Passion or Palms? That is the Question
2009-03-30 by Amy Butler

I have a similar mental argument every November, when the inevitable conundrum arises: Thanksgiving or Christ the King?  This week we have the Spring version of that mental struggle as we approach the Sunday leading us into Holy Week and wonder: passion or palms?

The lectionary gives us two directions for Sunday, each a substantial scriptural exploration and each leading in different directions liturgically-speaking. 

While I suppose that no Sunday should ever really stand alone, this one especially does not, because whatever we do in worship this week sets the tone for the week ahead.

My mother always told me that when you face a hard decision in life it’s best to make a list of pros and cons, so after reading assigned passages for this year, the debate begins. 

  • On the one hand, if you use the word “passion” in your publicity for Sunday, you might get a few more interested visitors.  On the other hand, those who know what “passion” posted on a church sign means might steer clear, wanting just one more reprieve before Holy Week starts.
  • This year the text for passion is Mark 14:1-15:47, which, after a quick scan reveals the following narrative-rich options: anointing of Jesus with costly ointment; Judas’ visit to the High Priests; Jesus’ directions for Passover dinner; Jesus sharing bread and wine and those famous words of institution with his disciples; disciples sleeping in Gethsemane right after promising they would never *gasp* let him down; Judas’ kiss; the naked man running around; inquisition by the High Priests; public torture; Peter’s betrayal in the Temple court; Jesus’ interrogation by Pilate; release of Barabbas; more torture; the trip to Golgotha and Simon carrying Jesus’ cross; crucifixion; the women at the cross; Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb.  Whew.  On the other hand . . . that’s a lot of material to speed through in one sermon, not to mention the liturgical struggle of reading that whole passage in worship.  Mark’s treatment of the triumphal entry, while not as exciting at Matthew’s, still provides plenty of narrative material to explore.
  • Passion this Sunday could provide a somber and fitting start to Holy Week, particularly if you serve a parish that does not, for whatever reason, have much going on in terms of worship during Holy Week.  Your people may be looking to you to help them remember the details of the passion as they consider how Holy Week might be meaningful spiritual practice in their own lives this year.  On the other hand . . . what would happen if we did not wave palms and sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”?  Would the world come to an end?  In some congregations I know the answer to this question would be a resounding YES!  Change is hard and sometimes we have to lead it, but is changing up Palm Sunday really your burning conviction about the change your congregation must embrace?  Me?  I am thinking this year I might stick with trying to get new candles for the altar table . . . .
  • But the kids look so cute waving their palm branches and singing “Hosanna”!  If we go with the palms then we have a perfect liturgical expression involving children.  Without any complaints, they can parade around the worship space with excitement, no one hushing them, assuming an important role in helping worshippers imagine what it must have felt like that day that Jesus came into Jerusalem.  It’s a great intergenerational worship experience, and no one complains because IT’S IN THE BIBLE.  On the other hand . . . it’s hard to control kids with palms.  Liturgically speaking the service needs to be planned pretty tightly otherwise there’s too much potential for the gentle waving of palms to morph into an adult-endorsed opportunity to hit my neighbor over the head with a branch when I get bored.
  • But if we choose passion we should remember that most of us have somber services coming up all week long.  At my church we’re worshipping Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, all three services subdued and rather dark.  Do we really need to do that on the Sunday before Easter, too?  On the other hand . . . our celebration of Palm Sunday can very easily slip from what was, really, a protest march into, as Fred Craddock says, a “false Easter.”  It’s much too easy to look at those cute little ones waving palm branches and forget that we’re not actually celebrating yet; that, in fact, there is a whole lot of suffering ahead of us.  Preaching the passion this week might help us set our minds toward the cross and be sure we do the hard work of Holy Week before we get to Easter.

So, what's it going to be: passion or palms?  Chime in with your pros and cons.

Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2009-03-29 by David Howell

Amy Butler who has been Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC since 2003. She attended Baylor University and the International Baptist Theological Seminary, and will graduate with a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Wesley Theological Seminary in May. Amy is passionate about the cultivation of Gospel community; she enjoys reading, traveling, and writing. You can catch up with her latest adventures on her blog:

Paul Janssen and God's Will
2009-03-27 by David von Schlichten

Thank you to guest blogger Paul Janssen for his contributions, including his sermon. Scroll down and enjoy.

Full of wisdom is Paul's biblical point that, while "Hosanna" is a legitimate prayer, deserving primacy is "Thy will be done."

As I mentioned, my sermon this Sunday will actually be a monologue from the point of view of Peter. Part Two will be on Passion Sunday, and Part Three will be on Easter. The goal is to help people hear the story anew.

I am interested in what other preachers will be doing these next few weeks. This time of the year can be both exciting and exceptionally difficult for preachers.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator 

Sermon's Done
2009-03-27 by Paul Janssen

Such as it is, here it is.  Peace and power be to all fellow preachers this Sunday! 

John 12: 20-33

The Prayer of a Troubled Soul

Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ the Lord,

             A funny thing happened on the way to this morning.  99% of the time as we prepare for worship, Wes chooses the choral anthem.  I usually preach from a calendar that prescribes the scripture readings are for each Sunday, so Wes’s choices are almost always just right, or close enough to just right that I don’t quibble.  But this week, for maybe only the 2nd or 3rd time in our years here together, I woke up Thursday morning with a feeling that what we were going to sing just wouldn’t fit.

            We had scheduled “O Savior of the World,” a beautiful old anthem by John Goss whose text reads “O Savior of the world, who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us, save us and help us we humbly beseech thee.”  The words are a wee bit archaic, but then so are a lot of the words we use.  So why didn’t that anthem fit?  It was the way the anthem sings “save us, help us, save us, help us, save us, help us”.

