Monday, April 7, 2014

Preacher’s Study – Year A, Palm/Passion Sunday, 2014

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
Sunday of the Passion

D. Jay Koyle

We are the stories we tell. The stories we tell form and transform us. They shape our view of the world and have the potential to spark change in the world itself. We are, or at least we are becoming, the stories we tell.

This insight, this wisdom lies behind our weekly rehearsal of the gospel story through scriptures proclaimed, rites celebrated, feasts and seasons observed.

Our “storytelling” has particular potency as the church gathers to mark the days of palms and Passion, Resurrection and New Creation.

Today's lections escort us from Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the seeming defeat of his Passion. This Sunday marks the first step of transition from our Lenten journey to the fifty-day celebration of Easter.

The central focus of today's worship is the entire Passion narrative read in all its power and drama. Essentially, two “kingdoms” are on display in the narrative of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. The one seen in Jesus and that personified by Pilate and Herod stand in stark contrast to each another. The latter stands for greed, status, ruthlessness, trust in economic or military might. That embodied in Christ is characterized by non-violence, service, compassion, solidarity with the world’s vulnerable and rejected, trust in God.

For most of us, both dominions make a persuasive claim on our lives. Through our participation in the liturgies of Holy Week, the Spirit orients us to active citizenship in the everlasting Reign of God, immersing us once again in the story of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. It is vital to recognize that this story is our story, too – the story of the baptized, the story of our world, the story of God at work today.

Attending to Paul’s words from the Letter to the Philippians can help the preacher bring home this recognition. The conflict and transformation painted on a cosmic canvass in the Gospel’s Passion narrative is inked by the apostle on the sketchpad of our life together as church. Paul exhorts us to be of the same mind as was in Christ Jesus – humility, service, fidelity to God, love – an invitation to share with Christ in the mystery of his Passion so we might know the power of his new life.

To deliver this message, however, Paul does not drone on in moralistic tones. Instead, he breaks out in doxology, counting on the Philippian congregation to join its voice with his, hoping that singing together the story of Christ will issue in unity, joy and persistence in faith. In short, Paul offers a vivid depiction of what Luther called “the celestial and eternal fire,” the self-emptying love of Christ, for the purpose of persuading his listeners (then and now) to exercise a loving concern for one another.

It is important to approach any aspect of this Holy Week’s worship not as a dramatic reenactment, but rather as an opportunity to deepen our participation in the life of the risen Christ, surrendering our lives to God so we might live in the power of God's grace.

Preaching can support this focus by encouraging listeners’ identification with Jesus. It is a common practice, of course, for sermons to liken listeners to other characters in the biblical tome. This tendency seems reasonable; it is difficult to mistake most of us for the sinless Savior. Thus a profound identification between Christ and Christian sounds presumptuous.

Certainly, the preacher must not idealize the church and its members. However, at this central moment of the church year, it will prove efficacious to explore the ultimate implication of Christians’ baptismal identity as those who have been immersed into Christ’s death so that they might live his risen life. The vitality of the church and its members is fueled when they are reminded about “who and whose” they are and then exhorted to live out of that reality, that story – their story.

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as the Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada).

"Calvary" by Marc Chagall