The Plot

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The lectionary readings for Palm Sunday are here.

Every year on Palm Sunday, come time for the sermon, I always feel like I’ve got whiplash. We’ve gone from praising to persecuting in less than 30 minutes! Time was that the Sunday before Easter was only about the triumphant entry into Jerusalem but somewhere along the way someone decided to offer up a Holy Week reduction alongside the Palms to give us a taste of Holy Week without having to dwell on the ugliness too much before donning the bonnets and baskets of Easter Sunday, but you can’t have resurrection without there first being death.

Now y’all know I’m not a liturgical perfectionist, although I do think we should always give it our best efforts, AND I do confess that I think there’s such a thing as “too much church.” But before you go calling the bishop to tell stories, let me explain. The point and purpose of us gathering together in intentional and formational worship is so that what we do in here shapes all that we think, say, and do, out there and I think we can use what we do in here as a way to avoid out there. If we think following Jesus is only about showing up in here and doing this perfectly, we’ve lost the plot. AND, I also think that skipping from Palm Sunday to Easter with just a polite nod to what happens in between is a disservice to our journey with Jesus. Now you can call the bishop.

When we domesticate the events we journey through this coming week, we miss out on their power to challenge us, to grab hold of us and prepare us to live well in the hope and salvation of God’s Kingdom on earth. These stories are given to us to shape our daily lives, the ups and downs, in and outs of our here-and-now. These stories are the foundation of our identity and community as Followers of Jesus*.

We give literal, physical movement to our worship, every Sunday but in particular in our worship during Holy Week so that we remember that we are a part of God’s Story, participants, not passive observers. We participate in the dramatic reading of Jesus’ arrest and trial so that we can experience ourselves as each of the original participants.

It’s easy and comfortable to keep our distance, shield our eyes, and say “oh, I’d never do that.” Peter swore he’d never do it either. When we speak the words of betrayal, denial, and condemnation in our readings, we experience what it feels like to realize we have put money before relationship, put our own comfort, our own status before the life of another and said, “I don’t know him, crucify him, let him save himself.”

We deny Jesus every time we do something counter to all that Jesus teaches, when we live transactionally rather than relationally, when we treat other people as less than image bearers of the Creator, when we use religious ritual or doctrine to exclude rather than to invite others into the Kingdom.

We all deny Jesus in various ways each and every day. And here’s the Good News – God knows we do and God loves us. God knows we are not perfect and God doesn’t expect us to be. God knows and offers the gift of forgiveness and restored relationship, every single time we return. It is in our returning that we are transformed.

Jesus knew that Peter would deny him and he still called him the rock of the church. We are no better or worse than Peter. Jesus knew Judas would betray him and he called him to be a disciple, ate with him, washed his feet. We are no better or worse than Judas.

And a quick aside to ponder – why do we define Judas by the worst thing he did but we don’t do the same with Peter. Both repented, regretting what they had done. Both attempted to make amends. Peter changed his way of thinking, he set aside his own ego to make room for Holy Spirit to shape and transform his heart and mind. We aren’t told why Judas wasn’t emotionally able to do the same but I believe that Judas, in his despair, was still loved by God, even if his own community wasn’t able to love him any longer; even if he was no longer able to love himself. We’ll talk more about this on Thursday. So now you have to come back, right?

The culmination of Jesus’ work isn’t the denial or the cross but the resurrection – new life, restored life, reconciled life with the God who loves us. This journey of Holy Week is to enable us to step into the story as the disciples and the crowds and the religious leaders experienced it. We grow not when we set our minds in certainty but when we open our minds to experience the world through other’s eyes.

The liminal space of Holy Week – the time of in-betweenness that disrupts our known descriptions of identity** – allows us to draw from the experiences of those who witnessed it first hand some 2000 years ago, to realize we aren’t much different, to learn more about ourselves and our own motivation as we ponder theirs.

Jesus’ disciples, the religious leaders, and the people of Jerusalem had to figure out where to go, what to do, who they are in light of all that Jesus did. Walk through the journey of Holy Week, experience this liminal space. Be open to the working of Holy Spirit in you, in others, and in the world. Let the journey of this week better enable all of us to embody the love of God in the weeks and months and years to come.

Following Jesus is a ‘together’ thing – we do not do it alone or individually but as the community that Jesus calls his body, bound together in experience and by the love of God for all. We are called to offer to the world an alternative way of life for those who are disheartened and dissatisfied with the way our culture forms us; we are called to reveal life in God’s Kingdom here and now. Don’t observe it from a comfortable distance; step in with intention to be challenged and to grow more deeply into who God desires all of us to be. Amen.

*15 New Testament Words of Life by Nijay Gupta
**Tod Bolsinger

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