Palm/Passion Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 5:9-10

Today, this Palm/Passion Sunday, we conclude this series on the Beatitudes.  We rejoice with the crowd who laid their cloaks on the road, who waved their palm branches and shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  But we know that this week, this Holy Week, moves towards a cross.

There is a celebration coming, which we will celebrate with choirs and brass next Sunday.  But in between now and then, much will happen.  Please make it a point to return Maundy Thursday evening, as a part of your own Holy Week preparation, as we journey through these days.  Let us pray…

Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today.  Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness.  Amen.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

My grandmother-in-law and I have a running joke about the passing of the peace.  We do it sometimes here, when the worship leader says, the peace of Christ be with you, and you say, and also with you.  We greet each other with those same words and, because we are Presbyterian, we get a little uncomfortable and quickly sit down.  If anything, it ends up being a bit perfunctory.  But listening to Nana talk, one would think it was an unconscionable disruption.  Nana likes to come in, enjoy the music and the stained glass in her small congregation in northern Virginia and, frankly, not have to talk to people.  And the passing of the peace drives her crazy, as she says, people leaping all over pews, joking and laughing, talking to each other, sharing germs, when they need to be sitting in their place.  When she is in town, she asks – with a smile – “You aren’t going to pass the peace today, are you?”

But I think we underestimate how much we need it.  Erik Kolbell, in the book that guides our study, writes:  “Maybe it’s the promotion we didn’t get, or the illness we did, the child out past curfew or the cigarette pack we found in his coat pocket, the middle-aged regret over challenges we failed to take, people we refused to love, milestones we could never reach, slights we could never forgive.” 1 These yearnings within us, things done or left undone, leave us with a strange sense of dis-ease.  And out of this deep-seated anxiety we, even in our strongest relationships, lash out the moment we feel threatened, strike back, regardless of another’s intent.  Regardless of the collateral damage we inflict.  And that is to say nothing about the violence rampant in our cities and our schools, the violent discourse that pervades our political system, the way countries like ours are so willing to undertake yet another war.  And around here, with Don’s funeral on Friday – the third in a little less than a month.  As tornadoes blow through.  It all feels heavy after awhile.

And with everything we have going on; it’s easy to miss it.  And to take the wrong approach.  Sometimes we confuse peacemaking with avoiding conflict, with being afraid.  But Jesus calls us to be active…doing, creating peace.  “Peace does not mean leaving evildoers on the loose,” James Howell writes.  “Peace is not passive, but aggressive, engaging in the far more arduous labor of making peace, of reconciling with the person who hates you, of sparing no effort to get inside the other’s skin and figuring out how to live together on this planet…of striving after shalom.  Peacemaking requires people who work tirelessly for a just society that mirrors, however obliquely, the kingdom of God.” 2

And we must partake in it, as we learn, get active, advocate downtown, study about the Middle East.  But that feels so far.  Much of it is about our goals, our level of intentionality in ALL of our interactions.  It begins on the ground, in simple acts of compassion.  We are making peace when we honor the person across from us in the shelter line, when we bid on items for the Youth Auction so we can go to Mexico and work with our partners there, when we take care of little ones in the nursery with deep compassion.  I know you all tend to be late signer-upers for things, but there is no reason, with all the people around here, that after today those signup sheets for the Community Workday aren’t full.  That is making peace, one shovel, one rake, one paintbrush at a time.  As we get to know someone different from us, as we take just a little more time to listen when we feel ourselves getting defensive.  It’s hard, but Jesus doesn’t seem terribly concerned with the level of exertion.  This making, this creating of peace, that is what children of God DO, he says.  Yearn for it, pray for it, sacrifice for it.

