The Swiss Alps are a place of incomparable beauty. This past week, they have also become a symbol of human tragedy and incomparable loss.
The contrast is stark and inescapable. Those astonishing peaks, covered with snow and rising to tremendous heights against the sky, challenging hikers and skiers and enthralling all of us with their magnificence. And now – the backdrop to a most horrible event, an act in which 150 people were crashed into a mountainside and killed, and perhaps also a consequence of terrible, incomprehensible, illness. The contrast between beauty and horror stuns us all.
So it is with Palm Sunday.
Today: people filled with excitement, branches waving - a parade
By Friday: the crowds turned, the shouts turned to jeers - a crucifixion.Our lives, our world, are filled with such juxtapositions. Beauty and horror, goodness and brokenness, the surging of hopes and the destruction of death, pressed against one another, operating in the same theatre of life.
But always, always undergirded by the steadfast love of God. The chesed of God. The unwavering mercy of god.
Our Psalm today, Psalm 118, refers to the chesed of God, in our translation the steadfast love of God. God’s steadfast love endures forever. Chesed is sometimes translated as the loving-kindness of God or, as I have done in our sermon title, the unwavering mercy of God. What does that mean? A love that persists, a love that is unfailingly generous, a love that invokes mercy – forgiveness in the face of all transgressions. A love that prevails, no matter what.Today's psalm, with chesed as its center, is a favorite, is a well-known and beloved song of the Hebrew people. It is possibly the most quoted of the Psalms. It was Martin Luther’s favorite psalm, which makes sense, given that early German reformer’s immersion in a profound sense of the love of God.
· The psalm reminds us of
· God’s abundant love – The abundant love of the God who saved the people of Israel.
· Impervious love – The love of a God whose goodness never ceases.
· Extravagant love – The love of a God who fills the universe with light.
· Reversing love – The love of a God who holds up what we reject, who transforms the discarded cornerstone into the chief cornerstone.
· Unwavering love – The love of a God who is steadfast in the face of all trials.
Psalm 118 is an articulation, an expression in word and song, of this extravagant love of God.
And our gospel story, the story of what we call Palm Sunday, is the enactment of that love --
A love reflected by Jesus
· Deliberate love – Look at all the planning that goes into this Palm Sunday event. Commentators tell us that over half of the story is devoted to the procurement of the donkey. This donkey acquisition is not haphazard event; Jesus knows exactly what he wants and proceeds carefully – all of his actions are signs of a deliberate love.
· And a humble love – it is, after all, a donkey that Jesus chooses. There’s nothing wrong with a donkey – people often rode donkeys – but a donkey doesn’t present the same image that a prancing white stallion does. Surely a king – a secular king, at least, a Roman king, a warrior king – would produce a horse to match his status. Only a humble love would deem a donkey an appropriate mode of transportation.
· And Jesus’ love is a courageous love. By this point in his journey, he knows that a violent death awaits him. And yet he straddles that donkey and rides into the city in which trial and crucifixion loom head. A courageous, steadfast love indeed.
· And an all-encompassing love. Jesus knows by now to expect betrayal; he knows that he is going to serve a meal in which he will give of himself to one who will betray him, and give of his life of behalf of others who will do the same. But his love is so broad, his mercy so unwavering, that he looks beyond those realities to the greater one, the one in which death will be no more.
This week is a reminder that we, made in the image of God, do not always mirror that sort of love
Like the crowds, our waving of palm branches does not signify an unwavering love.
· When love is inconvenient or difficult for us, we back off. I think of the day when it was so very cold and we cancelled our community meal – not my finest moment in ministry – although salvaged by the leadership of Doris and Sandy and all the rest of you who showed up anyway to prepare bags of food, it was still a day on which I was reminded that, in my case, at least, love is not always steadfast.
· When our standards are challenged – I heard a radio show this past week in which the guests talked about the deserving and undeserving poor – and that’s a distinction we sometimes make, isn’t it? We know that we are called to serve the poor – but if they don’t “measure up,” we may find that our love is a bit on the shaky side.
· When subversive action is required - we shy away. When we are asked to go public with our faith convictions, we often stop cold. Maybe our love is not as strong as we had thought.
· And when the lure of the many push us this away and pull us that, we succumb, don’t we? That inner teen-aged voice which cries out, “But everyone else is doing it . . .” or “But no one else has to do this!” – that one stays with is, doesn’t it?
Like the crowds, we put down our branches and we turn away.
· But Jesus rides on - the rejected cornerstone.
· Jesus rides on - the embodiment of complete, self-sacrificing, self-realized, enduring love.
· The starkness of his courageous self-giving against the backdrop of greed, corruption, and resistance that will kill him is not yet apparent.
· The boundlessness of his love is not yet clear.
· The power of his very being -- to destroy and to conquer death itself -- awaits another Sunday.
We embark upon this week with a parade. A festival week in Jerusalem - a celebration of Passover, of liberation, of freedom.
But we know from our vantage point that it is to be a week of contrastsA week not unlike this last one, in which a plane filled with jubilant travelers was crashed into the mountains.
By the end of this Palm Sunday week in Jerusalem, the laughter will have turned to taunts, the celebration to accusations, and the donkey will have given way to a cross.Today, we celebrate -- we wave palms -which we will then put down -- in honor of the one upon whose steadfast love we depend.
Today we celebrate - and then we pause.Our text gives us space to pause. Have you ever paid attention to the final scene in temple. The parade is over, the crowds have gone home and, the Bible tells us:
“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.”He is alone, a solitary figure whom the crowds have deserted.
Evening has fallen - the light of day has been quenched.
This is no ordinary ruler taking command of the city.This is the figure of steadfast love, of unwavering mercy, of undeterred self-donation --- the ultimate sign of grace and courage in a world sorely in need of both.
When you put your palm down today, do so gently. When you put your palm down, remember that it is a symbol - not merely an object to be waved and discarded -- but a symbol of that which is unwavering: the love of God and the gift of Jesus, the one born not to conquer a city, but to claim victory for life over death. Amen.