April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday)



                                                    Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                           at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 1 April 2012


Many, many years ago – and I rather suspect that it was in the mid-1950s when the gap between East and West, between Marxism and Capitalism, was becoming ever broader – I saw a movie, the title of which I cannot remember, just as I cannot remember who played in it.  It was set in Albania, although it could not have been filmed there in those days.  It was the story of a family of Greek-Albanians who had been caught on the wrong side of the border when the Communists took over that country.  As I recall, the pater familias was an important political figure, and so some CIA agents were sent in nefariously to lead the family to safety.  Of course, there were many narrow escapes along the way and no doubt a handsome American was attracted to a beautiful daughter, much to the disgust of the Greek father.  But eventually everybody reached the border where the blue and white striped flag of Greece, complete with a white St George’s cross on a blue background in the upper left quadrant, flew out bravely a warm welcome to the escapees.  Except, of course, it was not the border at all, but a building a few hundred yards short of the border and still in Albania, and the family was caught in a trap and once they had been arrested the Albanians lowered the Greek flag and raised their own, pointing out to their prisoners the real border post, complete with the Greek flag so near and yet so far.

I often think of that movie at this time of year as we celebrate Palm Sunday.  The long fast of Lent is virtually behind us with its bare altars without any floral arrangements.  The grim sermons and the minor-key hymns are set aside, and we urge Jesus to ride on, ride on in majesty and we sing at length about all glory, laud and honour.  But then we hear the Gospel narrative.  Traditionally within the Anglican Communion today the Gospel reading was the Passion narrative according to Matthew.  Then tomorrow it would have been the version according to Mark, then on Tuesday we would have read the version of Saint Luke and on Wednesday that of the fourth evangelist.  No.  Palm Sunday is not the end of the road, but a false border post on the way to the end of the road, and traditionally the Church has always known this and acknowledged it.  The crowds that welcomed him might have been in festive mood, but Jesus is described in terms of Zechariah 9: 9, humbly riding on an ass.  Yes indeed, he was riding on to victory, but it was a victory that would have to be won at a terrible cost, and this Jesus knew.

When he came to the city, he rode in through one of its gates and on towards the Temple, the place where devout Jews believed that the Lord God of Israel dwelt.  He had, then, come to his Father’s house from his point of view.  However, from the point of view of those devout Jews, this holy building set in the heart of the Holy City, which, in turn, was set at the very heart of the nation, was seen as indicating the Lord God dwelling in the heart of his people.  Indeed it might almost be argued that the Lord God was the heart of his people.  And Jesus would have understood this as well.  But what he saw when he went into the Temple for his very first visit, according to Matthew and Mark, and his first visit according to Luke since his visit there with his parents when he was twelve years old, was that the heart of the nation was beating in a body riddled with immorality and sinfulness. 

Depending on the Gospel that you read, Jesus determined to drive out the causes of corruption from the Temple and he did so that day or the next.  Challenged by the Temple authorities as to how and why he could do this, Jesus responded by describing the Temple as a bazaar, even though it was meant to be a House of Prayer for all peoples.

Oriental bazaars are a sight to behold and an experience to be relished.  Vast covered buildings, they are crammed to the walls with hawkers’ stands at which almost anything may be purchased.  No prices are shown, and only the sellers know how accurate are their weights and measures.  Prices are negotiated until both parties feel that they have the price that is most favourable, although the seller always comes out better in the end!  If there is any praying going on at all it is when the buyer pleads for a better deal.  A bazaar is a place where everybody is striving to get the better of someone else.  This is the parallel that Jesus drew to describe the Temple, the heart of the nation of Israel.

I wonder how he would see the place where the New Testament writers argue that God dwells today, the hearts and minds of his people.  What does Jesus find when he comes to his Father’s house today, to your heart and mine, to your mind and mine?  We may joyfully have waved our palms and urged him to ride on and ride on with all glory, laud and honour, but when he alights from his donkey and comes into what is his father’s house, our hearts, will he need to take a switch to us and drive out all that is immoral and sinful and evil? 

Is there one of us who can truly say that we have kept the vows made at our baptism and renewed by us at our confirmation?  Are we not all of us a bit like Simon Peter on Maundy Thursday, reluctant to have our feet washed, but knowing that we need to be cleansed from top to toe?  We all need to have our minds renewed, our hearts revived, our lives changed.  Our pride and our vanity may so operate as to seek to prevent us from really welcoming Christ into our inmost being.  Oh, how much of our foolishness and self-interest we might be asked to surrender!  Oh, how we all need to let Jesus take control of our minds and of our hearts!  For if we do not let him in, we run the very real risk of becoming a Judas Iscariot and betray him, or becoming a Simon Peter and deny him over and over, or any of the others who simply ran away from the reality of God in their lives. 

Palm Sunday inevitably leads to Good Friday, and to a green hill outside a city wall where the dear Lord was crucified and died to save us all.  This Palm Sunday we might be haggling, like a stall keeper in a bazaar, with Jesus over the price to be paid for our immortal souls, but we cannot exact a better price than he offers – his lifeblood and its eternal cleansing for our wretchedness, even though we might not wish to acknowledge that we are wretches.  There is no better deal under the sun.  Just take it, for your soul’s sake.