Palm and Passion
Mark 11:1-11, chpts. 14-15
by Rev. Tom Hall
Today is Palm and Passion Sunday. This is the closest thing
we get to experiencing multiple personalities around here. Today schizophrenia reigns at
church. To describe this feeling, I need you younger folks who began the service by waving
palms to help me. First, we need some ground rules. (1) dont frond your neighbor on
the head with your palm branch. (2) dont tickle any noses-even if theyve been
eating too much sauerkraut; and (3) every time I say the word "palm,"
thats your cue to hold your palm up high and wave it wildly. Okay? Lets do a
palm branch rehearsal. "John high-fived his friend with his palm." Good!
As I was saying, today is Palm /Passion Sunday. On one hand we celebrate today as no
other because Jesus rides into Jerusalem amid shouts of joy and praise. The palms . . .
tell us to pull out all the stops and sing Handels Messiah in double forte.
Were crushed among the 1,000s that throng Jesus. We dance and flail our palm
branches and our coats form a soft highway for King Jesus to travel over. What a day to
celebrate! Finally a guy has decided to take on City Hall. Finally someone is going to do
the right thing. At last, we have Will Rodgers type who will tell it like it is and cut
through the red tape. Jesus daily journal for palm . . . Sunday could have sounded
What a reception today! My ears still hurt from all of the noise. We entered
Jerusalem from the south gate that descends from Jericho. I first glimpsed the Temple
almost a mile away with its golden domes shimmering in the noon day sun. Im
coming home! As we neared Jerusalem, children would run on ahead and grab branches and
toss them down and then after we passed by, they would scamper back and pick them up and
then dash on ahead of us and throw them down again. Palm . . . branches everywhere! Peter
looked like a nanny trying to keep the children out of the way. What a marvelous day!
Yet amidst all of the commotion and confusion, the waving and shouting of hosannas,
Mark also lets us hear a second theme-passion. We can hardly hear it at first, but it
doesnt take long for it to crescendo into a deafening roar. Passion refers, of
course, to the suffering of Christ. We are shocked as the dark events unfold. A plot is
hatched, a death-pact made. Mark opens Part II of his gospel with this very chapter: a
woman spills a bottle of White Shoulders over Jesus feet; the disciples
deride her. Call it a waste. Jesus praises her and calls it a burial anointing. A private
prayer meeting is broken up by some zealous vigilantes. The disciples, in a moment of
panic, scatter like tightly packed seeds that explode from a pod. A single disciple
follows from a safe distance, but then denies three times that hes never even met
the scum that the religious leaders have dragged in.
The week ends with a kangaroo court in the head guys living room. Then the
gruesome humor of the Roman guards as they beat him senseless with lead-tipped lashes and
press a wreath made of thorns so hard into his skull that blood leaks out and over his
Passion Sunday has arrived. Jesus is wasted on a piece of wood. Torn and abandoned,
insulted by even the two crooks hanging there with him, he cries Eloi, eloi,
sabacthani. Who can ever forget those words? "My God, My God, why have you
forsaken me?" In less than a week we have moved from triumph to tragedy. Passion. A
week of death-pacts, plots, betrayal, silence, execution.
You know, more people live on the dark side of Good Friday and Christs passion
than on the sunny side of Easter. We cannot stand up here this morning and sing happy
songs, dance for joy, celebrate resurrection. For on this side of Easter, there is no
resurrection sought or conceived of, only suffering. This morning we pause before a Christ
who is on trial--yet silent. A sufferer who slowly dies on a piece of wood--wriggling like
a flayed worm. This morning, God is silent. Suffering reigns.
When they found Mary Cardell she had been dead for several hours. Mary was an elderly
woman who lived alone in an Atlanta welfare hotel, and her only two comforts in life were
a bottle and a pen. With the bottle she eased her pain; with the pen she wrote about her
thoughts and feelings. Eventually the bottle became more demanding than the rent, and one
day she was evicted from her room. She tried to find a place to spend the night, but there
was alcohol on her breath, and no one would take her in. When they found her, her body was
in a litter-filled field of weeds, cold and blue, and there was a note beside her. Mary
Ann had written, "I have nowhere to go, and there is no one to understand. God is
not dead. He is only sleeping, but sleeping very soundly."
To the disciples, God was sleeping very soundly. The suffering of Christ confused and
perplexed them. The passion and death of Jesus Christ seemed to be so stupid and
Pilate says to himself: "What a stupid death. This hillbilly Jew was killed
because the uptown Jews were jealous with his popularity."
To the Jewish leaders, Jesus deserved to be crucified. "Serves him right,"
they could say. "Going around forgiving people like hes God or something.
Breaking Gods Law by working on holy Shabbat--healing is work, you
know." To the Jewish leaders, Jesus death was senseless, stupid suffering.
Even the disciples were confused by the events. "But I thought--we all
thought--that he was going to bring in Gods Kingdom," Peter might have said.
"I mean, I still remember his words, The right time has come, he said, he
said, and the Kingdom of God is near. Turn away from your sins and believe the Good
News, Mark 1:15.
If Pilate was right, if the Jewish religious right was right, if the disciples were
right in their initial confusion, then we might as well write passion week off as a bad
joke and quit the church as a bad investment of our time.
But there is another way to look at this passion week. Its called redemptive
suffering. That means suffering with a purpose. A death that turns the tables,
surprises, reverses, a death that is pregnant with meaning. I discovered this kind of
suffering when I visited Auschitz Concentration Camp just outside of Krakow. Its
4:30 am, roll call time. Thousands of prisoners stand naked in the cold frigid air. On
this evening, guards call out randomly ten names on the clip board. All are to executed. A
name is called and a man falls to his knees and begs for his life. "Please, sir,
Ive got a wife and several children. Please spare my life for their sakes."
Thats good for a round of laughs. Guards kick the man, and he falls spread eagle on
the ground. Another voice breaks the night.
"Dont kill the man. Let me take his place. Im a priest, Maximillian
Kolbe. I dont have a wife or children. And Im ready to die."
Ten men are bricked into incarcerated into enclosures so small that they cannot even
sit down. For one week the prisoners survive-barely. Then they soon die. After fourteen
days without food or water or light or fresh air, Father Maximillian Kolbe died.
Redemptive suffering. The man he died for himself passed away just last year after a
lifetime of freedom.
When Jesus hung upon the tree, our faith tells us that it was redemptive suffering.
That for the joy that was set before him, he endured passion. More was riding on
Jesus last week than another statistic of Roman crucifixion. Isaiah says that this
thing was planned. It was for redemptive suffering that Jesus came to die. Paul says that
though he enjoyed all the privileges of being God, yet Jesus did not regard his status as
something to be exploited. So he emptied himself, that is, he became human-like, an alien
and died a redemptive death.
Jesus rides through our Palm/Passion Sunday parade and calls us to join him in
celebration. Can you hear him calling to you? "I have not come as a Mighty God to
meet you in your strength. I have come as a Crucified God to meet you in your weakness. I
have come to meet you at the depth of your human suffering. I have come to meet you when
you walk in the valley of the shadow of death. I have come to meet you when you stand at
the very gates of hell. I have come to walk with you in your darkness. I have come to walk
with you in the night that you might one day walk with me in the light." Amen.