Dear Working Preacher,
The climax of the Christian story is upon us. Christ is about to enter the gates of Jerusalem to songs of praise, only to hear those same voices turn first to accusations and then to jeers as he goes to his death on a cross.
The climax of the Christian story is upon us. Little wonder that each of the evangelists slows down, moving from the wide-angle panorama view from which they captured significant moments along Jesus’ ministry to a close-up of his final hours. Each step of this journey is significant. Each deserves the care and detail the evangelists give it.
And yet we attempt to compress this deliberate, carefully composed and plotted drama into one day and worship service with a single necessarily long reading and a single correspondingly short sermon.
As it turns out, a generation ago liturgical scholars feared that with fewer and fewer people attending the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, church-goers would move from the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday to the resurrection glory of Easter without experiencing — indeed, perhaps hardly noticing — the poignancy, suspense, and agony of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion. And so Palm Sunday became Passion Sunday or, in many churches, Palm/Passion Sunday, the day on which we try to do everything and end up all too often offering little, if anything, that makes an impact.
The irony, of course, is that this strategic move — which amounts to the concession of the failure of Christian catechesis and the inability of our worship to compete with the routine demands of everyday life — has resulted in a confusing day that only hastens the demise of the liturgical observances it seeks to defend.
So here’s my suggestion: Don’t do it all this Sunday. Let Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday and focus only on the triumphal entry. Raise the question of what it was the crowds were seeking. Why, after all, do they herald his entrance but then participate in his violent departure? Had they succumbed to the notion that violence saves, and therefore when disappointed that Jesus was not a military messiah turned against him? Did they fail to perceive Christ’s mission and so disappointed by his teaching get caught up in the machinations of the state against this threat to Imperial might?
What motivated those crowds? Further, what motivates us? What do we seek in Jesus? What do we believe he has come to accomplish? Why do we pledge our allegiance to him on Sunday and yet all too often turn our attention elsewhere the rest of the week? There is ample material in the verses allocated to Palm Sunday to raise significant and important questions, so my counsel is to stick with these.
And what of the rest of the story, you may ask, sharing the concern that all too many of our people will glide from glory of this day to the glory of Easter with nary a thought about what transpires in between?
Given our stated goal to immerse our people into the biblical story such that they take this story with them into their daily lives, I would urge providing them with the rest of the story throughout this week, accompanied by a question or two and a prayer to aid them in reflection. Whether you print the readings for distribution on Sunday or send them via email throughout the week, you will invite our people to read their daily activities in light of the story of our Lord’s passion and see the passion in light of their daily routines. Who knows, perhaps a greater immersion into the story may actually make them more, rather than less, interested in the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. At the very least, Easter will mean more to those who have journeyed with Jesus from the gates of Jerusalem to the foot of the cross.
To aid you in this endeavor, I’ve split the readings across seven days with suggested questions and a prayer for each. Feel free to take it as a whole (no attribution necessary) or adapt it as you see fit. If you want to engage people further, set up a Twitter account and invite them to Tweet their responses to the questions each day or capture them in some other way to allow others to see and learn from the reflections of their friends.
As always, Working Preacher, thank you for your fidelity in proclaiming the saving death and resurrection of our Lord.
Yours in Christ,
Palm Sunday: Matthew 21:1-11
Q: Jump from Jerusalem to 2011: What do we celebrate as having the potential to save? Celebrities, political figures, athletes, technology? What do we do when we are disappointed in our hopes?
Prayer: Lord God, keep our attention on those things that nurture life and lead us to greater fellowship with you and with each other. Amen.
Monday: Matthew 26:1-16
Q: Where do we see hostility and betrayal in our world? Is there anything that would be worth it to you to betray a friend? What small betrayals have we been ensnared by, and how can we make amends for them?
Prayer: Lord God, prevent us from allowing our bitterness or disappointment to lead us to harm others whether in thought or deed. Amen.
Tuesday: Matthew 26:17-46
Q: What difference does the Lord’s Supper make in our lives? Does the meal we share on Sunday nourish our lives in the world? If so, how? If not, how might it? When have you last seen someone who needed a tangible expression of God’s love? How can you help that person realize how precious they are to God?
Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the gift of your own body and blood. Let that gift strengthen us in the knowledge that you love us more than anything. Amen.
Wednesday: Matthew 26: 47-75
Q: What strengthens us to keep faith with those we care about? What tempts us to abandon them? Where have you felt abandoned? Where do you need the support of good friends? Who needs you?
Prayer: Lord God, protect and preserve us in this world that we might keep faith with the promises and responsibilities we have undertaken, and when we feel alone remind us that you understand and are with us. Amen.
Thursday: Matthew 27:1-31
Q: Where do you see the struggle for power and the easy resort to defamation and violence in our world today? In what ways does fear poison our relationships at home and at work as well as in the larger world? What one thing would you ask God to change about your life or the world? How can you contribute to making that happen?
Prayer: Use us, Lord God, as instruments of peace in world too often broken by violence and a thirst for power. Amen.
Friday: Matthew 27:32-56
Q: How does Jesus’ death tell the truth about our lives and world? How does it give us hope? Where do you see God still at work to redeem and preserve creation? Where do you long to see God?
Prayer: Lord God, on the cross you suffered the very depths of our human life, even to the point of death. When we see the cross, let us remember that you become one of us and endured all elements of life to show us your great love and to give us hope. Amen.
Saturday: Matthew 27:57-66
What needs resurrecting in your life? What makes it hard to turn this over to God and trust that God will bring you, too, through death to new life?
Prayer: Lord God, remind us of your presence with us when we stumble, suffer, or are afraid in any way. Give us strength, courage, and peace, and help us to be an encouragement and sign of life to others. Amen.
Two quick notes:
1) Given our attention on Matthew’s story throughout the week, it may help to use the Matthean readings for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
2) Make sure you print the readings, even if in smaller print, so that people have them with them on a sheet of paper or email so they don’t have to go look them up!