Palm/Passion Sunday B: Entering the Story

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to imagine a future all that different from the past? We somehow get stuck in patterns of behavior and eventually come to believe that our past performance isn’t simply a predictor of our future behavior but rather its guarantee. And so the older we grow the less open the future seems and more ominous the past looms in our lives.

The key to all of this, recent psychological research tells us, is story. Because the past isn’t simply the past, it’s the interpreted past. The past, in short, is the story we’ve told ourselves about the past. Which is why two siblings can have the same alcoholic parent and yet interpret that fact – and their similar pasts – quite differently and thereby walk into distinct futures.

Which is why what you do matters, Dear Partner. As each and every week you invite people into a story that is not about all that went wrong this past week but about what might go right in the week to come. It’s a story that isn’t about what we lack, but all that we’ve been given. And it’s not a story that exposes our problems or shortcoming but instead lifts up our gifts and blessings. It’s God’s story that tells us again and again that we are loved, that we are precious, that we have infinite value and worth in God’s eyes.

And that story reaches its dramatic climax in the coming days as we follow Mark’s account of our Lord’s Passion to its bitter end.

All of which may shape how we read and preach this story. You are as familiar as I am with the long-standing debate about whether to preach “Palm Sunday” or “The Sunday of the Passion.” I’d suggest not falling for this dichotomy and instead preach Jesus’ journey to the cross, a route that begins in the heights of the crowds’ adoration of Jesus during his triumphal entry and descends to the depths of his despair upon the cross. Which may invite a different kind of service all together.

So rather than the traditional liturgy, perhaps we might instead imagine something of a lessons and carols approach to the day, where we begin with the triumphal entry, and then proceed with the long Passion story interrupted by hymns, prayers, and reflections. You might invite a dramatic reading with various persons giving voice to the parts of Jesus, the disciples, and Pilate and the congregation playing the part of the crowd. Or you might ask several people to share their own reflection on different elements of the passion narrative. Either way, the key is to draw people into this story so that they might imagine that it is their story.

And what of the sermon, you ask? I won’t go so far as to say there should be no sermon on this day – though that is certainly a reasonable option – but rather invite you to think of the sermon as background, guide, and interpreter of the Gospel story which is itself the sermon this week. What you might do on this day is to help people enter this story, inviting them to identify with a particular character or bystander and asking them to reflect on their emotions during the readings.

The key in all of this, I think, is that they hear that this story is for them, for us. Jesus suffers, that is, so that when we are suffering we know God understands and cares for us. Jesus is utterly alone by the end of the story so that when we feel alone we know God understands and is with us. Jesus cries out in despair so that when we become convinced the whole world has conspired against us and feel ready to give up, we know that God understands and holds onto us. Jesus dies because so that we know God understands death and the fear of death and reminds us that death does not have the last word.

All that we see and hear, all that we read and sing, all of this is for us. And so the fourth century theologian Athanasius, speaking of the Incarnation that reaches its climax in the crucifixion, said that God becomes like us in Jesus so that we may become like God. And twelve hundred years later, Martin Luther described the cross as the divine exchange where Jesus takes our life and lot that we may enjoy his righteousness and victory.

Five hundred years after that – indeed, on this very Sunday as you proclaim the Word in your congregation – this story continues, the story of God’s decision to not hold back and watch to see what we might do on our own but instead to get involved, to take matters into the divine hands, to join God’s own self to us fully and completely so that we might live and die – and live again! – in hope and courage.

That’s the story we tell, the story of this week’s dramatic reading, the story of God’s passionate and relentless quest to redeem each and all of us in love. And if our preaching can introduce this story and invite others to see it as their own that they make look ahead to an open future of freedom and possibility, it is enough. Even more than enough.

Thank you for your work and words, Dear Partner, they are sorely needed in a world hungering for grace and life. The coming days will likely be exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures; know as you traverse them that you have my prayers and gratitude. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,


Post image: Jacopo Tintoretto, Crucifixion, 1565.