Collect, Gospel and Sermon for Palm Sunday
True and humble King, hailed by the crowd as Messiah, grant is the faith to know you and love you, that we may be found beside you on the way of the cross, which is the path of glory.
See the St James Facebook page for Sarah and John’s readings if these Gospels in video form.
It is OK to Fail
Nothing is as it should be and everyone fails at something.
That is Holy Week in a sentence for me.
A time we enter from today – known as Palm Sunday – leading through to Easter Sunday next week.
I think it is a story for our time during the COVID19 pandemic when nothing is as it should be and everyone feels they are failing at something.
For failure is a common theme at the moment from the people I’ve listened to – either that they have failed or others have failed them – and it is deeply uncomfortable to recognise and own that – perhaps even worse than the anxiety or sadness we have talked about in the previous two weeks of this sermon series.
So it is good to be reminded in the story of Holy Week that God is not shocked by our failure; God can use our failure; and not all failure is failure. The way of the cross has been walked before; and nothing is as it should be and everyone fails at something.
The story begins at Passover – the Jewish celebration of liberation. The Romans often had a clamp down during these times as crowd unrest was a real risk and Pilate himself came to Jerusalem to keep watch.
Pilate would have entered town with all the flair and excessive show of strength he was able to create – think drums, soldiers, stallions and vast displays of power. Pilate didn’t do this just to get the people to obey and fear him but to remind them that he represented the Emperor and that the Emperor was the son of God – the Lord of all – and the Saviour of the World. People would tremble as he passed.
But in another part of town Jesus doesn’t get the memo that this is how you show up if you are Saviour of the World and fails to turn up like a leader who could overthrow a table much less the Roman Empire.
He rides a donkey.
A donkey which far from being a symbol of power is a humble beast of burden – used to carry the heaviest loads.
And this scares no one – in fact the crowds hearing of his healings and miracles flock to shout Hosanna to the new King – meaning Save us! Help us now we pray! It is prayer and praise – it is also protest and demand.
But as the crowds wave their palms and sing their hosannas – it must have taken enormous courage to ride on through them – because Jesus knows that he will fail to meet their demands and help in the way they think they need – he won’t bring the instant miracle they want and his Kingdom victory will look like failure rather than the leadership the crowd crave – Jesus will not liberate them with military might and power – but instead with humble and slow obedience to the difficult journey.
Obedience to a difficult journey is never popular with the crowd – and it doesn’t take long for the crowd that shouted hosanna to cry crucify him! The religious leaders were ahead of the crowd – they were already more than irritated with this Jesus who didn’t fit their vision before he arrived in Jerusalem – but then he disturbs their Temple and they are livid.
The Temple was the central place of God’s presence and power for good Jews – it was where they went to offer their sacrifice – to receive forgiveness and pray. It was holy and precious and loved. Jesus turns up at the temple – with a whip – and as he pulls apart some of the fabric of the Temple he also predicts its destruction.
This is unheard of, shocking, offensive. For the Pharisees and Chief Priests this is clear evidence that Jesus is a failed Messiah. A fake.
But in pointing the finger they fail to see their own failure. The religious leaders have become so caught up in their Temple they have failed to recognise their God when he comes in clothes they don’t expect.
This is what all their ritual and prayer and sacrifice has been leading to – encounter with the Living God – and yet they miss the moment when it arrives – and worse still their blindness leads to death of God.
And it isn’t just them failing – the disciples really mess up at this time too.
At the last meal they share together they argue about who is the greatest; they haven’t learnt how the Kingdom is born and how it grows. The whole humble donkey thing is completely lost on them – so it is no surprise they fail to understand the foot washing at this meal too. They fall asleep when asked to pray for Jesus in his darkest hour. Judas betrays Christ and Peter denies him. The rest run away and desert him as he is led off to be tortured and questioned.
As part of this interrogation King Herod sees Jesus – Herod fancies seeing a miracle. But when Jesus fails to perform Herod mocks him and hands him back to Pilate.
Pilate not having the courage to fail the crowd fails the man.
He condemns Jesus to death.
Crucifixion was one of the most painful and shameful ways to die. No one who was a success ended up on a cross; it was failure writ large and driven through hands and feet with nails.
Bodies were often dumped in mass graves at the rubbish tip.
This is a story of epic failure. Where nothing is as it should be and everyone fails at something.
Pilate fails because he loves the approval of the crowd more than justice and keeping the peace is more important than keeping the truth; Herod fails because he lives merely to be entertained; Judas fails because he tried to direct God rather than letting God direct him; the disciples fail because they are either too ambitious or too afraid to do the right thing and the crowd fails because it is fickle and because they want the quick way out – instant success and easy victory.
Jesus fails too. But he is the only one to fail with integrity.
He fails not because he is a failure – but quite the opposite – Jesus fails because he is prepared to look weak in the hands of a mighty God. He is prepared to be less so that God and his Kingdom might be more.
Closing the doors of our church is – I believe – failing with integrity – failing like Jesus – having the courage to be less so that we can protect more.
It is interesting to note that Jesus does not welcome this kind of failure, he prays it may be taken from him. He does not enjoy it – within the passion narrative he weeps, is afraid, he stumbles and cries out in despair – my God, my God why have you forsaken me? But equally he does not hide from it – he does not resist it; in fact he fails to put up a fight.
For Jesus therefore this becomes failure through choice – a hard choice to be obedient to the Father above all else for the good of all the people and the salvation of many. This is the way of the cross. The way we are all required to walk.
Last year I watched a series on BBC2 about walking – following some celebrity pilgrims on the way to Santiago – and what amused me slightly is how much they all moaned! One of them said to camera – “I didn’t think we’d have to do it for real.” What they had imagined was a film crew taking a few fake shots of them walking and the rest would all be rides on luxury buses!
Christianity is too often met with similar expectations – we don’t expect to have to do it for real – we are quite comfy on the church bus. But we are being asked to walk our faith for real right now – all comfort and convenience put aside.
And that means we stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.
And many will find that costly in numerous ways.
Like a long pilgrimage – like the footsteps of Christ in Holy Week – it will demand the long and slow obedience to the difficult journey. Like the pilgrims on that BBC show we’ll all be tempted to give up at times, it will reveal our shadow self and it will sometimes feel impossible and futile.
But – don’t let that put you off – I pray you stay committed to the path. For just like on a pilgrimage a turn in the road can change everything. The road bends and it flattens the steep incline which had been such a struggle or bends again and it reveals a view that makes you so glad you did not give up and that you kept to the path – however narrow and confining it had seemed at times. So too in the ways of God and the times of our world.
I urge us all to be sofa or garden seat pilgrims right now – waiting for the bend in the road – because God’s kingdom is coming – when all the wrongs will be righted – even death itself and evil finally defeated. But it comes slowly – first with a face of failure – then surrender and the pain of crucifixion – the emptiness and tears of Holy Saturday – and only then the hope of Easter dawn.
Next week I will be back with that whisper of hope – spoken from the darkness into the first light. A whisper which changes everything.
Until then in a world where nothing is as it should be and everyone fails at something – be patient with yourself; forgive yourselves, and others, often and keep singing Hosanna – Lord, help us – as we walk together towards that whispered dawn.
Hope is not far now.