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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2006

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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

April 9, 2006
Palm Sunday

Today, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week, a week full of special liturgies, liturgies which—as I said in my Easter letter—are in many ways stark and bleak, reflecting the dark and sorrowful events that fill the week: the fear, betrayal, and denial of those closest to Jesus; the cynicism and contempt of those who reject him; Jesus’ own suffering and death. But this week is also full of the mighty acts of God, acts that evidence a love which remains constant even in the midst of our rejection.

In the reading of today’s Passion Gospel, it said that after Jesus’ arrest, “all the disciples deserted him and fled.” The same can be said of many church congregations following Palm Sunday: people tend to flee away until Easter. I’ve heard reasons for this ranging from the liturgies being sad to their making people feel guilty, as though God is pointing his finger at them and saying “Look at what you’ve done.” But that is a serious misperception of Holy Week, of its liturgies-and of God’s action in Christ.

Certainly this week is about our sinfulness. The reason the reading of the Passion which we did today is so powerful is because we know that at one time or another, we play every part in the story: we’re Judas who betrays Christ, we’re Pilate who is too afraid to go against the crowd and make a right decision, we’re Peter who denies Christ when it’s threatening to claim his as friend and Lord; we’re the crowd, preferring a God we can nail down to one who walks among us.

This recognition of our sinfulness is necessary for the remainder of the story to hold its power, for it is impossible to experience the enormity of God’s love if we don’t also experience the enormity of our sin. But then comes, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story”—which is not about what we have done, but what God in Christ has done for us.

For despite the abuse laid upon him, God in Christ did not turn against us but rather, as one of our Eucharistic Prayers says (quoting the Gospel of John), “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The worst that we could do to God was not met with retribution but with reconciling, forgiving love, proclaimed and embodied in Christ’s death and resurrection. It was God’s way of claiming that nothing will cause his love to grow cold or his grace to be withdrawn B for he has loved us to the end and through the end.

A priest friend of mine, Mother LaRae Rutenbar, has the strangest experiences of anyone I’ve ever known. A few years ago, she was serving as interim rector at a parish in the Diocese of Western Michigan. In that church, the main cross B which hung on the east wall behind the high altar B was a larger than life Christus Rex. A Christus Rex (which means “Christ the King”) is a cross which, rather than having the broken body of Christ on it as does a crucifix, has instead a figure of Christ on the cross in glory. Often depicted in priestly vestments and wearing a crown, his arms are outstretched full length on the cross, as he looks straight ahead and reigns in glory as priest, king and Risen Lord.

This particular Christus Rex was carved in Italy and, for shipping purposes, its arms were hinged at the shoulders. One Sunday morning, a matriarch of the parish entered her usual pew and sat down with her husband. Suddenly, the hinge on Christ’s right shoulder gave way, so that his arm swung out and pointed directly at the woman. The arm was immediately put back in place but the woman was so unnerved, she and her husband moved to the opposite side of the church. Sure enough, the other hinge gave way and the left arm swung out and pointed directly at the woman. At that point, her husband got a ladder and nailed both arms in place.

That was a good move—not only because it would relieve his wife’s growing complex, but because Christ is not known primarily for pointing his fingers at us. He is known as the one who stretched out his arms wide on the cross to welcome us home, to embrace us and bring us to himself.

During this Holy Week, we will follow Christ on the path to his death as, on Monday night, we hear the Stations of the Cross. We will experience the darkness of betrayal and abandonment on Maundy Thursday as the altar is stripped bare and the church is left in darkness. And the time we spend on our knees during the Solemn Collects on Good Friday, and our receiving communion from the Reserved Sacrament rather than celebrating a full Eucharist, help us experience the pall which falls over humanity when we rebel against and crucify the love that makes us whole.

And yet, if we understand the rest of the story, we will go from the Stations of the Cross not overcome by the wrongs we have done, but by what God in Christ has done for us despite them. We will leave Maundy Thursday not overwhelmed by a stripped altar but by a love that was willing to be betrayed and crucified for us. We will be brought to our knees on Good Friday not as miserable offenders but by sheer wonder at the gift of God’s forgiving grace.

Through the liturgies of the Church, may we, this Holy Week, come to the realization that God in Christ is not pointing his finger at us, but is stretching out his arms wide on the cross to draw us to himself, to embrace us as his own. For having loved his own who were in the world, he has loved us to the end.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission