Harrowing Of Hell
April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends!

I hope this finds you well this Palm Sunday and that you took the opportunity to lift high your palm crosses, your cloaks, your dying plant or your hearts when we blessed the palms at the beginning of the service today. Now, I don’t mean to be flip, although you could have raised a flip-flop or a pajama top too, because we know that the blessing of the palms is an important part of this holy day. The palms that we have blessed are not only a reminder of the glorious occasion when, riding into Jerusalem, Jesus is welcomed as the Son of David, these palms are also those that we will use to make the ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday service. Our church calendar is cyclical with seasons that walk us through a recollection of Jesus’ birth, baptism and ministry and, of course, his death and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit too. Each season in the church leads into the next much like the cycle of life – with one time ending and another one starting. This year our church’s cycle is no different – even though so much around us is. It’s just that this year, we are worshipping—we are recalling this season of Lent and this Holy Week in a way that has never been done before –ever. It’s true. And sometimes it seems awful disorientating and somehow a little less “real.” There is no doing what we’ve always done this year….

 However, in case it brings you comfort, I just want to remind you that the blessing of the palms is the one thing that we haven’t had to do differently. The rubrics, or liturgical rules, in our Book of Common Prayer say that the liturgy of the palms is the “entrance rite” for the service and that “When circumstances permit, the congregation may gather at a place apart from the church,  and this year circumstances did permit and we did meet in place apart [in cyberspace]. We also observed the rubric concerning a reading of one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Yep, check we did that. And we are told the [palm] branches, in this case made into crosses, may be distributed to the people before the service (which we also did via US Mail). So, if you are wanting something familiar this is it! We followed the rubrics of the blessing of the palms to the letter until we get to the rubric on page 270 of the BCP (see I threw in some Episcopal lingo there) when we are told to process to the church after the blessing of the branches of palm. With Covid 19, we can’t do that.

But, after the end of this livestream, it is still not too late for you all to hold branches of palms or other trees during a procession or sing again[an]appropriate hymns, psalms, or anthem. We nailed the blessing of the palms. And we have a chance of doing a great job in recreating what that first triumphal entry was like even still. As our pilgrims who’ve been to the Holy Land can tell you, the streets are too narrow to have a procession that would have allowed all the Jewish residents who wanted to take part in just one street. So, I can see you all now making joyful processions of your family or roommates on your street or in your kitchens or living rooms or yards (especially the longsuffering parents of those younger members to whom I suggested a personal procession in children’s sermon!) as just as plausible.  And think of it, back in Jesus’ day folks wouldn’t have had pre-cut palm fronds – no—they would have put down their cloaks or branches of trees nearby or whatever they had to hand to honor Jesus. So, feel free to be creative… as long as you got some “Hosannas” in there and you’ve got ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” or “Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David,” I think you are pretty good to go.    I would, however, suggest refraining from putting flip flops down in the procession – they are a falling hazard – especially for Jesus who is having to ride both a colt and a donkey simultaneously. 

Now I know I am being a little silly. But I think we can probably all agree that on this last Sabbath – this great celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as a king– before Holy Week, we could all use a little light-heartedness. Because as the meme says, this has without a doubt been “the lentiest Lent we have ever Lented!”  

But even if this were not true, I think we would still have great cause to celebrate today—up until, that is, the announcement of Holy Week beginning. Because that is the thing about Palm Sunday, also sometimes referred to as Passion Sunday, it is always both a celebration and the beginning of Holy Week. And that is because, of course, the proclamations that the crowd made about Jesus as the Messiah – as a King were made in a real time and a real place that both could not accept this news but also couldn’t accept how Jesus meant to live into this good news.

If the powers that be, both the empire and Herod, could not accept Jesus as a king, Jesus also would not live up to the expectations of the crowd of what a king should be like. One might argue it was against their own self interest, if you will, that the people lifted up their voices in hope today. They were caught up in the Spirit of the moment. They were tired and they were angry but like the Israelites before them stuck under Pharaoh’s rule, they had come to accept Rome’s rule because it also brought with it the stability of empire – jobs, water, food, and a political situation that, because it was expedient to do so, allowed them to practice their faith and even allowed them semi-autonomous rule under Herod. This is what came with the Pax Romana or the peace of Rome.

