Downward Mobility

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

The first time I preached on Palm Sunday I was an intern. So I didn’t know any better. Honest. Where the congregation usually read the abbreviated Passion, I wanted the whole thing. And I intended to do it justice, exegeting the major themes of the evangelist (which one I can’t even remember), and then illustrating the kerygmatic thrust of the passage with a scene from King Lear. The sermon — perhaps the longest I’ve preached — was just over twenty-five minutes while the service stretched to near ninety — which meant that people coming for the later service couldn’t find parking because those at the earlier one hadn’t left yet! Like I said, I was young, inexperienced, and was determined to do things the right way; that is, the way I had learned at seminary.

So I’ve learned a lot since then, yet I still find this Sunday one of the most difficult days of the year to preach. In part this is because liturgical reformers have made this day something of a muddle. When I was a kid, it was simply Palm Sunday, and the procession with palms is still one of the most vivid — and favorite! — memories of my church-going youth. But shortly thereafter folks realized that a lot of people don’t come to Holy Week services and so jump from the glory of the Triumphal Entry to the glory of Easter. Determined to make sure no one misses out on the significance of the cross, the themes of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were moved up to the preceding Sunday precipitating the shift from Palm Sunday to the Sunday of the Passion. It’s a well-intentioned and understandable move that nevertheless plays havoc with worship planning and preaching, as in addition to the usual four texts appointed for any given day (one of which, the Gospel, is humongous, even in its abbreviated form), you should also read the story of the Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:1-11) as a processional gospel. That’s a lot of text, a lot of story, and a lot of ritual and remembrance to cram into one Sunday! So what’s a Hardworking Preacher to do?

What follows is three suggestions. Take them as you will; hopefully one will be helpful. 🙂

1) Last year I suggested preaching Palm Sunday as Palm Sunday and providing folks — via the bulletin or by email — with readings from the Passion and reflection questions to help them meditate on the rest of the story of Christ’s cross throughout the week at home or work. Because Matthew hues so closely to Mark, it wouldn’t be hard to update last year’s outline of readings and questions. (And who knows, perhaps more immersed in the story of the Passion, the mid-week services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will be of greater appeal.)

2) Forego a formal sermon and instead have folks read the Passion in parts instead. You can start with Mark 11:1-11 and then jump to the either the longer or shorter versions of the Gospel reading, interspersing some of the great Holy Week hymns for scene changes. Choose good readers for the parts and print up the whole as a script because, of course, the essential lines will be the congregation’s as they play the part of the crowds, so eager to greet Jesus with Hosannas at the Triumphal Entry but so easily persuaded to cry for his death just days earlier. (Singing Ah Holy Jesus just after this section can be particularly moving.) Instead of a traditional sermon, you can provide either introductory or closing remarks that invite folks to anticipate what it means to read  these lines, imaging what it would like to be there, contemplating whether we really think we would have done anything different, and inviting participation in the series of services that will come during Holy Week as we enter into the drama of God’s effort to save God’s beloved world.

3) If you want to preach a more traditional sermon, then allow one more suggestion. After the Gospel processional and entrance with palms (it’s very hard for me to give that up!), read just the Philippians passage and the shortened version of the Passion and allow the first to serve as an interpretation of the second. What’s remarkable about this early Christian hymn, I think, is the dramatic movement it portrays, as Jesus leaves the glory of his inheritance to be joined to us in every way possible. We may be used to this incarnational motif, but perhaps on this day we can stress the absolutely counter-cultural nature of this move. We are used to the classic rags-to-riches story that animates our popular culture. Whether it’s the Horatio Alger stories of hardworking youth who ultimately make good that were so popular during the nineteenth century or their contemporary real-life versions starring Bill Gates or Steve Jobs today, we are primed to expect, even long for, a story that portrays the upward mobility to which we aspire.

But Jesus goes in the other direction. In fact, he embraces downward mobility, refusing the glory that is his so as to pour himself out (kenosis) in love for us. Paul isn’t, of course, merely reciting a salvation history. He is inviting us not only to contemplate this spectacular act of self-giving but also to emulate it in our daily lives. That may seem hard to imagine, and yet we each have had moments where we have sacrificed something for others or have witnessed tremendous self-sacrifice. It may help to invite people to recall the sacrifice of a parent or grandparent or to imagine what and for whom they would make sacrifices. They may share some of these stories or just have a moment of silence to call them to mind. Either way, the homiletical point is that while these sacrifices aren’t the same thing as Jesus’ sacrifice for us, they nevertheless are shaped by it and demonstrate something of the character of the Christian community Paul invites us to imagine.

This kind of sermon doesn’t have to be long and, indeed, probably shouldn’t be. Not only is there a lot going on this day liturgically, but these texts in particular are at the center of the service as they beckon us into the story of God’s passion for God’s beloved and wayward children. Similarly, keep in mind that the sermon doesn’t have to carry the day. It’s a rich worship service where ritual — entry with Palms, etc. — and hymnody and readings all combine to draw us into the narrative. Further, there is a whole week of services that further invite us to witness God’s love poured out for the world, and whatever else you do on Sunday you should certainly make a shameless impassioned invitation to people to come to those services.

Thanks for your good faith and tireless labor, Working Preacher, at this time of year more than ever. What you do matters, and as you go about your duties and responsibilities this week, know that I am praying for you.

Yours in Christ,