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Spring Cleaning for the Soul: Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, March 24, 2024

--the Rev. Leslie Scoopmire



Last week we officially observed the first day of Spring. Early Spring in Missouri is a petulant toddler of a season, though, as anyone who has spent one year here can attest. Toddler Spring will offer us the gift of warm, sunny days, and then snatch that back with lead-grey skies and temps around freezing, and maybe with a tantrum of tornado sirens thrown in in the transitions.


You’ve got to enjoy the sunshine while you can. And Lent, whose name comes from a word for Spring, usually spans this transitional time, and mirrors it, as well. And if you are a glass-half-empty kind of person, you may focus on deprivation, and grief, and the looming shadow of the cross for these 7 weeks. If you are a glass-half-full kind of person, you may think of the gift of recentering, of adding times for devotion into your life. You may acknowledge and mourn the trip to Calvary and the pathos, but also see the self-giving love and courage that Jesus embodied in those last days, and look toward the empty tomb and the abandoned shrouds and the dawn of resurrection.


Accepting the rough with the smooth. The joyful with the sorrowing. The panoply of life concentrated all into one week. That’s what Holy Week calls us to recognize, too.


And so today we start Holy Week, with this incredibly intense set of Biblical passages. You know, before Vatican II, Passion Sunday was traditionally the fifth Sunday of Lent, and Palm Sunday was the sixth. I just want to point out that it you think THIS day is liturgically and emotionally complex, at least we have events in the correct order. I mean, how disorienting was it to recount Jesus’s crucifixion and death, and then the next week see him triumphantly riding into Jerusalem, before you go over all the Passion narrative again?So now, we get the whole sweep in one Sunday. It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “March Madness.”


Now some things about today’s liturgy haven’t changed much over the centuries. We start with the blessing of the palms and the re-enactment of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem just days before the start of Passover. Some churches go so far as to parade in the streets, and some include a donkey at the head of the procession as the people re-enact the crowds joyously greeting the Messiah with shouts of “Hosanna!” meaning “Save us now!” Everyone seems to be exulting in the promised deliverance of the people, and believe Jesus is the one who will throw of the Roman occupation and restore Israel’s might as the warrior-son of the legendary King David.


For the first time, Jesus even refers to himself as “Lord” as he sends two of his friends off to find his one-half horse power conveyance. But after the shouts of triumph and the adulation of the crowds, after a quick look around the temple, he goes off to rest—and to plan.So we miss then what happens in the three chapters between the end of the Palm Sunday procession and the two nights before Jesus was betrayed. But he is a very busy Messiah in the interim:


He curses a fruitless fig tree, the only deed of power done for the rest of the gospel; he cleanses the temple; the fig tree is seen withered. For more than one chapter his authority to act is questioned as well as paying taxes and the resurrection of the body. He tells the parable of the wicked tenants and answers the question about the greatest commandment.

He denounces the scribes, making clear that the wicked tenants parable was about them, and then uses the observation of a poor widow’s offering to drive home the point that the religious authorities “devour widows houses.” Jesus then foretells the destruction of the temple and coming persecution, the desolating sacrilege, the coming of the Son of Man, the lesson of the fig tree, and the need for watchfulness. All that takes place offstage for us in the lectionary.


We skip to Chapter 14, when Jesus’s ministry as a teacher comes to an end, and when his role as a prophet and priest come to the forefront. We pick up with Jesus, two days before the Passover. The religious authorities are vowing to find a way to kill Jesus, and yet Jesus goes on, openly, about his daily concerns, reclining at supper, for instance, with friends at Bethany. And it is here that we look for the fulcrum. In some parishes, they read the entire selection from chapters 14 and 15 in one long gospel, and then try to preach after that and have communion. We’ve done that before, but emotionally it is too unsettling, if one is paying attention.


Our epistle account of the ancient Kenosis hymn from the first-century Church leads us to questions of gratitude for Jesus being willing to empty himself of all privilege in order to be our Savior as the Incarnate One, the “Son of Man” who serves as a bridge between the earth and heaven. We worship a God who is willing to come dwell among us as a fragile, mortal human, experiencing all of our joys and pains, even suffering and death—but then defeats them too. One who, before he is torn from his friends and students, leaves them one great gift to comfort them in the ages to come: the Institution of the Eucharist, the Feast of Thanksgiving, the remembrance that following Christ unites us all in kinship.


The rising action of our story on this day reaches its peak with the institution of the Lord's supper, using much of the same language that we still use today during the anamnesis during Holy Communion. It is only right and fitting that we pause there, and join in that feast that extends across times and places. To remember that before Jesus undergoes his final trial and turmoil, he makes sure to feed us, body and soul, to remind us of who he was and is and is to come and most importantly who we are called to be because of that sharing.  The fourfold action of Jesus in the Eucharist—taking what is offered; blessing it/giving thanks; breaking it to share it; and giving it for the life and sustenance of his followers and disciples—mirrors how we ourselves are called live a life celebrating mutuality, unity, and nourishing ourselves and  others in the name of Jesus.


From this precious agape meal of fellowship, establishing the last of the two dominical sacraments in fact the only one Jesus is actually portrayed as presiding over rather than simply receiving, we turn our faces firmly toward Jesus’s Passion.


We start this day in rejoicing. We will end this day in silent contemplation of Jesus’s sacrifice for us on the cross that we placed him on. But we pause and linger, right now especially, in gratitude, gathered around this altar, shoulder to shoulder, emptied of all our own rank and divisions, as one people drawn here by the love of God in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior, our host, our guest.


The season of Lent is a time of spring cleaning for the soul. It’s a gift to allow us to get rid of things that do not serve us well, so that we make room in our hearts and minds for the discovery and nurturing of the many wonders and blessings that God offers us, every day. Including a love for us that has no limits. A love that leads to the cross, yes. But also beyond.


May we enter Holy Week of 2024 by embracing the liturgies that call us into deeper understanding of what Christ has done and is doing for us, every day, and how he calls us to go and do likewise.

Image: detail from a window by Emil Frei and Sons, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Ferguson, Missouri.




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