Monday, March 17, 2008

Sermon : Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

This wonderful poem by RS Thomas, a Welsh priest and poet, reminds me of the Christ who chose to come among us, is the one we celebrated with in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, who died alone on the cross, a bare tree on a bare hill, as we with arms held out to it, long for him.

Our celebration today of Jesus entering Jerusalem, with palms laid before his path, and our remembering his passion, his last days with the disciples from the last supper to the crucifixion is part of our journey. Our lives are filled with such moments as Charles Dickens said, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When a cancer that had disappeared, suddenly returns, or a job that was going so well is lost, we all have had our joy turn to sorrow when we have suddenly lost something dear to us.

We began today celebrating Jesus entry into Jerusalem. What joy! What hope! Jesus come riding, approaching Jerusalem on a colt. One that has never been ridden. He comes riding, like a king would do, but he is not on some majestic steed. He is on a humble colt and the people celebrate his coming to Jerusalem like the people did for King David. This scene could not be filled with more hope for a better future for the Jewish people and for all the people. Here comes the new king riding in humility. People lay down palms, their own garments along his paths. They are joyous! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

But the mood changes when we move from the Palms to the Passion of Jesus. The supper with all the disciples turns from a joyous meal to talk of betrayal and denial. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus has his worst night. He prays, he worries, he asks God to take the cup away from him, but only if it is God’s will. The disciples can’t stay awake and its too late, the betrayer is at hand and Jesus is arrested. Jesus is alone. The disciples have gone. Judas has betrayed him. Peter has denied him. Jesus is brought before the Chief Priests and Elders. He is tried, beaten and condemned to death. He is brought before a crowd and they want Barabas, a rebel, a murderer. Before he entered Jerusalem, a crowd, shouted “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But now a crowd is stirred up, “Crucify him.”

There was not a more terrible way to die. Romans crucified criminals on the main highways so that all would see the horrible fate that could befall them if they broke Roman law. There Jesus is mocked, beaten, spat upon. Simon of Cyrene carries his cross. He is not treated like the Son of God, not even treated as human being, but treated like an animal. He is crucified with two bandits. When this despicable act is done, Jesus cries out and breaths his last. The Centurion watching all of this utters: “This man was God’s son.”

Since we know where the story goes, we want it to continue, but that is not for us today. Today we walk to the cross and the tomb. That is where we stop. In the midst of pain and suffering, of loss and heartache, we stand at the foot of the cross. We cannot bypass it. We must stand, watch and wait. There is no Easter without the cross. We may ask God to let the cup pass from us too. But the answer is the same that Jesus received. For as Christians, we too must drink from that cup.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian who knew what suffering was, who died at the hands of the Nazis in 1945, said, “it is not the religious act that makes a Christian, but the sharing in God’s suffering in earthly life.” I understand him to mean that to live faithfully is to understand their will be suffering but there is always hope too for we are called not just to share in it, but to help transform the suffering, to liberate it from meaninglessness for ourselves and others.

Years ago, there was a massive cave-in at a coal mine in northern England. Twelve miners were trapped behind a wall of fallen rock and debris. When the rock and coal dust finally settled, each of the twelve miners called out his name. No one seemed to be hurt — but everyone realized the seriousness of the situation. All they could do was wait and hope rescuers would reach them in time.

As they waited in the darkness, one miner yelled out, “Timekeeper! Can you tell us how we’re doing for time? How long do you think we can last?” The timekeeper said, “It was ten thirty just before the accident. There’s twelve of us and about 14 feet to this pocket we’re in. If we keep still, we’ve got two hours of oxygen, by my reckoning. We’ll be all right. We’ll be fine.” No one questioned or doubted the timekeeper’s words. They sat quietly, listening for any sound of digging. As the time passed, a miner would call “Time?” and the timekeeper would announce, with a momentary flare of a match, “Fifteen minutes. We’ll be fine, lads.”

The periods between the time markings seemed longer, yet the timekeeper always marked off small increments, never more than 20 minutes — and each time mark included words of encouragement and hope from the keeper of the watch. When it seemed that there were only a few minutes of oxygen left, the sweet sound of hammering and digging was heard. After what seemed like an eternity, a draft of air and a shaft of light broke through.

Of the twelve men trapped, all but one survived. The rescued miners were stunned that the timekeeper alone died. The village priest said, “It’s a miracle that any of you survived! You’ve been trapped down there for over six hours!” As they carried out the timekeeper’s body, one of the miners took the pocket watch from his coworker’s vest. It had been broken in the accident. The hands of the watch were stopped at ten thirty. [From a story by Tony Cowan.]

We can look at the tragic story of the passion of Jesus, and sigh. We can keep it at arms length and not let it touch our soul. Or we can see ourselves there at the foot of the cross, as we can see ourselves trapped in a cave and know the cross offers us hope.

For the cross does not stand before us to accuse us or to condemn us or anyone. The cross stands before us as our salvation. The cross stands before us, beckoning us to come and bear witness. For Jesus said, his disciples are those who take up their cross and follow him. It is to understand that we like so many others have suffered and to reach out in love to those who suffer now in prayer and action, just as the timekeeper reached out to his fellow miners.

The cross may be the ultimate darkness. Where love gets crucified by hate. And yet, the greatest miracle, the greatest gift, the greatest mystery is the darkness does not overcome the light. That hope still exists there. In that mystery, as TS Eliot said, “the darkness shall be the light and stillness the dancing.” And God transforms the cross from death into life. On our journey this week, as we walk with Jesus, may we go there, to the cross, just as Jesus approached his passion with humility. And may we find there our hope and our life and our salvation. Amen.

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