Palm Sunday Sermon
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 24 March 2013
O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire with your love. Amen.
I have always been drawn to the drama of the Passion narrative, so much so that when it came time for me to choose a religious name when I joined the Society of St. Francis I decided on the name “Simon” in honor of Simon of Cyrene, whose brief part in the Passion story is so easily overlooked and yet who has been remembered by the Church in the Fifth Station of the Cross. So I feel like I have something of a personal connection to the Passion story. And when Kenneth asked me two months ago to preach on Palm Sunday I readily said yes, and shortly thereafter began to regret it.
This is a HUGE day. There’s a LOT going on, Scripturally and liturgically. And one of the struggles of this day is trying to figure out where we should focus. Amid all the personal drama, the religious and prophetic intrigue, and the political machinations, what is the essential message of this somewhat familiar, emotionally packed, and “zig-zaggy” story? Where is the good news?
Well the good news of course is “Love.” It is about God’s unconditional and abiding love for all of Creation – a love from which NOTHING can separate us, not even death. A love modeled perfectly by Jesus himself.
There’s a quote from “No Man Is An Island” by Thomas Merton that has been floating around on facebook. It’s a description of the way that God loves; the way that God asks us to love. Merton says that, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
When we take this definition of love to the furthest degree, we find the sacrificial love that Jesus incarnates. As Paul reminds us in the letter to the Philippians, this love propelled Jesus “to empt[y] himself, taking the form of a slave.” A slave – one whose duty is to serve, and whose livelihood and very life is dependent on another. Jesus IS that sacrificial love. This Jesus who did not utter a defense before his accusers and who, from the cross, could ask God to forgive his executioners “for they do not know what they are doing.” THIS is the call of the Christian life: to do the right thing at all times in the cause of love even when it means we might lose the respect of our community, or might be abandoned by those closest to us, or might be hurt, or even die.
I am very struck in the Passion story by the incident on the Mount of Olives when the crowd, led by Judas, came to arrest Jesus. In defense one of the apostles strikes the slave of the high priest cutting off his ear. In contrast Jesus heals that slave and, accepting what is to come, goes with the crowd to the high priest’s house. St. Francis of Assisi, when he was offered a house for his fledgling community of poor wandering mendicants, declined the gift saying that if he and his followers were to own property they would then need weapons to protect it. Like Jesus, Francis knew that a defensive posture does nothing to advance the Kingdom. To do that we must love one another in the way that Jesus shows us, in the posture of the crucifixion. With arms outstretched it is a posture of vulnerability and risk, but also one of invitation into a deeper relationship.
In a talk on why the spirit of St. Francis appeals to so many people, Ilia Delio – an author, a Franciscan scholar, and a Franciscan sister – defines “sin” in the Franciscan understanding this way: “Sin is dwelling in the exile of unrelatedness.” Dwelling in the exile of unrelatedness… In other words, sin is the choice to deny the connection that already exists between all beings; the connection we have because we are all God’s children. In Christ we are all, TRULY, brothers and sisters, related to everyone we meet, to everyone on the planet – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, religious affiliation, clan affiliation, ethnicity, and even geopolitical boundaries.
But herein lies the problem for Christianity. In the world’s thinking it makes perfect sense to defend ourselves from the unknown, from the stranger, from our enemies. Whole industries and foreign policies have been built around the need to create a sense of safety for ourselves, for our neighborhoods, for our nations. But while security and self-defense are good things, they do not trump the “Great Commandment” to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. How might things be different if instead of a policy of ensuring our own interests at all costs we adopted a policy of seeking the common interests of all?
Earlier this week I heard in a news report that the government of South Korea has issued a call to develop its own nuclear weapons program in response to increasing threats from North Korea. The rationale from the conservative ruling party of South Korea is that the only way to ensure their security is to create a “balance of terror” that matches nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons. A balance of terror…
I know that the situation on the Korean peninsula is a complicated one with real danger involved. But I wonder how things might be different if our sisters and brothers in South Korea instead spent this time deciding how to commit their resources to cooperating with their brothers and sisters in North Korea in figuring out how to feed their hungry and how to ensure their mutual security. That might sound Pollyanna but I prefer to think of it as a Christian witness that chooses not to focus on what is possible given current circumstances but instead to strive for a vision of the Kingdom of God that demands we live in the awareness of our relatedness. That kind of living requires a sacrificial understanding of love; a love we have witnessed today in the Passion drama, and which we celebrate and proclaim every Sunday in the Eucharist.
How might our own lives be different if instead of protecting ourselves, protecting our feelings, protecting our status and our image, we instead adopted the stance of Christ crucified, and risked being vulnerable in order to invite others in more closely?
In this province of the Society of St. Francis, the Province of the Americas, it is our custom once a week for the brothers in each friary to gather for a Feelings Meeting. We also do something like this which we call a “Time of Unminuted Sharing” at the beginning of any of our “official” meetings. It is a time, with no cross-talk and no feedback, simply to be vulnerable with each other – to share what we have found particularly challenging in our ministries, or in our personal lives, or in our community life. It is an opportunity to clear the air so that we can see each other more clearly and know each other more intimately.
Now we’re not perfect, and we don’t always take full advantage of this time. Sometimes the sharing becomes a travelogue, or sometimes what we call an organ recital – you know, my knee has been acting up, my stomach has been unsettled, I’ve got a dickey ticker, I’ve got a ringing in my ears. But regardless of how we use the time, we are all committed to being there, week after week, and the invitation to share is always present. So if you are not already doing this kind of thing, I commend it to you for your own use as just one model of living into a sacrificial love in the context of community.
This path of following Christ which we have chosen, my sisters and brothers, is not an easy one. But it IS our vocation. So pray for me, as I pledge myself to pray for all of you, that we may persevere in our high calling to incarnate the truth of God’s sacrificial love. And may this Holy Week deepen our commitment and lead us all to an abundant life in Christ.
Let us pray.
O Divine Lover, we bless you and we thank you for the gift of life and the gift of community, in its most intimate to its most expansive forms. Grant us the courage to risk being known – to share our hopes, our fears, and our needs with each other. Give us the grace to hear and to respond with love. Draw us ever closer to one another, and in so doing, draw us ever closer to You. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.