Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 17, 2011

2011.04.17 “Questions That Remain” Matthew 26: 14 – 27:66 – “Fearless: The Courage to Question” Series – Lent 2011

Central United Methodist Church

“Questions That Remain”

Pastor David L. Haley

Palm/Passion Sunday

Matthew 26: 14 – 27:66

April 17th, 2011


Who doesn’t love a parade?

One of the privileges of living in a smaller town than Skokie, as I did in my last appointment, was that each year we had an annual parade anyone could join, the Railroad Days Parade. It felt like we alternated, such that each year half the town was in the parade, and the other half watched the parade. Many years both my older kids, Chris and Melissa, were in the parade, but each with a different group, such that we never even got to see each other. Before my church began to participate, I often drove a fire truck, which is not a bad way for an introvert to be in a parade, hiding out in a big truck. Far kinder and gentler than the motorcycle I rode in last year’s Skokie Fourth of July parade, when I got so hot I thought my pants were going to catch on fire.

In the church, today is Palm Sunday, the day when we join the Jesus Parade, celebrating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, where he was acclaimed Messiah by his followers. The Scriptures don’t say how hot Jesus got by riding a donkey rather than a Harley, which I’m sure he would have done if only it had been available.  After all, they had those Palm branches, which they could wave to cool him off.

      In the church, Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday, when – sadly – the Jesus Parade also turns into a passion.  While we use the term passion to refer to intense, driving, overpowering emotion or devotion to something, including love, the word passion actually comes from the Latin “passio”, to suffer. In that sense it is used to refer to the sufferings of Jesus, from the time of his last supper with his disciples to his death upon the cross, the story we read today.

      There are many ways we could tell this story. Using technology, we could always show a film version, including that one of Mel Gibson, who has been undergoing a passion of his own lately.  If we were really ambitious, we could organize a more polished version, as many megachurches do, and as the citizens of a little town in Bavaria named Oberammergau did, which has run now since 1634, though not with the same actors. 

      My favorite version of the Passion Play is the one we do this morning. It is the difference between being a passive spectator, as we are when we watch a movie; and being an active participant, as we are when we read the parts and hear our voice calling for Jesus’ death. By doing it this way, we answer the perennial question, “Who killed Jesus.” As the words of the old hymn say:

“We cannot know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear,

but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there.”


      Perhaps the most important question is not how we do it, but  why we do it.  Why do we read the story of Jesus’ passion today?  For three reasons. 

      First, because it’s a crucial part of the story, and yes, I chose that word deliberately. On our way to Easter, the only way to preserve the integrity of the story is to remember what happened to Jesus the week before, in that week we know as Holy Week.

      Just when, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it looks like things are finally coming together, things just as quickly fall apart. Jesus is tried, tortured, and killed, and a parade turns into a passion, a triumph into a tragedy. Palm/Passion Sunday begins to feel like the day after a political campaign, where your candidate lost. Banners and placards – in this case palm fronds — are strewn about – sad reminders of what might have been.

      Scholar William Placher reminds us that the Gospels tell a story that operates on two levels: 

      “On one, they tell the story of a brave, frightened, lonely young man who is killed by powerful people and institutions in his society. On the other, they recount how the Son of God saves humankind. They show Christ doing divine things in a human way and human things in a divine way; so that the two sides of the story remain the story of one person.” (William Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith, p. 115)

      It is this important part of story that we hear today.

      A second reason we hear the story is practical. Many of you may remember when this was only Palm Sunday. But about a generation ago worship planners began to realize that many here today won’t be here again until next Sunday, Easter Sunday. To go, therefore, from the lesser joy of Palm Sunday to the greater joy of Easter, without experiencing what happens in between, is to impoverish and even distort our experience of the Gospel. Unless you appreciate the disillusionment and despair Jesus’ followers felt after his death, it is doubtful you can appreciate the awe and joy they experienced on Easter morning.  As the old saying goes, “There is no Crown without the Cross.” While I encourage you to attend Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, if you don’t or can’t, today we try to fill that gap.

      The final reason that we tell this story today is theological:  In recounting the story of Jesus, we find ourselves in it, and as Christians have throughout the centuries, find ourselves pondering the questions that still trouble us, the questions that remain:

      Who was Jesus?

      Why did he have to die?

      Why do the good suffer?

      How should a Christian respond to evil and injustice?

      What does it mean when we pray to a silent heaven?

      How does we face, with ideals, courage, and faith, our death?

      If you think you have ideals, here is one with the highest ideals, nailed to a cross. If you think friends and family don’t understand you; here is one whose family thought he was crazy, whose friends abandoned him, whose own disciple betrayed him with a kiss. If you think your spiritual life is troubled, sometimes dry, here is one whose passion was for God, yet, at the worst moment of his life, during his torture and death, he felt God’s abandonment. If your think your life is hard, is it ever so hard as the hard wood of the cross? If you worry about dying, here is one who died as he lived, faithfully committing his life and cause into God’s hands.

      God gave us his best, his One and Only, and in response, we nailed him to a cross. In many ways the biggest question is, “If Jesus came back today, would we put him to death again? If we don’t think the answer to that is yes, we’re only deluding ourselves. Or would we do what we too often do, which is to simply ignore him.

G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, an Anglican priest-poet, once wrote a poem called When Jesus Came to Birmingham, referring not to the town in Alabama, but the one in England:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,

They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;

They crowned Him with a crown of thorns,

red were His wounds and deep,

For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.


When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.

They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;

For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,

They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.


Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do, ‘

And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him

through and through;

The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,

And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.


      On days such as this, through stories such as this, in ways such as this, the Christ still comes to us today. The question Pilate asked, which has resounded through the centuries, is the question that remains:  “What shall we do with Jesus, the one called the Christ?”


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