Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-46
Preacher: The Reverend Dr. Cathy S. Gilliard

The members of Park Avenue know that I have just returned from a ten day pilgrimage in England where we traced the steps of John Wesley and the beginnings of the Methodist Movement; which I am looking forward to sharing in greater detail in the days and weeks ahead.

One of the most meaningful experiences for me was the day we visited the city of Coventry.   On November 14, 1940 nearly 450 Nazi bombs were unleashed in an air raid over that city; five hundred tons of high explosives and 40,000 firebombs dropped within an eleven hour period.

More than fourteen hundred people were killed or injured.  The medieval cathedral which stood in the heart of the city and whose roots traced back to the 12th century was almost completely destroyed.

What remained was a skeletal wall that reached into the open sky.  You can imagine, can’t you?  Those tattered walls left still standing have become their own witness – a testimonial to what happened that dark night.  Instead of rebuilding the cathedral on that same spot, a new edifice was built across the street.  One writer cited:

“The morning after the bombing, the cathedral’s stonemason took two charred oaken beams from the debris and tied them together into a cross.  Another man, a local Anglican priest, plucked from the ruins three medieval nails and fashioned them into a second cross.  These two images [charred wood and iron nails] became Coventry’s postwar witness, symbols of both Good Friday and Easter.  Physical destruction, the brunt crosses insisted, does not have the final word…In the wall behind the altar; two words have been carved into the red sandstone, their letters a foot high:  ‘Father forgive.’[1]

This symbol of Christ’s presence in the midst of disaster is what Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter are all about.  For the claim that we make here is that wherever Christ is, there is hope.  And I believe we need some hope in our lives and in the world, do we not?

A few weeks later, broadcasting from the ruins of the Coventry Cathedral on Christmas Day, the Provost Dick Howard penned a litany of peace and reconciliation in the midst of all that decay – as a reminder of what had happened but more importantly as a reminder of who they are in Christ Jesus.  And so each week day, Monday through Friday, 5 days a week from 12 noon to 12:05, this litany of reconciliation is read as people gather from around the world; members and tourists; visitors and friends – whoever happens to have come along that day:

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.  Father, forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own, Father, forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth.  Father forgive.

Our envy of welfare and happiness of others. Father, forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee. Father, forgive.

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children.  Father, forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.  Father, forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.[2]

Is this not also our prayer?  A prayer worthy of being prayed every day and at all times?  Lest we too forget the impact of the wars that rage in our world and our own lives; the anger, hatred, indifference, and bitter carelessness that can so easily beset us.  Is it not our prayer that none of it will not have the final word; that even when the body is broken and destroyed; the temple so beautiful will live and never be destroyed?  Lest we too forget that peace and reconciliation, healing and forgiveness may not easy, but it is nevertheless possible and necessary.

That we remember the burden that Christ took with him that awful night as he sat with at table with the disciples – the same table that he invites us over and over – this is my body broken for you – take and eat.  Here is cup of salvation – my own blood shed for you and the whole world; drink from it.  Such awareness allows us to enter this week with something else on our mind despite the news reports.  It allows us to press our way knowing that with the hope of glory all is not lost.

We pray for our Christian brothers and sisters who lost their lives on this day in Egypt and for our neighbors in Syria and Somalia; Korea, Stockholm and Venezuela.  The streets of our cities.  These are the times that try men’s souls.  Oh, how I love the promise of the cross and what Jesus is doing.

Father, forgive them. That’s what Jesus prayed.  Forgive them.  Forgive us.  Forgive the Roman soldiers for their hatred and callousness.  Forgive Peter, the Rock, for what lay in his heart; the betrayal that he just didn’t seem to be able to help.  Forgive Judas for not being able to endure; nor see the mercy at his feet.  We take our place in that long line, don’t we?  I know I do.  Father, forgive.  Me.

Few days in the liturgical year call us to think more deeply into this sensibility than this movement played out on Palm Sunday.

From shouts of Hallelujah praise to words of denial and betrayal; to cries of crucify him – on Palm Sunday we see the essence of our humanity and how startling it is.  We are invited to step back and see it not only in others but today we come up close.  Were you there?

While Jesus’ life hangs in the balance, his followers are more perplexed than ever.  They move from being faithful to absolute fear and desertion.  Some will find their way back; others will be lost forever.   Here in these moments, we also see our Lord at his best gathered among those he loves, not leaving anyone regardless of what they have said or done or failed to be.  Jesus still loves each one; and he still loves us and holds us close until the very end.  He will not let us go, come what may.

Oh, Peter – a good guy; part of the inner circle; the Rock; so close.  In the heat of the battle, “I do not know him.”  How often are we also guilty of this very thing; perhaps not so much in words but in our actions?  I do not know him.  I don’t know her.  The price is too high.  I didn’t have anything to do with it.

On the surface, Peter’s denial does not seem like much.  I mean, his life was on the line. Who could blame him?  His words go from quiet subtlety to ferocious indignation.  I don’t know the man!  Matthew tells us that he went so far as to swear to make his point.  At first, our denials may appear harmless; they happen in an instant and then, it is over.

But in reality, the harm is often deep and lasting.  Subtle but harmful, denial happens all the time.  Every time disciples compromise their faith for the sake of self-protection or self-importance or even self-aggrandizement.  It happens when we are too embarrassed to let others know who we are or what we believe or how we truly feel.

It happens when someone knows how to help or correct a thing but fails to do so.  Or as we allow others to be misinformed; sharing only part of the story rather than the full truth.  It happens when we hurt one another or hold onto a grudge or refuse to forgive a fault.  We deny that we ever knew him; that all of the events we have claimed in our lives and in the church happened; all that we say Jesus went through for our sake has made no difference at all.

While Peter denies everything for his own sake, Jesus withholds nothing for the sake of others.  It is always clear where the heart of Jesus is; where his passions lie.

And then, there is Judas who betrays.  Oh, Judas.  And the others who desert; who cannot stay the course even for a few hours; to pray and watch.   It’s tiring isn’t it sometimes?  Tiresome and worrisome and we ask ourselves how could God love us so; and keep on loving us?

On this Palm Sunday, we witness not only the death of Christ but our own death and the hope of a fresh new life as we take our place as God’s child.  We die to the things and ways we need to carry no longer – so many of them.

We embrace our Lord’s agony and we embrace our own agonies – all of those agonies whatever they might be because we know that they are not all there is.  The angry mob; the crowds; the lies, the shouts of intimidation; the persecution and our human failings and weaknesses; our own idiosyncrasies  or what-evers are not enough to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Not even our denials or betrayals prohibit our standing at the foot of the cross and being claimed as Beloved.  Father, forgive.  This holy moment; so beautiful and precious – so marred and yet so triumphant.   Father, forgive.  Help us to be instruments of your grace, your peace and love, your hope and promise for a better future.

There is a reason we call it Holy.  Holy Week.  Wash not only my feet but all of me.  Wash me and purge me.  And clean me up all over.



[1] Coventry Cathedral’s Message of Forgiveness