A sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
Luke 22 and 23
Today, at the same time that we gather here in our sanctuary to read together and reflect on the events of that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, when the people lined the streets and formed a kind of parade to welcome Jesus as king, a group of people from our congregation is gathering in Virginia Beach with the family of our congregation council president, Rob Burger, to take part in the PurpleStride. PurpleStride is a walk to rally awareness for pancreatic cancer and raise money for a cure. Rob was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor in February and has been undergoing treatment for two months. Today is a joyful pause in the grueling rounds of chemo to gather and walk with survivors, family members, and others who have been touched by the disease. A few families from Epiphany have driven down to participate with the Burgers and the Westins and several members of our youth group have joined them, too.
The choice of Palm Sunday for the walk, as far as I know, was not intentional. These things are held on various weekends throughout the year. But Rob liked the connection. His team, Rob’s Rebels, is named after the Star Wars characters who fight against the evil Empire. They are wearing purple shirts—purple is the color for pancreatic cancer—and, at his request, a member of their team came by late this week and grabbed some of our palm branches to take with them. So it can be said that this morning, a group from our congregation, waving palm fronds and wearing the color of Lent, is participating in a procession of life. They are walking in hope. They are walking with a united purpose. They are walking because they love Rob.
Palm Sunday aside, walking or running for a particular cause or a cure is a trend that is about 50 years old. It is generally accepted that this idea got off the ground in the 1960s with some very successful walks to highlight causes related to hunger. The March of Dimes got in early on the act and helped popularize them and expand their focus to medical issues. Now tens of thousands of so-called charity walks are held every year. In fact, in 2012 it was estimated around 72 charity walk events were held every day! If you ran or walked in the Monument Avenue 10K yesterday here in Richmond, you were part of an event that was partially sponsored by the Massey Cancer Center.
Why are charity walks or runs so popular? They actually aren’t the most economically sound was to raise money for a something. Psychologists have actually studied this and say it’s because they give people an opportunity to suffer or work for a cause. People are more willing, it turns out, to contribute financially to a cause if they have to exert some kind of effort. If they sweat, if they get blisters, if they run the risk of getting a sunburn, if they P.R. in a race, if they get “palm branch elbow”—they feel joined somehow to the people who are actually suffering from the cause. I think many of us already are aware of some of the suffering of Rob and his family, but much of what they’ve gone through is personal. The PurpleStride gives his friends a way to join in and walk by his side—even if their sacrifice is only small by comparison.
That happens to be how we think of our Palm Sunday and Holy Week rituals, isn’t it? We come today and to the extra worship services this week not just to remember and reflect but in some way to pay really close attention to Jesus’ suffering. We come to read scripture slowly and dramatically to hear how it all plays out for him. We come to walk with our Lord on his purple stride: the gospels note that at some point during his ordeal the soldiers mock Jesus by arraying him in brilliant scarlet or purple, which was the color of royalty in those days.
All of this—palms, the music, the special readings, the darkened sanctuary during the evening services on Thursday and Friday—all of this adds to our experience in some small, small way to what Jesus endured, and figuring out where, if anywhere, we might fit in. Are we a palm branch waver? Are we one of the loudest ones choosing anyone—anyone, even Barabbas—to be freed over the innocent Jesus? Are we a disciple who betrays him in the garden? A member of the crowd who watches silently by the cross? I mean, that’s the point of that almost haunting hymn we sing, right?
“Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?
Were YOU there when they nailed him to the tree?”
Were YOU there when they laid him in the tomb?”
With questions that are left to be answered in the mind of whoever sings or hears it, we wonder: are we going to walk with Jesus too? It’s good and right to think on those things, and to “do” Palm Sunday with those questions, but there is something greater going on we don’t want to miss. The greater point is that Palm Sunday and Holy Week are, in fact, Jesus’ commitment to walk with us, God’s desire to join in our suffering. And that’s not to say that we or our lives are the most important things here, or the center of the universe—far from it! It is rather to say this day and this week are about God’s decision to walk along the paths of human life. All of them.
Christ’ Passion is about God’s close attention to the ever-sinking lows of what humans can put each other through, about how cruel and dark things can get on this planet. It’s about God looking at his creation and wondering where he’s going to fit in, what role he is going to play and, by golly, God is going to fit right in along those who are suffering. That’s the speaking part God winds up with today, and every day. It is God singing, “I WAS there, I AM there”— with those who are abandoned, those who are hurting, those who are rejected. This is God’s charity walk for us.
And therefore if God is with us today and in the midst of the events of this week, if God finds a part to play among the lows of human existence, then we have more opportunities than just during Holy Week to listen and be committed to his cause. Any time, in fact, we see our neighbors hurting, God is there—not because God is causing it, but because God wants to heal and bring life where its needed. Any time there is pain and loss in the lives of those around us, any time there is loss, God is walking. He sees a place go grant charity. God is walking and we can sign up and join right in with him.
And walk with hope, because Jesus will be victorious.
And walk with united purpose, because the cross is carried for all.
And walk because his love is poured out for everyone, come what may—for Rob, for those in the PurpleStride, for you and me.
With Jesus the loving rebel, we walk from death to new life.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.