And so it begins:
The procession with palms, a Passover dinner, and words that Peter will live to regret:
“I will never deny you. Never. Not me.”
Today we enter the swirl of Holy Week, entering again into an ancient story of hope and betrayal, courage and cowardice, fear and tragedy. We descend again into the valley of the shadow of death, and then beyond.
Because we know how the story comes out, we might be tempted to skip past each of these scenes, and get straight to the lilies of Easter.
But this year, rather than reading the entire Passion narrative from start to finish – jamming all of Holy Week into a single reading – today we do something different.
Today we stop with Peter’s betrayal. We end with Peter’s boast, and hear again how he collapsed, and denied the One he followed, and wept bitterly.
This Holy Week, I would like us to let this story unfold more slowly, one day at a time.
I’d like us to enter into each scene one frame at a time. Maybe by doing this we might notice something we’ve never noticed before. If you want to shout “Crucify him!” you will have to come back on Friday.
Today, hold onto your palms a little longer. We are not yet at the Cross.
Today we stop here in the Upper Room. We stay with the people who are with Jesus. They don’t know the end of the story, and they are yearning to know what comes next.
These people in the upper room have the deepest hardest questions of life and death.
Are we much different?
I’d like us to pause and imagine the scene with these palms. Imagine, if you will, that there were two processions into Jerusalem that day.
The idea is plausible; New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan propose this idea of two processions as an exercise of historical imagining to bring into sharp focus the importance of these palms.*
So imagine this scene: At one end of Jerusalem, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, rides into the city on a big white stallion, surrounded by marching foot soldiers clad in armor, carrying shields, swords and lances.
The soldiers push people out of the way, and anyone who is slow is trampled under foot.
The historical record tells us that Pilate was known as a particularly vicious governor, even by Roman standards, and given to shows of raw power.
He regularly executed anyone whom he perceived as a threat, or anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He ruled for ten years, from 26 to 36 C.E. until he was recalled by Rome for his misrule.
And then picture this other procession, on the other side of Jerusalem:
A Jewish holy man, Jesus, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded people wearing not much more than a tunics and sandals.
By some estimates there are as many as 200,000 pilgrims – mostly poor peasants – who flood into the city following Jesus. That is an enormous number of people jamming into the tiny streets of Jerusalem.
Imagine the sharp contrast of these two processions.
One procession is about brute power, hatred, revenge and the violence that begets the endless cycle of violence, hatred and revenge.
This other procession, the procession of palms, rejects those human structures of hatred, violence, power and revenge. This procession declares all lives matter.
In this tale of two processions, the Roman authorities most certainly would have seen the peasants and their palms as a direct threat.
The Jewish holy man would have been arrested ASAP, as indeed, Jesus was arrested that night.
The Romans would have seen this march of palms the way the British saw Gandhi’s salt march to the sea; or they would have seen this march of palms the way segregationists saw the march of black Americans across the Selma bridge; or the way the Soviets saw the Solidarity marchers in Polish shipyards.
Every one of those marches changed the world.
We, too, are called to march with our palms, literally and figuratively.
There are many ways to march.
I want to draw your attention to a letter written by the national leaders of The Episcopal Church that we’ve reprinted in the News and Notes today.
In the letter, we are being called to work for racial justice and reconciliation starting in our own church.
Let me read you a few words:
“The pain of racial injustice and division has wracked our church and the many communities where we both proclaim and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our collective prayer and action can begin to heal what is broken and nurture the Beloved Community that is God’s dream for all.”
It comes to us to be the ones who heal what is broken and nurture the Beloved Community. This is what we do.
Last summer, it was my privilege to be in Salt Lake City when we elected Michael Curry as our Presiding Bishop and primate for the next nine years. He is the first African American to lead our church.
A day after his election, Bishop Curry addressed a huge crowd out on the street, and many were carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”
Bishop Curry asked them to hold their signs high. And then he said this: “Do you know why black lives matter? Because ALL lives matter… All lives matter.”
We too are called to hold up our palms and declare that all lives matter.
We too are called to carry our palms and change the world, just as those courageous peasants long ago carried their palms into Jerusalem – and changed the world.
We call them “holy” now, but they were not unlike you and I.
They didn’t have all the answers, they had setbacks and certainly had doubts, but they kept marching anyway.
Perhaps that is the point of Holy Week, to sharpen our awareness of a loving God who marches beside us, who goes with us into the deepest darkest holes of life and death and gives us strength – especially in the setbacks.
The rest of the story will unfold this Holy Week. It is my fervent wish that each of you will come experience this week in a way you’ve never experienced this before.
On Wednesday evening we will hold the haunting medieval service of Tenebrae, with its doleful music and readings as the lights dim.
I hope you will return the next evening for Maundy Thursday, and the story of how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, becoming their servant and calling them friends – and come get your own feet washed.
Then, be with us for the solemn prayers of Good Friday and witness the scenes at the foot of the Cross that afternoon.
On Saturday evening, we come to the most important and opulent worship of the year – the Great Vigil of Easter that begins by lighting a fire outside.
We follow the Paschal candle into the darkness inside this nave as we wait for the first proclamation of Easter. Remember to bring bells.
Our celebration will continue the next morning on Easter Sunday.
Today this holiest of weeks begins.
Today we hold our palms, and we remember the Last Supper, and the words of Peter: “I will never deny you.”
We remember again moments of great courage, and moments of great weakness when even Peter, the rock, in his best of intentions, falters.
Easter will come, but not yet.
*Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, chapters 2-4.