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Home » Sermon – 24th March 2024

Sermon – 24th March 2024

    Palm Sunday

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    Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Philippians 2: 5-11; Mark 11: 1-11

    44 years ago today Archbishop Oscar Romero, the leading Bishop in El Salvador, was gunned down at the altar where he had been celebrating Mass, at a hospital chapel in San Salvador. He had been Archbishop for three years, and had persistently condemned the government for committing human rights violations, instigating political repression, censoring the press, and doing nothing to ease the poverty of the people.

    In 1977, Fr Rutilio Grande, a personal friend of Romero, who had worked extensively among the poor, was assassinated. Romero was deeply affected, and said “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” Romero gained an enormous following amongst Salvadoreans; in fact it was said that his broadcast Sunday sermons were the main source of information in El Salvador about what was going on. He listed disappearances, tortures and murders, and told of instances of repression. No wonder he became a target. Nobody was ever prosecuted for his assassination.

    When Romero’s funeral took place in San Salvador, it was said a quarter-of-a-million mourners were present. It doubled as a demonstration against the injustices of the time and the widespread government repression and denial of human rights. The Cardinal speaking at the service said that Romero’s blood would give rise to brotherhood, love and peace. But there was violence on the streets that day, possibly orchestrated by the government, and a number of people died.

    But Oscar Romero hadn’t been on a mission to overthrow the government, as maybe some of the demonstrators had thought. He was called a ‘beloved, peacemaking man’. He spoke out against injustice, but he wasn’t interested in violent action to change things. Romero was beatified, made a saint, by the RC Church in 2015. There had been years of debate as to whether he had been killed for his faith or for political reasons.

    On Palm Sunday we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem, aware that his life was nearing its tragic, yet wonderful, climax. Some would say he was making a political statement. He chose to ride a donkey, recalling the prophecy from Zechariah: “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo! Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he; humble, and riding on a donkey; on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” People then were far more familiar with their scriptures than we are today, and they saw great significance in any event that seemed to be foreshown in their holy writings. And Jesus, too, would have known how his triumphal entry might have appeared.

    The crowds on that first Palm Sunday morning cheered and greeted Jesus, recognising him as the expected one who would establish his kingly rule. No doubt many hoped he would be the one to overthrow the occupying Romans. But, in truth, the numbers who followed him that day were probably not great. No doubt people joined the procession along the way, just as any public spectacle draws passers-by out of interest. It did not seem likely that this ragged band were in any way a threat to the Romans. And a point some of those in the crowd might have missed is that the donkey was thought of as a peaceful beast. If Jesus had wanted to show a war-like intention, he would surely have entered the city on a horse.

    Somebody has noted that Holy Week and Easter are marked by four opposites; four contradictions. There is glory – and tragedy; there is beauty – and ruins; there is sadness – and joy; there is death – and life. On the human side, we might also say that there is loyalty, and betrayal. So we find all life’s circumstances mixed into the events of Holy Week. There is brief glory on Palm Sunday. Some call these next days ‘the Great Week’ – the week on which the very foundations of our faith are based. There is tragedy; there is beauty, in God’s love for us and in the love Jesus showed to those he encountered in those days, such as the women of Jerusalem, and the penitent thief on the cross, and even to Judas. There are ruins; for Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem. We read that he wept over the city when he viewed it from the Mount of Olives. He wept that the city didn’t recognise the great moment that had come with his arrival, and that the city hadn’t known the things that made for peace. He wept that the city which for centuries had been the centre of worship for God’s people was facing its blackest day. Maybe that was something like the tears people shed when they saw Notre Dame de Paris ablaze at Easter 2019. They wept partly because the cathedral was a much-loved public building; partly because it was in some way an icon of national identity; and I guess not a few wept over the very secular nature of French society, and saw the destruction of Notre Dame as a symbol of that – a judgement even.

    Glory and tragedy; beauty and ruins; sadness and joy; death and life. Then loyalty and betrayal. We know about Judas and the thirty pieces of silver; we know about Peter and his three-fold denial. We recall on Thursday night how all the disciples forsook Jesus, and fled. But we also remember how Peter did not entirely desert the group, being there on Easter morning and running to the tomb to see if it was true that Jesus’ body was not there. We see the loyalty of the women who followed Jesus and lingered at the cross; of Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, who bravely asked that they might give Jesus a decent burial.

    In so many of these human situations we see ourselves; capable of acts of love, kindness and loyalty; but also of betrayal and unworthy actions; susceptible to being swayed by the crowd to sing ‘Hosanna’ one day and shout ‘Crucify’ the next; perhaps not vocally, but in the choices we make in life and the decisions we take.

    So how do we approach this week? There is a chant originating from the Christian community at Taize, which we may be singing on Thursday evening. “Stay with me, remain here with me; watch and pray.” Words, of course, from Jesus to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. We wait this week; first for the crucifixion to happen; then for it to end. We wait for the tomb in which Jesus was laid to be found empty, so that death can bring us to life once more.

    May we stay with the story this week; re-member the events and hear the words. May we enter the lives of the characters in the story, and their relationships with Jesus, and recognise ourselves in them, both loyalty and betrayal. May we reflect on other cities of destruction across the world – and there are so many of them at the moment; flash-points; places of public demonstration, or where any sort of public gathering is banned; injustices perpetrated, cruelty meted out.

    Above all, may we reflect on the person of Jesus this week, and decide who he was, and is. Our journey through Lent, with its emphasis on soul-searching and greater realisation of who we are, should have caused us to remember our frail human condition. As a prayer for the Office of Compline asks, “give us such sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of your passion.” And yet, our Lord is big enough and loving enough to take all that we throw at him. He still loves us despite our human frailties; still wants our praise and devotion, still longs for us to find meaning in him. May God bless us as we ponder on that great love this week, and so come to Easter with our faith, hope and love renewed.

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