Passion / Palm Sunday
The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury
March 28, 2021
——— Gathering ———
CALL TO WORSHIP
Give thanks to the Lord, who is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever! Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; let the faithful come and worship God.
PRELUDE “The Palms” Faure’
PROCLAMATION OF THE ENTRANCE INTO JERUSALEM
(1) When [Jesus] had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, „Why are you untying it?‟ just say this, „The Lord needs it.‟
(2) So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.
(3) As [Jesus] rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
(4) Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
PROCESSIONAL & HYMN Courtney
CALL TO CONFESSION
The Lord GOD helps us; therefore, we have not been disgraced. We know that we shall not be put to shame; our redeemer is near! If it is the Lord GOD who helps us, who will declare us guilty? With confidence in God’s redeeming love, let us confess our sin.
CONFESSION OF SIN
God of mercy, you sent Jesus Christ to seek and save the lost. We confess that we have strayed from you and turned aside from your way. We are misled by pride, for we see ourselves pure when we are stained, and great when we are small. We have failed in love, neglected justice, and ignored your truth. Have mercy, O God, and forgive our sin. Return us to paths of righteousness through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
DECLARATION OF FORGIVENESS
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Friends, hear and believe the good news of the gospel: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God!
THE PASSING OF THE PEACE
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Holy One, our strength in suffering and our hope for salvation, lift up your Word of life and pour out your Spirit of grace so that we may follow faithfully on the way to the cross; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
——— The Word ———
PSALM Psalm 31:9-16
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,[a]
and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror[b] to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
SECOND READING Philippians 2:5-11
5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Looming over the drama of Palm Sunday is the shadow of a cross and the critical issue of why, in the name of God, would Jesus do what he did. Why would God, who we believe is present, incarnate, in the life of Jesus, why would God become so involved in such a messy, political, potentially violent event, an event of human pain and suffering and death?
That question takes us into deep water on Palm Sunday. One of the big issues the philosophers struggled with and argued about was not so much the existence of God, but God’s relationship to humankind. Is there a connection? Does God understand us? Does God know what it is like to be a human being? Does God in any way enter into our life, share our experience? Does God laugh and rejoice like we do, suffer and weep like we do? Mostly the philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, concluded no, God does not laugh and weep. God cannot suffer and be God. God is absolute perfection, and absolute perfection is not disturbed, touched in any way. God doesn’t have feelings. The philosophers even had a word for it: apatheia, the perfect, isolated, unfeeling, uncaring, holiness of God.
So, this Christian belief of ours that God gets all mixed up in the human situation, that God lives a life like our life, while it is at the center of our belief system, was preposterous to the Greek philosophers.
The issue today comes to us as we struggle with the notion of God’s relationship to human suffering and tragedy. Where was God, we asked, as COVID-19 descends upon the world? Where is God, the theologians asked, during the Holocaust or the tsunami, or the most recent genocide?
One of the thinkers who has been most helpful in this context is a German, Jürgen Moltmann. He remembers how the world changed for him in July 1943 when, as a 17-year-old conscript in the German army, he witnessed and survived the Allied firebombing of his hometown of Hamburg, in which civilian casualties numbered 40,000. He asked, “Where is God?” And then as a British POW, he was shown pictures of the atrocities committed by his people against the Jews in the death camps and again he asked, “Where is God in all this?” He remembers the day when he made the connection between the cross of Christ, the suffering of God, and the suffering of innocent civilians and Jewish people in the concentration camps.
Out of that experience came a very important book and a new theology of the cross, written “after Auschwitz.” “Is God the transcendent and untouched stage manager of the theater of this violent world, or is God in Christ the central engaged figure of the world’s tragedy?” he asked and concluded that it was the latter. In fact, the central Christian affirmation is that in Christ, God enters human suffering, experiences human suffering, weeps beside and with us. Taking it a step further, deeper, in the cross of Christ, Moltmann wrote, God even experienced God-forsakenness, in Jesus’ plaintive and so very human cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in the cross of Christ, God the Father experienced the searing human feeling of grief at the loss of a dear one, a dear son.
It is not adequate, Moltmann wrote, to say only that Jesus Christ died for sinners. He also died for sufferers, died for everyone who suffers or who will suffer, died for us.
We are Easter people, we Christians are, but we live in a Good Friday world. Many have said that. We know what it means. Easter is coming, but not until Good Friday. Innocent people suffer, suicide bombers kill civilians, precious young soldiers die, babies come with heart defects, tests come back positive, relationships sour and die, children are kidnapped and murdered—it’s a Good Friday world.