All of which brings us to our final Beatitude: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  This one feels tough to identify with, conjuring up images of early disciples chased around the Roman Coliseum for sport.  We aren’t Christians in China, or Iraq.  Here in the southeastern US, we rarely get funny looks for praying out at lunch.  Some people still listen, for better or for worse, to what preachers say.  But Kolbell again helps us hone in.  Up to this point, he writes, Jesus has extolled the value of the blessed life.  Now…it is time he discloses the cost.” 3Any real work of making peace, of speaking for those who have no voice, of seeking to effect real reconciliation between families or governments, comes at a tremendous price.  That is the direction all of these Beatitudes move – so that this one can in some ways feel like a summing up.  They all contain a remarkable promise, but not without cost.  We don’t suffer persecution like many throughout the world, and for that we give thanks, but we still live too easily, too comfortably, when we are called into a certain amount of conflict with the world.  If we are doing it right, I think, our neighbors might think us a bit strange, making all this time for church, honoring faith in our homes.  For being prayerful about what you do with your money and your stuff.  Who digs down deeper for the Easter offering?  Who gives things away, after all?  Who is unscrupulously honest at work, transparent in relationships, not going along with the way things are always done if they run counter to the One who truly understood, in ways we never will, what persecution feels like…

Because that is where this week moves.  Today we will wave palms, receive new members, and rejoice.  But before worship is over we will tighten down, will focus in, on the week to come.  On this One who, this week, embodied this final Beatitude on the cross.  He is our model, of course, reminding us that you, that we will pay for seeking His way, with your comfort, with your life, if you truly seek to make peace, seek this radical encounter with Christ’s kingdom that is the Beatitudes.  We will pray together this week, and gather around a holy table, almost in darkness, as we remember his anguish and despair.  And then next Sunday morning we will KNOW, once again, that blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

On a brisk Thursday evening back in March, I headed east on Main to the Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church, up the hill, into the dim narthex.  The sanctuary was a little smaller than this one, all brown with wood, a small pedestal at the end of the center aisle, elevating the speaker about a foot above the floor.  As the hymn ended, a woman walked up to the mic.  She was the moderator, one of the leaders of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.  Her daughter, 6 months pregnant at the time, had been kidnapped and beaten to death about a decade prior.  It had taken her a long time, she said, but she came because she wanted to be a part of something different.  And so they worshipped, as they do every year about that time, to grieve and remember the murder victims in Durham the year prior.4 In 2010 twenty-nine people in the city of Durham were murdered.  And after she spoke they read the names:  Crystal Lynn Baker.  Vincent Lee Webb.  Martin Martinez.  Charlene King, a bell tolling after each one.  Daniel Evans.  Manuel Lopez Mata.  Kareem Fowler.  And this mother stood, and other parents around her came forward.  If you had a family member murdered in previous years, you came up to the microphone, too.  My son, was shot on the porch of our house.  My uncle, shot in a robbery.  My daughter, my sister.  I miss her so much.  And this one mother issued her proclamation.  She said that we must not let fear surround us in our neighborhoods, she said.  We must not let those who want us to be afraid win.  We must seek justice, she said, so that no other parents have to feel what I feel.  So that no other parents have to feel the pain that I feel.  And the whole way home, through downtown, back up by Forest Hills and Rockwood, back to the edge of Hope Valley, all I could hear was Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Here in a moment, we will pass the peace again.  This time I want it to be more than a simple greeting.  I want you to mean it, willing, praying the peace of God get into the person across from you, into their doubts and fears, the things you love and might not love as much about them, the things they love and don’t love as much about themselves.  Extend that peace to them, to everyone around you, to your kids who don’t want to get in the car, to the person who cuts you off in traffic, to the coworker who never finishes the project on time.  To the person you really need to listen to.  And leave here to make peace.  And let it echo, far past here, out into our neighborhoods filled with overwork and economic anxiety, to those in our very city who live in fear in being shot on their steps, yet refuse to be silent.  Maybe it will echo from Raleigh and Washington, to Libya and Afghanistan, that we might take heart, because Christ, the peacemaker, the blessed persecuted One, has come among us.

There will be failures on the journey.  A cross filled with death.  But on the other side….boy, on the other side.  Christ’s kingdom made plain, for us to be a part of, for all the world to see.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

All praise be to God.  Amen.

  1. Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 112.
  2. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 78.
  3. Kolbell, 123. 
  4. The 19th Annual Vigil Against Violence, on March 3, 2011, was sponsored by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Parents of Murdered Children, and Durham Congregations in Action.