“Passionate, Humble Hands”
Watch the sermon here.
Let us pray. Gracious Lord, on this most special Sunday when we remember that you rode into Jerusalem to give yourself for our sakes, come into our hearts this morning through the transforming power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
This Sunday is one day with two themes. On one hand, we have celebration. Our Lenten journey to Holy Week ends in Jerusalem with Jesus’ triumphant arrival and the great parades that welcomed him into the city. We read of how people placed their palm branches on the road to welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!”
On the other hand, we have sorrow. Peter Gomes wrote that we can be tempted to “remove the Passion from Palm Sunday and turn the occasion into a festive dress rehearsal for Easter.” Yet our Lenten journey to Holy Week ends in Jerusalem with Christ’s passion. The people of Jerusalem turned on Jesus, he was brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, sentenced and then was handed over to be crucified.
Matthew balances the news of the growing enthusiasm for Jesus among the people of Jerusalem with Jesus’ sobering foreshadowing of his own death to come. On one hand, we have the palms. On the other hand, the passion.
On Palm Sunday, the energy of those following Jesus into Jerusalem met with the resistance of the local authorities.
Jesus was bringing his prophetic message into the heart of the establishment. It was one thing for him to give sermons on mounts in the remote north or to feed and preach to people on the banks of the Galilee. Jesus even argued with Pharisees and scribes in Gennesaret and got the best of them in arguments. He could be a prophet and rebel there without punishment. On Palm Sunday, Jesus came into the heart of the establishment. He came to the city of David, the political and religious center of the country, during the festival of Passover, with a ministry of repentance and reform.
Palm Sunday is a day we associate with people shouting, “Hosanna.” The original meaning of “Hosanna,” in Hebrew, is “rescue us.” It is an urgent plea. In Psalm 118, the Psalmist uses the word “Hosanna,” to mean “Save us, Lord.” By Jesus’ day, the word “Hosanna” had transformed into a more confident statement that the Lord would in fact bring salvation someday, but expressed a need to be saved from Roman oppression.
The local authorities in Jerusalem were afraid, threatened by the promise and popularity of Jesus. As Matthew records it, the “chief priests and the elders” were able to manipulate the fears of the Jerusalem mobs and convinced them to call for Jesus’ death. As Lucilla said of an ancient crowd in the movie Gladiator, “the mob is fickle,” and that description applied to the mob in Jerusalem. On one hand, they welcomed Jesus, and, on the other hand, they called for his death.
And we? We can also be of two minds. We can follow Christ’s lead in prayer, but become nervous when we aren’t sure we are reaching a spiritual destination. Our morals matter, but what if they conflict with something we really want? We commit to our church, but can we stay with it when it doesn’t make all the judgments we like? We say we love our Lord with all our mind and soul and say the right things, but do we love the Lord with all our strength and action? Or our neighbors as ourselves?
There is a lot we can learn about a person from their hands. We give and receive a great deal of information through our hands. Shaking hands is often our first point of communication. Reflexologists work with hands because they have so many nerve endings. We say a lot through our hands. As a result, there is a whole industry of palm readers out there. Their objective is to evaluate a person’s character or future by studying the lines on their hands. Palm reading has become a form of spirituality. When I worked in Georgetown, I used to pass Miss Natalie’s palm reading shop on Wisconsin Avenue. I never ventured in, but I have to say I was tempted.
Poet Rainer Rilke wrote of the spiritual knowledge that comes from palms, “Interior of the hand. Sole that has come to walk only on feelings. That faces upward and, in its mirror, receives heavenly roads.”
Hands link to spirit and soul and character. The writer of Psalm 90 calls on God to “Prosper the work of our hands.” In Jerusalem during Holy Week, we learn a lot about the character of people from the work of their hands.
The crowds who came to Jerusalem covered Jesus’ path with their palms. Many locals put up their hands in confusion asking, “Who is this,” who is causing all the trouble? The establishment in Jerusalem was angry and raised fists in defiance. Jesus criticized the unequal burdens in Jerusalem saying that the Pharisees and scribes would not “lift a finger” to help those in need. Instead they put thirty pieces of silver in Judas Iscariot’s hands to betray Jesus so they could put him on trial.
