Passion/Palm Sunday 2018 — Preaching Notes
LOVE LEADS THE WAY WORSHIP SERIES
Brief Commentary on Psalm 118:
As we begin the liturgical marathon of Holy Week, let us be led not by fear, but by love. We enter into the week, and we enter into the story, bearing witness as Jesus passes by. But we don’t just watch. We go with him, in body, heart, mind and spirit.
Here in the Psalm we move our bodies into a festal procession to the altar of sacrifice: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118, 27. NRSV). In the Epistle we join our voices in an ancient hymn, singing to keep our voices in steady rhythm with our Lord and with each other as we begin the walk through Holy Week. In the Gospel we bear witness to a literal parade of onlookers. We enact the ritual as we envision the crowds of people throwing their cloaks on the ground before the passing king, and waving evergreen branches as they shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9b-10, NRSV).
Let us join in the celebration! Let us walk with Jesus! Let us shout Hosanna as we bid welcome to the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
And most of all, let us join with him—physically, spiritually, emotionally, completely—in the journey he calls us to take with him.
Sermon Notes on Mark 11:1-11
For the past year I have been encouraging those who occupy United Methodist pulpits across the United States, and indeed, around the globe, to talk about the reality of the world we are living in today. This means talking about politics, and racism, and misogyny, and gender identity, and homosexuality, and sexual harassment, and the environment, and poverty, and gun control, and hunger, and war, and the growing division between the warring factions in our world, in our local communities, in our congregations, in our families, and in our denomination.
Lots of times when I have these conversations with pastors, they respond that while this seems like a good idea in theory, the reality is they can’t say certain “trigger” words from their pulpits. They talk about how important it is to not reveal their own opinions and beliefs about politics or potentially divisive issues. Some even say that talking about politics has no place in worship. I do not agree. I think it is critical that we speak truth to power from our pulpits. It is necessary right now. And there are ways to do it well, just as there are things that are not appropriate. I have offered webinars. I have written sermon notes with suggestions about how to incorporate difficult conversations into preaching. I have partnered with colleagues to talk about how to create brave spaces for difficult conversations to take place.
So today I want to encourage those of you who step up to take the pulpit on Sunday mornings. I know that you wrestle with preaching on these difficult and politicized topics. I know that you lose sleep on those Saturday nights, and worry if your parishioners will miss your message. But take courage and take authority in your pulpit! Be ready for the hard conversations that may follow. Leave your office door and your heart open to someone who may come to you, angry or confused. Do not be dismayed as we delve into the idea that there is no possible way to ignore the political implications of the act of Jesus Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Charles L. Campbell states it plainly when he writes that Mark’s version of the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a colt is “one of the wildest and most politically explosive acts of Jesus' ministry. The story is a reminder of the political challenge of Jesus' ministry, as well as the political character of Christian praise. The event should not be limited to an opening processional in which people smile at cute children waving palm branches” (Charles L. Campbell, Exegetical Perspective on Mark 11:1-11 for Palm Sunday, Year B. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, WORDsearch Edition.)
Campbell suggests that we should pay close attention not only to the final part of the story, in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem amidst the crowds of people who throw palm branches and cloaks along his path, but also the careful, and intentional preparation that leads up to this moment. For Campbell, the planning reveals as much as the actual ride.
Campbell characterizes Jesus’ actions as an orchestrated “lampoon” of the political establishment in Jerusalem intended to turn worldly notions of power upside down. It is a public act of subversion. And clearly it worked. For after his procession it would be only a few days before Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for his treasonous act.
Campbell paints a picture of how Jesus’ parody of worldly kingship would have played out for the crowds. Beginning on the Mount of Olives, which is the traditional place from which people expected the final military campaign for Jerusalem’s liberation to begin, Jesus doesn’t adorn himself with armor or mount a war horse. He chooses instead to ride this traditional war path astride a colt. Campbell imagines Jesus as a full grown man sitting awkwardly on top of a pile of old clothes on a pony, with his legs dangling down and possibly even dragging on the ground. He comes not as a military hero, but as one of the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable. Through this act he communicates his intent to both the political powers and those they oppress. Physically, spiritually, emotionally, and personally he aligns himself with the least among us. He chooses not just to stand with the poor, but to join with them in their walk, no matter where the road leads.
And he calls his disciples to join him in this march. Physically.
It’s no wonder they were terrified. It’s no wonder that as the week played out they would come to deny knowing him, and then lock themselves in a room and hide in order to save themselves after his execution.
Jesus’ action that we gather to enact this morning is not of a pretty parade scene with children smiling and laughing and singing and waving palm branches in a sanctuary. This action is political. It is bold. It is divisive. It is physical. And it is deadly.
