Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon: Hope Among the Thorns

Many, many thanks to Emily for her help with this one!

Mark 11:1-11

Sermon Series:  Crown of Thorns, Crown of Glory #6

Hope Among the Thorns

I had an interesting experience this week – a friend of mine who did not grow up in a church community asked me to tell her about Palm Sunday.  She had been invited to attend a worship service, and did not know what to expect.  As I started to explain a little bit about why Palm Sunday is a special day for us, I realized that I have a good perspective from which to tell the story – I know how it ends.  Not just what happens when Jesus enters Jerusalem, but what also occurs on Thursday night, Friday during the day, and the final surprise on Easter Sunday of the empty tomb.  The natural place to begin any explanation of Palm Sunday is with the parade – that is how we mark this day in our church.  The children process with Palms, and we sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” and feel celebratory.  It was not until the last 20 years or so that churches have made a shift to include the telling of the Passion story on this Sunday as well.  As more and more people were not able to attend worship on Thursday night or Friday at noon, the churches realized that we need to share the whole story of what happened that week on a single Sunday, so that we can truly celebrate on Easter.

            And it all starts with a parade.  A parade that is thrown by Jesus and the disciples.  The Disciples think they are doing something to honor Jesus.  They retrieve the colt from the place where Jesus said it would be, and they take it to him.  They prepare for the pageantry to enable Jesus to ride into town like the majesty and royalty that he is, in their opinion.  Think of the parades you remember…I remember being in college and watching the Homecoming parade from the front porch of my dorm.  What an event!  You can feel the excitement in the air during a parade.  That gorgeous fall afternoon, the crowds were just as excited as the marchers.  We cheered on the band and applauded when people we knew came by.  The same thing happens here during the annual Christmas Parade.  Not only are those riding on floats having fun, but those lining the route are also integral to the event.  We add to the atmosphere with our chatter and cheering.  We dance with the band and run out to catch candy that is tossed through the air, or handed out to small waiting hands.  A parade without anyone along the route to witness it would be boring.  A parade without anyone to enjoy the music and the ticker-tape, without anyone to comment on which float they like, or without anyone to enjoy the creations and the candy would be a huge let down. 

Parades have a long history of being held to honor celebrities and royalty.  But before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, complete with gianormous balloons, Broadway performers and marching bands…. Before the Rose Festival parade with floats covered with flowers and elements of nature… before the parades and processions of modern time that mark military victories, welcome presidents and dignitaries, or celebrate winning sports teams – before those parades, there was a different kind of parade.  In the time of Jesus, parades were used as a military tactic.  The procession of people was a way to show military might and strength, a way to show who was in charge, how many soldiers he had to support him, and to honor the leader of an empire. 

            So it would make sense that Jesus’ followers throw him a grand parade.  In their minds, he is coming to overthrow the military and political government.  It makes sense that he would come in glory, and they want to see that.  The crowd is involved, as all good crowds are.  They come out and see Jesus riding by on a colt.  They throw their cloaks down on the parade route – perhaps to cushion the ride?  As he approaches, the people who were gathered harvested leafy branches from the trees of the field and wave them in honor of Jesus.  As he comes closer, they cry out, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  They cry out loudly and excitedly.  They are welcoming their king – the one for whom they are waiting!

            But if you look closely, you see that this is not a normal parade.  Today is not the day we will talk about the crown of glory as a contrast to the crown of thorns we have been wearing during this Lenten season – that exchange happens later.  This parade is not the grand military procession we sometimes imagine it was.  In this parade, Jesus flips the whole notion of a military parade upside down onto its head.  By entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, he rides through the worst parts of town.  The parts of town where the down and out live, where there is more rubbish in the streets than palms.  He rides through the tenements and past hovels, not through areas of fancy houses and monuments.  His colt is just a baby, and so Jesus is not elevated above the crowd looking down on them, which he would be on a full grown horse.  Instead, his feet drag the ground and he looks the people in the eye as he rides past.  This parade was planned and organized, and expected to be similar to the military parade a leader may participate in.  However, there are no armies proceeding and following Jesus.  There are no tanks or Humvees demonstrating his might and power.  He is not wearing the uniform of a military leader with spit-shined boots and a chest full of ribbons.  Jesus rides into town unarmed with twelve dusty disciples as his only escorts.  He is not coming as one who will overtake with violence, but rather as one who will experience it first hand when it is done to him.

