Harrowing Of Hell
April 14, 2019

As we Pray, So May We Believe

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Today we begin our Holy Week journey and I am grateful that we begin it together. It is important that we are here because that is the essence of what makes us a Church—that we pray and worship as a community. There are a lot of reasons for that—but the one that I would like to focus on right now is that when we are here together we are able to embody God’s good news in a way that we cannot alone. The scriptures we hear, the ancient prophecies and liturgies are all based in and on the community of the faithful. Our central acts of worship are communally based – we are baptized into this one collective body and, as we take communion, we share in this one body. Our story is a shared one. We learn from one another. We rely one another. And we need each other to tell the story fully and well.

One of the ways that we worship together at Epiphany is in the Children’s sermon at the eleven o’clock service.  We have a fairly wide age range in the Children’s sermon spanning from three to eleven or twelve years old. And what we do during that time mirrors the service in the Church in an age-appropriate way. We hear a child-friendly reading of the Gospel, we have a shortened and often interactive children’s sermon, we share common prayers with intercessions offered by the children; we sing songs and exchange of the peace. And then, we return to the Church to share in the Holy Eucharist.

I love doing the children’s sermon and have had the opportunity to create and build children’s services throughout my ministry. And while the content is different and the music definitely more sing-song, it is important work. Because what we are teaching our younger members is how we worship and that our corporate worship is important. And in preparation for Palm Sunday, we have been practicing “processing” together for the last couple of weeks.

In the Episcopal Church we often say lex orandi, lex credendi, which means in the Latin, “as we pray, so we believe.” That is to say that it is through corporate prayer and liturgy that we fully engage and come to believe. And while this makes sense to us at some level, it is really hard to put into words. Because what we are trying to say is that when we fully unite the words of scripture with conscious, symbolic actions and rituals we bring the words to life – make them interact, if you will, with the world in which we live and the God whom we worship. So today, we not only read about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but we walk in procession together and we hold in our hands palm fronds or crosses that remind us of and help us participate in celebrating that entry. And in so doing, we join with those holy followers of Jesus who have come before us. So, we are practicing processing in the Children’s sermon so that we may prepare these little ones to take their place in the triumphal entry too.

If we think that this seems rather nonsensical, again, it is not surprising because as, whenever “ritual is subject to discursive analysis and theological evaluation, it is always more that words can tell.” Our worship and liturgical rituals help us interact with the stories of our faith and call on the sacred presence of God–just as the nation of Israel and Christians have done for thousands and thousands of years.

The truth is the miracle of Palm Sunday can really only be understood in this way. Think about it, if we look at the gospel story on the surface– out of context, it is an exceedingly strange story. Jesus finishes teaching in Jericho and, going ahead of the crowd, begins to make his way to Jerusalem. When he comes near Bethphage and Bethany, at the  Mount of Olives, he sends out two of his disciples and tells them to “Go into the village ahead of you, and you will find tied a colt tied there that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those he sent find the colt just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” And so, as instructed they answer, “The Lord needs it.” And they bring it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they “set” Jesus on it, he rides into Jerusalem and the crowd goes wild. If we didn’t know what would happen next, we would probably be asking ourselves, “What exactly is this story about?” Maybe we would be thinking, as our Director of Music, Zach joked – “What is Jesus a donkey thief now? And the owners of the donkey why are they letting them go off with their colt? Who does this?” I would add to these questions, “Is it really necessary for the disciples to “set” Jesus down on top of a donkey colt?” I mean donkeys – and especially donkey colts— are a lot smaller than a horse. And secondly, and more importantly even if this is a rather small creature, shouldn’t they be worried that Jesus might slide off or even get bucked off ?” I mean, putting their cloaks on the colt’s back isn’t a very secure set up and add to that the fact that this is a colt has never been ridden? Again, quoting what Zach might say, “What could possibly go wrong?” Can you imagine if Jesus had been bucked off by a little donkey and landed in a decidedly unmessianic fashion on the dusty ground? That would not have seemed triumphant at all. 

But this story does makes sense in the context of the community in which he lived. Jesus’ decision to ride the donkey colt, for example, wasn’t a random decision. Today’s gospel story, in both the gospel of Matthew and John, hearkened back to the prophecy of Zechariah in 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” That the crowds understood the messianic significance of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – from the Mount of Olives, a route that the crowd would have also associated with the entrance of the Messiah, is evidenced in their reactions.

As Elizabeth Johnson notes, “The royal implications of this entry on a colt are clear in the words of “the whole multitude of disciples” who praise God for the deeds of power they have seen and cite Psalm 118… with

…notable addition. “Blessed is the one who comes …in the name of the Lord!” …becomes in Luke 19:38: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The second part of the multitude’s acclamation, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven” echoes the song of the multitude of angels at the announcement of the birth of [the Christ child to Mary earlier in]…Luke. The multitude of disciples, like the multitude of angels, seems to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come.”

So to those who witnessed Jesus’ triumphal entry, our gospel story made sense—even if their understanding was incomplete. What the community didn’t seem to realize — what they had failed to understand throughout Jesus’ ministry –is that the messiah that they were hoping for was not, in fact, the Messiah of God. In their desire to observe the law and the prophets in their worship and practices, they forgot to make room for the God on whom they called. As NT Wright notes, “Again and again….the way Israel had told its own story  was quite different from the way God was planning things….God had promised to come back, to return to his people in power and glory, to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. [But]..the Jewish people had always hoped that this would simply underwrite their national aspirations [for an earthly kingdom]….But the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, had always warned that God’s coming in power and in person would be entirely on his own terms, with his own purpose….“ So  while they understood through Zechariah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come riding on a donkey colt, they never took the time to ask themselves why an earthly king would ride on a donkey. Some commentators suggest that there was another parade into Jerusalem that same day which celebrated a Roman officer who would have ridden into the city atop a magnificent war horse with his retinue in tow. Jesus’ humility, on the other hand, foretold in Zechariah’s prophecy, told a lot about God’s very different vision for the Messiah. As did Jesus’ own words and teachings. But the community that received Jesus so enthusiastically as he entered into Jerusalem would be the same community that would later reject him because his kind of Kingdom was not the kingdom for which they had hoped.

As we begin this Holy Week together in worship, in prayer and liturgy, may we undertake to truly participate in AND make room for one another to experience the fullness of our sacred story of Jesus Christ. May we also leave space for the Divine to enter into our communal experience in new and unexpected ways remembering that God continues to act in our world and in our lives. And as we teach our children to process, to take part, let us recall that we are not just teaching them to follow us or the believers who have come before, but we are also making room for the Spirit to lead us, to inspire in new ways. May we learn from one another. May we rely one another. And we may we remember that we need each other to live into the good news fully and well. Let us be ready of receive the Messiah of God.