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“Will You Come and Follow Me?”: Palm/Passion Sunday

Sunday, April 14, 2019:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56

Some people, and I’m sure some here, keep a diary, or they scrap book, or something like that. At our home we have a book for keeping track of theatre productions we see. This usually means that six or eight months after seeing a play, we finally get to filling out the book, and struggle to remember the characters, and the actors, and how effective the set design and direction were…

Well, along these lines, but certainly more accurate than our theatre diary, is the travel diary of a woman named Egeria, who lived in the 400s; really not too far from the time of Jesus and the early Church. She went to Jerusalem and wrote down, and preserved for us today, her experiences, following as she did the observance of Holy Week. And it’s not hugely different from what we’ve experienced in our lives:

The bishop and all the people rise from their places, and start off down from the summit of the Mount of Olives. The babies and the ones too young to walk are carried on their parents’ shoulders. Everyone is carrying branches, either of palm or olive, and they accompany the bishop in the very way the people did when once they went down with the Lord. They go on foot all down the mount to the city, and all through the city to the main church, but they have to go pretty gently on account of the older women and men among them who might get tired.*

“Everyone is carrying branches, either of palm or olive… the very way the people did when once they went down with the Lord.” On Palm Sunday in our sort of play, we recall this fateful moment in time when a grassroots, largely rural travelling movement turns from the countryside and makes a beeline for the very heart of the people’s economic, political, and religious life. These ripples on the edges of society can no longer be ignored when the crowds descend upon the capital, waving their branches, shouting that God’s promises from long ago were now about to come true. (And we heard that in one of the accusations against Jesus: “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began, even to this place.”)

Like the crowds that followed Jesus into Jerusalem, and like Egeria and the Christians of her day who carried palm and olive branches as they made their way into Jerusalem, and the Church that to this day follows the Lord’s command by breaking bread and sharing the cup; today, and the days that follow, are about following Jesus.

The crowds follow Jesus into Jerusalem.

The disciples, after the meal, follow Jesus to the Mount of Olives.

Peter follows Jesus at a distance, as he’s brought into the house of the high priest.

Eventually Simon of Cyrene is caught up in all this, and the cross is put upon his shoulders, “and [they] made him carry it.” He follows behind Jesus, with that cross.

And “[a] great number of the people followed Jesus, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.”

And after the horrible act is done, “all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

And then we learn of Joseph of Arimathea, part of the Council that accused and questioned Jesus, though “[he didn’t agree] to their plan and action.” He must have been following events after the Council had met that night, and he goes to Pilate, and succeeds in securing the body. And he buries Jesus in a tomb.

All these characters — all these people — following Jesus, in that initial high point, with branches raised. And then following Jesus into the depths of human cruelty, with cross raised.

Now, whether you belong to ‘this’ or ‘that’ denomination; or hold ‘this’ view or ‘that’ view about Jesus, and what happened on that first Easter; or think that the Christian life should look like “this” or look, instead, like “that,” and bring you into alignment with “this” political party, or “that” other one… something that we can probably all agree on is that our common faith has to do with following Jesus.

So here we are, beginning the most holy of weeks in the Christian calendar. Confronted with all of these characters: all of them, in some way, follow Jesus.

And this week, before the stone is rolled away, and the tomb found empty, we’re asked to throw ourselves into this story. And not just at the empty tomb, at the ‘happily ever after.’ But instead, as the mob approaches Jesus, and Judas betrays him with a kiss. We’re asked to follow Jesus at this time that Jesus describes as “the power of darkness.”

So — through the daily gospel readings suggested in the grey bulletin, and the Holy Week services offered every day of this week throughout the city, noted in the red bulletin — with the disciples who left everything behind, with Egeria in the fifth century, and with millions of people around the world in our own day, and with all those characters of varied experiences and motivations, Jesus is saying: “follow me.”

[The sermon was followed by the singing of the hymn “Will You Come and Follow Me.”]

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* The excerpt from Egeria’s diary is taken from Michael Perham’s book One Unfolding Story: Biblical Reflections through the Christian Year (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2018), 41.