Sermon of the Week:
Again & Again: We Draw on Courage
Palm Sunday ~ Passion Sunday
Keywords: Palm Sunday, Lazarus, Mary’s Perfume, Nashon, Courage. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I went back to count,
And it turns out that this is my fifteenth Palm Sunday Sermon.
That feels like a lot to me.
Even though, as the months go by
We might focus on different things, you know:
The Parables of Jesus here, the letters of Paul there.
Maybe we’ll walk through parts of the Hebrew Scriptures together,
The major narrative arcs of Genesis, the story of Moses and the Exodus
The prophets Isaiah or Jeremiah…
The church calendar draws us back, from time to time, to key stories and events.
This is one of them,
The story of Jesus entering Jerusalem for the Passover festival
During that final, fateful week.
I was ordained as a pastor in 2005,
So, apparently, every year since my ordination
I’ve preached on one version or another of this story.
Now, for eight of those years I was an associate pastor
And since next Sunday is a major Sunday,
Usually the Pastor gets to preach that one.
So I got Palm Sunday,
Which is great, because I love this story.
But 15 times feels like a lot,
And sometimes I wonder, when I return to a story that many times,
If I’m going to find anything new in it.
Maybe you feel that way,
If you’ve heard a preacher preach on this story over and over again…
Is there anything new that we’re going to get?
Anything fresh and novel?
So, maybe we both wonder if this sermon is going to be any good.
But, in all honesty, every time I wonder
if I’ll find something interesting or timely
When I turn to the texts…
There’s always something there.
One of my professors in Seminary called it the fresh wind of the holy spirit
That engages us whenever we bring new questions to these ancient stories
And we look for where God is moving, what God is doing.
This year, I’m taking Denise Anderson’s suggestion
that we look at John’s version of Palm Sunday.
There are four versions of this story, one in each of the Gospels.
Not every story is like that.
Most of the time, they are just in a few of them.
But perhaps more than any other story found in each of the Gospels,
THIS story has key details that vary in each retelling.
Does Jesus come to town
on a Donkey, or is it a Colt,
Or, somehow, does he arrive on both, at the same time
(thank you, Gospel of Matthew)?
I can kind of picture Jesus trying to get both animals to behave as he worked hard to stay on top.
The answer to just what the animal situation was on Palm Sunday
depends on where you look.
And there’s more:
If you’ve been around a bit, and have heard all of these stories
You probably wondered where the negotiation about getting the donkey was.
That’s something that all the other stories mention, at length:
Tell the owner that the master needs it…
You don’t find that here, in John.
What you do find is the mention of the Palm Branches,
The reason we call this “Palm Sunday” in the first place,
But you only find that little detail here.
In the other texts, the bystanders either lay down their cloaks on the ground
Or they grab vegetation from the fields or whatever…
These little nuances are interesting,
and often we can focus on one or two of them in the sermon,
but in our mind’s eye we put them all together,
we synthesize them so that it feels like a coherent, single story,
rather than an event told by four different people,
each of whom relate relevant, important, but tangibly different information.
In all these years, I’ve never focused just on John’s version.
That was surprising to me.
I’ve turned here, to John, to do some compare and contrast, you know,
To try to get a sense of how John differs from the others,
But looking it during worship, together with you, that’s a first.
Also, again, taking Denise’s suggestion, we’ve stepped back a bit,
And considered more than just the four verses that describe Jesus’ regal entry on the Donkey.
Instead, our reading today opens a week before all of that,
At Lazarus’ house in Bethany,
Where Lazarus and Jesus, Mary and Martha are all enjoying dinner.
The disciples are there, too, apparently,
Because Judas is there, and if he is, the rest likely are as well.
Sometimes during Lent we focus just on this story,
The anointing of the feet of Jesus with costly perfume
And the controversy this anointing incites.
How ridiculous, Mary.
That was a whole POUND of pure nard!
We could have sold that and given it to the poor,
Which Jesus would have liked, you know,
Given all that he did and taught about serving the poor,
Feeding the hungry,
Giving water to the thirsty…
Three hundred denarii, Mary.
Three hundred. What we could have done with that kind of money for the poor of Bethany…
And that’s a story worthy of its own sermon or two, for sure.
With the benefit of hindsight, John tells the reader that this isn’t an honest protest,
Even if you and I might sympathize with it.
I do, actually.
I might have thought the perfuming of Jesus was too much myself.
John tells us that it is a way for Jesus to point, once again,
to the fact that he is going to die soon,
maybe to try to get these dear friends ready for the anguish to come…
as if we could ever be prepared for death, for losing those we love.
John tells us that Judas was actually a thief,
And didn’t make this protest about the perfume in good faith….
But that doesn’t make it any less complicated a question.
There was some truth in what Judas was saying,
And Jesus’ answer reminds us that not everything is cut and dry, black and white,
That often we make choices that mean we can’t do other things,
even other good and worthy things,
and that this is one of them: honoring Jesus, at this particular moment, was worth it.
