Sermons That Work

Listen with Our Hearts, Palm Sunday (A) – 2002

March 24, 2002


[A note: The Prayer Book rubrics (BCP, p. 273) say that if the Liturgy of the Palms precedes the service, the Creed and Confession “may be omitted at this service.” One effective way of approaching this liturgy might be to preach before the reading of The Passion on Palm Sunday-first of all, as a way of alerting the listeners to ponder certain details of the text as it is read. You might also encourage the congregation to stay with one line or character and daydream or ponder some of the deeper meanings of those details. Secondly, with a text as central to the core of our shared faith as this one, it seems a shame after hearing it to not simply let the text itself have the last sound and word in our hearts. After all, the congregation is on its knees and silent when hearing the word of Jesus’ death on the cross. So after the conclusion of The Passion reading (short or long ending), the congregation might remain kneeling for prayers. These could be the Prayers of the People, or this year, in a time of war and national anxiety, it might be appropriate to conclude with The Supplication (BCP 154), and then to end the Liturgy of the Word with The Peace. The sermon text below may be used either before or after the reading of The Passion.]

This morning we read Matthew’s version of our Lord’s Passion. On Friday we will hear John’s. If we listen closely with the “ears of our hearts,” as well as our minds, we will hear two very different accounts. We know that if everyone who had been there had written it all down, we would have that many different accounts of “what really happened” that day in Jerusalem.

It is a story of death by a state-sponsored execution — what we call today “capital punishment.” And it is a story that includes cruel mockery and torture before the execution itself. We might do well to consider the ways in which this story, or elements of this story, are still a part of our life today. As we listen to the story, in which the one we call Lord is made the victim of a state ordered execution, it might be a good time to reflect upon just what do we think about things like capital punishment.

As we hear of Jesus being mocked and tortured, we might take a moment to reflect on just how many people in our society and throughout the world are unjustly mocked, derided, shamed, tortured, and even killed for being who they are or for believing what they believe: people being sold into slavery in the Sudan, young women sold as sex-slaves in Ghana, Protestants and Roman Catholics still at war with one another in Northern Ireland, Israelis and Palestinians caught in a never ending cycle of violence, gay and lesbian people being discriminated against and subject to violence, Christian missionaries held hostage in the Philippines, crack babies being born in our core cities, homeless people dying on the streets of our nation’s capital, racial and religious conflicts of all kinds — the list could go on and on.

Then, of course, there are the victims of such benign sounding entities as “the economy,” “free markets,” “globalization,” and the like: those who lose jobs, those who work for pennies a day, the nation’s and the world’s poor, destitute, and powerless. There are many people who spend entire lives within construct and details of this Passion narrative. There are many people who live entire lives on the cross with Jesus.

So let us listen with our hearts for what, in this story, speaks to us — here and now, this morning. Let us listen for how this story remains the story of our world and our lives in it. Here are just a few details worth mentioning. For instance, last Sunday we left off with Lazarus coming out of the tomb, and Jesus crying out, “Unbind him and let him go!” Now in the opening sentence we hear that it is Jesus who is bound and led away to his execution at the hands of Pilate.

And how strange it is that one of the most notorious and cold-blooded of all Roman functionaries, Pilate, is pictured as washing his hands of the whole thing. A man who routinely, even daily, ordered people to death without a second thought is pictured as hesitant and subject to pressure from people who were not even truly Roman citizens.

Then there is his offer to free either Jesus Barabbas or Jesus-who-is-called-Christ. How does that sound to people in the crowd who would hear Jesus Barabbas for what it really is: Jesus Son of the Father, for that is what the word Barabbas really means: Do you want Jesus Son of the Father or Jesus who is the Christ?

In the midst of a busy Passover weekend in Jerusalem, bustling crowds of people from all over and all nations, and many others throughout the land claiming to be christos, those anointed by God to free the people from the armed occupation of Rome, what does this choice really sound like? Didn’t the Jesus we know always refer to God as Abba, his father? Doesn’t that sound like the one we have been following all the way down from Galilee?

Near the end Jesus cries out with the opening verse, in Hebrew, of Psalm 22: Eli, Eli, la’ma sabachtha’ni? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? The bystanders think he is calling for Elijah. This suggests that they either do not understand Hebrew or cannot recognize a thoroughly familiar Psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures. Could it be that much of the crowd is not Jewish after all?

If so, then who is it crying out, “His blood be on us and on our children!”? Whatever does that mean? And again, can the only person in Jerusalem with the authority to order an execution claim to be innocent of this man’s blood? His blood, Jesus’ blood, that sacred mystery that makes us one body with him that he may dwell in us and we in him. Thank goodness that Matthew alone among the four evangelists cannot keep from including a resurrection account as part of his passion narrative. And what an account!

Today, standing on the ramparts of the wall around the Old City of Jerusalem, one can look out over the Kidron Valley and see two million graves. They are vaults, really, above ground vaults all over the hillside below the Mount of Olives, beneath the Garden of Gethsemane. And each vault is capable of holding generations of whole families in ossuary jars. So literally millions upon millions of people “buried” on that hillside — and on that particular hillside because that view of Jerusalem is considered to be the “box seats,” the very best seats to view the coming of the messiah, “the christos,” the anointed one of God, who will free God’s people from the current ills.

So imagine being a Roman centurion on that wall keeping guard over the city during this festival weekend when pilgrims from all over the ancient world are in town. Your job is to see to it that these people do not cause trouble, let alone get a taste of freedom. You know it is time for the daily executions outside the city on the hill. Suddenly there is an earthquake. The tops of all those millions of vaults slide off. Many of those who had been resting there for who knows how long start coming out! And according to Matthew, they just mill around or hang out on the hillside until a few days later when they come streaming into the city gates, appearing to many in the streets. As a centurion looking out over the Kidron Valley we might imagine ourselves saying, “Enough of being in this man’s army! I’m shipping out and heading home to Italy, pension or no pension, to tend a quiet vineyard and relax the rest of the days of my life.”

How surprising, then, to hear that not one, but a group of centurions cry out in a loud voice, filled with awe, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Those charged with executing this man and securing the hill to keep away his followers are the ones pictured making this bold profession of faith in Jesus. And all the way across town, deep inside the veiled halls of the Temple the curtain to the Holy of Holies is torn in two!

One last thought-about Judas: the much maligned Judas, Judas the traitor, Judas the betrayer. He has one line in the Gospel account and it is perhaps the most truthful line in the entire drama: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood. There it is again: the blood of Jesus. How does one betray his blood? How often do we betray his blood-we as individuals? we as a nation? we as the church, his body? Curious, isn’t it, that Judas would emerge from this drama as a role model for all of us, as he accepts responsibility for what he has done? He offers us a moment to pause and consider just when and where and why we too might say, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood. I have betrayed the blood of Jesus.”

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Saint Matthew. These are just a few of the things we might hear if we listen with the “ears of our hearts.”

[The congregation will read the parts in bold print. That is, we are alternately the chief priests and elders, the crowd and the centurions.When directed we will stand. At the time of his death, we will kneel in silence and remain kneeling for the prayers.]

The prayers today are from The Supplication, prayers we are directed by the Book of Common Prayer to use at a time of war. May we listen with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew…. 

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