Sunday Night Worship – 3/16/08 – Palm Sunday

Matthew 21: 1-11 (Mark 11: 1-11)

When I was in junior high school – we called it that then, rather than “middle school” – when I was in junior high, way back in the early eighties, I think it was the oh-so-hot movie, Flashdance that inspired us to wear leg warmers. We donned the fuzzy colored knitted things, pushing them into wrinkled rings around our lower calves and ankles. In case you haven’t seen pictures, we actually wore these over our jeans. It didn’t matter whether you were a dancer or not – this was a fashion statement. Joining the ridiculous looking crowd marked you as hip and cool.

Of course, if you have seen the pictures, you’ll notice that we looked neither hip nor cool. We didn’t even look particularly cold enough – not enough to need extra warmth for our lower extremities, anyway.

Like all good and bad fashion trends, leg warmers came back around a couple years back and, no surprise, they still look rather silly. But somehow or another they were updated and styled for consumption in the 2000s and then, thankfully, they disappeared again. Maybe some other outdated fashion will be updated and re-sold soon. Let’s just hope it won’t be big shoulder pads and the mullet hairstyle.

The church is not immune to this sort of thing. As with fashion and cultural statements, the church’s liturgy goes through what we might call, for lack of a better word, trends.

When the church was young Christians worshipped together more than just on Sundays. Many Roman Catholic congregations still offer at least one daily worship service, in addition to several on Saturday nights and Sundays. When we were on spring break we closed each day with Compline, the traditional bedtime prayer in the liturgy of the hours. The liturgy of the hours, or daily office, are the times set aside for prayer throughout the day in monastic communities. Though monasteries continue in this tradition and it can be enlightening and formative to dip into the practice for a time, most Protestants are content with our once-a-week Sunday worship.

It hasn’t always been this way. In my grandparents’ youth they expected to gather at church at least two days a week. In addition to Sundays, Wednesday nights were reserved for Bible studies and worship. This is still practiced in many rural Southern churches today; when I lived in Appalachia, we never scheduled board meetings on Wednesday nights because we knew folks already had some place to be.

When I was growing up we called this day “Palm Sunday.” If you were in church this morning, you likely noticed the way our triumphant Palm Sunday marching and singing gave way to the passion narrative; by the end of the worship hour we were clearly in Maundy Thursday territory. That’s “Palm/Passion Sunday.” This is one of those trends I was talking about. In the last 30 years or so, Protestants have experienced a liturgical renewal. And it’s truly been renewing, bringing us into greater communion with each other and with the Catholic side of our family through such “trends” as the lectionary, which sets out a 3-year cycle of texts to be read in worship that cover almost the entire Bible. Liturgical renewal has reached back to our earliest Christian roots to uncover and recover some of the powerful language and action in our celebration of the Eucharist. If you want to call all this a trend, it’s been a good one.

But when you update and renew your commitment to something, it usually entails doing so in a specific context. As I said, the more traditional name for this day is Palm Sunday. But in looking at the church’s communal life liturgical reformers noticed that the majority of worshippers only come to church on Sundays, even during the special times of year like Holy Week. So if folks are here on Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then folks don’t show up again until Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the risen Christ, they kind of miss out.

So the reformers encouraged churches to include a bit more on this Sunday. If folks don’t show up for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, we’ll bring the Passion of Christ to them! So we front-loaded Holy Week, giving more gravitas to Palm Sunday. Today at Wesley Memorial we began with Palms and moved all the way through the readings for the week, ending up by the end of the service, with Christ crucified.

I suppose this is an OK thing to do on Palm/Passion Sunday. I suppose that sometimes we have to accommodate the rest of Life and cram more into a Sunday. I certainly agree that going straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is too easy and skips some of the most important parts of the journey we are called to walk together in the company of Christ.

But I want to make a case, here, in this community, for Palm Sunday without the Passion. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for reading and meditating on the Passion story this week. But I want to take my time. I want to set out the door each day and be in that day. I want to listen to my Jesus Christ, Superstar soundtrack throughout the week, traveling with the song-story through the events this week commemorates.

This is one of those rare times in contemporary Protestant life when we have the opportunity to come together for worship on several occasions in the same week. Towards the end of this Holy Week, it becomes almost a daily commitment. Here in the Wesley Community we will worship together on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday (both nights at 7pm). We have all day Friday set aside for private prayer and reflection on the block, encouraging one another to participate in the Stations of the Cross meditation. Then we will walk those last steps of our journey together up Humpback Rock to an Easter Sunrise service and another one later than morning back down here in the valley. Why would I want to collapse all that into Palm/Passion/Maundy/Good/ Holy Week Sunday?

The gospel reading today is from Matthew but I was struck when I read Mark’s version this week.  The thing that struck me about the Palm Sunday reading from Mark is that Jesus pauses. After the palms and riding on the colt, here is what Mark describes: “Then [Jesus] entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark: 11:11). And when he had looked around at everything… Why is that in this story? What was Jesus looking for? At? What was the “everything” in question? Was this one of those calm-before-the-storm moments or did he go there hoping to find something? Did he find it or did he go away empty-handed? Was he remembering all those other times he’d been to the temple? Did he go, planning to pray, and then change his mind?

I’ve always had a sort of dread about Palm Sunday. It’s like the tipping point on a roller coaster, that moment when you are as high as you are going to get and, just when you realize that, you head downhill at an alarming speed and your stomach catches in your throat. It’s hard to wave Palms enthusiastically on a day like today, knowing what we know, knowing that Thursday and Friday and that long, long Saturday lie before us. But I want to keep them before us, not cram them into today – at least here in this community where we see each other throughout the week and have the opportunity to be together in worship again on those hard and dreadful days that lead us, against all reason, to Easter.

The roller coaster tipping point is that moment of elation mixed with foreboding, the last moment when you see things “from the top.” The last moment before you start screaming and hoping your flip-flops and glasses don’t fly off.

Maybe Jesus felt it. Maybe that subtle tug at the pit of his stomach alerted him. Maybe he took a few minutes to look things over from the very top at the temple that day. Maybe he knew the scenery was about to change at a breakneck pace. Maybe.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis