I love Palm Sunday. This special celebration brings back so many fond memories growing up at Grace Presbyterian Church; with all the children marching into the sanctuary to the hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” waving our palm branches and shouting with the congregation, “Hosanna!” as we went.
I remember it being sort of like a wonderful parade that started off a week-long festival crowned by Easter Sunday worship, followed by a traditional Easter-Egg hunt with all my cousins and a glorious ham dinner with the whole family.
But, you know, I don’t remember anything about Maundy Thursday or Good Friday growing up. I guess my folks were not into those more somber events. I had to ask my wife Diane (who also grew up at Grace PC) if there were any other Holy Week services at Grace.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “There was a Maundy Thursday service, with the choir and everything.” She then added, “But it was not particularly well attended.”
The fact is, Easter will out-draw Maundy Thursday or Good Friday by a ratio of ten to one. And it’s a phenomenon I’ve found to hold pretty much true throughout my ministry.
The late Peter Gomes (Pastor, Professor at Harvard Divinity School and prolific author on Christian ethics) called it the “let’s have a parade theory of Palm Sunday—that discreet form of Protestantism that doesn’t much care for the embarrassment and indignity of the cross.”
We tend to remove the Passion from Palm Sunday, Gomes says, and turn the occasion into a festive dress rehearsal for Easter, “saving the suffering for the faithful few who will come to church on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday.”1
Anne Lamott puts it in more personal terms, “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion,” she writes. “I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb; everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking.”2
But today is known, not only as Palm Sunday, but also Passion Sunday. It is the first day of Holy Week and carries with it all of the profound ambiguity of what yet lies ahead.
For we know that today’s joyful shouts of “hosanna” will soon be drowned out and forgotten when the very same crowds shout “crucify him” five days hence.
And, perhaps, we like to fast forward past that inconvenient truth because we find the incongruence of the fickle crowd of long ago to be just a little bit too familiar for comfort.
Overall, we prefer a religion that focuses on the positive; one that’s uplifting. “Protestants in particular seem to want a Christianity without a cross; or more accurately, a Christianity with a cross that has no one on it.”3
So, let’s just put palm branches in our children’s hands one week and fill their baskets with Easter eggs the next and call it good.
Save ourselves all the heartache and the grief.
My second year in seminary I was assigned to be the student chaplain at Norton Kosair Children’s Hospital. Specifically, I was assigned to the children’s oncology unit. Before entering seminary I had been a preschool teacher for several years at a residential school for children with special needs, and they thought it would a good match.
It proved to be the hardest year of my life.
I was used to empowering children; helping them to learn appropriate communication and interaction, working with them on self-help skills; teaching them pre-writing and pre-reading. Caring for them, feeding them, nurturing them. Picking them up when they fell, encouraging them when they failed. I loved children, to be sure, but I was in no way prepared for what I encountered on that oncology ward.
It was appalling. Children afflicted with the most dreadful forms of cancer; disease ravaging their bodies, stealing away their innocence, robbing them of the promise of life.
Every day another child would die and another family would be devastated.
And I felt absolutely helpless in the face of so much suffering. Unable to make any kind of positive difference. Inadequate to infuse even the barest of hope into these dire human situations. I wanted to offer some kind of saving grace to these children and their families; the kind of Saving grace that I had known in Jesus Christ. But my testimony seemed insufficient, even inappropriate at times.
I tried to reach out to children who had retreated irretrievably into themselves.
I tried to console parents who were inconsolable.
I prayed for healing, but healing rarely came.
By midyear I was completely overwhelmed; emotionally, spiritually, physically. I lapsed into a crisis of faith. I seriously considered dropping out of seminary at that point, giving up the whole idea of ministry. But Diane encouraged me to stick it out for a while longer; suggested I start taking my guitar and playing songs for the kids; which, at least gave me something positive I could do. Or, perhaps, something for me to hide behind.
Then I was introduced to Kristie. At 13 years old, Kristie was the grand matriarch on the children’s oncology floor. She had been courageously fighting leukemia since she was five years old. The disease had gone into remission for quite a while, but now was suddenly back with a vengeance, as they say. So, for one week out of every month, Kristie would come into the hospital for the kind of radical chemotherapy that doctors use only as a last resort.
When I was first told about Kristie, frankly, it took me some time to summon up the courage to go visit; yet another, precious child stricken with a terrible illness.
But the thing was, whenever I would then try to do so, she was never in her room. And I soon discovered that if you wanted to find Kristie, you had to catch her on the go.
Because Kristie spent all of her time, while in the hospital, going from room to room – pulling her rolling IV pole behind her – visiting all the other, younger children; playing with them, reading to them, doing everything she could to cheer them up, to make their lives a little brighter and their burden a little lighter.
Kristie had found her mission in life; the thing that sustained her and gave her hope. And she never looked back.
Kristie passed away later that year. And I often wonder if she realized how many young lives she changed for the better; how many children whose hope she renewed.
Or the young man whose call into ministry she salvaged by her loving example.
Kristie showed me what it truly means to be Christ-like.
Jesus rode into the city, not as a king who would overturn the powers of Rome or unseat brutal King Herod Antipas or depose corrupted religious leaders who were long complicit in the oppression of the people.
Jesus did not come to rescue humanity from all the pain and the suffering they endured, or somehow snatch us magically from the jaws of death.
Jesus came as the Suffering Servant, the Wounded Healer: to align himself with our pain, to enter into our suffering.
He came to teach us about the kind of faith that will sustain in the barren places, provide guidance through the darkest of valleys; the kind of faith that will strengthen us when we are faced with what seems like overwhelming obstacles.
William Willimon (Bishop in the United Methodist Church and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School) suggests – only half in jest – that churches should post a sign at the front door on the Saturday before Easter that reads: “No one gets in who wasn’t here on Friday.”
And maybe he has point.
We are Easter people, but we live in a Good Friday world. Easter is, indeed, coming, but only after Good Friday. Innocent people suffer, suicide bombers kill innocent civilians, babies are murdered by sarin bombs, precious young soldiers are traumatized by war, relationships sour and die, tests come back positive, children get cancer—it’s a Good Friday world.
And yet, until one has experienced a few Good Fridays in their life, there’s really no way they can fully understand the profound meaning, personal significance, or real power of Easter.
Do we have to talk about the cross? Really? Can’t we just zoom-in on the more positive, uplifting parts of the story? God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness.4
No doubt, sometimes, we might prefer to do so.
But, writes Fred Craddock, “Sooner or later somebody is going to say to you, “Then what happen 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?”
Craddock says, “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!”
And yet, Jesus emptied himself, the Apostle Paul wrote, “taking on the form of a slave, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” In Jesus Christ, God has come as close as it is possible for God to come to us.5
Fred Craddock – who passed away two years ago, was one our nation’s great preachers, and one whom I had the great privilege of studying under for a time – describes this divine event in terms of the most common human experience: 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?” Fred 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.”6
In Jesus Christ. Amen.
*Grateful acknowledgement to Fred Craddock, John Buchanan & William Willimon for some content and much inspiration for this sermon.
- Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, pp. 68,69, HarperOne, 2002
- Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 140, Riverhead Books, 2006
- The Triumph of the Meek, John Buchanan, March 28, 1999
- To Stir a City, Buchanan, March 20, 2005
- Cherry Log Sermons: Why the Cross, Fred Craddock, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001