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Palm Sunday - Into the Flow

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

April 2, 2023

Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to Palm Sunday. Today is a day of procession. We have participated in that process by not simply hearing about it in our gospel passage but by beginning in our courtyard, blessing palms, holding them in our hands and then moving through the threshold of our narthex into this sanctuary space. If you are with us via Zoom, you too have moved. You have been carried by and with us through these spaces. All of us together are now fully entering the current of Holy Week.

This movement, this procession, is not limited to this day. All through Lent we have been on pilgrimage. Benedicta Ward, whose book In the Company of Christ I have been drawing upon in my Lenten Flame reflections, views the season as a profoundly simple, concrete, lived theology in which we put our whole selves into the flow of God’s own processional life. “People are not just brains,” says Ward, “they have and indeed are bodies; so to apprehend truths they need to participate in events and make reality real for themselves.”[1] The reality we make real for ourselves this day, week, this season, this faith, is not a mere thought exercise but a concrete, lived movement. In our own bodies, as well as with our minds and hearts, we are joining the flow of God’s own life among us. This flow is a movement of liberation and re-creation. We are stepping into the deep reality that the God who made all things has poured Godself into our midst in Jesus Christ, has lived among us, healed and redeemed us, and calls us to radiate that liberation with our lives, embodying the divine reign of justice.

What strikes me this morning, as we bear witness to and join in that outpouring, is its combination of knowing and not knowing. We step into this flow with Christ, knowing the story of the days to come—aware of the turbulence and pain Jesus will endure, knowing of his death, knowing of the resurrection life into which he emerges and promises for us. Yet also, we return to this story, making “this reality real” (as Ward puts it) in this annual pilgrimage, because there is also so much we do not know, no matter how many times we have made our way through the Church Year. There is so much of what God is showing us that we need to take deeper into our own hearts. And so this morning as we bear witness to the flow of God’s life, we are invited to let ourselves be poured out along with Christ, sustained amid uncertainty by what we do know: God’s life-giving, liberating love, steadfast as an ever-flowing stream.

Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew tells the story that we enacted upon our entrance into this space this morning. We see Jesus’ disciples following his instructions to procure a donkey on which he would ride into Jerusalem. This moment is often referred to by scholars as “the triumphal entry.” It has overtones of monarchy to which we bore witness in the prayer book language of the Palms Blessing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of our God.” This language reflects human conceptions of power, monarchically wielded all too often as power-over, as control. Yet the power of God manifested in Jesus Christ turns this pattern on its head. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is not on a war horse but a donkey – maybe even two, a colt and a foal (rather awkwardly).[2] Jesus is attended by a jubilant crowd who join the momentous surge of his movement. They wave branches (not necessarily palm – only John’s version specifies the type) and scatter them and their cloaks before Jesus, lending a certain royalty to his road. Once they all arrive, there is turmoil across the whole city. In her commentary on this passage, Anna Case-Winters notes how this reference gestures back to the reaction of Herod and the wider city when they heard of Jesus’ birth (Mt 2:3). This moment of shaking – specifically the Greek word for turmoil – also points forward to the earthquake that attends Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew’s telling (Mt 27:51).[3] Jesus’ movement confronts earthly authority and shakes all creation with its transformative power. It confounds recognition: who is this, the crowds ask, this is Jesus of Nazareth?

This is Jesus who, in the words of our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “did not count equality of God a thing to be grasped” or “exploited” as our translation puts it (Ph 2:6). This is Jesus in whom God emptied Godself, pouring the divine heart into our midst. This is Jesus who, in the words of theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, “on the cross… fully divests himself of all pretensions to power, privilege, and exceptionalism, even as the incarnate revelation of God.”[4] Paul is quoting a hymn in our passage – worship language by which he was moved and that prompted his own deeper reflection.[5] Douglas continues,

It is no wonder… that the Christ hymn in Philippians is a text often recited in various black churches. Growing up in the black church, I learned this text well before I knew where it came from because members of my congregation so often quoted a version of it. ‘Jesus thought it not robbery to be equal with God,’ they would say, ‘he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even unto the cross.’[6]

Douglas uplifts the flow of this hymn, how it reflects not only Jesus’ death but also and most fundamentally the deep pattern his life, his ministry, characterized by what Douglas calls “his absolute alliance with those of the crucified class.” The “crucified class” refers to those who are most marginalized in our world, those whom earthly power casts aside. In the outpouring of his life, Jesus’ “self-emptying,” as the hymn conveys, “indicates his ‘letting go’ of anything that would compromise” that alliance, the very heartbeat of his ministry.[7] As we hear the Philippians hymn this morning, as we consider the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in all its paradoxical triumph, our own procession, our own pilgrimage invites us to enter this profound flow. We too are invited to join Jesus’ out-pouring.

As I consider this invitation, I experience it as both unsettling and consoling. Unsettling because the flow of God in Jesus Christ in our world divests control. It enters into risk and vulnerability. Consoling because God’s invitation is always bathed in God’s presence. I have gone ahead of you. I am with you always. And not only is God present with us, we are also present with one another, very members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ. Answering God’s invitation will not look the same for each of us. When we each assess what might be blocking us from full alliance with the movement of God’s radical love manifested the ministry of Jesus Christ, our answers will not be the same, as each of us has been impacted by the powers of this world in different ways. Yet even amid the distinctions of our journeys, the movement is one. Together we are called to seek, to anticipate, to participate in the reign of God, the dream of God proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And this will call us together into uncertainty. As theologian Verna Dozier has written:

Kingdom of God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is all about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out I was wrong. The God revealed in Jesus whom I call the Christ is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me and the whole created world. That God bursts all the definitions of our small minds, all the limitations of our timid efforts, all the boundaries of our institutions.[8]

When I think about the reign of God, God’s dream, the flow into which we are invited to step afresh with Christ this morning, I think once more about processions. Not only liturgical processions like how today’s worship began, but movements outside church walls. I think of parades, of protests, of movements. I recall the many marches in which I’ve participated with you since first coming here in 2016, crying out for the dignity and power of women, for immigrants fighting against deportation, for the value of science, for intervening in climate catastrophe. I think of the chant-writing, sign-making event we held here with Ana Hernandez, and carrying those signs together all the way down to the Marina. I visualize marching with you down Market Street amid a crowd and as we turned toward City Hall, hearing construction workers high up on the buildings joining with us by jubilantly banging their tools against the metal scaffolding. I think of the Trans March this past June just after the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, marching with my friend and fellow openly trans priest Iain in grief, anger, and solidarity with women and people of all genders whose bodily autonomy is under attack. As I think on all of these scenes, I see signs of God’s own outpouring, joining with us in vulnerability and risk, transforming us in collective witness to God’s reign, God’s dream of a world of justice and peace, God’s liberation and healing. As we enter this holiest week of our year, may we open ourselves to the risk and power of that flow.

[1] Benedicta Ward, In the Company of Christ: Through Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter to Pentecost (New York: Church Publishing , 2005), viii. [2] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KT: John Knox Press, 2015), 250. [3] Case-Winters, Matthew, 249-250 [4] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 177. [5] Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 491-3. [6] Douglas, Stand Your Ground, 177 [7] Douglas, Stand Your Ground, 177 [8] Verna Dozier, The Dream of God; A Call To Return (New York: Seabury Press, 1991, 2006), 109-110.

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