Sermon for Palm Sundayadmin | 9 April 2017
“Turn unto the Lord your God”
The words of the prophet Joel serve as one of the mantras for the season of Lent, a recurring refrain which shapes the Lenten journey. But even more it provides the matrix through which to contemplate the Passion of Christ which is set before us with great intensity in Holy Week beginning today, Palm Sunday.
It is the holy business of this Holy Week to be constantly turning us to Christ who has turned to us. In a way, it is really one long liturgy that begins today and ends on Easter, a kind of circling around and around the mystery of God in the work of redemption. “Rend your hearts,” Joel exhorts us and “not your garments.” It is the business of Holy Week to break our hearts. In our turning to God, we are invited to learn two necessary and interrelated ideas. The one is the truth and dignity of our common humanity as found in our being with God; the other is the disorder and disarray of our humanity which is equally common to human experience. How will we learn to think these two contraries together? Only by immersing ourselves in the fullness and completeness of the Passion of Christ as set before us in all four accounts of the Passion in the Gospels. Such is the intensity of the logic of Holy Week.
That logic is set before us today. We turn to Christ who enters Jerusalem triumphantly. Palm branches are strewed before his way and garments, too, are laid out before him and yet he enters riding, as Zechariah prophesied, “upon an ass and a colt, the foal of an ass,” in other words humbly and in meekness. Here is no cavalcade of high-end cars and limousines, no great retinue of the rich and the mighty; instead there is the sense of joy and expectancy on the part of the common people who turn to Christ, crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” It moves the whole city. “Who is this?” they say, to which the multitude answer, “Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee”. Part of the project of Holy Week is for us to realise with “the Centurion and they that were with him” that “truly this is the Son of God,” God with us to redeem us. And that means confronting the sad and sorry realities of our faults and failings, not to mention the sad and sorry realities of our broken and disordered world.
We turn to Christ in joy and excitement with the cries of “Hosanna” but we are also those who turn against him with the horrible shouts of “Let him be crucified… Let him be crucified”. Such is the picture of our humanity in its confusion and disarray. Such is our evil, the evil that is potentially and actually in each of us. To confront this is to have our hearts broken. We confront the good, the bad and the ugly for only so can we be made new. “Make me a clean heart. O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” the Psalmist, possibly David himself, says, after confessing the deep truth that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” for “a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Nowhere is that made more visible than in the pageant of Holy Week, the pageant of the Passion.
We turn to Christ’s Passion because his Passion is the deep turning of God to us. We immerse ourselves in the complexity and the confusions of this week which are all about the contradictions in our own souls wonderfully captured in the transition from cries of “Hosanna” to the cries of “Crucify.” For some such transitions signal a tragic and pessimistic view of life and yet one in which there is also a turning to something greater in spite of ourselves. George Herbert in Love Unknown tells what he calls “a long and sad tale” precisely about our hearts in relation to God’s love. Unaware and ignorant of our own hearts, the poem undertakes to point out that our hearts are “foul,” ”hard,” and “dull” in complete contrast to the God who “strive[s] to mend, what you had marr’d./ Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full/ Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,/ Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick.”
The poet Elizabeth Bishop whose early years were lived in Great Village, Nova Scotia, confesses that her “outlook is pessimistic”. “We are”, she says, “still barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives”. And yet, something of the redemptive logic of Holy Week by way of the poetic theology of George Herbert retains a still stronger hold, for in spite of the pageant of indecencies and cruelties which certainly we see in spades in Holy Week, she adds “but I think we should be gay in spite of it … to make life endurable and to keep ourselves [quoting Herbert] ‘new, tender, quick’”. Such is the project of Holy Week. God “would fain have you be new, tender, quick.”
We are on display in all of the disorders of our sins and failings. We turn to Christ in his Passion to learn about the contradictions within ourselves. But that turning is only possible because of his turning to us. Luke in his Gospel notes at one point that Christ “set his face to go to Jerusalem”(Luke 9.51). Many chapters later, he enters Jerusalem. Palm Sunday marks that moment of the actual entry of Christ into Jerusalem, his actual turning to the purpose of his coming in the intensity of its realization. And in the Palm Gospel we already confront the change from joy to wrath and sorrow. Christ comes to the Temple in Jerusalem and “cast[s] out all them that sold and bought in the temple; and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves”. It is a scene of anger and wrath, the anger and wrath of God against our misuse of the things of God. The house of prayer has become a den of thieves. It signals our failure to honour the principle of our very being and truth.
That contrast between joy and sorrow marks the whole of Holy Week beginning from today and ending at Easter. And yet, in a way, it never ends. This reveals one of the deep truths of the Christian faith, namely, that sorrow and joy are inescapably united and intertwined. There is joy in the sorrow and sorrow in the joy. In the project of Holy Week, we learn to hold these two contraries as one.
In Holy Week, the Scripture readings are altogether about God’s turning to us in his Word proclaimed to turn us in repentance back to himself. It is redire ad principia, a turning to a principle, to God, “a kind of circling” as Lancelot Andrewes puts it, whereby we turn back to him from whom we have turned away. The turning reaches a crescendo of intensity in the events of Holy Week. If we have hearts, then, they shall be broken, and only so shall they be made “new, tender, quick.” But only if we turn again and again to the God who in his great kindness and mercy turns to us. Even his wrath is his kindness and mercy, the kindness and mercy that signal the destructiveness and disorder of our humanity and our world in disarray.
If we turn, then Holy Week will, indeed, be Holy Week; great joy found even in the heart of sorrow. For Christ’s Passion is about his turning to us and showing us in his own self the true meaning of our souls in contradiction and disarray. That is how we are made whole, made “new, tender, quick”. It lies in our being turned to him who turns to us in love and with great kindness. See how he loves us.
“Turn unto the Lord your God”
Fr. David Curry
Palm Sunday, 2017