Sermon Palm Sunday 2016. Luke 23.1-49
(Following a dramatized reading of the passage)
I sometimes get about by cycling. When I’m on my bike I’m much more conscious of hills. When faced with a particularly steep one I used to get off and walk – it just felt easier. When, though, I had to climb a very steep one every day to reach the church where I was working I learnt to use my gears and stay on the bike. It still felt very hard work. Then one day I tried cycling the way serious cyclists do, bending my whole body in the direction of travel (in this case, the hill) and keeping my head down, rather as though I was acknowledging the force of gravity and allowing it to flow over me so that I might more easily reach the top. It worked!
Last month I was staying in a hilly part of Wales when there were tremendous gales. Walking out afterwards I could see trees on the hill side that had been uprooted by the force of the wind. What intrigued me, though, were trees leaning down the slope of the hill, with most of their branches directed that way, leaning towards the direction of the wind and still standing. It was as though embracing the wind and the force of gravity had saved them.
As we enter the most holy week in the church’s calendar and accompany Jesus on his way to the cross we see in that reading from Luke’s gospel how Jesus bends into and reaches out to forces of evil far more powerful than those of gravity or gale force winds. He does not turn aside or try to avoid the night time arrest, the beating up and insults of the temple guards, the cat and mouse games of the chief priests, Pilate and Herod, nor the torture of the execution itself. There is a gracious bending into it. This is not a passive acceptance, or an uncomplaining acceptance of pain, but a deliberate movement of immersion in the chaos, cruelty, injustice, lies and rejection we have just heard described in our reading. It is a deliberate immersion into the depths of human suffering.
At the end of our service this morning you will be invited to take up a palm cross as a sign that you are willing to follow Jesus through the events of Holy Week, to the crucifixion itself. We’ll be moving back a week from the events of Good Friday just described in our gospel reading, to the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph with everyone cheering and singing his praises. We’ll go outside, waving our palm crosses. Having heard what we’ve just heard, though, we know what lies ahead. We might take up our cross cautiously.
I want to suggest two ways in which we might do this that echo the way the tree bends into the wind. First, even if you do stick your palm cross behind a mirror or use it as a book mark at least once a day during this week hold it, feel it. Let its plant matter remind you of the earth, the created order of which we humans are a part, let its flimsiness remind you of the fragility of our planet and of human life, let its shape invite you to open your eyes to Jesus on the cross, let its pliability encourage you to bend towards that suffering, to look at it.
Secondly, where you are experiencing suffering in your own life, especially perhaps something that you can’t easily acknowledge to others, imagine yourself with Jesus beside you walking towards whatever it is, facing it, bending into it, feeling the feelings it gives you, allowing them to flow over you and then past you, letting them go, like the cyclist leaving the hill behind. This not to condone whatever it is, nor to deny it. It’s more like going through your baptism with Christ – under the water, knowing you will come up again with him to new life.
We need resourcing as we take up our cross. Make the most of communion today. Remember that as you eat the bread and drink the wine you are drawn into Christ’s death and also his rising from death. Come to church again on Maundy Thursday (8pm) to be reminded of that Last Supper and to have your feet washed so that you are part of him on his and your journey to the cross.
Let us pray:
True and humble king,
hailed by the crowd as Messiah;
grant us the faith to know you and love you,
that we may be found beside you
on the way of the cross,
which is the path of glory. Amen