I have been reading a beautiful and challenging collection of sermons by Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death. Here is an excerpt from her 1991 Palm Sunday sermon titled “The New World Order.”
Of all the days in the Christian year, this is certainly the most disconcerting. Even the most seasoned churchgoers tend to forget, each year, exactly what we are in for when we come to church for this occasion. We start out in gala mood; Palm Sunday has always been a crowd-pleaser. The festivity of the triumphal procession, the stirring music, the palm branches, the repeated hosannas all suggest a general air of celebration. It comes as a shock to us, year after year, to find ourselves abruptly plunged into the solemn, overwhelmingly long dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. It’s a tough Sunday. Its begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe. We come in prepared to part, and we leave as if we were going to a funeral. We come in joyful and we go out stricken. All in all, it is a most perplexing day – and for those who are unprepared, it can be downright threatening.
It would be tempting, on this day, to follow good American practice and tone down the depressing parts – “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Many American congregations have attempted this. Were it not for the ancient liturgical wisdom given to the church, it would be perfectly possible to go to Sunday services two weekends in a row – Palm Sunday and Easter Day – without ever having to face the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal on the Friday between. Our historic liturgy, however, guards against this fatal misunderstanding. […] In this way, the church announces for all the hear that the Crucifixion of Jesus is the main event. There is no passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday. […]
This week, the church of Jesus Christ gathers around the heart, the center, the guts of its claim to know the truth. Today, we bear this testimony in the full gaze of public, secular, worldly opinion – the Son of God is going to die a godforsaken death and, in this death, the truth about God and man and human destiny is fully revealed. We dare not say this, we must not say this, we can not say this, unless the death of Jesus Christ is somehow connected with the terrible, bloody cry of that nameless victim [of the torture chambers of President Touré of Guinea]: ‘God save me.’
I had a dear friend, whom I will call Sarah. When she was in her thirties she developed rheumatoid arthritis and aplastic anemia and a host of other ills. For thirty years she suffered more physical pain and more crippling disabilities than most almost anyone else I have ever known. We prayed for her constantly, to no apparent avail. […] If the Christian faith has nothing to say to her, it has nothing to say to anyone. What hope is there, ultimately for humanity? What word of comfort is there for those who can only get worse? What can be said in the face of an inscription written in blood – “God save me” – in view of the fact that the prisoner clearly was not saved in this world? If we Christians cannot respond in word and deed to questions such as these, if our faith in Jesus Christ falls apart under such challenges, then it is not a faith worth having. […]
In Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction (Mark 15:29-34), which has never been fully plumbed, is the proving ground of our faith. The Son of God, in the Garden of Gethsemane, cried to the Father “God save me!” and the answer came that there was to be no escape. If there is one thing certain today, it is this: we do not proclaim a God who has remained remote from the agony of his creatures. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In these words from the Cross we see the deepest identification of Jesus the Messiah with the outermost limit of human suffering. He truly wrote the words “God save me” with his own blood. St. Mark’s whole Gospel is constructed so as to come to its climax with Jesus’ dereliction and shameful death. It is in this condition of utter abandonment that Jesus is seen most fully and most truly to be Son of God. […]
What we see and hear in Jesus’ death is the decisive intervention of God to deliver his children from the unspeakable fate of ultimate abandonment. It is the strangest imaginable teaching on this most strange of days. The testimony of the four evangelists, the testimony of the Christian church, is that in this event, in this godforsaken death, the cosmic scale has been conclusively tipped in the opposite direction, so that sin and evil and death are not the last word and never will be again.
Can we expect to believe this today? Where is the evidence? The Christian message proclaims a New World Order; the data suggesting that nothing is changed – the customers are still ordering up the same old violence, brutality, vengeance, and death. As long as there are people writing “God save me” in their own blood, how can we speak of deliverance in Jesus Christ? Do we just have to fall back on blind faith? Do we just say that God will make everything right some day?
I am convinced that we can say more than that. Even as I am confronted with the intolerable fact of these words in blood, I am reminded also of the reasons that I believe in the reality and the power of Jesus Christ even now in this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), even while it is still hidden in the weakness of the servants of God.
I believe that the Cross of Christ inaugurated the New World Order of God. It brought something into the world that was not there before. I believe it because of those who follow that Way. […]
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: With all my heart, with all my mind, with all my strength I desire to convey to you that this week, while the world goes about its business, the meaning of existence is revealed to those who have eyes to see. The true significance of the headlines comes to light as Jesus of Nazareth goes his solitary way. Today in the reading of the Passion, Thursday night as Jesus eats his last supper and goes forth to be betrayed, Friday noon as he hangs exposed and naked on the Cross and pours out his life, God is acting. In the events of this week, the cries of those who suffer have been heard by the One who could, the only One who can, the only One who will deliver on his promise that there will be a happy morning. But it only comes – it only comes – by means of his death. Let us follow him then, this week, to the foot of his Cross. Let us come together in mind and heart to behold our Lord as he gives himself up for the sake of the whole world. Let us come in heart and soul and mind, in faith and in trust, to confess that ‘truly this man is the Son of God.