Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday

 Philippians 2: 5-11; St. Luke’s Passion Gospel

Grace and peace this morning, first Sunday morning of the spring, and as we have continued this Lenten journey, a sharp turn now: from the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday to this overshadowing of darkness, as we are delivered almost with a case of whiplash to the heart of Holy Week and to the foot of the Cross.  Those thunderheads we first saw in the distance now all around us, directly above.  A roaring storm.

No matter how many times we have repeated the liturgical sequence, year after year after year, processing up the center aisle, waving our palm fronds in the air, no matter how many times we have heard and read the story, no matter all the films, from Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson to the History Channel, the jumble of emotions seems inevitably to catch us by surprise.  We become like a deer caught in the headlights.  Frozen.   

We see what’s coming, we know the whole story by heart, but even so it’s too much all at once for us to process.  We are unable to move.  We just:  watch. Horror, amazement, remorse, regret, guilt, sadness.  All at once.  The whole catastrophe.  Our heart is full, and breaking.

In the deeper background, the lectionary gives something of a soundtrack.  A song carried in the wind.  I’d just like for us to notice it this morning, bring it forward.

St. Paul in this familiar passage from the second chapter of Philippians, quoting a bit of an early Christian hymn—that’s the guess, anyway, based on the regular meter of the lines.  I don’t know what tune they would have used.  Back in the middle 19th century Caroline Maria Noel, the daughter of an English priest, gave us the hymn based on this text that we sing now to Vaughan Williams, “King’s Weston.”

At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow . . . .

Sing that to ourselves while the hammer is pounding in the nails.

At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him King of glory now; ’tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord, who from the beginning was the mighty Word.

The whole letter to the Philippians is filled from start to finish with this sense of warm, deep personal tenderness, affection, a connection for Paul of spiritual companionship that seems so much of the heart and mind.  Such a contrast to the Passion Gospel that plays out for us in the foreground.

 In the 16th chapter of Acts we hear this story of Paul in the midst of his missionary work in the Province of Galatia in Asia Minor, modern Turkey, and a vision that he saw in the night.  A Greek man, a Macedonian, saying  “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And with this vocational inspiration Paul and his companions change direction and board a ship--and they and the gospel are soon brought for the first time from Asia into Europe. 

They come, first, to Philippi, where they meet and share their word with the woman Lydia, a working woman who makes her living dyeing cloth, and in the power of that converting moment she and her household become the first Christians in this new world.  Shortly thereafter Paul and Silas are charged with disturbing the peace after they perform an exorcism and healing for a slave woman who was employed by her owners as a fortune teller in the city square.  

Lots of adventure in a short period of time.  Paul and his companions are locked up.  But then there is an earthquake in the night, and the doors of the prison swing open-- and the apostles, instead of escaping and running for their lives, remain in their place right where they are, sharing the gospel with the other prisoners, and all together all night singing hymns—and when the jailer comes and in a panic is about to commit suicide because he knows he will face a death 

penalty for the escape of the prisoners, they call out to him, saving his life.  We’re all here.  Don’t be afraid.  And that jailer then and his household come to hear what Paul has to share, and then to join along with Lydia’s family and those who were prisoners in the jail to build further this new rag-tag Philippian Christian congregation.  Quite a story for those setting out in church-planting missionary work.  Paul’s plan,  I guess:  tell the story to everyone you meet, and let the Spirit do the rest.

Paul stayed with them in Philippi just a short while as a teacher and guide before moving on to Thessalonika and then to Athens and then to Corinth.  But all along the way from that day forward it seems they were in a very special place in his heart, and apparently there was much communication, letters back and forth, messages passed along by word of mouth by travelers, a network of Christian friends.  And now it’s a few years later and Paul is planning a return to Jerusalem, and he wants to bring with him an offering from all the Gentile churches to share with the poor of the Judean churches.  A sign of friendship in the gospel.  A mark of catholicity, we might say.  

Although we are separated by language, race, culture, we are all one in Christ.  Your burdens are our burdens.  And although the Philippian congregation is still itself very small and also very poor, they have sent an exceptionally generous gift and offering for him to add to the collection.  A gift that he knows to be a tremendous challenge, a sacrifice.  Especially from that bunch.  Not out of their abundance, but from their own poverty.  Not in pride, but in humility.  The simplicity of the gesture.  Not pomp and circumstance.  A reminder of the Widow’s Mite.  In her poverty she gave all she had.

And so this Letter to the Philippians, which is at its heart a thank you note for this gift, and Paul’s expression of joy and love and pastoral encouragement, a word of tenderness, and the heart of the gospel, as we have seen the story set before us ourselves this morning at the beginning of Holy Week. A costly gift.  His one oblation of himself—his one oblation of himself, once offered. 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Let it be for us this way always.  To say, when I look at you, I see Jesus.  When I look at you, I see Jesus.  His love, his generosity, his faithfulness, his Cross.  When I look at you, I see Jesus.

Who did not hesitate to set aside every privilege and entitlement in order to come near us.  Who was rich, yet embraced our poverty. Who was strong, yet embraced our weakness.  Who did not hesitate to take to himself our brokenness, the weight of our sin.

Is there anything else for us to experience in our hearts here in Holy Week, but an overflowing of gratitude? 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  All love.

O love, how deep, how broad, how wide . . . .

For us to wicked hands betrayed, scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed, he bore the shameful cross and death; for us gave up his dying breath.

At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.  The pounding of the nails in the background.  And as the echo from First John 4, and a sentence to write over all this Holy Week and all of our lives, the gift we might offer in response: Since God so loved us . . . since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  

Blessings, prayers, and encouragement, as we enter this Holy Week together.

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