It was an act of prodigal love, overflowing love
For a Jesus who would be on a cross within a fortnight.
But what I hadn’t noticed before, in those previous sermons,
was how closely that story about the perfume falls
In John’s overarching narrative,
How it is just before Jesus’ entry at Jerusalem
on a Donkey
with palm branches
and Blessed is the One who Comes in the Name of the Lord.
And what separates these stories, John says, is a plot to kill Lazarus.
To kill Lazarus?
Why? What had HE done?
Well, if you step back just a little bit further,
And look at the previous chapter, John chapter 11,
There Lazarus died.
Yes, it is ironic that there’s a plot to kill someone who already had died once before.
But here’s the story:
John tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus.
They were close friends, so too Jesus and Mary and Martha,
They were the closest of friends.
Jesus was off doing Jesus things
When news came to him that Lazarus had fallen ill.
Jesus completed doing his work
Before heading to Bethany to check it all out
And by the time he got there, things took a turn for the worse,
And Lazarus had died.
You might have heard that the shortest sentence in scripture is Jesus Wept.
It’s a trivia question somewhere.
That sentence is here, in the story about the death of Lazarus
Because Jesus was broken when he heard the news.
He was bereft.
As were Mary and Martha and, quite honestly, everyone in town.
Bethany isn’t all that large a place.
Everyone knew everyone.
Jesus weeps. With great emotion, John tells us.
And Jesus also prays,
And tells them to move away the stone covering the entrance of the tomb
And Jesus shouted: Lazarus, come out
And look at that, Lazarus did. Lazarus came out.
And they got him out of the burial clothes and into a warm shower
And, apparently, soon, he was right as rain.
It was a bold exclamation mark about the Power of God that this Jesus commanded.
And I always kind of glossed over the way that this event
According to John, led some of the religious leaders to say enough is enough.
They’re all following this Jesus guy, and now he pulls this stunt.
If we’re not careful, everyone will start following him.
And that is when they begin to plot Jesus’ arrest and death.
Those leaders knew that the Passover was coming,
And openly wondered if that might give them an opportunity.
Surely he will not come to the festival, will he? They pondered.
And they gave orders, John says, that if he did,
If he did go to Jerusalem for the Passover,
That people should let them know where Jesus was,
So they could arrest him.
All that was last chapter, Chapter 11,
And, truth be told, my attention was fixed so closely on the power of the story of Lazarus
The distance, the physical distance, between Jesus and his friend when he fell ill
Jesus failing to get there in time
The wailing of Martha and Mary,
The tears of Jesus
The drama at Lazarus’ grave
And the joy at his reviving.
Still, to this day, that’s where the joy is.
That’s where God is moving,
And I don’t feel bad at all focusing on the celebration of that moment.
But in context, John is also telling us that there is danger swirling around Jesus right now.
There are people who are threatened by his work, his ministry, his teaching.
And they’re willing to do him harm, even to do Lazarus harm,
To address that threat.
So, in the next scene, when Jesus and Lazarus,
Mary and Martha, and the others,
Are there at dinner
And Martha breaks out the costly bottle of perfume,
And decides that now, now is the time for it,
She’s been saving it for his death, after all,
But maybe she won’t get a chance to use it, whenever Jesus’ death comes…
Maybe she won’t make it there…
Sometimes we can’t be there when it happens, after all,
And there’s reason for concern.
There’s a cloud overhead.
There would be eyes on Jesus now.
And not only that, there would be eyes on them.
It is important here to remind ourselves
That even though John talks about the Jewish leaders plotting against Jesus
Jesus and the disciples and the crowds
Mary and Martha and Lazarus are all Jewish here too.
They’re all preparing for Passover, for the holiest time of the year
When God told Pharaoh to let my people go.
For years, this story has been used to blame “the Jews” for what will happen to Jesus
And John’s use of that phrase as shorthand for these particular Jewish leaders doesn’t help,
But all the people who are harmed here are as Jewish as anyone else.
All of us come from the same family, the same community of origin.
This is kin plotting against kin.
Don’t let this story, the events of Holy Week,
Or, honestly, anything else in this story about Jesus drive a wedge
between our Jewish cousins in the faith and those of us who follow God on the way of Jesus.
But suffice it to say
That by the time we get to the Passover
And Jesus is ready to enter Jerusalem,
Jesus demonstrates a lot of courage as he climbs up on the donkey
And makes the ceremonial ride into town.
It was a protest parade:
Protest, because it would be a statement against those in power,
Both secular power and religious power,
People who were abusing their authority and keeping the people in poverty
and willing to give up the core values of their faith to keep a hold on their power…
and Parade, because it promised to prepare the way for a different kind of authority
A different kind of King, a new kind of kingdom.
But it was not a safe thing, all this pageantry.
The crowds were brave, showing up and supporting the Rabbi who had given them hope.
