Growing up in my little American Baptist congregation in Alaska, Holy Week was something of a mystery.  My congregation rented space from the local Episcopal church for many years, and so the liturgical colors of purple, the dark cloth placed over the cross, were all foreign to us.   While most American Baptists have embraced the season of Advent we still shy away from Lent, but especially from Holy Week.  Many congregations I know like to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter.  The previous two churches I served both held Maundy Thursday services; neither had Good Friday services.  However, growing up we always participated in the ecumenical Good Friday service.  In Framingham, MA, where I last served, we also had an ecumenical Good Friday service.

I find it interesting in being part of a faith whose central symbol is the Cross and yet we try to avoid the Good Friday story all together.  We want to move from the palms to the celebration of the empty tomb.  We may stop over at the Last Supper and remember the words Christ shared with His disciples, but then again, we’ll skip the actual betrayal, arrest, trial and death and just go to the empty tomb.

If your congregation doesn’t do much with Holy Week, especially with Good Friday, you may want to consider preaching on the Passion on Palm Sunday.  They need to hear the story of the Cross, of Christ’s suffering and death.  I know that for some of us our stomachs turn because the suffering and death portion we were served earlier in our faith lives was overwhelming, almost suffocating.  Side dishes of guilt and shame followed.  The mainline church has often shied away in recent years (in my opinion) from the suffering of Christ because we don’t want to beat people over their heads with it anymore.  However, to jump from Palms to Resurrection Celebration is leading a lie.  We need to recognize that our Lord was betrayed, did suffer and did die.  However, as leaders we can peel back the layers of the story, remove the shame and guilt that were served along with this story to us for so long, and look at the story with fresh eyes.

That being said, it’s hard to say something new during Holy Week.  We’ve heard it all and said it all before, right?  But this year is different.  This time around, the story will be heard differently.  Because the first third of this year has been hell for so many people.  Earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, and nuclear meltdown.  Civil war in Libya and our own Air Force involvement.  Revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, and many other Middle East countries.  Rising violence in Israel and Palestine.  Student protests in Puerto Rico with police called in.  Our own Wisconsin torn by suppression of workers in their ability to negotiate through unions.  Our own United States Government coming to a stand-still as I write this.  And so much more.

When we look at the world, we find a lot of selfishness, a lot of arguing for argument’s sake, a lot of dying for nothing.  We need to hear the story again of someone who died for something. Someone who just wasn’t a victim once again of violence in the world (the angry crowd), another nameless casualty of political disputes (Pilate and Herod), another silent victim of civil war (the Zealots and the Centurions), another religious idealist marginalized (Pharisees and Sadducees).

For Palm Sunday, Matthew 21:1-11 tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the illusion to the prophet Zechariah by Jesus riding a donkey instead of a horse, humble while the crowds shout Hosanna.  Matthew says in verse 10 that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.  The range of emotions is palpable–triumph and humility, excitement and chaos, confusion as people ask “Who is this?” and certainty as the crowds say “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  This captures the emotional roller coaster that is Holy Week: the people think they know Jesus when they shout “Hosanna,” the people reject Jesus when they shout, “Crucify Him!”  The crowds gather to hear him teach in the synagogue; they gather to shout insults during his trial.  The disciples bring Jesus a donkey to ride and place their cloaks on the donkey, preparing the way for the Messiah; they all will flee from him when he is arrested.   As we prepare for the joy of Easter, as we prepare for our own celebration of resurrection and new life in Christ in our own lives, we know that it will not be easy.  We must go through Good Friday.  In this world, while we struggle for human rights and social justice, we go through times when we feel triumphant and vindicated, such as when an election seems to turn out the way we want and we think things will change for the better; and at times when we feel defeated, such as when both sides draw lines in the sand and neither will budge, when it seems there will be no winners and only losers.  We know that Christ reigns forever, we know that love wins, but at times it seems we are in the darkest valley.  We remember this in the emotional dichotomy that is found in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a dichotomy that exists in our lives today.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 for Palm Sunday is a triumphant, joyful song, appropriate for remembering the Palms and echoing the passage Jesus quotes while in the temple, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

When we read the Old Testament lesson from the Passion readings, Isaiah 50:4-9a, we read an ancient song of the Suffering Servant.  The Jewish interpretation of these texts has long been to see the people Israel as the suffering servant–they are the ones who went into exile and were brought out of exile as an example for the world of God’s faithfulness, and also of God’s punishment.  In this song, the Suffering Servant takes his punishment from his enemies, but remains hopeful of God’s vindication and justice, as he proclaims his innocence.  A fitting song to echo the stories of Jesus we shall read this week.

Psalm 31: 9-16 for Passion Sunday is a song of suffering, praying for God’s deliverance from suffering and evil, a fitting prayer as we remember Christ’s time on the cross.

The Passion Narrative is found in Matthew 26:14-27:66 (or you can choose the shorter Matthew 27:11-54).  There is too much here to summarize well, and as I said before, it’s hard to say something new, but in Matthew’s narrative there is the concept of regret, of second-thoughts.  Matthew’s Gospel alone contains the story of Judas’ suicide, but before he kills himself, he repents of what he has done (27:3).  Pilate receives word from his wife that she has had a dream about Jesus and that he is innocent.  Yet Pilate eventually comes to the conclusion in 27:24 that he can do nothing.  Political stalemate.