            What happens when the parade ends?  When the colt is returned home, when the palm fronds are swept up by the street sweepers and the cloaks are returned to their owners or trampled into the dust?  What are we to do then?  We are called to keep following Jesus past the end of the route.  For this is the week when the crown of thorns grows heavy.  There is a cost to following Jesus down the road after the parade.  The cost of knowing that he participates in our place.  That in these experiences of this week, we can know that he has known more than we will ever have to endure.  Jesus enters Jerusalem and the status quo flips.  We have spent the Lenten season examining the thorns that make up the crown, and the first thorny branch woven into the crown is the one that pricks us when we realize the cost of following.  When we realize that we contribute to the pain as our Hosannas turn into cries demanding death.  And yet we must follow.

            We follow him to the Upper Room, where the one who we serve serves others.  We watch as Christ breaks bread and offers the cup one last time.  He bends down low and washes the feet of those who are present.  In that act, we begin to feel the thorns of grief and loss intertwining into our crown.  We feel his impending absence as the tenebrae candles are extinguished and the night grows dark.  We know that the one who serves us will die for us.  And we continue to follow.

            We follow him to the garden.  We watch through the bushes and from behind trees as he prays to God, asking to be relieved of this burden.  We watch as he cries out to God, and as he is betrayed by one of his own with a kiss.  The thorns of betrayal pierce our skin, as we watch the ultimate betrayal in front of our own eyes. 

            From the garden we follow him to the city.  It is there that he will be questioned by the high priest and the council.  They do not know what they are doing, they do not know why.  As we listen to the trial, we wonder what we might be tried for, what we might be held accountable for at a future date.  We examine the thorns that were already present in our lives.  The crown grows heavier.

            It is when we follow him to the courtyard that the thorns of rejection are added to the crown we wear.  Jesus is mocked and beaten, and we refuse to save him.  Instead we call for his death and the salvation of a common criminal.  We reject the one who loved us.

            With heavy hearts, we follow to the hill.  The hill where he is hung on a cross and crucified.  The crown is complete.  And as he is on the cross, when the sky grows dark and the temple curtain is torn, the crown is lifted from our head and placed on his.  And it is finished.

            We followed him to the end.  The body is placed in a cave and the stone rolled in front.  He gave his life for us, and now, now the crown of thorns become the crown of glory. The glory we find in an empty tomb on Easter morning.  The glory of knowing that the parade was only the beginning, and that glory is not found where we thought it would be found, but in a man who died and was risen.    The hope we find in the thorns is not a thorn, but in the knowledge that Jesus will overcome them all, and bring us out on the other side. 

            On Palm Sunday, we are called to celebrate our only hope.  As is says in Psalm 118, “God is good and God’s love endures forever.”  This week, when the celebration abruptly turns to anguish, when the echoes of “All Glory Laud and Honor” are drowned out by the notes of “Were You There” we can find our certainty and our hope in the one in whose death we participate.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find our hope for life here, and for eternal life.  We celebrate today to remind ourselves of the words that will offer us comfort throughout this Holy Week — Christ is our only hope.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Julie Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
April 1, 2012


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Palm Sunday Sermon

“Up to Jerusalem

Luke 19:28-40

We mark time in different ways.  We use watches and clocks, calendars and the sun – -all sorts of methods to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  In the church, we use the liturgical calendar to orient ourselves to the seasons and rhythms of church life.  Each season has a color, and we use those colors in our worship spaces.  If you are a visual person, like I can be, page 2 of the PC(USA) planning calendar is a lifesaver.  All on one page, the rhythm of the church year is laid out as a guide that shows the colors we use in worship each week to mark the specific season of the year.  Some days are white for special days in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ – days like Christmas and Easter and All Saint’s Day.  There is the purple of penitence and preparation for Advent and Lent, the emptiness of Good Friday, the bright spot of red for Pentecost, and then the seemingly endless span of green that marks ordinary time – or times of spiritual growth.  The diagram I first remember seeing looked a lot like a pie chart – the year was in circular form, and again, most of it was green, for ordinary time.  Sometimes, when I think about the liturgical year as a marker of time, I tend to think of something a bit more exciting than calendars and charts – my mind turns to roller coasters.

