Palms and Crosses

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A long time ago, I stood in front of God… and the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Platteville, Wisconsin… and I confirmed my baptism.

And as part of that, the congregation gave me two gifts.

One was a Bible. A New Revised Standard Version with a soft red cover, and deli-thin pages, and my name right there on the front… and the cover on upside-down-and-backward. They replaced that Bible a few weeks later, and put the upside-down-and-backward one in the church library, and it sat there for years. But I checked recently, and it’s not there, anymore.

The other gift was a necklace. A gold cross on a gold chain.

The cross is the symbol of our faith. We emboss it on Bibles and engrave it on stones. We wear it on necklaces and print it on bumperstickers. We sing songs about it and preach sermons on it. We have a small one on our altar… and a bigger one on our steeple… and a bigger one still—connecting the orb of the earth to the crown of it’s king—handing in the front of our sanctuary.

And, sometimes, especially during Lent, we proclaim that we are saved… because Christ was on the cross.

This is the final Sunday of Lent. This is the final Sunday of this season of confession and repentance, of fasting and prayer. This is the moment when we step into Holy Week. And things are a little wibbly-wobbly; things are a little timey-wimey.

On the one hand, this is Palm Sunday…

A long time ago, a prophet told the people, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

And now, Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem as the victorious but humble king. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem in a direct challenge to all of the power of Rome.

And the people are celebrating. They are littering the ground with their cloaks and waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”

On the one hand, this is Palm Sunday. This is a day of celebration. The world is about to turn!

But, on the other hand, because of the weirdness of the lectionary, this is also the Friday after Palm Sunday…

Over the last however many hours, Jesus has been betrayed, and arrested, and dragged before Jewish authorities and Roman authorities. He has been given a cross—the Roman method of execution—and he has dragged it behind him to Golgotha… the Place of the Skull.

And now, Jesus is hanging from that cross by nails driven through his wrists. And there is a sign on the cross—anyone who walks by can read it—that says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

And the authorities are waiting him for die.

I know… Lent is a hard season. Over the last few weeks, we have watched as Jesus as thrown the rules out the window for the sake of love… and Peter has kept quiet in the face of injustice… and Jesus has told the Roman authorities about the truth… and the Jewish authorities have chosen the world-as-it-is over the world-as-it-could-be.

And we have heard about how we hold onto the rules that we know… and keep quiet in the face of injustice… and wrap ourselves in reassuring lies and comforting illusions… and choose the world-as-it-is over the world-as-it-could-be… again and again and again.

And it would be so nice to have a Sunday of celebration. It would be so nice to litter the ground with our cloaks and wave palm branches and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the one who leads us out of the valley of the shadow of death!”

And believe me, I want to give that to you. And believe me, something wonderful is coming.

But the reality is… after the celebration of Palm Sunday is the sorrow of Good Friday. After the palms is the cross.

And we—Christians, people who follow Christ, it’s right there in the name—have worked so hard to make that okay. We have made that cross the symbol of our faith. We have embossed it on Bibles and engraved it on stones. We have worn it on necklaces and printed it on bumperstickers. We have put small ones on altars… and bigger ones on steeples… and bigger ones still in the fronts of our sanctuaries.

We have proclaimed that we are saved because Christ was on the cross; a good and worthy sacrifice, bloody and broken, paying the debt for our sins.

And I am wondering… if maybe… we have gotten it upside-down-and-backwards. I am wondering if we tell that story because it is easier than admitting the truth: that we are happy to celebrate Christ… and then to drive nails through his wrists and hang him on a cross to die.

I am wondering if the cross is not so much our salvation as it is our sin.

There’s a story. You might know it.

Once upon a time, there was a soldier. The soldier hadn’t been baptized, yet. He wasn’t officially a Christian, yet. But he was thinking about it and he had heard the stories.

One day, he was on his way into town, and he saw a beggar by the city gate. It was was winter, and it was cold, and the beggar was naked. And soldier watched as person after person just walked by, and the beggar feebly begged for clothing, or shelter, or warmth.

Finally, the soldier took his cloak… and cut it in half… and gave half of it to the beggar.

And that night, the soldier had a dream. He dreamt that Christ was there, wearing the half of the cloak that the soldier had given to the beggar, saying to the angels, “Look at the gift that this soldier gave to me! And he’s not even baptized! He’s just thinking about it!”

Christ lives in every pleading face and outstretched hand. Christ stands in line at never soup kitchen and food pantry. Christ suffers in every psych ward and prison cell. Christ travels on the refugee road. Christ cries themselves to sleep because they are not welcome at home or at school or at church. Christ walks through the valley of the shadow of death, dragging a cross behind him, on his way to the grave.

And if it is true that the Christ-in-need received the piece of cloak that that soldier gave to that beggar… then it is also true that the Christ-in-need receives every harm, and hears every cutting remark, and knows every hateful thought, and feels every landed punch…

… … …

I am standing up here like a normal person. And I am a normal person: I have been unwilling to stand up, unarmed and unarmored, in front of the powers of the world-as-it-is, for Christ. I have been happy to drive in the nails and lift high the cross, in partnership with the powers of the world-as-it-is, to crucify Christ. 

I am standing up here like a normal person. And I am a normal person: one way or another, there is blood on my hands.

And we—Christians, people who follow Christ, it’s right there in the name—have worked so hard… to make that okay.

And it’s not. It’s just… not.

On the one hand, this is Palm Sunday. This is a day of celebration. This is a day to litter the ground with our cloaks and wave palm branches and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”

And I am ruining it by telling you that the story doesn’t end there. I am ruining it by telling you that this celebration will turn to crucifixion… that palm branches will become crosses.

But I will also tell you this: the good news… the best news… the news that makes this entire story worth telling… is that this story does not end with the cross. We are not left in our sin. We are not left in the shadow of the crosses that surround us. This blood can be washed off and we can be made clean.

We can shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we can mean it!

But that… is next week.

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