Sermons That Work

Walking the Way of the Cross, Palm Sunday (B) – 2000

April 16, 2000

Today we begin the observances of Holy Week: to follow the ancient narratives of Christ’s passion and death. If we study them closely we have the chance to identify our world and ourselves in this sacred story. We know how it ends, but the power of the story lies in our conscious or unconscious identification with Jesus, Herod, Pilate, the disciples and the crowds in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. How does this story touch your heart?

Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion happened quietly. The main preoccupation of the day was the impending Passover celebration. Jerusalem was a pilgrimage city: then as now, people went to Jerusalem, to pray and to draw close to the people and places of their faith. I imagine these events happened like events do in any large city. In New York City the United Nations does its work, Wall Street operates at the heart of world financial markets, the people are preoccupied with many important tasks. Few have time or energy to take notice of other dramas: what are the people protesting about on Dag Hammerskold Plaza today? Who notices the people in front of City Hall?

Yet for Jesus and his followers, the shock of normal life interrupted was devastating. Following the close intimacy of the Passover meal, the panic and fear of the arrest scattered the close circle of friends. Peter denied knowing Jesus. Most of the others went into hiding or stayed well out of the way. I remember the fear in the office where I once worked when a colleague was fired. Deserved or undeserved, it was always a shock, normal life was interrupted, and we experienced fear, anxiety. It is the same reaction, magnified many times over, for people who experience terrorism or terrible oppression. People with great power or who want power know that the way to control a situation is to move swiftly, discouraging or intimidating people who might raise questions.

The midnight interrogation of Jesus has echoed through the centuries: our own Inquisition, the stories of the interrogation of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, the Viet Cong, stories today coming out of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Balkans. The questions presume guilt: who are you? Who else is with you? Torture and death are seen as the tools for discovering truth.

The story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion is one that has always touched the hearts of Christians. From the earliest centuries Christians traveled to Jerusalem to relive the events, to see, touch, smell the sights and places Christ might have experienced that last day. Because such a trip is fraught with dangers, and expensive, the early Franciscans developed the popular devotion of the Stations of the Cross so that faithful people could walk with Jesus those last terrible steps in their own communities and homes. As the popularity of the Stations of the Cross has grown, people have looked to their lives and their communities, and seen the story lived out. Many recognize themselves in the onlookers, the indifferent ones, those preoccupied or too busy to do anything for Jesus, unaware of what he was doing for them. Some see the innocent suffering of Jesus played out in the innocent suffering of children: children starving in America, the richest country on earth; children suffering in war torn countries; children who are the innocent victims of the AIDS holocaust in Africa. We can also recognize Christ’s suffering in the pain of indigenous peoples as their lands, culture, and lives sustain blow after blow from the outside world, and in the experience of the suffering of African Americans as we live out the terrible legacy of slavery in this country.

The road to Golgotha is lined by human tragedy, and our liturgy today and the Franciscan devotion of the Way of the Cross are ways for us to open ourselves to this story in our lives.

What happens to you when you re-frame human suffering as Jesus’ suffering? What difference do you imagine that it makes to millions of Christians in the Sudan, in Bosnia-Herzogovnia and in other places of persecution, war, violence, and degradation around the world as they gather today to hear this story? How might their suffering be our suffering today?

Where is this story in your life? What do you know of betrayal and fear, of confusion, of your world turned upside down while no one seems to care? How do you think about and pray about the burdens you find yourself carrying? Do you pray to Christ for help? Does Jesus’ way of the Cross help you enter into the story of God’s extravagant love for every human being?

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Christopher Sikkema


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