Image by Sarah Jenkins.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 25, 2018
“A Social Justice Alternative to the Palm/Passion Sunday Readings”
From the Gospel of Matthew
Throughout the service, there is a running commentary (in italics) as well as hymns and litanies interspersed between the readings below. Except for the first reading from The Message, all other texts are NRSV.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
21 1-3 When Jesus and the disciples neared Jerusalem, Jesus told two of them: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there with her colt. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”
6-9 The disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. They were unnerved; people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
11 The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Invitation to Worship
One: Cry out, people of faith! Rejoice and praise God!
Our Savior draws near to Jerusalem.
All: Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!
One: Come, people of faith! Come out from your busy lives and
join the crowd in celebration.
All: Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!
One: Blessed is Jesus Christ, who did not turn back for fear.
After his baptism with John in the Jordan and subsequent 40 days in the wilderness, followed by three temptations, Jesus went about the countryside calling disciples and began to teach an alternative way of life and his confrontation with entrenched systems. Today we’re going to hear some of the reasons that led to his ultimate execution. I call it the social justice passion story, focusing more on the reasons for his death than the gruesome experience of his death alone. Instead of glorifying his death, it is a call to understand his life. And the call upon us, as his disciples, to live the life Jesus taught. As we listen, remember, everything he did was grounded in love.
Yesterday we saw our nation come up against an entrenched system. Led by brave teenagers, they will face violence – threat, intimidation, and worse. Yet, we cannot lose the hope of reconciliation with those whose views of the world are in complete opposition to ours.
The kind of social justice he sought, as Cornel West describes it, is love walking around in public. Protest without hope in fellow humanity will leave us feeling empty. “God so loved the world” that God sent Jesus. To reconcile the world. So, to the story of Jesus.
Jesus began drawing crowds by healing people with sicknesses and diseases, those in pain, and others. Jesus saw them – their full humanity. In his teachings, he turned common expectations upside down. For example, he called those who grieve “blessed.” The pure in heart, the meek, those who show mercy. And blessed are those who are harassed because they seek justice. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is theirs.
Then he continued to teach by reinterpreting the Law. Let’s be clear that he wasn’t denouncing his religion lest we play into anti-Semitism. He loved it enough to call its leadership to faithfulness. He said, “Don’t think I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I have come to fulfill them.” Then he began to teach, repeating several times, “You have heard it said, but I say to you. About murder, adultery, divorce, making vows, and others like these:
5:38 “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
In our world today, some atheists act more Christ-like than those who profess to be Christian. Jesus’ harsh critiques of the religious establishment in his day make complete sense in light of our own experience. For example, this one:
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of our God in heaven; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as our God is perfect.
6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven.
2 “Whenever you give alms to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus concluded his re-interpretations and summed it all up in this way:
The Golden Rule
7:12 “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
To the crowd of lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized, with the religious establishment standing by, he said:
6:5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to Abba who is in secret; and Abba who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your God knows what you need before you ask.
So let us pray as Jesus taught: Our Creator, holy is your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is…
Jesus didn’t just talk, teaching with empty words. He put his words into action and expected it of his disciples. This is just one of many stories:
Feeding the Four Thousand
15:32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”35 Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 He took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After sending the crowds away, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
The crowds were relentless. The disciples were often clueless. And the criticism by the authorities unyielding: “How dare you say that about us?” And sometimes we can hear it. Was it anger? Was it disappointment?
A Tree and Its Fruit
12:33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
One: Now the time has come, the day of consequences for challenging those
in authority. They clearly believed his teaching about the kingdom of God was
All: Break the chains of oppression;
One: Set the prisoner free;
All: Share your bread with all who are hungry; Clothe the naked.
One: Shelter the homeless and Give protection to the lost.
All: Why is this subversive? Isn’t this Good News?
One: Indeed, why do the powerful want to silence him?
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
17:22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.
