Palm Sunday (Year C), 14 April 2019

April 14, 2019 | by Bruce Epperly

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Isaiah 50:4-91 Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Philippians 2:5-11 Luke 19:28-40

From time to time, I observe people noting on Facebook that their relationship status as “it’s complicated.” The same description surely applies for the preaching challenges of Palm Sunday. For preacher and congregation alike, the choices are complicated.  Will we focus on the celebrative aspects of the day, the shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving palms, or will we emphasize the pain and passion that is to come? One of my theological mentors, Bernard Loomer, once suggested that “ambiguity” should be a metaphysical category. Life is a both/and series of moments and events. Our best efforts, quests for justice and ecological well-being, may lead to pain among those whose lives are radically transformed by social change. On the other hand, ill-intended behaviors may inadvertently lead to personal growth.  Children are innocent and often self-involved. Their growth into adulthood leads to a wider vision, but that also opens the door for greater conflict and pain.

On Palm Sunday, we dance and rejoice, we also experience grief and anxiety at what is likely to come. No doubt, this is also how Jesus and his disciples felt as well. Surely, they were caught up in the adulation and some may have hoped that Jesus would take the city by storm, displacing the Temple priests and Roman leaders. Yet, I suspect that beneath the surface, they experienced the tension of not knowing what is to come and fearing that their hopes might be dashed by the harsh realities of religious and political power. What looks like Caesarian adulation is transformed into the Galilean image of humble servanthood and sacrifice in the course of a week.

We need celebrations. So, let us wave palms and proclaim, “this is the day God has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.” In times of amazement and joy, don’t let your Hosannas be half-hearted. Let them ring out. Celebrate life in its glorious wonder. Celebrate holiness, wisdom, and truth. Let the church’s children of all ages dance and sing and play games of “Hosanna” seeking! The tragedies of life should not tamp our joy and gratitude. It is important to remember that Paul’s epistle of joy, Philippians, was written from prison. As the hymn proclaims, “How can I keep from singing?” when I know that God is at work in the ambiguities of life, luring us toward new and wonderful possibilities. We can rejoice in the moral arc of history aiming for justice despite the injustices we see on a daily basis. For large souled people, celebration inspires service and the quest that the marginalized and vulnerable also experience celebration.

As a homilist on Palm Sunday, I will focus on Philippians 2:5-11. Paul begins with a Christian koan, “let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ.”  What does it mean to have the mind of Christ? What does it mean to have a divine and Messianic mind?

To give us a glimpse of the mind of Christ, Paul imagines Christ’s relationship to the world. The Christ-mind is ultimately relational. In the words of Bernard Loomer, Christ wields relational and cooperating power rather than unilateral and dominating power.  Christ chooses to be one of us and one with us, experiencing our joys and sorrows, letting go of apathy and independence and plunging into the glorious and often tragic interdependence of life.

Paul’s Philippian listeners would have discerned the difference between the power of Christ and the power of Caesar. Christ’s power is relational, empathetic, empowering, and unitive. Within Christ’s circle of power, there are no outsiders. Every knee will bow out of joyful gratitude at the love we have received. Caesar’s power is violent, unilateral, differentiating, and exclusive. It builds walls of us and them, in and out, and friend and foe. Foes are excluded from grace and consideration. They are non-persons to be treated at our discretion, not valuable apart from our interests. Ultimately, we bow to Caesar out of fear of what might happen should we step out of line, protest, or state a contrasting opinion, not gratitude or love.

The mind of Christ is the mind of stature, or size, to quote Bernard Loomer. It is expansive, graceful, and willing to entertain diverse and contrasting viewpoints without losing its spiritual center. The church modeled after Philippians 2:5-11 sees diversity – ethnic, theological, spiritual, sexual, liturgical – as a potential gift rather than a danger. It looks for common ground with contrasting viewpoints, recognizing the importance of humility. It recognizes its limitations and finitude and sees these concrete limits as inspirations for holy relatedness with those who differ from ourselves. The church modeled after the Christ-mind follows the mystic vision of “God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” There is no outside to Christ’s love, nor should there be an outside to ours.

This stature comes from a sense of God’s nearness, a trust – in the spirit of Isaiah – that God helps us in all the circumstances of life. Trust in God opens our eyes to possibilities for creative transformation amid contrast, challenge, and conflict.

What is our “ultimate allegiance,” to use the words of Disciples of Christ pastor Bob Cornwall? Is it power that affirms or power that destroys? Is it power that grows when others are creative or zero sum power, threatened by contrasting viewpoints or the empowerment of others? In God’s realm, power is constantly expanding, igniting new forms of power, embodying the power of love, affirmation and relationship. When another authentically benefits, it benefits everyone, including myself. In light of the words of Philippians 2, the Passion readings can be understood not only as tragedy but as the incarnation of relational power that transforms the world through partnership, empowerment, and willingness to sacrifice for God’s realm “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Senior Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts. Prior to moving to Cape Cod, he served on the faculties and of Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He also served for nearly twenty years as Protestant University Chaplain at Georgetown University and for seven years as Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor of spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. He is the author of fifty books in the areas of process theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World; Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.