Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

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