A Third Time Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
The crowds following Jesus only got bigger, making the authorities more nervous every day. His abilities went far beyond stirring up the crowds, however. It was his miracles and healing power. It was his great love and compassion for hurting humanity. Among many stories is this one:
Jesus Heals Two Blind Men
20:29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Again, imagine the constant pressure of the crowds. He grew tired and weary, and sometimes it became evident he needed time away to be alone and pray, like this incident:
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
21:18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
As we celebrated this morning with the procession of palms, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds threw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to welcome him like a king, but a different kind; not like the one also entering Jerusalem the same day on the other side of the city, riding on a chariot surrounded by soldiers, whose power came from force, not love.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. They were unnerved; people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?” 11 The crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
But the celebration quickly transitioned to provocative action.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
12 Immediately then, Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children yelling in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; but have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
The Anointing at Bethany
26:6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one God—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant.12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
26:1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4 and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
Meanwhile, Jesus and his disciples and other followers gathered for the Passover meal.
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in God’s kingdom.”
Invitation to Communion
One: Come to this table because Christ invites us. Come hungry, ready to be fed.
Come thirsty, ready to drink. Come to re-member.
All: We come in remembrance, but much more: In recalling the life of Jesus, we are
moved by the death of Jesus, to be Christ-like among suffering humanity.
One: Let us join here not in passive recollection, but active commitment.
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
26:36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “Abba, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, here comes my betrayer.”
And so begin the actions that led to the execution of Jesus upon a cross – the means and method of the Roman Empire to send a warning to other would-be prophets. When we gather back here Thursday night, we’ll hear the events that follow his betrayal, Peter’s denials, false accusations, passing Jesus between religious and Roman authorities to avoid culpability, the crowds demand that he be executed, and finally his hanging from a cross. And then, how on the first day of the week, we learn that even though the world may attempt to silence the love of Jesus for suffering humanity, God wins. “You kill him, I’ll raise him.” But for now, we remember in the words of the litany in your bulletin:
Litany of the Passion
One: Christ Jesus, in agony in the garden of Olives, troubled by sadness and fear,
comforted by an angel;
All: Christ Jesus, betrayed by Judas’ kiss, abandoned by your friends,
delivered into the hands of the powerful;
One: Christ Jesus, accused by false witnesses, condemned to die, struck by servants,
covered with spittle;
All: Christ Jesus, disowned by your disciple Peter, delivered to Pilate and Herod,
condemned as a criminal;
One: Christ Jesus, carrying your own cross to Calvary, consoled by the
daughters of Jerusalem, helped by Simon of Cyrene;
All: Christ Jesus, stripped of your clothes, praying for your executioners, pardoning
One: Christ Jesus, entrusting your mother to your beloved disciple, giving up your
spirit into the hands of your Father/Mother, showing us how to live and how to die
through the example of your sacrifice.
All: Let us remember his death, but more importantly, let us imitate his life.
One: The cross,
All: we will take it.
One: The bread,
All: we will break it.
One: The pain,
All: we will bear it.
One: The joy,
All: we will share it.
One: The Gospel,
All: we will live it.
One: The love,
All: we will give it.
One: The light,
All: we will cherish it.
One: The shadows of death and hate,
All: God shall perish it.
Resources for this service:
I have used the litanies so many times, I'm sorry I don’t remember their source.
Songs from this service interspersed with readings:
All Glory, Laud, and Honor and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna – traditional processional hymns for Palm Sunday
For Communion: Jesus Took the Bread by Ruth Duck in the UCC hymnal
Why? By Dosia Carlson in the UCC songbook Sing Prayer and Praise. It asks questions like “Why is there suffering, chaos and torture? What is the truth in a world without sense? Where is the wisdom that leads to discernment? Who will encourage us, be our defense?” The chorus answers: “Come, Jesus Christ, bring justice to all, truth to our lips, strength to our hands, that we may follow you, day by day”
What Have You Done for Me? By Tony Alonso, published by GIA. It focuses on Matthew 25, “I am the hungry… What you have done for the least of my children you have done for me.”
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world