Yet for the crowds that greeted Jesus that day with phrases found in the books of the prophets Zechariah, Jeremiah and Isaiah, they were bursting with the hope of a new and better “peace” under their own independent ruler. To the Temple leadership, to Herod and to Pilate these proclamations were dangerous. It was after all, the season of Passover, one of Jerusalem’s three major pilgrimage festivals for the Jews.

As theologian Greg Carey notes, “By ancient standards Jerusalem was a significant but not massive city, with a residential population of about 25,000. The Romans preferred to keep it lightly garrisoned, leaving local affairs to the Temple authorities. Only during the major festivals did the Romans perceive a need for additional security, especially so for Passover, which had political undertones. Passover, after all, celebrates Israel’s deliverance from captivity, and occasional outbreaks of sedition attended the season. Thus, the Passover season brought crowded and somewhat tense conditions to the city.”

And, so it is into this strained situation, a holy day historically and culturally associated with revolution, that Jesus enters into Jerusalem. The city is swollen with pilgrims and the crowds reception of Jesus receiving him, as they did with actions usually reserved for a Roman victor – the spreading of their branches and their own cloaks down before him, and their acclamations of “son of David”—a King about whom the prophets had foretold, of course, would fuel those tensions. Especially as those same folks were proclaiming – “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our Ancestor David.”  Let’s just say that the first Palm Sunday was certainly not without its own sense of strain and foreboding.

But here is the thing, which neither the crowds nor the leaders knew. Jesus was doing a new thing that no one on earth had ever seen before—and which no other earthly ruler had ever done before. Jesus was showing us what the rule of the Kingdom of God looked like. And it was unlike any ruler they’d seen or any ruler or government we’ve ever seen since.  And it was unlike the Temple structures and it is unlike our churches’ structures too.  The Kingdom of God was too big for Jerusalem and it is bigger than Wuhan, Italy or Seattle or New York City. The Kingdom of God is comprised of all of them and all of us – of all cities, of all towns, of each and every person.  It is over all the earth, that the Son of David came to reign. But he is a ruler like no other. Jesus is nothing like a military general who leads by deploying soldiers and tanks to fight a battle, Jesus power comes from willingly going to the cross alone. And while earthly kings rule over their subjects and their lands and grow rich even as many suffer from poverty and want, Jesus gives away everything he has –even his very life, for those he rules. In difficult times; our ruler and our king shows us love and enters fully into it our struggles with us.

It is hard to imagine a Palm/Passion Sunday and a Holy Week that will ever be the same as our Holy Week this year. The plans we made for this year both personally as a community have had to be changed – sometimes multiple things and the traditions, which we love so much, that we have come to count on during Lent and during Holy Week have been and will need to be done and experienced in new ways. But let’s take a collective breath. And let’s realize that we don’t have to do all the things exactly the same way as we’ve done them before. Especially this week. Our church year will continue on and this season will lead into the next.  At the end of today’s service, we will say “Holy Week has begun.” And Holy Week will, indeed, happen. Because here is another thing we never seem to get, God is on it.  So, perhaps this year we can spend some time thinking about what our expectations of Jesus our King have been and how we may have given into our temptation to try to rule in his place when we think he has not met these expectations. Here’s a clue – what all the rituals and liturgies we do in Holy Week are trying to teach us is simple –God is always bigger and better and more incredibly loving and giving than we ever expect. If we let go, God will always exceed our expectations. So, let’s do our processions all over Seattle – on every block where we live –in whatever rooms we wish–  let’s get our Hosannas going! Let’s celebrate the one who comes in the name of the Lord and welcome the coming of the Kingdom of God! Let’s make this be the Holiest Holy Week we ever Holied!