Think about it for a minute – -roller coasters, like the liturgical year are endless loops — yet there is a beginning and an end.  There are peaks and valleys, with one great big high point, drops, and spaces in between to allow us to catch our breath.  Some even have parts that are dark and scary.  If you ever ride Splash Mountain, you will notice that the climb up to the last hill is the scariest part – -or is supposed to be.  The music is ominous, the effects are dark and dismal.  There are even vultures and other birds of prey circling over the car as it makes its way to the top for the final, big plunge.

Liturgically, the church begins our ride on the first Sunday of Advent with the slow climb towards the top of the first big hill – Christmas.  We descend through Epiphany into Ash Wednesday and the contemplative period of Lent before we begin to climb again towards Palm Sunday.  Then we go down into the depths of darkness and climb to the daylight that is Easter, followed by the rush of Pentecost, and the quiet part in the middle – of Ordinary time – -the chance to catch your breath, look around at all the scenery – maybe see some water, wave at the people standing in line, and then the last hills of All Saint’s Day, Christ the King Sunday and the ride is over.  We get begin again with the first Sunday of Advent.

Now, no metaphor is perfect, but this one works fairly well for the beginning part – -especially the parts that carry us from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  Ash Wednesday is a chance to reflect and decide how we will take the 40 day journey that is Lent.  As we continue towards Palm Sunday, there is a chance to look around at our lives, to think about what we may want to do differently to live how God calls us to live.  And then, today we reach the top of the hill – Palm Sunday.  It is a rush of excitement in the midst of the quiet contemplation – -the little hill before the big one – – and we anticipate the excitement of what we know comes next.

But before we get to Easter, the one we are so excited about – -the peak with the spectacular view and the adrenaline rush, we have to descend into Holy Week.  We drop down into dark places; we have to look at each other and ask hard questions about betrayal and eat last meals.  To truly understand how amazing it is to be at the heights that are Easter Morning, we must also experience the depths that are Holy Week.

What did you expect when you came to church today?  Did you wake up this morning and think to yourself, “It’s Palm Sunday – -of course the preacher is going to preach a sermon about roller coasters!!!”  We tend to expect readings about a parade and donkeys, the ringing of hand bells, perhaps references to palm branches and the echoes of sung Hosannas in the air.   We have expectations for Palm Sunday, and this story is one we hear so many times throughout our lives that we think we know what happened.  How do you tell the story of Palm Sunday?  Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, and there was a huge parade for Jesus.  Jesus, of course, was on a donkey with the disciples walking behind him.  The crowds lining the road tossed their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to line his path.  There were palms waving in the air, people calling out to him for his attention.  It was a grand parade, a boisterous, joyful event full of people calling out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”  If you do a Google search for images, these are the ones you find.  We have taken the accounts from all four of the Gospels, mixed and matched them in our communal memory, and from them we tell our story of Palm Sunday.  Yet, when we look more closely, the text from Luke does not give us what we expect to find.  When we examine it closely, we are called to reconsider what we thought we knew about Palm Sunday.

The Gospel of Luke has an account of Palm Sunday that is calmer and quieter than what we read in the other three Gospels.  First of all, I hate to be the one to tell you, but…there are no palms in Luke’s telling of the events of that day.   There are no branches waving in the air, and none on the road under the feet of the donkey.  This account of Jesus’ entry into the city is markedly different from the other parade that happened that week.  Yes, there were 2 processions in to the city that Passover week.  Pilate entered the city from the west, described as being “draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor.”[1] Pilate moved in at the beginning of the Passover week to make sure that nothing got out of hand – -for you see this was the week the people told and retold their story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt – insurrection was in the air.  This first procession was one designed to show the military strength and the power of the government.  It came with all the trappings of a grand state affair and was designed to intimidate those who gathered to witness his arrival into the city.