Do we have to talk about the cross? Can’t we just focus on the positive, uplifting parts of the story, the love and grace of God, the mercy and forgiveness, the acceptance and pardon? We’d like to; we try, frankly. But, Fred Craddock writes,
Sooner or later somebody is going to say to you, “Then what happened to Jesus?” And when you tell them the truth, that he came to the city as a 33-year-old young idealist and stirred the city and the city turned on him and just like that put him on trial and executed him, some people are going to back away. Can’t we just leave that part out? Focus on the positive? People aren’t interested in a man who dies like that. It’s a terrible growth strategy for the church, all that, morbid suffering and bleeding and dying.
Craddock describes a big California megachurch that told the architect for their new building, “We do not want any crosses, either outside or inside. None. We don’t want anybody to think weakness or failure!”
Jesus “emptied himself,” the Apostle Paul wrote. He “took the form of a slave, became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” In Jesus Christ, God, that is to say—remarkably—God emptied God’s self for us, to come as close as it is possible to come to us.
Fred Craddock describes that most-common human occurrence: a child falls down and skins a knee or elbow and comes running to mother.
The mother picks up the child and says—in the oldest myth in the world—“Let me kiss it and make it well.” . . . She picks up the child, kisses the skinned place, holds the child in her lap, and all is well. Did her kiss make it well? No. It was that ten minutes in her lap. Just sit in the lap of love and see the mother crying. “Mother, why are you crying? I’m the one who hurt my elbow.” “Because you hurt,” the mother says, “I hurt.” That does more for the child than all the bandages and medicine in the world, just sitting in her lap.”
“What is the cross?” Craddock asks. “Can I say it this way? It is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt” (Cherry Log Sermons: Why the Cross).
Something profoundly true is happening on Palm Sunday as our Lord enters the city and with great courage and a holy intentionality lives out the last days of his life as one of us, betrayed and denied by friends, unjustly tried, suffered, died. Something tragic, but way beyond tragedy, something terrible and awesome and beautiful beyond description is happening. Something the truth of which we know in our hearts—something about love becoming vulnerable, love exposing itself to heartbreak, something about the voluntary long-suffering of any love worth the name, something C. S. Lewis meant when he said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrong and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one” (The Four Loves, p. 111).
Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday—this holiest of weeks in which Jesus suffers and dies—is God giving God’s own heart to the world, to you and me and every one of us.
And so whatever else you do this week, which on the surface is no different than any other week, find a way to pause and ponder and stand a while beneath the cross of Jesus and, with the faithful of all the ages, to see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me:
And from my stricken heart with tears
Two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love
And my unworthiness.
Commentary provided by Jurgen Moltmann, John Buchannan, Fred Craddock, Troy Toftgruben, Scott Hoezee, Dan Quanstrom and Melinda Quivik, Elizabeth Johnson and Martha Moore-Keish.
——— Response ———
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH
We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Let us pray for the church, our neighbors in need and the whole world, saying:
Hear our prayer.
On this Palm and Passion Sunday, we come with praise and leave with passion. Help us, O God, to be ever attentive to your presence in our midst during Holy Week. Help us to see that the crucifixion we remember on Good Friday is present in small and large ways throughout our communities and world. And enable us to stand with the crucified among us, we pray to you, O God:
Hear our prayer.
O God, we see so much bloodshed in our world. Senseless violence, racialized violence, violence again women, violence against Blacks, Asians and immigrants. Help us to be nonviolent resisters of hate and malice and prejudice. And enable us to be agents of your love in all that we do, we pray to you, O God:
Hear our prayer.
O God, we pray for the elected leadership in our local governments, state legislatures, Congress and our president. We pray that they would have the courage to work for the common good for all the people of this country, and that they would put aside differences in order to serve the greater good, we pray to you, O God:
Hear our prayer.
O God, we continue to pray for those struggling during this pandemic. Help us support those delivering needed aid and vaccines, and let us be witnesses to the benefits of receiving the vaccine ourselves. And help us all take responsibility for every measure that protects us, we pray to you, O God:
Hear our prayer.
We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray saying, Our Father…
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen.
——— Sending ———
HYMN “On the Road to Jerusalem” Martin
BLESSING AND CHARGE
And now we lay down the palm branches.
And with them we lay down our belief
that there is another way for you to be God.
As the last echo of the final alleluia fades,
so does our hope that this journey can end
in any other way.
The week stretches ahead
Whether we walk with all faith or none
we look towards the cross,
knowing it is both the most human
and most divine
of all journeys
travel the road with courage,
and with the uneasy peace that is the gift of faith
into this holiest of weeks.