Sermon Archives

Sunday, March 20, 2016
Palm Sunday
The Reverend Dr. Sam Portaro, Jr., Guest Preacher
From Ashes to Easter

This day’s a challenge. The ceremony of the palms and the long gospel narrative are the liturgical equivalent of binge-watching Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey. The most crucial week of Christian history and theology is crammed into this service. One option would be to focus on the entry into Jerusalem with an eye to dramatization, a kind of you-are-there approach. And that’s certainly part of what this week is about.

But as the prologue in today’s Order of Service states, “We do not ‘re-enact’ these last days of Jesus’ life. This rite, and the week that follows, is not the Christian equivalent of a Renaissance Faire; we don’t dress up as period characters and pretend impossibly to be living in biblical times. When we step into these experiences, we don’t lose or leave behind the realities of our selves and our world. We enter these experiences fully as we are, for only in this reality can we truly experience this journey, a journey each of us shares in intimate relationship with Jesus.

Indeed, there’s a kind of mutual meeting in this strange week that commences today. We maintain that God is with us, and that God is uniquely present to us in the person of Jesus, thus Holy Week is about God’s stepping into our story as much as about our stepping into God’s story. The sharing of the stories is but the frame of our meeting. 

One of the rich memories of my childhood in the rural South is the gathering of family, sometimes in relaxed joy, and always in times of tragedy. My maternal grandparent’s home and the surrounding yard was where we most often congregated. Food was always part of the gathering: homemade ice cream or cold watermelon on hot summer Sunday afternoons, massive quantities of each aunt’s homemade specialties at celebrations, and the neighbors’ comforting dishes when we sat with a coffin cradling a loved one, the house perfumed with the mingled scents of flowers and black coffee. On every occasion, joyous or otherwise, the heart and soul was the stories. Lore, love and certainly some lies, all flowing like a stream in which we played even as it carried us through time itself.

This week is much the same. This is the annual reunion of the Christian family.

Perhaps that’s why, as I prepared to address you on this Palm Sunday, my thoughts kept returning to Easter week 2012, spent in my father’s hospital room, where he’d been for several weeks. I’d flown from Chicago to our childhood home in North Carolina so my brothers and sisters and their families, all of whom lived quite close to Dad and had cared for him for many years, could have their holiday weekend.

Dad was 91 years old, battling pneumonia, as he had every spring and every autumn for several years. He was tired and slept most of the week I sat with him. Friday, which happened also to be the ninth anniversary of my other’s death, Dad and I had our last private, face-to-face conversation. I would return to Chicago that afternoon.

What did he most want, I asked. He replied that he wished only to be with Mom, and he knew the road that led there. And he wanted to go home. No more medical treatment or intervention. I assured him I’d honor his wish, encourage my four younger siblings likewise, and not to worry about us—that we’d take care of each other, the love he and Mom had nurtured in us would sustain us. Shortly thereafter he went home, tended by hospice, and shortly thereafter died in his own bed.

I see more clearly now how that time was a parting of ways as Dad pursued his vocation and we, his family, pursued ours. It was as if we tracked in parallel universes, each of us caught up in our respective journeys, travelling different paths, seeing different futures.

Pondering that day of Jesus’ return to Jerusalem, my mind and heart kept returning to that week with my father and family as we stepped into a life-changing transition. I began to see symmetries, and to appreciate the power and importance of family and familiar stories to carry us from life into death and into life again and again.

Jesus hadn’t been in Jerusalem since he’d been ejected from the city with a warning that should he dare to return, he risked death by stoning. There was always a possibility the threat had been an idle one, that he might return to a cooler political climate, and calmer heads—even as most hospice patients know there’s a possibility that their time in care may extend for months or years—but Dad, Jesus and each of us knows that death is inevitable.

Jesus’ life and ministry had reached a definitive point. He’d run out of words—in all that text we endured this morning, he has precious little to say. His mission to encourage and embolden us all to move beyond fear and place our trust in God demanded much more than words. But with few and varying exceptions, those around him were unwilling or unable to understand or accept his decision.

Though Thomas persuaded his colleagues to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem, once there—as the events of this week attest—to a person they resisted. Judas wasn’t the only one to part ways; he was only the first physically to walk out. The words and actions of most of the others indicate they’d departed in heart, mind, or both by the time Jesus was kneeling to wash their feet. The rest would fall away one at a time as if to emphasize the uniquely intimate experience of life’s final transition for each.

This week’s stories, all our stories, share one element in common: they mark the passage of time, the terrain of change. As one poet sums the entire tale from ashes to Easter:

Today is fresh, and yesterday is stale.

Today is fast, and yesterday is slow.

Today is yes, and yesterday is no.

Today is news, and yesterday’s a tale.

The grave is empty. Last night it was full.

The glorious means of death was once a shame.

Someone is god who had a common name

That you might give a child or animal.

It happens overnight. The world is changed.

The bottles in the cellar all decant.

The stars sign the new cosmos at a slant.

And everybody’s plans are rearranged.

Today we meet our maker, in a flash That turns the ash of yesterday to flesh.(1) Today we enter the epic story of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Share this journey with God and each other. Step into the stream of the human story—Jesus’ story, your story, our story—to be carried in and through time, from life to death and back to life again.

(1) Mark Jarman, Epilogue to Unholy Sonnets, The Christian Century, March 27-April 3, 2002, p. 11.