Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon: Palm Sunday, Were You There?

The Rev. Leah D. Schade
Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013

Were you there?  That's what we'll be singing later in the service.  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

The most obvious answer is, No, of course I wasn't there.  That happened over 2000 years ago.  None of us were there.

And yet, here we are telling the story again, just like we do every year.  We begin with our palms lifted high, singing "All Glory, Laud and Honor," our voices echoing those of the crowds gathered outside of Jerusalem waving branches, spreading their cloaks on the road, cheering on the man they hoped would lead them to a glorious military victory over the Roman Empire. 
Less than 30 minutes later, we're all yelling, "Crucify him!" at that same man.  What happened?  Why the sudden 180 degree turn?

Things can change so quickly when you're dealing with large crowds of people.  There is a schizophrenia to this day that can almost give you whiplash.  We wonder how the adoring fans of Jesus can suddenly turn on him and condemn him to death.

But then we're no strangers to the fickleness of crowds.  I remember attending a Phillies game a few years ago.  Were you there?  As the team came on the field, 40,000 fans are cheering on their team.  We were waving our palms – our hands, completely psyched for victory.  But when the players started making mistakes, when the other team started scoring, when they lost the game, those cheers quickly turned to jeers.  Our palms became clenched in anger.  One minute we’re screaming the praises of their seemingly Messianic team.  But if the players don't live up to the expectations of the crowd, the curse words and obscenities come flying out of our mouths like rotten tomatoes at the players.  We go from “YAY!” to “Boo!” in the blink of an eye.

As soon as the crowds in Jerusalem realized that Jesus is a leader of sacrificial peace instead of bloody war, they turn on him.  One minute their chanting Hosanna to the Son of David!  Soon after that they’re screaming, “Crucify him!”  Were you there?
For some people this sudden move from Palms to Passion is jolting.  We feel uncomfortable calling for Jesus’ death.  We don’t want to be identified with that crowd.  Some Christians and certain churches even avoid the entire Holy Week journey altogether.  They have Palm Sunday, alright.  But they skip over all the dark, ugly, graphic parts of the story on Good Friday.  They go right from palms to Easter lilies.  None of that messy stuff in between.

Lutherans call this “cheap grace.”  Because it requires no change, no response.  It provides no means for a change of heart, for a transformed attitude, for a moment of self-awareness, repentance and a decision to lead a life of reconciliation.  We choose NOT to ignore the suffering of Jesus.  We believe it is vital that we tell all parts of the story, and that we recognize ourselves as part of both crowds – the ones who cheer, and the ones who call for crucifixion. 

Why?  Why is it so important that we recount this tale of betrayal and violence?  Who cares what happened to a carpenter’s son turned preacher two millennium ago? 

I saw an illustration once of a young child sitting next to an old man on a park bench.  The child says to the man, “I got tell ya, Mister, that’s an awfully boring tattoo you’ve got on your arm there.  It’s just a bunch of numbers.” 
The man replies, “Well, I was about your age when I got it.  And I kept it as a reminder.” 

“Oh,” the child replies, “a reminder of happier times?” 

“No, of a time when the world went mad.  Imagine yourself in a land where your countrymen follow the voice of political extremists who didn’t like your religion.  Imagine them taking everything from you.  Your entire family sent to a concentration camp as slave laborers, then systematically murdered.  In this place, they even take your name and replace it with a number tattooed on your arm.  It was called the Holocaust when millions of people were killed because of their faith.”

The child with tears on the cheek whispers, “So you kept it to remind yourself of the dangers of political extremism?”

The man replies, “No dear.  To remind you.”

We tell this story this day to remember.  We tell this story to our children so that they remember.  Lest we think ourselves so much more advanced, it must be stated that we are no different today.  What was done to Jesus is still done to people all over the world down through the centuries.  The Jews in the Holocaust.   The Native Americans in the Trail of Tears.  Africans brought to this country as slaves.  War refugees in the Sudan. Neda, the woman who was killed during the protests in Iran.  We remember what was done to Matthew Shepherd and those of differing sexual orientations who are killed for their expression of love.  We remember the image of the hooded man standing on the platform with his arms outstretched awaiting torture at Abu Graib prison in Iraq.  Were you there?

There is another hymn sometimes sung during Holy Week:  Ah, Holy Jesus - Who was the guilty?  Who brought this upon thee?  Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee. I crucified thee.

We would rather forget.  We would rather not mention such unseemly human behaviors.  We would turn away. But today, and this coming week, we consciously and intentionally remember to remind ourselves of the danger of just going along with the crowd.  To remind ourselves that while our kids are committing seemingly harmless video violence on their screens, and while certain organizations are calling for us to worship at the altar of the gun under the pretense of patriotism, there are people out there, children in their classrooms, who are subjected to real violence, real guns, whose pain is real, whose voices need to be heard.  We do this in our worship service so that we do not become numb to the pain and thus apathetic towards our sisters and brothers.  Because if we cut ourselves off from their pain, the cycle of violence will only continue.

And there is one more reason why we tell this story.  We do this to remember what God is doing in response to and in spite of what were are doing to try to kill God’s son, to kill any of God’s children.  The automatic response will be, “Well, yes, God sent Jesus to die for our sins.  God allowed Jesus to die in order to make payment for our sins.  That’s what God is doing here, right?” 

But I would again argue that this is also “cheap grace”.  Because this theory of atonement requires no response from us.  It provides for no change of heart, or a transformed attitude, or a moment of self-awareness, repentance and a decision to lead a life of reconciliation.  Does God really require the killing of Jesus in order to be satisfied for our sins?  No.  But humans do.  The Jewish and Roman domination systems had to kill Jesus because he was a threat to their power.  And we continue to sacrifice lives for the sake of institutional domination, racial and sexual arrogance, economic and territorial greed and petty pride. 

But God's answer to this is that:  this must stop.  If God wanted sacrifice, then Jesus would have remained dead.  That's not what happened.  Jesus was resurrected. Jesus lives.  This means that God does not condone violence.  God submits to it, absorbs it, lives right through it in order to be in solidarity with those who suffer through it.  But then God resurrects the condemned one, the betrayed one, the crucified one in order to show that this act of violence is not the last word. 

This tattoo on the arm on the Jew is not the last word.  This mark on Jesus’ wrist is not the last word.  

Were you there?

Be there.  Stay with it.  Don’t turn away from it.  Stay with the journey.  It will not be easy.  It will not be fun.  But this is part of God’s plan to transform the worst of humanity into the very best that God intends. Be there, knowing that God is going to meet you there.  Amen.


  1. Thanks Leah! I am going through a hard time right now taking care of my Mom at home on hospice. I know that God suffers with us when we suffer, but this is still not easy but its important that I be there for her, stay with her, don't turn away from her, stay with the journey. It is not easy and certainly not fun but it is transforming and I know that God has and will meet us there.

    Peace in Christ
    MaryLou Matthews

  2. MaryLou - You're right, this is one of the most difficult journeys to walk with someone. I will be praying for you and for your Mom, that God will give you courage, moments of rest and reprieve, a good sense of humor, and endurance to go the distance. Thank you for sharing your comment.


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