There is a story of a butcher who was asked what difference it made to him to put his trust in God. He said, “What difference did it make for me to follow Jesus? I stopped weighing my thumb.” He said before he started going to church, when he had an order, he would hold meat in his palm and put the meat down on the scales in such a way that his thumb trailed down, affecting the weight by as much as an ounce and increasing the price he charged. He had included that thumb in the weight of beef, pork, and every other item of merchandise. He said that after he started following Jesus he began to stand away from the scales and gave a full amount of meat. When he served customers whom he had formerly cheated, he added an ounce to make up for the past.
There is a great focus these days on keeping our hands clean through the washing of hands. The Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF, the World Bank and other groups joined together to start Global Handwashing Day each October. This event focuses on the importance of individuals washing their hands in order to prevent the spread of infection. We see hand sanitizer everywhere – going into buildings, at the corners of office desks, we even have it here out in the narthex and throughout our church.
Washing hands should be important in our area. After all, we live in the greater Washington area. There is even a theory that the word, “Washington,” as in George Washington, comes from the Old English meaning “washing Hill,” a place right near a river frequently used for washing things.
A central actor in our second lesson today was the Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. As Governor, he had the power to help save or to condemn Jesus. Faced with a trying decision and the fickle but angry mob, Pilate called for some water and washed his palms before the crowd saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” When Pilate had an opportunity to acquit Jesus, he took some water and washed his hands of it. Then, as the last verse of our lesson tells it, Pilate “handed Jesus over to be crucified.”
We know that Jesus’ response to the trials of Holy Week was different. On Maundy Thursday, the night before his death, Jesus poured some water and with his bare hands proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples as an act of service. Then he broke bread and poured a cup. On Good Friday, Jesus was crucified with nails through his palms and wrists. A few days later, in the words of the Apostle Creed, Jesus went to be seated at the “right hand” of God, the Father Almighty.
As you look at your hands, what do you see as you begin Holy Week? Are you prepared to lift a finger to help those in need? Will you come to our Maundy Thursday service and join in laying down your burdens and sins, washed away at the foot of the cross. Will you be there on Good Friday as we hear of the back-handed actions of some who professed to be his followers and as we ask forgiveness for the ways we have crucified our Lord?
If we try to ignore our sins as Pilate tried, we find that we are stained by them. If we try to wash our hands of the needs and problems of the world, we will find we are bound to them. If we trust in the one who has the whole world in his hands, then we are saved by it. Then the work of our hands will reflect it.
There are two sides to this day, the palm and the passion. Anne Lamott noted that the two sides of Passion/Palm Sunday, the two sides of Holy Week, represent the two sides of our world. She said, “We Christians are Easter people, but we live in a Good Friday world.” A world of many traumas and challenges where innocents are too often mistreated in too many ways. Jesus’ passion was one of humility. Where an innocent man was willingly put to death. This Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday deserve our attention and attendance because in our lives and in this world there is too much suffering and death. Yet we celebrate Jesus’ Passion to remember and proclaim that in it we are not alone.
The Apostle Paul wrote Jesus “took the form of a slave, became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” In Jesus Christ, God emptied God’s self for us, to come as close to us as possible. Our passion affirmation is that in Christ, God enters into human suffering, experiences human suffering, weeps beside and with us. That is why Jesus’ passion is one of humble compassion. The word compassion, from the German, means “with passion,” or “with suffering.” Humble hands on a cross. A humble power.
The great theologian Karl Barth was once asked what the primary job of the preacher is. He said, “Like John the Baptist, it’s to point a finger toward the cross of Jesus.” That is what this Sunday is about. With our palms and with our hands, we point the way to the cross of Jesus. The cross that gives us hope for the future. To get to that Easter hope, we must go through the passion of Holy Week. This week, we walk the journey with Jesus through the suffering of life with passion. We do so as we walk with compassion, holding hands with each other through it.
As we walk this week, remember to do good ‐ through our One Great Hour of Sharing and the works of the church find some way to serve ‐ as Jesus served.
Remember to pray often. Whether at Maundy Thursday and our Good Friday services or at moments of reflection each day, pray for understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is the focus of this week to come.
Remember to give thanks to God. For the same question they asked about Jesus when he entered the city of Jerusalem ‐ “who is this?” is the question we must all ask as we enter Holy Week. Who is this? Who is Jesus Christ to us? A guy we study at church? A person who lived long ago? Or our savior, who was raised on a cross in Holy Week so that we might be raised up to our God. For as the songwriter tells us, God will “raise us up on eagle’s wings. Bear us on the breadth of dawn. Make us to shine like the sun. And hold us in the palm of his hand.” Thanks be to God. Amen.