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Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2005

Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Jasper, Georgia

The Rev. Mary P. Johnson, Rector

A number of years ago, I was asked to be the speaker at a high school baccalaureate service.  In struggling with a way to get things across to teenagers, I decided to organize things around two slogans:  Nike's "Just do it!"  and Nancy Reagan's invitation to "Just say No!"  The trick, of course, is to know when each of these contrasting slogans applies: When do you "just do it"?  When do you "just say No"?

The events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week face us with a similar pair of paradoxical truths.  We who follow Jesus Christ are resurrection people, a people of joy, freedom, and hope.  But we are also a people of the Cross, a people who follow a Savior who suffered pain and humiliation and insults before being nailed to a pair of crossed planks to die after hours of agony. When are we people of the Resurrection?  When are we people of the Cross? When are we people of triumph?  When are we people who walk in the way of "a man of sorrows", One "acquainted with grief"?

Bad things happen when we get mixed up about this. 

We all know people who have undergone terrible suffering or personal tragedy.  I once had an acquaintance who was perhaps the most materialistic person I had ever met.  This woman spent every ounce of her energy on organizing and cataloging her possessions.  She kept clothes, some of which she hadn't worn in a decade, coordinated by season and color, in specially constructed cabinets in her basement.  She once told me that she had, after several weeks of searching, finally found just the right wallpaper--for the inside of her bedroom closet.  Things made her feel secure.  She was like a 20th century middle class King Tut.  Her obsessive collecting made Martha Stewart look like St. Francis of Asissi. 

 One day, however, this woman let down her guard and told me a little more about her life story.  She and her first husband had been unable to have children.  She convinced him, in spite of his considerable reservations, that they should adopt a child. And in due time they welcomed a newborn son into their lives.  This boy was his mother's pride and joy.  He loved it when she read to him and held him in her lap, and he had his own little Suzuki violin that he loved.  One day the family received notice that there was a problem.  The boy's birth mother had not informed his father that she was pregnant.  When he later found out that he had a son, he sought custody.  Though my friend's husband was an attorney, he declined to fight the birth father in court.  When paternity was firmly established, the courts ordered her to relinquish her son to his birth father.  One day she led him by the hand to the court house, clutching his little violin case, and left him in the care of a social worker.  It was the most painful moment of her life, and she bore the pain alone, for by this time she and her husband had separated.  However, that was not the end of the story.  Less than ten years later, the judge telephoned my friend personally to tell her that birth father and son had been killed in a motorcycle accident.  My friend never really let go of the pain in her life.  She decided that it was safer to love material possessions than to risk loving another person so deeply as she had loved her son.  She unsuccessfully tried to bury her pain and suffering in a futile search for the perfect wallpaper to complement the muslin-lined wicker baskets designed to hold French linen bed sheets.  This woman knew pain.  But, rather than facing it, she tried to deny it.  She was stuck.  There was no resurrection hope in her life.

 Sometimes we meet people who live joyously in spite of circumstances that could turn an ordinary person bitter and cynical. Another friend of mine, Andrea, is such a person.  She and her husband were coming back from a trip with their high school age son, who was looking at colleges.  He was driving them when he caught his tire on the edge of the pavement in a construction zone and flipped the car.  Andrea, suffering with back problems, had been lying in the back seat.  She was thrown from the car and suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed.  While she was in the hospital and in rehab, she worried more about her son Joe than about herself.  She continually reassured him that there was a reason accidents are called accidents.  She and her husband did everything in their power to help Joe move forward in his life.  The family were realists; they didn't waste energy trying to change the past. She learned to navigate in the world of wheelchairs and hand controls for her car.  She and Joe and her husband cried together, hugged each other often, and looked to the past, instead for reassurance that God had been present to them through other difficult circumstances.  She and her husband helped Joe let go of trying to change the past.  For that is a wonderful definition of forgiveness.  God promised that he would be there with them through the pain.  Love and patience gets them through, one day or hour or minute at a time. 

 There is no way to put the pain of Andrea and Joe on a scale and to compare  it with the pain of my materialistic, bereaved friend, and no way to compare the pain of these people with the pain that you and I and our loved ones experience from time to time.  But all human suffering shares something with the suffering of one Man, nailed to a cross on a hill in Palestine two millenia ago.  Classical Christianity tells us that one of the great mysteries of the universe, perhaps THE great mystery, is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the turning point in the history of the cosmos.  It is the point where Love conquers death, where hope overcomes pain, where joy overcomes sorrow. 

The Church in Holy Week invites us to walk with Jesus.

We walk with him from the time our ears are full of the shouts of "Hosanna,"

to the time that the same voices cry "Crucify him!"

We walk with him as he stumbles in the pain of carrying a heavy cross on shoulders that have felt the lash of the whip.

We walk with him as he submits to crucifixion.

We are with him as he hears the taunts of the misunderstanding hecklers.

We are with him as his body shuts down.

One day we shall be with him--and, far better, he shall be with us, as we breathe our last.


And THEN comes the resurrection.  My friend, Cate Waynick, the Bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis, has a sermon on the diocesan website entitled "Resurrection only works on Dead Things."

Last Sunday Pat Zeller preached powerfully to us about Ezekiel's vision of God's Spirit enlivening dry bones.  It is not a vision of God's Spirit, like steroids, giving a little extra power to the swing of a baseball player intent on breaking a home run record.  It is a vision of dead bones, bleached dry, being brought to new life.

The paradox of our lives is that, in order to live we must truly die.

In order to be found by God, we must be truly lost.

In order to be healed, we must know ourselves to be sick.

Christianity is not a religion of self-improvement.  It is a making alive of something that is truly lifeless, dead.  And it seems that all our lives are a series of dyings.  The Lenten hymn we sang the last couple of Sundays says:

So daily dying to the way of self

So daily living to your way of love

We walk the road, Lord Jesus, that you trod

Knowing ourselves baptized into your death,

So we are dead and live with you in God.

 Dying is not easy.  As the cells cease to function they cry out in pain.  Human beings mostly do not move smoothly and effortlessly to the next phase of the Great Adventure. Both literally and metaphorically, both the death of the body and the Person's daily deaths to sin are difficult.

The Cross comes first. 

And then the Resurrection.