Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

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Palm Sunday
Luke 22:14-23:56

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is a very busy day in the church calendar. First of all, it’s Palm Sunday, and so we’ve celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey by waving our palm branches and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor to Thee Redeemer King.” Today is also Passion Sunday, and we’ve read the story of the passion of Jesus according to Luke. Today is also the last Sunday in Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance. These past six weeks have been a journey through sin, repentance, and forgiveness in the scriptures that the lectionary gives us during this season. We’re not quite done with that journey, though, as much as we might like to move on to something else. It would be nice if we could just march right on into Easter, but we’ve a way to go yet.
We began Lent this year with the story of the temptation of Jesus. This story set out the difficulties before us, and it tells us that the boundaries between good and evil aren’t as clear as we might wish them to be. The right choice isn’t always obvious. Evil can come to us all decked out in the veneer of good. The devil can quote scripture as effectively as any preacher, and his temptations actually appeal to our sense of reason and maybe even justice. What’s the harm in turning a stone into a loaf of bread? Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, my grandmother used to say. Remember, that expression doesn’t just cover the good impulses we didn’t act upon. It includes the good impulses we DID act upon with unfortunately disastrous results.
Last week in our reading from John we heard about Mary’s extravagant use of expensive perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus. Why wasn’t that perfume sold to raise funds for the poor, Judas argued. It’s worth nearly a year’s wages for a laborer. Judas’ argument isn’t unreasonable, not at all. In fact, what Judas says tells us that he’s been listening to what Jesus’ has had to say about feeding the poor. That’s a good thing, to be sure. The problem is that while Judas absorbed what Jesus had to say, he completely missed the point about who Jesus actually IS. WE would never make that mistake.
Of course not. And we’d never betray a friend, either. Or would we? Well … we just might. We might betray our friend if our friend was someone who was wanted by the local authorities. We might betray our friend if we thought it was easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. We might betray our friend if we’re scared, if our friend were the sort of person who seems to walk with God yet maybe not seem to be quite in his right mind. We might betray our friend if we meant well, if we thought that by turning our friend in to the authorities we could save him and ourselves. After all, he’s in trouble with both our own religious hierarchy and the Roman rulers. They can’t both be wrong, can they? Or can they?
Well, you know the story. We just read it together, and we all shouted, “Crucify him!” We ALL shouted, “Crucify him!” The road to hell has been paved with our good intentions. The good things—the desire for order and certainty—have led us into what was the ultimately evil act of Jesus’ crucifixion. We didn’t mean to walk down this road, really we didn’t. But we did, and a man, Jesus, died for our moral failure. It’s easy for us to blame Judas, call him a bad guy, and pat ourselves on the back. But that’s too easy. If we condemn Judas and go on our way through Holy Week without looking inward, we’re missing the point. Who was Judas anyway? He was one of the disciples. He was one of Jesus’ inner circle, one of the family, so to speak. It’s not likely that one of Jesus’ followers would have a completely evil heart. If we’re going to claim the other disciples as our brothers, we’re going to have to claim Judas, too.
While we’re on the subject of the other disciples, it’s no surprise that they’re not perfect either. What are they doing while Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives? The disciples are sleeping. Luke rather charitably says that they’re sleeping “because of grief.” Sounds more like avoidance to me. Easier to sleep than to hear Jesus anxiously praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” But can we honestly say we’d have done any differently had we been there?
Jesus scolds his sleeping disciples, saying, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Pray that you may not come into the time of trial. Do those words have a familiar ring? They occur in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels in the prayer that has become known as the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew’s rendering it reads “do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” This translation—more faithful to the Greek than the translation which reads, “lead us not into temptation”—is right to the point here.
What Jesus is getting at is the very situation in which Judas, and later Peter, find themselves. The time of trial, the time of real temptation, can occur at any time that our good intentions blind us to the presence of evil. Any of us can get into one of these situations and many of us have been. There’s a good reason this petition is in the Lord’s Prayer, and there’s a very good reason why it’s the last, the ultimate petition. We need to pray this part of the prayer every bit as much as the part where we ask for our daily bread.
The saddest thing about Judas, though, isn’t that he came into the time of trial and failed. The saddest thing about Judas isn’t that his action started the final chain of events that led to Jesus’ death. The saddest thing about Judas is that as far as we know, he never repented, he never turned himself around and returned to experience God’s mercy. If that were the model we were left with it would be bad news indeed.
Fortunately for us, there is Peter. Peter, too, betrayed Jesus by denying him in an attempt to save his own scared little neck. I don’t mean to defend his actions in any sense. What Peter did was deplorable. But the good news for him and for all of us is that Peter repented. He turned around and went back to the Lord and received mercy.
We too can repent and return to the Lord. No sin, whether it belongs to the realm of things done or things left undone, is too big or too small to be outside the scope of God’s mercy. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as the hymn says, that is beyond human imagining. Let me read you the last verse.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
Let us take these words to heart as we walk through Holy Week together. The love of God IS broader than the measure of our minds. We can’t imagine giving the life of our only son for the salvation of this manifestly imperfect world. But God could. Thanks be to God. Amen.