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Preaching Matthew 26:14-27:66



Preachers always need to make a decision about the balance on Palm/Passion Sunday. How much palm versus how much Passion? That judgment about proportion will partially determine the form proclamation might take as we turn the corner into Holy Week. It is impossible to do it all.

The gospel reading assigned for the "Liturgy of the Passion" is massive, 115 verses to be exact. That fact alone is daunting enough, but it is equally frustrating that the whole sequence is rich with sermonic possibility from start to finish! Some hard decisions must be made.

There is the Judas story from silver coins, secret meetings, and a midnight kiss to the bleakness of the potter’s field. A theological challenge, yes, but a story alert lay people often wonder about and preachers too often avoid.

There is the last dinner in the room upstairs with all its tension and grace (26:20-28). There is the awkward conversation in which Jesus predicts his betrayal and everyone denies involvement. There is the table liturgy with its powerful Eucharistic promises. There is the interesting inclusion of a hymn-sing at the end, just before they head up the mountain.

There is, of course, lots and lots of Jesus to unpack throughout the reading: Jesus who predicts his betrayal, Jesus who breaks the bread and passes the cup, Jesus lonely in the garden, Jesus in anguished prayer, Jesus crowned King of the Jews, Jesus beaten, mocked, thirsting, bleeding, dying. There is the Jesus of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (27:46).

There is Peter’s story woven throughout the text, a story of big faith, big promises, and epic failure. In Peter’s delusion about himself a preacher can find a resonant place to invite hearers to consider their own self-deception.

There is the drama that comes with each trial: before Caiaphas, before Pilate, before a merciless crowd. Each one has its own cast of characters and narrative turmoil well worth exploring.

Then there is a plethora of minor characters who have lots of homiletical potential. There is the Simon who is recruited to carry the cross (27:32), the disciples who are asleep in more ways than one, Pilate’s wife with her ominous dream (27:19), the criminal who gets an unexpected get-out-of-jail-free card at Jesus’ expense (27:15-21), the Joseph who has a tomb to spare (27:57-60), the soldier who makes a surprising (if enigmatic) pronouncement while standing guard at the foot of the cross (27:54), not to mention the women who seem to be always there, keeping their vigil on the edge of things.

There is the surreal moment when the curtain in the temple tears in two, the ground shakes like crazy, and rocks split open all over the place. Matthew tells us that some saints long buried suddenly wake up, sit up, and eventually wander around the streets of Jerusalem (27:51-52). When was the last time you heard a sermon about that?

There is the little flurry at the end, when the powers-that-be make absolutely sure that no one is going in or coming out of that borrowed tomb (27:62-66).

So many riches, so little time! Two strategies seem viable for a day with the demands of Palm/Passion Sunday. First, a preacher could pick one of these threads and go deep. Sketch the rest of the big story, since there will be some in the congregation who will not be back to church until the delirium of Easter, but concentrate on one story or set of related stories within this extended narrative. Second, a preacher could opt to let the big story loose and see what happens. That strategy might mean that the whole thing is read, perhaps by well-prepared lay people, perhaps with occasional pauses to let the congregation respond by singing or praying. When J.S. Bach tells this big story in his famous oratorio The St. Matthew Passion, he interrupts it from time to time with chorales, letting the whole assembly respond to the drama. The whole service on Palm/Passion Sunday could be structured like a traditional lessons and carols service, with the reading broken up into a series of smaller pieces. In that case, it would certainly be possible for a preacher to include a brief meditation at each stopping place, both interpreting what was just read and raising questions to help hearers listen more deeply to what is coming next.

Whichever path you take, resist the temptation to tie everything up neatly at the end. Palm/Passion Sunday should end as these 115 verses do: with soldiers standing guard and the stone still firmly in place.

Angela Dienhart Hancock



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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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