The tone of our worship this morning is schizophrenic. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. We reenact Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with joy in our hearts and then only minutes later take part in his crucifixion. And if we do any of this with sincerity and the gravity it deserves our jubilation hardens into confrontation. The confrontation is not with one another, but with Jesus and our own sin. This is the day our sinfulness is laid bare. Our sin has become incarnate as the body of Jesus. We have no choice but to confront it, rather starkly and honestly, when we yell out “Let him be crucified!” “Let him be crucified!”
Palm Sunday is also the day we can accept or deny our own Passion narrative. I implore you this morning to allow yourself get lost in Matthew’s account of the Passion. While it requires a great effort of imagination to recapture some of the intensity of Jesus’ struggle we must do it for the sake of ourselves. We know the story well; we recount it year after year. But I’m afraid Jesus’ words, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” are too familiar. They go in one ear and out the other because of our thoughtlessness of familiarity. But this is no time to be cowardly, apathetic, or allow your mind to wander to your brunch plans after church. Each day this week we will move deeper into the heartrending pain of Jesus’ abandonment and crucifixion. I realize that not everyone is willing to enter into the Passion, especially one’s own. But Palm Sunday is also the day we can accept or deny our own Passion narrative. If you are willing, count yourself blessed, because your willingness means that Jesus is moving in your heart to draw you closer to him. Here’s the deal: If you choose to accept your passion—your own suffering and death—then you can choose to be reborn too. But you cannot have birth without labor, most especially rebirth.
I assumed that when I made my conscious decision to commit myself in mind, body and spirit to Holy Week all it would take would be an honest assessment of my insides and a real heart to heart confession with my confessor. I accomplished both of these things. But what I didn’t expect was that I would live in real time a Passion that was not of my own making. Let me explain. On Thursday evening, Andrew and I received a frantic phone call from our next-door neighbor. She had just received a telephone call from the chaplain in the emergency room at MCV telling her that her 43-year-old husband was in cardiac arrest and that the paramedics had just brought him to the E.R. I put on my clerical collar and raced to the hospital. As I drove I had a rather loud and animated conversation with God. I pleaded with the Lord not to take our beloved friend, for his life to be saved. I begged for a miracle. I remember taking on the persona of a deep-voiced televangelist and invoking the name of Jesus Christ to come upon him and heal him. Desperate times require desperate measures.
What we learned when we got to the hospital was that he had been working out at the downtown YMCA, and when he finished his workout and stepped off an exercise machine, he collapsed. But as God would have it, a nurse was working out beside him and she immediately began C.P.R. And according to other witnesses, the staff at the Y had a defibrillator on his chest and had shocked him back to life in just minutes.
Thursday night and all day Friday and Saturday were the days we spent in a vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane. Anytime one’s heart stops there is always a fear that the oxygen deprivation caused brain impairment. To prevent further damage, and for his heart to begin healing, the doctors sedated him, put him on a ventilator, and induced hypothermia. The theory of hypothermia treatment is taken from those who drown in a frozen lake because they are more likely to be resuscitated with little brain damage. Our friend lay in this chilled state for 48 hours. It took another 12 hours for his body temperature to return to normal. And it was the expectation last night that he would be slowly brought out of sedation to consciousness, but pneumonia interfered. I can’t tell you how many times I thought of Jesus’ wrought-filled plea, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
I wish I could tell you that our friend is fine and will fully recover. While that is what we hope and pray for it is just too early to tell. We have had to place him in God’s care—he being so vulnerable and we feeling so helpless. What I have learned this weekend is that we are called to surrender. Surrender our need to control, surrender our hopes, fears and anxieties, surrender our sinfulness. Our passion is really about surrendering to God; giving it all up to the Lord so that he can sort it out.
I want to leave you with this image. Imagine Jesus nailed to the cross, slowly suffocating in all its horror. Now imagine yourself nailed to a cross and placed inches from him—face to face, breath to breath, arms to arms, hands to hands, chest to chest, knees to knees, feet to feet nailed and bleeding as one.
As Jesus cries out for the last time and gives up his breath, he implores you exhale all of your pain, worry, fear, and sin that you can muster into his mouth so that it too will be given up at last. You will surrender it to the Lord in death, so that you may have life. Is this something you are capable of? Can you empty yourself on the cross with the same obedience of Jesus? This act is the greatest gift of love one can ever receive. Our surrender is nothing if it is not complete trust in God with the ultimate knowledge that Jesus’ resurrection will free us from ourselves.