A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
One way we can understand Palm Sunday is from a child’s point of view, so I want us all to think back to school days. I know several of the folks in this congregation went to school in one room buildings that were heated with wood stoves. Maybe you had electricity, and maybe there was a ceiling fan to circulate the heat. Probably there was no indoor plumbing. You walked to school, at least until high school, when if you lived too far away, you might have boarded in town for the school term. There weren’t school buses, or cafeterias. Things were different then. But there was one thing I am guessing we all share: a memory of vocabulary lists and spelling tests. Every week there was a new list of ten or so words we had to learn. And the words we learned, or didn’t learn, have shaped us to this day.
Today I want to give you a word that as a child you may have found hard: equilibrium. Here are three dictionary definitions of equilibrium: 1. a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced; 2. a state of physical balance; and 3. a calm sense of mind. For the most part, our minds and bodies self-regulate. Think, for example, of your body temperature, or the circulation of blood in your body, heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. These are regulated unconsciously by the autonomic nervous system: when they’re working, you’re working. Fortunately, most children you and I grew up with didn’t give these a second thought. Our minds and bodies were in equilibrium. We were healthy. And when we went to church on Palm Sunday, we had fun. Handing out palm branches and holding them in our hands and taking them home with us marked a special occasion.
I want to take this consideration of equilibrium just a bit further. Our bodies and minds are in equilibrium only when they are aligned with the larger systems that they move within. If you did chores on the farm, ate breakfast in the kitchen, and played outside after school, a lot of self-systems were working. Today we identify these as family systems, social systems, ecosystems, etc. When these systems broke down, you probably did too. You got sick, or moody, and maybe you acted out. Even then, however, as a child, you probably didn’t give much thought to what was happening. After all, things happen.
The point is, reality is mostly a self-regulating system. By and large we take it for granted, even as we move through the stages of our life. It takes quite a bit of energy – which most people regard as unnecessary – to consciously think about reality. To think about reality, we put some distance between ourselves and it. To change reality, we expend a lot of energy. We consciously take control over self-regulating experience. And the risks are the same as always; we risk getting sick, or moody, and we risk acting out in ways that may be harmful to ourselves or others. That is, we risk compromising our equilibrium. So if we set out to take control over self-regulating experience, we need to be careful. As Lent draws near its fulfillment, we need to check in with ourselves. How do we feel? Are we tired? Have fasting, prayers, and giving taken a toll, mentally and physically? Are we alert? Apprehensive? Joyful?
Hopefully, Lent is not an exercise of habit for us. Hopefully, we do not move through the church year as if we are pushing a shopping cart through a grocery store. When we set out to take control over self-regulating experience, we are doing church, and our reward is great.
Please consider the meaning of this sentence: the Triumphal Entry begins the most decisive week of our salvation. Let me ask, how can this be true? What do we do to make it true? And do we make it true by doing the same thing every year, or by doing something different each year?
We are no longer children. We are no longer physically growing. Our self-regulating systems are breaking down. We are who we are, and there’s not much we can do about that anymore. And yet, the Triumphal Entry begins the most decisive week of our salvation. For this to be true, we must resolve; we must decide to do something different from what we always have done. We must take control over self-regulating experience. We must decide to be saved… but saved from what?
Let’s take our first sentence, the Triumphal Entry begins the most decisive week of our salvation, and conjoin it to a second: the Great and Holy Week enlarges our understanding of reality and of things “wrought at this time by our Lord.”[i] When we put these two sentences together, we discover a description of reality.
We said, our bodies and minds are in equilibrium only when they are aligned with the larger systems that they move within. Reality is the picture of all the systems we can identify working together. When the systems fall apart, we speak of things as unreal. They are no longer in equilibrium. We are physically sick and mentally upset. Our families are broken, our society is violent, and our ecosystem is being destroyed. And we are largely unconscious of what is happening.
The Great and Holy Week enlarges our understanding of reality and of things “wrought at this time by our Lord.” How does this take place? Lenten practice disrupts our systems engagement, so we experience the intensification of good and evil in the world and in ourselves. That is, we grow. As uncomfortable as this may be, we decide to break through the habit of experience and find ourselves in the habit of the reality we call God.
Every year, we are called to renew our commitment. We choose to follow Jesus on the Way of Sorrows, sharing his humiliation in the shadow of the Cross, or we turn aside, and decide for Caesar. Jesus is the truth, the way and the life; Caesar is fake truth. Caesar is hell and death.
Jesus makes his dramatic entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and he is hailed by the city’s poor and oppressed with shouts of “Hosanna,” meaning “Save us; save us now!” People crowd the streets along his path, waving palm branches and pussy willows, while little children “come unto Him,” playfully putting their palm fronds down on the road in front of him.
Jesus, who is called Messias, “Anointed One,” appears just as Zechariah prophesied:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
“Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
“Behold, your king is coming to you;
“He is just and endowed with salvation,
“Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
“Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey (NASB, Zach 9:9).
This same Christ later appears in a vision to John the Revelator:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And all the angels standing around the throne … fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Holy Week, and its aftermath of resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and then the Ascension, lies in-between time and eternity. In less than a week, as we know, Jerusalem’s hopeful celebration will have turned into disappointment, and the city against its Savior; the Victor’s arrival is quickly followed by controversy and betrayal, culminating in Maundy Thursday’s Last Supper, Good Friday’s Crucifixion and Burial, and Holy Saturday’s Descent into Hell. The triumphalism of Palm Sunday gives way to the agony of the Passion and the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea.
Today, we hold palms in our hands, as we did as children; will they remind us that we, like Jerusalem, have rejected the Messiah? How can we reverse this outcome, before we literally fall apart? How can we establish a new equilibrium in place of the old?
The story of Jesus is a story with a happy ending, but we have not come to the ending. The most decisive week of our salvation lies ahead of us. Hopefully, we have prepared ourselves for our new understanding of reality and of things “wrought at this time by our Lord.” If so, Jesus’s endurance this week will be an example to us. Then, as dark turns to light on Easter morning, we can answer the call to prayer, with this song: “The angels in heaven, O Christ our Savior, sing of Thy resurrection. Make us on earth also worthy to hymn Thee with a pure heart.”
Holy Week “begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, and moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.”[ii] For now, much is still expected of us, for we must be born again.
And all the people said, Amen.
[i] John Chrysostom, quoted in Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God.
[ii] The Rev. Charles Peek, Diocese of Nebraska, ca. 1979. Quoted by The Rev. William S. J. Moorhead: http://havestole.blogspot.com/2012/04/sermon-1-april-2012-palm-sunday.html