SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST,
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
SIXTH SUNDAY OF LENT: PALM/PASSION SAUNDAY
(13th April) 2014
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a
Matthew 26:14 – 27:46
For many years now I have come to see the celebrations of Palm (and increasingly it has become Passion) Sunday as a celebration of our acknowledgement of our propensity for getting it wrong. It is not a theme I have often heard acknowledged, much less developed, but it seems to me a fundamental responsibility on our part to acknowledge that this most powerfully vivid moment of Jesus’ free ministry is the moment we look for redemption if not quite in the wrong place, then at best in a seriously wrong key.
This is if you like the Sunday of the Major Key … though the metaphor breaks down because surely, surely, Easter Day is when we break out into resurrection joy? Maybe: in fact there are some hymns in the Methodist and Lutheran traditions in particular that are deeply joyful yet in the minor key, so that commentators on hymnody begin to speak of the music of a deeper joy in the minor key. I’ll leave that to the experts, but, although our hymns later on this day are if not classics of hymnody nevertheless much loved in many circles, I think they are all in the major key. Sunday of the Major Key, and the Sunday we look for the glorious victory of God in the wrong place.
There is a wisdom that I first encountered in the John Marsden Tomorrow series of teenage narrative of invasion, a wisdom that says if you are seeking to hide from an enemy, as long as they don’t have dogs, climb. Climb a tree: up gives you the best chance, albeit far from perfect, of survival. Climb a tree: hunters we might be as humans, but our hard wiring has trained us that the best kai and the most dangerous enemies are at ground level. We look in the wrong places.
There are some warning signals in the biblical story. Back in the early passage, read outside the cathedral in our later liturgy, the Messiah enters the city riding a donkey. Matthew, anchoring his narrative firmly in the ancient prophesies of Zechariah, tells of Jesus entering the holy but tainted) city on a donkey. The emphasis is on the a-typical, meek nature of Jesus’s arrival, but we, the crowd, fail to read the signs, fail to note that the donkey is a symbol of peace and humility, and mentally put Jesus on a massive charger at the head of a conquering army. We fail to note the rag and taggle motley crew that accompany him, and act instead as if this were the great military overthrow by an army of the cruel oppressions of Rome.
There are none so blind as those who will not see; indeed, in Mark’s narrative particularly, Jesus has repeatedly shut people up as they name him Christ precisely because he knows they have got these signs wrong, failed to see that God will not appear in neon lights or glorious overthrow but in brutal naked vulnerability in death throes on a cross. It is then, so then, that the world whispers “truly this man was” – even if as yet the understanding is not given full significance by the glorious event of resurrection.
Christianity that places or leaves Jesus in a neon lit pantomime striding on the popular expectations of the people will never be the Christianity of the Cross of Christ. This is the Sunday we get it wrong – and we celebrate it precisely because we need to acknowledge our propensity for looking for answers in the godless, neon-lit and powerful places, on the ground, not on a tree.
We expect God, or at least something meaningful and salvific, to come in a blaze of glory. Much of our worship and sadly much of our mission and practice as Christ-bearers suggests we still too readily get this wrong. The God of the Cross is found not in the corridors of power but outside the city wall, at a dump, dying on an instrument of torture and execution. It is from there and from that great obscenity called death that finally Easter light breaks out. But we must wait a while for our pre-enactment of that glorious moment. We will soon turn from the donkey-riding Messiah because he fails our expectations. It is though our expectations, not God’s that are awry and need recalibration.