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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) don’t frond your neighbor on the head with your palm branch. (2) don’t tickle any noses-even if they’ve been eating too much sauerkraut; and (3) every time I say the word "palm," that’s your cue to hold your palm up high and wave it wildly. Okay? Let’s do a palm branch rehearsal. "John high-fived his friend with his palm." Good! We’re ready.

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 Handel’s Messiah in double forte. We’re 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 like this:

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 it’s golden domes shimmering in the noon day sun. I’m 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 doesn’t 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 he’s never even met the scum that the religious leaders have dragged in.

The week ends with a kangaroo court in the head guy’s 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 face.

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 Christ’s 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 senseless.

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 he’s God or something. Breaking God’s 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 God’s 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. It’s 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. It’s 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, I’ve got a wife and several children. Please spare my life for their sakes." That’s good for a round of laughs. Guards kick the man, and he falls spread eagle on the ground. Another voice breaks the night.

"Don’t kill the man. Let me take his place. I’m a priest, Maximillian Kolbe. I don’t have a wife or children. And I’m 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.