{A sermon preached on Palm/Passion Sunday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Gallipolis, Ohio}

Every year on Palm Sunday I feel like I’m on some sort of roller coaster, brought up to the tiptop of the big first hill and then plunged all the way down to the very bottom faster than I’m really all that comfortable with. We started this morning in the City Park with the Liturgy of the Palms, where Jesus fulfills prophecy and triumphantly enters Jerusalem as the heir to the throne of David. The crowd goes wild! They throw their coats on the ground, they chop down palms and shrubs and line the path! It’s the very apex. Jesus the triumphant one, triumphantly entering Jerusalem. And then the cars of the coaster reach that tipping point at the top of the first big hill… and over the edge we go! Immediately we’re in what feels like a free-fall. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” we scream. Then we hit the bottom of that hill. Our stomachs fall to our feet when we hear Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This rollercoaster experience is relatively new, though, in the life of the Church. Just a few generations ago, it used to be that Palm Sunday was only dedicated to the first part of that coaster ride, the trip up the first hill, the triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. The terrifying free-fall and Jesus’ gut-wrenching words from the cross… we waited until Good Friday to hear those. But it seems like the church realized that there were many people who are only able—or willing—to come to services on Sundays. Life is busy, we all know that. And bringing a family of youngsters out to a nighttime service during the week just ain’t in the cards for a lot of us! And for those of us who weren’t coming to the Holy Week liturgies, the experience was of moving from the triumph of “Hosanna in the highest!” straight into the next Sunday, where they shouted, “He is risen!” They never had to shout, “Crucify him!” or to hear Jesus cry in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I used to really dislike this roller coaster that today’s lessons and liturgy put us on, but then I began to realize that these two moments—the huge high and this heart-breaking low—when they’re paired together, tell an important part of the story of Jesus and are the perfect way to start the holiest week of the Christian year.

The short version is this: In both passages, the people—with whom I believe we are truly called to identify—use Jesus as a means of perpetuating their flawed understanding of the way the world works. In both passages Jesus becomes the focal point of a people caught up in a worldview that insists that there be winners and losers and that claims that if we’re to be “saved,” then there must be a scapegoat, a victim. For me to come out on top, someone must be underneath me. When Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem, the people who threw their coats and palms on the ground were overjoyed because they rightfully saw Jesus as their Messiah, who’d come to rescue them. But what they expected out of the Messiah and what Jesus actually is are two very different things. We’ve talked about this before, of course. The prevailing notion of the Messiah at the time was a triumphant warrior king who would crush the enemies of God’s people and allow them to reclaim their birthright and retake the throne of David. The Messiah would fulfill his duties, his prophesied role, by overthrowing the despotic Roman powers, expelling the evil ones, and returning the rule to the righteous. For me to come out on top, someone has to be brought down. So we march down the street with our palm fronds. We get here to the church and we sing, “All glory, laud, and honor, to thee!” And we pin all our hope on this guy. “Vindicate us! Bring justice!”

And then absolutely everything he does for the next week makes no sense. Instead of overthrowing the power structure, he goes off to pray. Instead of resisting those who came out to stop him, he gives himself up without a fight. Instead of using his powers of persuasion that we know he has—look at the following he’s amassed!—when he is questioned, he remains silent. When he finally does speak, he’s cryptic and confusing. Instead of violently overthrowing the corrupt and oppressive Roman Empire, he remains silent in the face of Pilate’s questioning. The people who just a week before had shouted “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” begin to realize that this Jesus character is not who they’d wanted him to be. He’s done nothing that they expected of him. He’s done nothing but look weak and ineffective, frankly. So, if he’s not for us, then get rid of him. “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” If we’re to be saved, our worldview tells us, there has to be a victim. There must be a scapegoat.

The reason I’ve come to appreciate having both of these readings, the triumphant march with palms and happiness and the gut-wrenching cruelty of our shouts to crucify Jesus, is that they show us the absolute ridiculousness of our system of sacrifice, victimization, scapegoating, and power through domination. Jesus, the Son of God, God made flesh, GOD becomes the scapegoat, is ostracized, stripped, dehumanized, devalued and killed to show, once and for all, that this whole system of blood is not what God intends for us. The Psalmist, in Psalm 51 says: “Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As we prepare to enter Holy Week and walk with Jesus to the cross and the grave, keep this in the front of your mind all week. This is NOT the story of a Messiah who overthrows, uses violence to mete out justice, or casts out to make room for the righteous. This Messiah comes to completely revolutionize and turn upside-down our understanding of what it means to be saved. In Christ’s weakness, we will see true Divine strength. In submission, we will see true Divine power. In the radical commitment to nonviolence, we will see Divine justice.

“Hosanna in the highest!” … “Crucify him!”
“Hosanna in the highest!” … “Crucify him!”
“Hosanna in the highest!” … “Crucify him!”

Allow these two phrases to sink in this week, as God takes us on a journey of transformation and invites us into a new way of being. Amen.

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