In Between

Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A
March 16, 2008
Matthew 21:1-11;Matthew 27:11-54

In the name of the Holy Trinity: grace, mercy and peace to you.  Amen.

In between.
We’re in between seasons right now –
    the weather can’t figure out if we’re in the final throws of winter,
    or if we’re at the entrance to Spring.
What will it be each morning?  Frost or dew?
    Winter jacket, rain jacket, or fleece?
It’s one of those seasons when you have to listen to the radio,
    catch the morning weather report on tv,
    or check out weather.com to know how to dress.
A month from now – no worries.  It’ll be highs in the mid 60s, every day.
A month ago – no worries.  It was highs in the low 50s, every day.
But right now?  We’re in between.

In between. 
One of the unexciting aspects of traveling overseas
    is the return trip through Customs.
Depending on where you’ve traveled,
    you may or may not be asked many questions,
    may or may not have your bags opened.
But either way,
    you are likely to stand in line for a while,
    in a kind of limbo.
You’re on American soil.
You’re surrounded by employees of the American government.
You’re just a few-minutes away from being greeted by friends or family
    on the other side of the Customs screening area.
But.
But you’re not quite home yet.  The sign that says, “Welcome to the United States”
    you don’t get to see it until you pass through Customs.
    Until then,
        until you pass through that Customs booth,
        until you get your passport stamped,
        until you see that Welcome sign,
you’re not really in the United States.
You’re in between.

In between.
Today is one of those in between days.
Lent is not quite over,
    but we’ve replaced Lent’s repentant purple for a royal crimson fit for a King.
The mood is changing, as we gear up for Holy Week and Easter.
We’re in between Lent’s pious reflection and Holy Week’s sacred observances.
In between.

History explains, in part, the in between character of this day.
Before the great reforms of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s
the last two weeks before Easter were a distinct mini-season on the church’s calendar,
    called Passiontide.
In this old scheme, the Passion story was read on the fifth Sunday in Lent – last week.
    They called this Passion Sunday.
The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with palms and praise,
    what we call Palm Sunday,
    was read today, the sixth Sunday in Lent,
    one week before Easter.
And of course, in the old calendar as in the new,
    Holy Thursday and Good Friday told the story of Jesus last supper, his betrayal,
        his suffering, and his death – ie, his Passion.
Thus Palm Sunday was positioned in between
    two readings of the passion story:
the passion story proclaimed on Passion Sunday (ie, the fifth Sunday in Lent),
    and the passion story of Holy Thursday and Good Friday,
during the sixth week of Lent.
Palm Sunday was in between.

I found myself in an in between posture in a staff discussion
    about what to call this day.
We asked ourselves, is today Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday?
After those reforms of the church that I mentioned,
        reforms that not only Roman Catholics but also many protestants adopted,
    both the story of Palm Sunday – of Jesus’ grand entry into Jerusalem,
    and the story of the Passion – the long tale of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death,
        formerly read on back-to-back Sundays during Passiontide
were now moved to this Sunday,
        condensing into one Sunday what used to be drawn out over two.
If we call today Palm Sunday, we emphasize Jesus’ grand and triumphal,
    even if somewhat ironic,
    entry into Jerusalem.
After five Sundays of a repentant praise,
    we get today to sing some Hosannas!,
    even if we still keep the Alleluias under wraps for another week.
It’s a joyous day, a day of celebration, a day of a king’s triumph,
    even if Jesus is a different kind of king.
It’s a day whose energy and tone
    somewhat foreshadows the grand festal atmosphere
that we’ll experience next week on Easter Sunday.

On the other hand, if we call today Passion Sunday,
    it’s a bit darker.  It’s less a day of triumphal entry than it is
        a day of suffering and death,
        a day of the cross,
        a day of grief.

Hosannas!, then, can stay put with the Alleluias! – under lock and key for one more week.
The Passion story, with all its denial, betrayal, deception and cruelty,
    with all its suffering and gore and pain and anguish,
    the Passion story sets a different tone for worship.

