The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - March 20, 2016


The Rev. Robert Vodra


     This is a strange week for ministers.  You have all heard the stories before, Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a colt or maybe a donkey.  And then we jump ahead, in this one hour this Sunday, to Jesus being hung on the cross, and dying. 

     We are ending Lent next week, the 40 days, not counting Sunday’s leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This is the climax of our story.  This is where the death star blows up, the empire is saved.  Or, in Biblical terms, this is where Jesus eats his last supper, gets arrested, is sentenced to death, almost gets out of it when one prisoner is released.  Jesus is hung on a cross, yells out “Father into your hands I commend your spirit.”  The darkness falls over the land, the veil in the temple is ripped in two.  And ministers get to try to squeeze almost that whole week of Jesus’ life into 30 minutes, after we celebrate Palm Sunday this morning.

     If I were able to redesign the church year, Palm Sunday would have been last week, two weeks before Easter.  That is a great story, with a lot of really interesting pieces to focus on in our sermon.  What does it mean that our King, our Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the city he will be killed in, on a colt?  What is a colt?  A young male horse.  So Jesus was getting a pony ride.  Or maybe on a Donkey, which were beasts of burden that could be ridden, but not proudly.  And the celebration, if Jesus knew this was going to be the end of his life, which he did predict, why were people celebrating this arrival?  Jesus knew that he was walking toward his death, but rather than a solemn progression, there is cheering, people pulling down palms to line the road, and here comes Jesus, our King, on his pony ride. 


     And then, on, what is currently Palm Sunday or Palm/ Passion Sunday, I would have just the passion story, those days and hours leading up to Jesus death.  Lots of great stuff in all those stories also.  How Jesus was betrayed by his closest followers.  Given over for a small reward, a few silver coins.  Ministers can explore how it feels to be betrayed.  How it feels when those you think are your closest friends are really not invested in the relationship, and would be just as happy with some kind of reward as they are with your friendship.  

     Now some time ago, when religion has a larger role in our society than it does today, these two days were not combined into one.  On the Sunday before Easter you would have Palm Sunday, where you could really explore those Palm Sunday questions.  And then on Maundy Thursday, you would have another service about the last supper, the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, then on Good Friday you would have a service with Jesus’ death.  You may participate in an Easter vigil, and then as the sun comes up on Easter Morning you celebrate the resurrection.  Now we will have a Maundy Thursday service and a Good Friday service, but they are hard for some people to get to.  If you think a lot of things compete for time on a Sunday morning, I can assure you that many more things compete for your time on a Thursday evening.  And Friday’s service will be during the day, impossible for many people to get to.  You have work and school.  It is important, in my mind, to offer those services, but we also need to squeeze Passion into this Sunday.

     Little education for you.  Passion of Christ refers to Jesus’ suffering, it comes from the Latin patior, which means agony or suffering, and really is the story of all that happens to Jesus between his time in the garden with his disciples until he dies on the cross.  Although in church we can talk about suffering and agony, they are not happy terms, so passion kind of wraps up those feelings into a good term.  And I guess it does make sense, if you have a passion for baseball, you really get into the game, there are times of joy, but also times of suffering and agony.  And even passion for a friend or partner, it is the good and the bad, hopefully more of the good, but also includes suffering and agony. 

     But if we still did just Palm Sunday, and didn’t include the Passion, you could miss that important part.  You would hear about Jesus coming into Jerusalem one week.  Bit strange, but he is young and healthy.  And then next week you come out to find he was killed, but it is OK because he is risen. 

     Wouldn’t life be great if that were the case?  Wouldn’t it be perfect to go from high point to high point without having to go through any of the valleys?  We all have high points, perhaps the day we graduated from school, or the day we got married, or the day we had a child, the day we got the dream job, maybe the day we retired.  But there are also the low points, the worry that we might not graduate because we failed a class or were short of credits.  The marriage that didn’t work out like we thought it would.  The loss of a child, or even having a child move away and not staying connected like we would like.  The dream job that we were fired from, leaving us unemployed.  Or even the retirement where the resources we thought would keep us comfortable are running out or have run out. 

     If we go from Palm Sunday to Easter morning, we don’t hear about Jesus’ trials, his suffering, his being betrayed and his friends running away at his hour of greatest need.  And this is probably one of the most important parts of the Bible for me.  Looking back at my life, I have been pretty lucky.  With the help of my parents and grandparents planning ahead, my working and some great scholarships I was able to leave college and grad school without any debt.  In a few months Keri and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.  We have two healthy, happy boys.  Of course they are not perfect, nobody is, but things could be a lot worse.  We own a nice house, or rather a bank owns a nice house that we live in, and someday will actually own.  And I am pretty healthy.  My back is not the best, but my body is holding up OK.  I don’t look at any walks and think that I cannot do that, it is too long or too hard. 