Philippians 2:5-11 shares the ancient church hymn of Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming humble and obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.  “Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”  We all know the hymn.  We all know the story.

So what is new for us?  What is new is what is old, what we all need to remember: that when we read the story, when we read the narrative itself, it does not speak specifically of Jesus dying for the sins of the world.  It speaks of an angry mob, a politician who feels he can do nothing, a corrupt criminal system, and a society caught in the tension of Roman rule and the desire for Jewish independence, religious arguments while the poor were marginalized, and one man who did not fit into any of the groups vying for power in ancient Palestine who becomes the scapegoat.  Innocent and sentenced to death as a criminal.

Can the mainline church reclaim some of the language that has been lost to us?  When I look at that list above–religious idealists arguing while the poor are suffering and being kept out, Roman rulers oppressing the people and Jewish Zealots assassinating and violently attempting to overthrow the government, lawyers more concerned with keeping the law than the people being hurt by such strict interpretations–are these not the sins of the world?  Did not Jesus die because of these?

So where is the hope?  We know the story–we know that death will be defeated at the cross and that Jesus will rise.  But until then, is there hope found in Christ’s willingness to go to the cross, to be nonviolent, to become one with the lost and the forsaken?  Do we find Christ today in the cardboard boxes the homeless live in, the shelters where thousands of Japanese live, the nuclear zone where citizens still struggle to survive, among the streets of Libya, among the teachers and workers in Wisconsin, the students of Puerto Rico, the women waiting for cancer screenings at the free clinic?  Are we willing to go there, where Christ is?  That is the hope, right here and now.  We have a part to play, if we are willing.

Call to Worship:
Leader: Here comes your King, riding on a donkey!
People: Hosanna to the Son of David!
Leader: Here enters your King into Jerusalem!
People: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Leader: There lies your king, dying on a cross.
People: Hosanna to the Son of David!
Leader: There your king rests, in a tomb hewn out of rock.
People: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Leader: Your Messiah has fallen, how can you still go on?
People: Hosanna to the Son of David!
Leader: This path leads to death, and still you choose to follow him?
People: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
ALL: Come, let us follow this Christ, who lives and dies for us, and lives again.

Prayer of Confession:
Holy God, as we remember Your Son’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we confess that all too often we have been part of the crowd.   When things go our way we believe our lives are good because we worked hard; when things do not go our way we blame others for our troubles.  God, help us to take responsibility, not only for our own lives, but for the lives of our neighbors.  Forgive us when we have forgotten Your commandments and have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves, but instead have judged others, believing them not worthy of our help or our compassion.  Forgive us of our faults, and renew in us a sense of Your love, justice and mercy.   Guide us in ways we might live out Your commandments more fully in our lives.   Help us to seek Christ in the suffering in this world, and guide us as the body of Christ to be Your hands and feet.  In Your Son’s Precious Name we pray.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon
Even on the cross, Jesus cried out for forgiveness.  We are worthy of forgiveness and love.   We are called to share that love and forgiveness with others.  Let us go and share the Good News.  Amen.

Prayer:
Loving Jesus, You came to us, a teacher and healer, prophetic and yet humble.   You called us all into a new way of life, taught us the ways of God’s love and forgiveness, healing and peace.   You call to us anew this day to live into Your ways. Help us, Lord, when the world weighs down, when our lives become difficult, to not forget our calling to love You. And we cannot fully love You if we do not love our neighbors.   Even during times of trial, when it feels like we are walking in the darkest valley, Lord, remind us that You are with us, that You call us to love with our whole being, and when we love our neighbors, we love You, and we find new strength to carry on.   As we remember this Holy Week Your life, death, and resurrection, help us also to experience Your love in new ways, and to share that love with the world. In Your name we pray.  Amen.

Other Worship Suggestions:
I don’t always give these, but this Sunday, I like to mix up the traditional with the contemporary.   At my previous church, we were known to process in with our palms singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell, and go right into “All Glory, Laud and Honor;” in the middle of the service sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” and end with “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” or “Abide with me.”  Again, I feel that Palm Sunday should contain both the joy of the day as well as knowing how dark things will get towards the end of the week.   It is an emotional rollercoaster of a week liturgically: use your music to convey that.

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3 Responses to Worship Resources for April 17–Palm/Passion Sunday

  1. Tom Beers says:

    Hi Mindi,
    I just discovered your site. I love — love — this reflection for Palm Sunday! It has shaped my own approach to worship this year. Thanks.
    Tom Beers

  2. Stephanie says:

    Found this today from textweek.com, and I appreciate the call to worship here. I’m jumping off from it and weaving the Palm Sunday story from John into it to use it in worship this week. We’ll have one reader read a verse or two from John 12, then the leader and people response, then another verse or two, then the next leader and people response, etc etc through the end. Thanks!!!

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