Palm/Passion Sunday, Year B (March 28, 2021)

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Commentary from the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Texts for Liturgy of the Palms

Psalm 118 has as its basis, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” All of our festal praise — branches and all — is rooted in the love of God.

Mark‘s gospel account is, as usual, brief and to-the-point: Jesus wants (and needs) a donkey to ride on, so he sends two disciples to find one. No other rationale given than, “The Lord needs it.” Jesus rides in, people spread their cloaks and assorted branches, as if welcoming a dignitary. The shouts of “Hosanna” are a delicious addition, as the root word is a form of Jesus’ name — yasha — help us, save us! Then, Jesus arrives at the Temple, looks around (calm before the storm?), and heads back out for the night. Soon, it will be time for some real business!

John‘s account (optional reading) is actually even briefer, but adds the rich detail that the great crowd, “heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.” Do you remember how you first heard of Jesus in your own life? What has been your response to that news ever since?

Texts for Liturgy of the Passion

We cannot help, perhaps, reading Isaiah‘s words “Christianly.” With many others across the centuries, we have seen Christ as the ultimate Suffering Servant in this passage. But for any servant of God — at any time — the message is true: “The Lord God helps me….” Christ lives this; so must we.

Psalm 31 is a psalm both of lament and of trust (which often go together in the psalter!) Acknowledging both grief and sorrow, the psalmist also prays, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” Do we find a place for trusting God in the midst of grief and sorrow?

Philippians 2:5-11 simply stands alone and on its own for the beauty, simplicity, and power of the heart of the gospel message. We may well read it and weep at the wonder of this “mind of Christ.” How do we let this mind “be in us?”

The long Passion reading from Mark 14-15 moves us, as well, to tears of a different sort. Obedience, suffering, deception, betrayal, indifference, abandonment, grace, faith (from a centurion!), and tender care for a lifeless body. It’s all here. It is the deepest sort of pathos. This is God — dying with us, dying for us.

* * * * * * * *

A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The Rev. Denny Camp is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In the late 1960s he graduated from Cummings High School in Burlington, NC. It was an old building built in the early 1900s; a long, brick, two-story building with staircases at each end of a central hall. Some long ago principal had organized the class changing chaos by decreeing that the East End staircase was UP and the West End staircase was DOWN. This rule was strictly enforced, going the wrong way on a staircase was a serious offence!

One day Denny found himself at the bottom of the DOWN staircase a few minutes before classes changed. His next class was in a room directly over his head. To properly, appropriately, legitimately go upstairs, he would need to walk all the way to the other end of the corridor, go up the UP staircase, and then walk all the way back to his class room. This would probably have been good exercise for him, but he was a 15 year old boy; exercise was not on his mind, the easiest way to do what he wanted to do was.

Denny glanced at his watch, looked around and saw no teachers, and headed up the DOWN staircase. When he was about halfway up, he first felt, then saw, then heard a presence above him. He glanced up the second floor landing and saw the Football Coach and Assistant Principal for Discipline glaring down at him. “CAMP! Get up here!” the coach yelled.

At just that exact moment, the bell rang and a sea of teenage humanity started flowing down the DOWN staircase. Denny couldn’t make any headway – he was stuck. The Coach kept glaring down at him and shouting, “CAMP, GET UP HERE!”  But he couldn’t move. He couldn’t go up, he couldn’t buck the tide. He couldn’t go down, the coach was calling him up. He was stuck, stuck going up the DOWN staircase.

Sometimes our lives feel like that, like a constant struggle to push against the tide, Henry David Thoreau said it best in the 1830s, “Most men (people) lead lives of quiet desperation.” We start out with great hopes and grand plans; our way is clear and the sailing looks easy. Then suddenly – we look around and we’re stuck. Nothing is working out the way we thought it would. Marriage is complicated, jobs are uncertain, the economy is shaky, the world itself is a place full of danger and trouble and here we stand: unable to go forward, unwilling to back down.

It is when one finds oneself stuck, immobile on the staircase of life, that one must re-evaluate the very meaning of life, redefine one’s goals, recalculate what “going up” means,.  As our text from Philippians shows us, sometimes the first step in going up is to go down.  As you read this, imagine it being sung as a hymn, for that is what it is.

“Let the same mind be in you

that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death

— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

The cross of Christ invites to embark on a journey up the DOWN staircase, swimming against the tide of the world’s values of self-interest and personal privilege. When people greeted Jesus by shouting “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” it is doubtful that many of them understood that in this new kingdom the meaning of life would be found in the cross. We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, and when we do our life’s agenda becomes discipleship and service.

In the cross, our struggle in life are transformed from an effort to succeed into a journey of obedience to the Gospel; and going up the DOWN staircase is transformed from an image of frustration and failure to a model of spiritual pilgrimage and the pursuit of God’s peace with justice.

The people flowing down the stairs become a picture of the material and cultural forces that hinder us in our efforts to follow the way of Christ. And though it’s difficult (at least for some of us) to imagine God as a red-faced football coach, we can at least envision a Higher Power beckoning to us from above, encouraging us, calling us to “go up higher.”

The Christian life is the way of the cross.  It is a struggle, a struggle to live a life of love and service to God and neighbor in a world which constantly pushes us in the opposite direction. And the good news is: we are not in this battle alone.  God sent Jesus to be our guide, to show us the way, to go before us and, if necessary, to carry us, up the DOWN staircase.

Amen and amen.