            Now that’s not a bad thing to pray.  Anne LaMott reminds us that a parent’s most honest daily prayer is “help me help me help me.”  Our souls do become troubled, deeply troubled; anxiety casts long shadows over our lives.  We are wounded, and when our wounds overtake us, we pray for rescue.  “Save me!”  What else can we pray?  What else is there to pray?

            Well, listen to Jesus.

            The gospel of John has its own way of telling the story of the last week of Jesus’ life.  The way John tells the story, Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey.  He has seen the deep green palm branches filling his vision against the deep blue Palestinian sky.  He has tasted the grit of the rocky road, smelled the sweat of the pilgrims, and, most importantly, he has heard their cry.  “Hosanna!”  Save us!  Save now!  Whether they were crying out for Jesus to overthrow the occupying Roman overlords, or whether they were asking for something more spiritual, we can’t say.  But their outcry was as urgent as it was genuine.  Nothing wrong with saying “Hosanna!”  (We’ll be doing our own share of that when we gather next week; we’ll be asking God to save us, too.)

            But Jesus won’t say “hosanna.”  Not now.  His soul is indeed troubled as he anticipates the days ahead.  How could he not be troubled?  Still, he will not pray for God to stage a rescue mission.  “Shall I pray ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify thy name.”  Jesus resists the urge to pray “hosanna,” “save me now.”  He has heard the crowd’s prayer, but he will not echo it.  “Shall I pray ‘Father, save me?’”  No.

            So what do we make of what Jesus does pray:  “Glorify thy name”?

            It’s a curious expression – none of us are likely to say to anyone “glorify your name.”  Scholars tell us that it means something like “carry out your plan,” “do your will publicly so that people might praise you,” or, in words that come more readily to our lips, “thy will be done.”

            The words come readily to our lips.  The meaning?  I’m not so sure.  How do we juggle “hosanna” – save me – and “thy will be done” inside the same soul, at the same time?

            When I’m honest about the prayers I usually pray, the ‘hosannas’ far outweigh the ‘thy-will-be-done’s’.  My soul is troubled.  I want God to help.  I want God to help now.  And I want God to help in the way that I want to be helped.  Am I the only one who does this?  Am I the only one for whom prayer is more like a punch-list of what I want God to do in order to un-trouble my soul than it is about letting God untrouble my soul however and whenever God deems is right?

            How presumptuous that is of any of us, to think that we know what we need!  Journey with me to a time in your life when your soul was troubled.  What was troubling you?  What circumstances had conspired to drive you to your knees?  Now, what possible solutions did you see?  How were you going to get your own soul untroubled?  And what did you pray for?  What exactly did you tell God you needed?  Finally – how did that turn out?  Did what you wanted turn out to be what you needed?  If it did, how often does that happen?  And if your desire did not turn out to coincide with what you really needed, whose plan worked out best?  Over the years, I’ve learned that “rescue me” – in other words, “my will be done,” is not exactly the wisest prayer to pray.  But I keep going back to it.  In fact, I’m so bad at this, I had a fraternity brother in college engrave on a walnut paddle the words of a Brahms motet, “was Gott beschleusst, das ist und heisst das beste.”  “What God wills, that is the best.”  We could all have such a word written on our hearts.

            Let me take it one step further.  It is presumptuous for any of us to imagine that we know what the world needs.  Am I being overdramatic?  What does one little troubled soul have to do with the whole world?  More than we usually take into account.  Near the end of the book “The Shack,” the Holy Spirit says to Mack, the main character, “If anything matters then everything matters.  Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes.” (p. 235)  Let me add, every time you pray, the world changes.  So if I say to God, “Save me, and save me now, and save me the way I want to be saved,” not only might my demand hurt me, it might hurt my spouse, my children, my co-workers.  And they all live in their own circles of relationships.  If my self-absorbed prayer hurts them, how far does the damage go?

            Remember what Jesus said:  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  It’s no coincidence that these teachings set the stage for Jesus’ prayer that God’s will be done. Our prayers for rescue bear the seeds of self-interest.  They say, “take care of me.”  Those are the seeds that need to die.  The seeds that presume to know what’s best.  The seeds that pretend to be God.  The seeds that can barely see what’s really happening today, to say nothing of what’s coming tomorrow.  If you really do love your life, you will be willing to lose it, to drop the prayer for immediate rescue, you will be willing to be humble and admit that God knows you better than you do.  If you really wish to claim the fruitfulness of the life of the resurrection, you will take up your cross.  There is no way around this truth.

            So, back to where we started.  There’s no harm in praying “hosanna.”  Nothing wrong with praying “save me.”  “Hosanna” says, “God, take care of me, because I know you can.”   But there’s a prayer that needs praying first.  Before “rescue me,” “thy will be done.”

            And what does that prayer say?  It says, “God, be God, because I know you’re good. You are love; demonstrate your love to my troubled soul.”  It says, “God, do what you know is best.”  “Glorify thy name” says, “God, you were there for me yesterday; you are here for me today; I trust you to walk with me tomorrow.”  It says “Your will is better than my will.”  “God, be yourself, do your thing; I trust that your will is for my good.”

            Next week we will sing and say and pray “hosanna.”  This week, let’s get our footing under us, so that we can be ready for the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.  This week, we pray, “glorify thy name.”  “Thy will be done, whatever that will is, wherever it leads, and whenever you deem it best.  Thy will be done, in my little corner of the earth as it is in heaven.”  




Hurry and Take Time To Be Holy
2009-03-26 by David Howell

After a lengthy sermon and noting that it was past the noon hour, I announced that we should sing the first and last verses of "Take Time To Be Holy".

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