And then a second procession came from the east.  It began at the Mount of Olives, the place from which tradition held the messiah would appear.  This was a different kind of procession  — one that we knew would come — even if we did not know how it would be.  This procession fulfills the ancient words of scripture, affirms that Jesus is a prophet, and that what he foretold will indeed come to pass, including what he has said about his death.  We begin with the arrival at the Mount of Olives, and Jesus sending his disciples into the next village to find a colt that has never been ridden.  Un-ridden animals were reserved for sacred and sacrificial uses.  He anticipates that the disciples will be asked about why they are taking it, and supplies their answer, “because the Lord needs it.”  And these things come to pass, just as he said they would.  Jesus’ entry into the city is a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The disciples put their own garments on the colt – there is no armor, no insignia, no saddle, and they begin the remainder of their journey.  The chanting of the Psalm we read this morning, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is sung by the disciples – not those gathered alongside the road.  Those watching the procession put their cloaks on the ground to cushion Jesus’ ride as they watch him pass.

In our collective memory of the story, the disciples are often in the periphery of the action.  Yet, in the Lukan account, they are central.  It is the disciples who acquire the colt for Jesus. It is the disciples who remove their own clothing and place it on the back of the animals for Jesus to sit on.  It is the disciples who help him mount the animal, and the disciples who call him the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  All the cheering and praising God we expect of this day do not come from those who came into the city for the Passover festival, nor from those who heard about his raising Lazarus from the dead.  The cheers and praise are not raised by those who gathered to see for themselves who this man named Jesus was, but by his friends who followed him faithfully.  The disciples make all the noise, and, yet, in the Lukan account, they are not the ones who later in the week change sides and call for his death.  Those accounts come from other places.  In the Lukan text, the Palm Sunday parade is subdued, less crowded, and is, as Fred Craddock puts it, “an event of and for believers, and its meaning lies in Jesus and in their faith in him…This is not to say that Jesus’ followers have come to clarity and maturity; the events soon to transpire will test them, and some will fail.  But at this moment, descending the Mount of Olives, they are right.”[2]

And so they descend as we will descend.  They accompany Jesus into Jerusalem as they will accompany him to the end.  And we go with him too.  Today we are right to sing our praises to God, we are right to shout Hosannas and celebrate the festival day.  And then we will continue on our Holy Week journey, into the darkness and depths.  We too, will gather around the table for a final meal.  Our hands will dip the bread into the cup and hear the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” with new ears.  We will watch the shadows lengthen as the light grows dim.  Together, we will enter the shadow of death.  There will be silence, stillness.  The altar will be stripped.  The bell will toll. The Bible will be shut.  The light of the world will be dim. We will remember the time, so very long ago when it went out.  When Jesus was taken from cross to tomb, the stone rolled in front.  For a time, we will go into the darkness ourselves.

We are a people who have been here before.  So we know that in the darkness and silence and stillness, something else will come.  After the noise of Good Friday and the stillness of Saturday, on Sunday we will once again experience the joy that is Easter morning.  We will again see the return of the light of the world, we will proclaim the words that announce his resurrection and hope for us all.  The women who gathered at the tomb expected to find a body for anointing.  They expected to attend a funeral.  But Jesus was rarely anything we expected.  Which is why, today, we can proclaim, with strong voices the words of the Psalmist, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.  God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  It is why we can celebrate with songs of anticipation and call out, along with the disciples, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  We know what the view from the top of the next hill looks like, and it amazing.  I invite you this week to not simply skip over the hard parts, but to consider the full journey we make each year.  Today’s service is actually only the beginning – -the end is in seven days, when we complete the story.  Just as we cannot skip the drops on the roller coasters, and simply move from the top of one hill to the next, nor should we hop over the events of this week.  Our story continues – -today’s parade is but the beginning.  Will you join us for the rest?  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…Amen.

[1] Shoemaker, Stephen H. in: Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume 2, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors.  Westminster John Knox Press. P 152.

[2] Craddock, Fred.  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. (227).