So, what is today?  Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday?
Well over the past few weeks we discussed this question.
    I can’t quite call it a debate – none of us on staff took such a strong stance
    that could lead anyone to characterize our discussions as a strident debate
        in league with the too frequent cable television faceoffs between
Senators Clinton and Obama,
    but it was a discussion, a debate-lite, nonetheless.
And I found myself in between the two sides:
    a “Palm Sunday” emphasis allows us to tell the whole story over the whole week –
    triumphal entry today,
        Last Supper and betrayal on Holy Thursday,
        suffering and death on Good Friday.
Yet the Passion Sunday argument was also ringing in my ear.
    This entrance into Jerusalem was for one reason, and one reason alone –
    to go to the cross.
    There ain’t much too triumphant about it.
    It’s a fleeting victory, for sure,
a fleeting celebration, at best.
Palm Sunday?  Passion Sunday?
Palm Sunday?  Passion Sunday?
I was in between.

Perhaps our ambiguity led to the structure of today’s service –
    not quite a true Palm Sunday liturgy, not quite a true Passion Sunday liturgy.
We’re in between.
We began this worship service with a reading of the Palm Sunday narrative,
    and our children led a festive procession with palms and praise.
And yet, later in this service, we’ll read the Passion story,
    from the center aisle,
    as we leave this place.
That is, our worship service today is bookended by two Gospel readings:
    one of palms and praise at the beginning,
and one of sin, suffering and death at the end.

Right now, at this part of our worship,
    we are in between – in between Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem,
        and his fateful suffering and death.
In between.

In between.
We Christians live a kind of in between existence.
As I shared in my sermon on All Saints Sunday,
    we look back on the memory of saints and loved ones with love and gratitude,
    and we look forward to joining in that future banquet feast
when we will see those saints face to face in God’s promised new Kingdom.
But right now we find ourselves in between the witness of the saints of old
and the promise of God’s new Kingdom.
In between.

Jars of Clay,
a Christian rock band that holds the rare distinction of having good theology
and good music,
has this wonderful song called Fade to Gray,
    a song whose chorus has such a driving beat that it almost feels
as if it is tripping over itself,
perhaps like a car with an engine too powerful for its body.
But then this pulsating, pumping chorus comes to an abrupt halt,
    and the song ends with a wickedly awesome –
        wicked?  Can I say that from the pulpit? –
    a wickedly awesome, tight, a capella harmony:
        and if you follow me you’ll see all the black,
        all the white, fade to grey.
When we follow Jesus, all the black and all the white of our human divisions – they fade to gray.
Grey.  It’s an in between color somewhere along the spectrum between black and white.
Grey.  Following Jesus means we hold a grey territory, a grey middle ground.
We’re in between.

In between.
Religious life is often marked by extremes –
    the emotional and spiritual depths of pain and loss,
        when we might wonder if we believe anything at all,
        when prayer might seem futile,
        when God might seem absent; and
    the emotional and spiritual highs of mountain-top experiences,
        when prayer and praise flow simply from our lips,
        when God’s presence is intimately and keenly felt,
        when nothing seems impossible viewed through the lens of faith.
Pastor Mike talked about mountain top faith a few weeks ago,
after his return from the church’s ski retreat.
But we don’t reside at those extremes,
    not usually, anyway, and not for long.
Most of our life is lived in between,
    lived somewhere between doubt and confidence,
    somewhere between God’s distance and God’s immanence,
    somewhere between valley depths and mountain highs.
Most of our life is lived in between.

In between.
We Christians live in an in between place.
We Christians live in between the revelation of God in Christ Jesus,
    and the promise of his return in his New Kingdom.
We Christians live in between the black and white characterizations
of moralist crusaders at both ends of the ideological spectrum.
We Christians live in between a season of death & dormancy,
and a season bursting with new life.
We Christians live in between the glory and praise of Palm Sunday,
    and the suffering and agony of Good Friday.
We Christians live in between the suffering and agony of Passion Sunday
    and the glorious triumph of Easter morning.
We Christians gather in between the font of New Life
    and the meal of Christ’s presence and forgiveness.
We Christians live in between God’s unveiled revelation in
the Bible, Christ Jesus, and Sacred Tradition,
and the yet unveiling promises of God.
        This is where we live,
        This is the grey area we occupy,
        This is where we are called.
In between, where we are
bookended by the witness of the saints and the promise of a New Kingdom.
In between, where we are
    surrounded on either end by God’s revelation and God’s promises.
In between, where we are
    nurtured in faith by what God has done and what God will do.
In between.  With God on either side, it’s not a bad place to be.
Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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