chance, but speak! Tell them who you really are. Show them who you really are. Do a sign, perform a miracle. Maybe then they’ll realize they’ve made a terrible mistake and let you go.” We know who Jesus is, his accusers do not. Jesus knows what must be done to fulfill the Scriptures and redeem humanity. No one else can know what the Son of God knows.

Pilate’s offer to release Jesus or Barabbas. The crowd wants blood. More specifically, they want Jesus’ blood. “Release Jesus! He’s innocent. Come to your senses and let him go. You have the power to set God’s son free.” But the choice is made and Barabbas walks away. Another opportunity to change the ending of the story is lost. 

Jesus on the cross. The crowd mockingly shouts, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Jesus cries out to God but remains nailed to the wood. “Jesus, come down, please. Wouldn’t this be a great chance to show everyone who you really are. Come down off that cross and live.” Why doesn’t Jesus save himself? Is it possible that he couldn’t? Doubt begins to creep in.

My notion of a proper ending never does transpires. Jesus Christ, my Lord, our Lord, is mocked derided and crucified. We know how the story goes. It barrels ahead in all its gruesome familiarity. And as frustrating as it is, we can’t do anything to change it. The spirit will be willing but the flesh will be weak, Peter will deny Christ three times, Barabbas will be released, Pilate will wash his hands, and Jesus will be crucified.

The script can’t be sent back for a rewrite. And no one knows this better than Jesus himself. Regarding the unfolding drama he prays, “Yet not what I want but what you want.” This is exactly how we must approach the Passion narrative. Christ offers himself to God for us and we must accept this offer – we may not understand exactly why Christ has to die in order for humanity to be redeemed but we must allow God’s purposes to be fulfilled whether or not we fully comprehend or agree with what takes place. In the context of the resurrection, Christ’s death takes on so much more meaning. This day we don’t hear the joyful part of the story. We’ll need to wait a week. And so often in our own lives we make judgments about why certain things happen to us without fully knowing the breadth of the plan God has laid out for us. So this is a day of offering to God our own desires and wants and sending them up the cross with Jesus. As we listen to the Passion and prepare to walk the way of the cross this week, there can be no better starting point than to pray with Jesus, “Yet not what I want but what you want.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002

Palm Sunday 2001

Palm Sunday, Year C
April 8, 2001
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

Wait a minute. How exactly did we get from “hosanna” to “crucify?” How did we go from praise and jubilation, palms and the singing of sweet hosannas to condemnation and accusation, a cross and the violent call for death? Things have changed around here this morning. And they’ve changed quite dramatically and suddenly. From hosanna to crucify, from palms to cross.

This morning we enter into an important part of our collective story. We wave our palms in jubilation to hail our king, our savior. We cheer Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, but it is in Jerusalem that Jesus will be condemned to death and hang on a cross to die. So, we let the bittersweet hosannas ring. The dark wooden cross looms large behind the green leafy palms.

Just as we processed through the church this morning, we too, as a parish community, are part of a procession from exaltation to denunciation, from “hosanna” to “crucify”. The final destination, of course, is resurrection. But today we merely begin this journey. A journey that draws us closer to God, a journey that exposes our human weaknesses, a journey that demonstrates above all the power of God’s love for us. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the tomb, to glory. And as a community of gathered Christians standing on the precipice of Holy Week, we are much more than mere observers of this journey. Our charge, our necessary response is to walk this road with Christ and one another. We cannot be passive observers, we must be active participants. We cannot afford to let this journey simply unfold before our eyes. Unlike watching a movie, we cannot allow ourselves to sit quietly and passively in a dark and isolated theater (or church for that matter). We must actively participate in this journey with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. 

A good movie might tug on our emotions and draw us ever more deeply into the story, but only from a distance. We don’t really know the characters (they’re not real after all), and once the credits dance across the screen and the final curtain is drawn, our lives move on. We leave the theater, walk down the street, and get into our cars. We may think about the film on the drive home, or even discuss it with a friend or a spouse, but eventually it recedes into a seldom-used section of our brain and life goes on.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a movie – despite the numerous attempts that Hollywood has made. It may be dramatic, but it’s not merely a drama. It may be good theater, but it’s not merely theatrical. We can’t just sit back and watch the death of Jesus from a safe distance. It is an event that grabs hold of each one of us and pulls us in. It’s not just a good story, it is our very own story. The pain is our pain, the humiliation is our humiliation, the agony is our agony.  Over the next seven days we will retell and relive the heart of the Christian story: the death and resurrection of Christ our Redeemer. We are offered an invitation to walk this journey with Christ and one another, not as passive observers but as full participants. Jesus tells us to “pick up your cross and follow me.” That means that we must enter into the story, our own story, and walk with Jesus on this journey. There will be highs and lows, opportunities and temptations, tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Through this upcoming week we will learn even more about ourselves and the God that is revealed to us through Jesus Christ. It’s not an easy journey, but we don’t travel it alone. We walk with Christ and one another.

And we begin this walk, this journey today. When we let sweet hosannas ring we are not simply remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we are indeed part of the crowd. When we cry “crucify him” we are not simply playing a role in a liturgical drama, we are indeed part of the crowd. We’re not just remembering and reminiscing about an event that took place 2,000 years ago, we are actively engaging in an ongoing, living, breathing journey with the living God. The Christian Gospel is not about the past but about the present, the here and now of our relationship with God.

On this day we hear two refrains: “hosanna” and “crucify.” So, how does the cry turn so quickly from “hosanna” to “crucify?” It’s human weakness and fear that cause us to move from the first exclamation to the second. We are both drawn to the truth and repelled by it. The mirror of truth reveals our sinfulness and we turn away from it.  But what we fail to see is that Christ Jesus came into the world not to condemn us but to love us. And that frightens us because it means that in response we must love God and one another.

But “crucify” isn’t the final refrain, it’s not the end of our story. Thanks be to God. We must pass through death to get to resurrection but Christ’s death is not the last word. We must wait and watch and journey with Jesus this week before we can cry out with that final refrain – the refrain that only comes with the triumph of the resurrection. I’ll give you a hint: it begins with an “A” and it’s a shout of praise and joy. It’s also something that we symbolically give up saying throughout the forty days of Lent. But before we can proclaim the joy of the resurrection with authenticity and the assurance of our own salvation, we must first cry out “crucify.” Resurrection can only come when it’s preceded by death. And before we can join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven to proclaim the resurrection, we must first join our voices with those calling out for Christ’s death.

So, in the midst of the activities and worries and responsibilities of this life, the Church bids you to focus on the cross this week. Through prayer and worship at home and in this place, we can all stand before the cross and acknowledge the very source of life and hope. For in the cross is our hope; in the cross is our salvation; in the cross is our life.

 © The Rev Tim Schenck 2001