Matthew 21:1-11 • Isaiah 50:4-9a • Philippians 2:5-11 • Matthew 27:11-54
A few months ago I went with a friend to the desert—Death Valley to be specific. I wasn’t exactly sure why I needed to go, except that I had an opportunity for a break, of sorts, and the desert seemed right. We brought along a book as a companion, a book about desert and wilderness and wholeness with a great title: The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Now the title itself is enticing enough and it captures something of the pull that the desert, that wilderness has on me. It suggests that in the extremes of life is an encounter with a fundamental truth that ultimately gives comfort, resolution, solace. Of course, I’m not alone. Much of the story of the Christian faith is told in the wilderness, after all. It is a story of solace told in extremes, in opposites—life comes by way of death, fullness through self-emptying, hope by way of despair—fierce landscapes have something absolute to teach us about God, about where God works, and how God meets us. Paul understood this:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
It is this way of extremes, I suspect, that sent the early church fathers—and a few mothers too—into the wilderness. Moses and Miriam led the Israelites through wilderness to salvation. The prophets knew the desert both literal and psychological in their proclamation of God’s promise.
The extremes of Palms and Passion we’ve encountered in the scriptures this morning is surely another fierce landscape in which we are invited to let our fears, our doubts, our faithlessness slip from our lives to fall at his feet, to encounter this living God who offers to us a way of solace.
Now, I don’t know for certain what thinking led the shapers of this particular Sunday to combine these two readings, but I think they were onto something. It wasn’t always so, of course. Some of you may remember a time when it was just Palm Sunday. But it has been true more recently that palms and passion are married, held together in tension, I suspect, because many quit coming mid-week to hear the story of betrayal, failure, systematic oppression and violence that precedes the empty tomb of next Sunday. How can we know salvation if we don’t know what we are being saved from? How else could we possibly hope to live into this story, and the extent of the love it proclaims in one who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.
So, as a result, we have on this particular Sunday, in this particular service, a story of extremes—a fierce landscape—that accelerates from shouts of “save us” to cries of “kill him” from the very same mouths, faster than a woman can leave her water pot at a sun-bleached well to go tell the story of a man who told her everything she’s ever done., Faster than a newly sighted blind man can blink an eye, faster than Lazarus’ astonished community can remove his burial bandages.
The deserts are fascinating in their extremes, their contradictions,” writes J.A. Kraulis, in the book Desertlands of America:
In the driest climates are found the most fluid of landscapes, where the wind ripples waves of graceful dunes. Places oppressively hot by day freeze at night. Country lacking water can be scoured by the most violent of floods. Sparse, dull growth erupts in blooms as extravagant and colorful as those of any environment. In an open land, great canyons remain invisible until the visitor is but a few paces away from their edge.
The journey through the fierce landscape of the Palms and Passion of this Sunday is a mirror of the journey through the extremes of our own stories, of our own sense of plenty and want, of the hope that finds our souls soaring in one moment and in the depths in the next, crying out with the psalmist,
I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind;
Our own lives are a fierce landscape. We exist between extreme contradictions. We struggle to find God in the midst of so much unknown, to live into hope in the collision of fragmented experiences—more pain and more possibility than we could manage in any given moment. Palm-Passion Sunday, with its many disappointments, abandonments, failings—so many dyings, of sorts, is the landscape of our own lives.
Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century hermit priest who founded the Jesuit order and spent much of his life in the wilderness prayed “On each of my dyings shed your light and your love.”
This is our prayer too, on this day. On each of my dyings shed your light and your love. We are drawn through countless dyings in the fierce landscape of our own life. Our ideals collide with reality. The world resists who we are or who we come to love. Our past haunts us in ways that we cannot escape. Our bodies give out. Our hope is exhausted.
Yet, there is life that is encountered in the dying. As we die to ourselves, we encounter a new life that has been there all along, waiting for us. This gospel story reminds us wholeness comes by way of these little dyings. Fullness comes through emptying ourselves of those things we have held onto, imagining they will lift us to new life, when in fact, they are the millstone that pulls us down into the very depths of suffering. Indeed, this may be an important lesson of Lent in general, and of this Holy Week we are entering into, in particular. The pain we have experienced is very often the path by which we understand who we really are; in the letting go is the finding.
And in the midst of this fierce landscape of Palm-Passion Sunday, there is something that remains steadfast. It is the way of this one who enters on a donkey to shouts of “save us,” who chooses the way of love in false accusation, suffering, shame and death as the very same people shout “crucify.” It is the way of this rising one who shows that death is no match for his life and his way, but in fact, the path to it.
Jesus is our home in this fierce landscape. God’s mission of salvation does not change, despite the extremes. Psalm 118 says it this way: God’s never-failing love can be trusted. Make no mistake, there is much that is uncertain, unstable. God remains a mystery. But this is certain: Jesus carries out God’s mission to save with an unwavering commitment that speaks to God’s own presence in our own lives and in our world today. So do not be afraid to enter into this journey, into this fierce landscape. For God will meet you there, and you will never be the same.
To say it another way, there is no other way.
Or, as the poet W. H. Auden once said it:
For the garden is the only place there is, but
Do you give yourself to this way? Do you trust in this one? Are you ready to give your life away. A new life waits for you and for this desperate world.
St. Andrew Sermons