The disciples were brave, walking alongside Jesus to the throngs of people crying
Hosannah, Save us!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…
All while showing through those palms and their cheers
The kind of deference only reserved for the ruler.
No wonder Jesus would be tried for sedition.
And we’re reminded, here, that to take courage
Literally means “to take heart,”
When tensions and tears prevail
When all you have is protest against injustice
When the future might be obscured, but there is still, somehow, hope stirred within you.
Palm Sunday is an act of courage,
a decision to continue on
even when you know that those who wish ill upon you are watching
even if you don’t know what’s in store, or whether this might be your last time
coming to town.
You and I, we have the benefit of knowing what this week will hold,
The moments of tender comfort,
Like when Jesus is in the upper room with the disciples.
The moments of betrayal, there’s Judas again…
The arrest and trial, the sentence and execution.
We have the benefit of not being able to suspend completely
What we know is around the corner
The sunrise of a new day.
But from this perspective, this moment,
There’s possibility and potential and maybe even some optimism, sure,
When Jesus rides in and the crowds cheer and everyone waves and celebrates
Who wouldn’t get wrapped up in that?
But it takes courage to face all of that
And to do what must be done:
To press ahead,
To take things one day at a time,
To do what duty demands,
And to trust that God’s got this.
Our leadership board, the Session, has a new book we’re all reading together
By Gil Rendel, Entitled Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World.
We just got started.
At our meeting a few days ago, we just were discussing the first few pages,
where Rendel shared a story about the Exodus from Egypt that was new to me.
You might remember that,
According to Exodus,
The Hebrew people were enslaved by the Egyptians
And God enlisted Moses to help lead them out of Egypt.
The Passover, the festival that is the occasion for Jesus’ triumphant entry,
Celebrates God’s liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt.
Well, after portent and pestilence,
Pharaoh let the Hebrews Go, and they split,
But then Pharaoh changed his mind, and sent his army after them.
So there’s this chase, the Hebrews rushing to get out of dodge
And the Army rushing to capture them and bring them back.
And the book of Exodus tells us that they approach the Red Sea,
And there’s this moment of panic, because they are trapped,
The waters in front, and the chariots behind.
Then, at that moment, God parts the waters, and the Hebrews walk through the Red Sea
With a wall of water on either side,
And they make it through to safety, to live another day.
It is another powerful, dramatic, incredible story.
What Rendel shared in his book, however,
Was the ancient Jewish midrash about that moment
When they are there at the banks of the Red Sea
Waiting on God to part the waters,
Sweating and worrying
As Pharaoh’s army comes ever closer.
Midrash is the Jewish art of faithful imagination,
Drawn from centuries of exploration and examination,
Where the gaps of scripture are filled in
and Rabbis debate what might have happened.
The Midrash is an important and wonderful part of the Jewish understanding of God.
And in the Midrash there is the story of Nashon.
As the story goes,
The leaders of the tribes of Israel are all gathered there,
At the water’s edge, arguing with one another about who would go into the water first.
Time was running short, and everyone was just unsure about what to do.
They were coming. Pharaoh’s army was coming.
Nashon saw that no one was budging, and so he stood up,
and just began walking toward the water.
Everyone’s eyes turned to Nashon.
We walked into the water…up to his ankles, and the waters did not part.
He walked into the water up to his waist, and the waters did not part.
Up to his shoulders,
Up to his chin,
And the waters did not part.
He continued on.
As he took the step that would have put his nose under water, the waters, finally, parted.
And through Nashon’s quiet courage,
The people quickly followed, and were saved. Every single one.
Courage is facing an uncertain future
With bravery, with conviction, and with trust
That God will hold us together until the waters part.
It doesn’t always mean we have to walk all the way into the waters
until it is almost over our heads,
but sometimes it does.
Sometimes the challenges before us feel insurmountable,
How do we feel about this global pandemic, if not exhausted?
Even as we need to stay patient long enough to get past these next few months.
How will we face intractable issues like racism,
And gun violence,
And these new anti-democratic challenges
to the very foundations of our way of living together?
Where do we need to find courage, in this moment?
Where do we need to take heart,
And find the strength to push ahead, as we are being led by God into a new tomorrow?
That’s the moment of Palm Sunday.
That’s what we see in Jesus, the moment he takes a deep breath
Climbs up on….a Donkey, of all creatures,
And starts waving to the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem at the start of Passover.
Holy week has begun.
There will be tender moments.
And courage is what Jesus summons within himself,
The same courage that bystander and disciple and believer alike summoned
As, together, they asserted the coming of the reign of God
To this hungry and hurting and God-so-loved world.
And it was a moment that would change the course of history forever.
May we, dear friends,
Claim that courage as our own,
As we look ahead to God’s new tomorrow
And pledge to join God on that journey,
Though the valleys, yes,
But also over the mountain tops
Knowing that God’s got this,
As long as we join in the parade.
May it be so.
Post cover image found on Google Images. Original attribution unknown.