Politics is physical. Loving others is physical. Talking, hurting, disagreeing, shedding tears, becoming angry, putting boots on the ground to go into the military, or the mission field, or to march in protest on behalf of another—these acts involve our bodies.
Loving others in the way of Jesus is embodied. It is political. It is active.
Being the body of Christ is physical because Jesus is physical. He is God in flesh. Emmanuel. God with us. Physically dead, physically raised, physically present with us in the faces and bodies of the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the hurting, the dying, and the recovering. Physically present on the faces of people being deported, or living in war zones and refugee camps. Physically present in the terrified bodies of people running from gunspray at a country music concert. Physically present in the raised arms of people protesting in the streets. Physically present in the world and in the body of Christ as we seek to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.
As disciples of Jesus Christ we must embrace Jesus’ call to embody our love through our physical actions. We can’t refuse. We can’t deny. We can’t close our eyes or look away. We can’t back off out of fear. We must follow Jesus straight through the screaming crowds as he confronts the power structures of the world that would place its treasures in the hands of a very few while leaving the majority of God’s creatures suffering.
As we begin the walk of Holy Week with our Lord, let us focus on the importance of the physical: fully embodying the rituals of our faith tradition in both ancient and modernized ways. As we listen to the story of our Lord’s passion, let us enter fully into the physicality of suffering and death, that we may also enter fully into into the physicality of resurrection come Easter morning.
by Dawn Chesser
Scholar James K. A. Smith argues that human beings are fundamentally liturgical animals; that is, humans are creatures that, like any other animal, are formed and shaped first and foremost by their physical actions or habits. The things humans do, the regular practices in which they participate, fundamentally shape how they see the world and choose to live. Smith further argues that humans are shaped most profoundly by what they love, and what they love, in turn, gives shape to who they become. Smith suggests that the worship of God in the context of an embodied Christian community shapes us profoundly by pointing us to love God in Jesus Christ as our primary relationship. Throughout his work Smith stresses the “power of practices—communal, embodied rhythms, rituals, and routines that over time quietly and unconsciously prime and shape our desires and most fundamental longings.”
The formation of a Christian identity is not, for Smith, primarily an intellectual pursuit in the present age. He proposes that for the body of Christ to function (and, indeed, survive) in the context of a postmodern worldview, we must intentionally displace “our naive ‘intellectualism’ (whereby we mistakenly assume that we think our way into action)” with a newfound appreciation of “the bodily basis of worship.”
At the heart of Smith’s argument is the “conviction that our incarnating, accommodating God meets us in and through” our creaturely conditions: our embodiment, our finitude, our sociality, the complexity of our being-in-the-world, and the different ways we intend our world by the way we live in it. In Smith’s mind, God incarnate is the ultimate accommodation to our human condition. He is seeking to push against earlier philosophical worldviews that would begin with “I think therefore I am,” and replace them with “I do, therefore I am.” His basic premise is that what we do, how we act, and how we live, are in fact not consequences of intellectual formation, but rather they are products of repeated embodied ritual action. Smith’s goal is to help those of us living within a postmodern philosophical worldview understand that faith in God is not a matter of learning right thinking through intellectual pursuit. Rather, faith in God is the result of what we do, particularly what we do in the regular ritual practice of physically gathering for worship. This, says Smith, is what fundamentally shapes us as Christian people.
Smith wants to push against the popular notion, espoused primarily by the church growth movement, that the purpose of attending worship on Sunday morning is to hear an inspiring sermon or enjoy a great musical concert. Certainly those things may occur in the context of worship. But the primary purpose of worship is to shape individuals into the body of Christ for the transformation of the world. Worship is thus, for Smith as for others, primarily about liturgical formation.
Smith concludes from his discussion of philosophy in a postmodern world that when the worship of God is reduced to a commodity that exists primarily for the benefit of giving something to those who are attending (such as information, entertainment, a nugget of inspiration, or a feeling of being forgiven of sin because we have consumed bread and wine that reminded us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross), then its primary purpose shifts from being for God to being entirely for us. What did I receive from the service? Was I inspired? Did the pastor say something that made me angry or represent a viewpoint different from my own? Did I get some good advice that was relevant for my own personal life and situation? Did the sermon make me laugh or cry? Did it make me feel spiritually fed? Were my fundamental values and lifestyle choices affirmed? Did I enjoy the style of music or was it not suited to my particular taste?
Smith wants to reframe the popular notion that effective worship means drawing crowds by focusing on pleasing the customer. He does this by insisting that worship is not a commodity to be consumed; it is not a show or a genre of entertainment. He argues that worship is in fact more akin to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than it is a theater production. For Smith, the worship of God is not fundamentally about receiving something. Rather, it is the participation in worship with others that creates an experience in which the Spirit of Christ is made manifest in the body that gathers in his name.