Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday of the Passion: The Unexpected Way

The Liturgy of the Palms: Matthew 21:1-11, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a,Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14- 27:66

In a recent weekly newsletter sent out by our diocese, our Bishop said this: “When we admit our own limitations and let go of our false optimistic view that we can manufacture paradise on this earth, then we become open to what God can do. So long as we believe in ourselves, we never get beyond making crosses or finding a safe place to hide. Our job is not to save Jesus from death nor even to insure that we don't get leaders like Pilate. Our job is to have the faith and courage to go to the Cross and not look away. Our job is to tremble and then to pray for God to save us.” (1)

In our Gospel story from Matthew, we hear that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people were trembling. Matthew says “the whole city was turmoil.” Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem marks the moment when those who had been gathering by the thousands to hear him speak begin to understand. They have recently witnessed Jesus open the eyes of a man born blind, AND raise a dead man back to life… Maybe this Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah. We can imagine how this might have caused a commotion.

So how do we get from the triumphal entry in chapter 21 to the events in chapter 26 - the Passion Gospel? How did the crowd change from singing Hosannah! (which means Save us!) to shouting “Let him be crucified!"

Well, I think it has to do with expectations. Mark Twain once said: “A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it arrives.” (2)

When they welcomed this prophet from Nazareth into Jerusalem, the people’s expectation was that they were welcoming a king - the heir of David's throne who would bring them victory over their Roman occupiers. The palm branches the crowds laid in the road indicated their expectation that Jesus was the one who would lead them on a path of victory, which he did – only it wasn't the path they expected.

The man who drew thousands to listen to his teachings and receive healings just by touching his cloak... the man who could create sight in a man born blind and bring a man dead four days back to life… this was something like what they expected.

But in chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus went after the Jewish religious leadership, challenging their authority. Driving out the money changers, Jesus scolded the powerful temple priests for misusing their authority and exploiting the faithful poor among God’s people. Later on in chapter 23, Jesus denounced the Pharisees and Scribes as "blind guides, blind fools" who had it all wrong. This is not what was expected.

And now, Jesus is standing before the Roman authorities and everyone is expecting to see their Messiah dazzle the Romans with his miraculous power and authority, but all he does is stand there, silently. No miraculous power – no power at all.

What happened to their brave hero – the king who would free them all? Why was he just standing there?

They felt betrayed. Their hopes for freedom and change, for peace in their homeland – were gone. And now they were mad. How dare he get our hopes up then disappoint us like that. Crucify him! And make it painful!

When we read this Passion Gospel (an interesting term, isn't it? …the Good News of Suffering), we tend to listen from our 21st century perspective. Part of us holds onto the idea that we would’ve had a different response.

But I wonder... how good are we at allowing God to be other than we expect?

In everything he said and did, Jesus made clear that our small, human expectations were barriers to our faith and our freedom, barriers to life in God's kingdom, and he brought them down over and over again. Welcoming all to share in the feast of the Lamb – sinners, women, and even foreigners (that is, those who are different or strange to us), Jesus redefined what it means to be chosen of God. Riding into town on a humble, value-less baby donkey instead of on a finely decorated stallion, Jesus redefined power and kingship. And standing silently at his trial and crucifixion, Jesus redefined redemption.

That's why we read this story together – not just to remember it, but to live it, to remember that it is our story today. We are the crowd who trembles, crying out for salvation, then turns away when God's way isn't what we expect. But today we remember that God’s way, as unexpected as it is, is the only way that leads to redemption.

As we go forward into Holy Week anticipating the Day of Resurrection, I pray we will walk slowly and deliberately through these days of the Passion of our Lord, coming together for the services that lead us to the death of our expectations and the temporary turmoil that creates in us. Speaking on how ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) changed his life, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking once said, "When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have." (3) So - what do we have? The steadfast, redeeming, sustaining love of God – whose ways rarely fit our expectations – thanks be to God!


1. The Rt. Rev. G Porter Taylor, Weekly Newsletter 4/13/11: Diocesan Weekly Newsletter
2. From Mark Twain’s Notebook
3. Source:

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