     But of course I have had low points also.  I remember one night after college before seminary.  I had taken a year off, and had been working in Missouri.  I could sense it was not working out, and decided to leave.  I packed pretty much everything I owned into a Mazda 626, and I hooked up a canoe trailer that I had purchased behind it.  What couldn’t fit in the car, was tied in trash bags to the trailer.  I was headed to Connecticut, going to stop off at my parents, and then was not really sure where I was headed.  I had been thinking about applying to seminary, but had not done it yet.  I didn’t have a job.  My job in Missouri had paid a small stipend, so what I had in my pockets was pretty much my life savings. 

     I pulled off in a truck stop in Pennsylvania, it was about midnight.  I had learned that I could usually get a pretty large, inexpensive meal in places like that.  I ate and then went back out to my car.  I could afford a meal, but not a hotel room, and it was getting late.  Still have about 8 hours of driving ahead of me.  So I pulled out my sleeping bag, it was February, put the back of the seat back as far as it would go, which was not very far and tried to get a few hours of sleep.  Trucks rolling in and out all night long.  People walking by.  Knowing that many of my possessions were just sitting out on the trailer, tied down with some rope.  Would be really easy for someone to grab something and walk off with it. 

     At one point I remember waking up and thinking “What am I doing here?”  I am 22 years old, traveling across the country with almost all of my possessions, going to a place where I know I will be welcomed and have a bed, for at least a short time.  I don’t have a job lined up to go to.  Since collage all of my friends had scattered around the country.  I had enough money for another meal or two, and gas to get to Connecticut, but by the time I got there I would be digging for spare change in the cup holder.  This was not what I wanted.  I didn’t want to be 22 years old, living with my parents, no job, no plans.  I was at a low point, seriously low. 

     I want a God who has been there.  I want a God who has hit points lower than me.  Not because I am cruel, but because I want my God to know what I am dealing with.  I know that my God has experienced anger, sadness, betrayal, even pain.  My God was stripped naked, dressed up with a crown of thorns, ridiculed, and then tortured.  When he was trying to lift himself up to get a breath of air in, they took a sponge and dripped it in vinegar, and offered that to him to drink.  Eventually his physical body gave out. 

     I don’t think that will ever happen to me.  And anything that can happen to me will pale in comparison to that.  I will probably experience many more low points in my life.  Chances are pretty good that I will have relatives die before me.  I hope that I live long enough that my body will not be able to do what I can do today, or my mind will not be able to remember the things I am able to remember now.  Relationships I have now will not last forever.  When I retire the money I am saving may not be able to support me until I die.  And someday I will die.  We all hope to go to sleep one night and not wake up in the morning, but it is more likely that I will die in a hospital, being awakened every few hours to have vitals taken, be poked to get blood or something else. 

     And when things get bad, in whatever way they will, I want to know that my God endured worse.  I am older than Jesus was when he was killed, I have already had about a dozen more years of life then he was able to experience.  And even if it comes to the point where I am in a hospital, I know that I will be surrounded by people who are working to save my life, or at least make me comfortable. 

     Some of us will gather on Thursday to listen to the story of Jesus’ last supper.  Some of us will gather on Friday to remember further his last hours.  But even if you cannot, it is important to take a bit of this Sunday to hear it. 

     I met with the worship committee last week and they said “you may not want to make it Palm/ Passion Sunday.”  I went ahead and took their warning and did it anyway.  While I could play the interim minister card, “Hey, I am an interim, what are you doing to do, fire me?”  I don’t want to do that.  I wanted to cover both of these, as best as I am able, because it is a hugely important part of our faith story.  We don’t like to hear about Jesus suffering and dying, I get that.  Just like we don’t like to hear about our own suffering and eventual death.  But what would our Christian story be if Jesus didn’t die, or even died in old age of natural causes. 

     God loves us so much that God was willing to come to earth in the form of Jesus, and experience more than we will ever experience, even to death by torture.  When I pray, I know that.  If we just skipped over this, went from high point to high point, our faith loses so much.  Come on Palm Sunday, hear the story, come on Easter, find the empty tomb. 

     You are welcome, no I encourage you, to come to the community house on Thursday night at 5:30 for a light supper, and then our Maundy Thursday Service.  I encourage you to come on Friday at 10:00 am, right here, to join us for our Good Friday service.  But if you cannot make either of those, please take a moment this week, remember that Jesus was killed to take away our sin.  To take away our separation from God.  No matter what your prayers are, God knows what they feel like.  When we have joy in our hearts, we have heard stories of Jesus being happy.  When we are frustrated, we know that Jesus at times was frustrated.  When we are falsely accused, Jesus knows what that feels like.  And even when we die, Jesus knows what that feels like.  Because God has experienced these exact same things, we know that God can listen to all our joys and pain, and know exactly how it feels 

     And then on Easter, no matter where you are when you wake up, remember that even a human death could not hold God down.  And that is the promise that God is here with us now, and God is with us through all of our lives, the highs and the lows.