I may have mentioned in a previous sermon that I got my start with growing tomatoes for my father-in-law; he would trade me cases of Colorado peaches for my garden grown tomatoes. He is the person that educated me about how superior a home-grown tomato was to anything available at the grocery store, and I’ve been growing them ever since.
There is a saying here in town that the time to plant their tomatoes is only after snow has melted off Peavine Mountain. It’s a good rule of thumb given that our Northern Nevada weather from year to year can be so unpredictable. Having spent more than a decade in the central part of the country (following a near-seasonless southern California upbringing), I came to believe that there were only four seasons to a year: winter, spring, summer, fall, and in that order. Not so in Nevada. (see/read chart below). This chart is especially appropriate for the weather today – Friday we were at 78, tomorrow is forecast for 48 with a few hard morning freezes thrown in for the week. So, for now, my tomatoes are sitting in my bathtub, where they get sun and water and stay warm, until it’s time to plant – with walls of water protecting them – just in case we have another false winter.
In her book, “A Time to Grow,” Kara Eidsen refers to the unpredictability of the seasonal weather shift as “climate whiplash.” She then likens this dramatic seasonal change to what she refers to in worship as “liturgical whiplash” as this morning we mark both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday in our readings. We begin our service this morning with “Hosanna! Yay Jesus! Hosanna!” We waved our (paper) palm branches, starting our service with a festive atmosphere. But before our service ends today, we will have gone from Palm Sunday to the Passion; from celebration mode to – as she says, to bam- Jesus is dead. She likens this change of mood to driving 45 mph for a while, then suddenly slamming on the brakes.
The juxtaposition of these two scriptures poses a theological dilemma for me. Part of me just wants to focus on the story of Palm Sunday, on the stories about how wonderful it was to be a follower of Jesus. I like the palm branches and the triumphal music and would rather skip the sad and depressing part of the story. But another part of me realizes that the Palm Sunday festivities lose their meaning without the passion that follows it. It’s a foreshadowing, reminding us that without a Good Friday, there could be no Easter.
By focusing on our scriptural whiplash of Jesus entering triumphantly into Jerusalem, only to be immediately betrayed, arrested and executed, can make one feel like “we’re winning and losing, all in one worship service.” But the paradox of both celebration and death is at the heart of the Christian story. There is a concept in the field of psychology called “cognitive dissonance.” It is the idea that human beings are uncomfortable with holding two dissimilar ideas in our minds at the same time. In other words, holding two ideas that do not merge cleanly into one another makes us squirm. But such ideas are at the cornerstone of the Christian belief – we believe that the reign of God exists in the here and now, but at the same time, believe that it is yet to come. We are in the “now,” but also the “not yet.” We are reminded that in the gospel, the good news can be condensed into three concise sentences: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” We also are reminded that there is no celebration of Easter morning without the darkness of death that precedes it.
As we deal with the dichotomy of our readings smushed together as they are; as we consider a week’s worth of events in a single sermon, I am struck with the concept of time. Not only are there multiple meanings of time – where the hands are on a clock at a certain point as well as the concept of an opportune moment. We talk about the critical nature of timing in music, sports, and even comedy. Yet, at the same time, the concept of time is also capricious; you know how a Saturday on vacation can slip by in a blink of an eye while a Wednesday at work where nothing goes right might feel like a week? Time flies while engaged in a pleasant activity, when surrounded by good friends and good food, but slows to a crawl when we are waiting anxiously for information, such as a surgeon’s report after a loved one has had surgery.
I wonder how that week felt for the crowds in Jerusalem, who within a few short days went from shouting “Hosanna!” to shouting, “Crucify him!” While this sudden change of heart may seem drastic, our culture is no less fickle. Celebrities may be praised and celebrated in one news cycle, only to be criticized and disparaged in the next.
We heard the cheers of “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, as would a king arriving in a humble manner, with peaceful intentions. It has been noted that while most of the pilgrims for the Passover in Jerusalem would have entered on foot, so the fact that Jesus entered humbly, although in a more note-worthy fashion than the average pilgrim, is also significant. Jesus knows he is approaching the end of his ministry and the end of his life. He does get one “last hurrah” before the end in the parade like entrance into the city. But much like our modern era, fame is fickle. Just as we can turn from a loyal fan to a social media vulture, greedily consuming the news of a celebrity or politician’s downfall, the cheering crowds who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem will be singing a very different tune in a few days.
Reading on in Luke 22 and 23 (I encourage you to read and ponder the full chapters at home this week), we see the full arc of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, one of the disciples who has traveled with him for three years. I think most people have experienced a deep betrayal at least once in their lives; perhaps not on a Judas level, but it’s why we understand the pain of betrayal by someone we love. The brutality of greeting Jesus with a sign of friendship, a kiss, makes the betrayal sting all the more. In Judas’ defense, however, he likely believed he was beginning the revolution rather than ending Jesus’ life. Nevertheless, it was a betrayal and the betrayal stung. And, all the while, Caiaphas is working behind the scenes to assure the results of Jesus’ mock trial and Pilate becomes a willing accomplice in the death of Christ. Even though, in Matthew’s gospel, he makes a show of washing his hands of the entire matter, it really doesn’t cleanse him in the act of sentencing Jesus to death.
While Jesus hung on the cross, only John, his mother and a few other women stayed with him. I wonder how the time felt for them as he hung on the cross, watching as the breath of life slowly diminishing from his mortal body. Having observed the long, drawn-out process of death with parishioners as well as my own mother, I know how slowly the clock seems to move. It’s almost as if the timepiece seems to wind down to a slow or a stop, it’s as if the sun takes forever to cross the sky, and night never seems to end. I would imagine that those who kept vigil while Jesus was dying shared in this time perception, and that for them, time seemed to slow to a near halt. I imagine that night felt endless as they cried themselves to sleep after his death and that there were moments when they were convinced that the sun would never shine again.
I know that often during the harder winters we have experienced in the past, as we have shoveled snow constantly, that we might have dreamed of an alternative to winter –or at least a quick end to the heavy snows on our sidewalks. Likewise, as some people think about skipping winter, there are those who would prefer to skip over Holy week - or Lent altogether - for that matter. The suffering Christ, and therefore, the subsequent human sufferings, seem to be too much. It doesn’t fit into their image of Christianity. There are those who want to see and talk about Jesus as a hero, or at least a Jesus that will give them health, wealth, and power. They want to ignore the concept of a suffering Christ, with its implications for us. But Jesus wasn’t able to get to Easter without the cross. In fact, without the cross, there would be no Easter, as there would be no resurrection. Without the darkness of Holy week, the light of Easter morning is not nearly so bright. Without the suffering and death, the resurrection is only a shell of what it ought to be – miraculous, full of hope and full of life.
I pray that you will consider the way of the cross as you journey through this holy week, until we gather next Sunday to celebrate the glory of the resurrection. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This sermon is heavily adapted from A Time to Grow: Lenten Lessons from the Garden to the Table by Kara Eidsen, pp.65-71, WKJ Press, 2022