It’s hard to compete with Palm/Passion Sunday. And maybe, you shouldn’t.
Have you thought about letting the texts speak for themselves? Let this story simply be? Letting the liturgy do what it does and work as it should? Anything further on your part may very well be overkill — every pun intended. As if you are trying too hard to cover every detail of Holy Week, trying to pack it all in, because you assume that you won’t see many of these folks again until Easter Sunday. That’s why we have Palm/Passion to begin with, right? Our concern that people won’t come to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, so let’s make sure we cover all the bases, just in case. How to get Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil all in before the women get to the empty tomb.
Don’t try this at home. Not only is it not possible. It’s not necessary.
I suspect that your liturgical and homiletical decisions have already been made at this point. If I am wrong, my main point of advice would be what we suggested on the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Pick a verse from the passage and preach it for all its worth.
Because the hard thing about Palm/Passion Sunday is that there is just too much text. Or as Salieri says to Mozart, just too many notes. What else is there to say?
Maybe don’t try. And admit that you can’t.
Is a sermon necessary? is my question. If so, why? What do you hope to accomplish, achieve? What can you add to this story, really? But, I get the anxiety because this is what we are trained to do — offer interpretations of texts for specific times, places, people, and purposes. It’s what we are paid to do. It’s what we are called to do. So then, if that’s not what is needed, then what? Rather than leaning into the moment, we control the moment, trying to communicate, persuade, proclaim how important this week is when all we really need to do is to testify.
This week is an opportunity for witness. Put yourself in the story and say this is what I see, what I feel and then ask, how about you? What do you see, feel? Where are you moved? Any attempt to interpret or explain will result in the poignancy of this week being lost. Big time. Because there is no explanation. There is no exegesis that can rescue this moment. There is no doctrine that can give an acceptable account. There is no denominational recourse that makes Holy Week more palatable or acceptable.
So why not just say that and let it be? Let the story do what it intends to do. Let the story be what it has to be. Let the story work on the people in your pews as individually as they are. No one answer will work. No one interpretation will meet all needs. Articulate your personal point of entry and then invite them to imagine their own.
Because if the default is to make Passion Sunday and Holy Week doable, then we will end up reducing wonder to want. Amazement to acceptance. Resistance to recourse. Disbelief to discussion. And then everything we hope for on this Sunday is rather a pedantic roadmap to traverse the week that plots and plods rather than one that invites new routes of discovery.
For Holy Week to work a preacher needs to figure out how to let it work. And then let go. The biblical witnesses suggest that this is no place for statements of certainty. Rather, it is a space for ambiguity. Disappointment. Fear. Contemplation. Anger. Dejection. And there are not enough spaces in our lives that invite such real, visceral, embodied, unchecked, uncensored emotions and reactions to the events of faith.
In the end, I think your parishioners will be grateful. Grateful for your honesty. For your bewilderment. For your willingness to invite questions rather than provide answers. For your commitment to confusion instead of some confession beholden to something outside of what you believe.
This is not to say that you stand up and preach doubt or dejection. It means that you stand up and tell the truth. That you don’t attempt to apply some sort of homiletical bandage. Because if you do, you then communicate that all of this can be fixed. By us. And it can’t. Only God can carry us through to the empty tomb, to the promise of the resurrection.
And so in your confession, this is what you say. “I don’t know what to do with all of this. But God does. I don’t get it but I don’t have to because God does. I don’t want to figure this out. That’s OK. God has.”
And then we let Holy Week be.