(a sermon for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday, based on Matthew 21:1-11)
No doubt you’ve noticed that as part of our makeshift “sanctuary” this morning, we’ve hung up something which I consider to be a “church family heirloom,” a quilt that was beautifully and lovingly crafted by one of our members, Donna Lee Rust; depicting the very event that we are seeking to remember and in some fashion will recreate this morning: that of our Lord’s “Last Supper.”
Now, I love this quilt for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s a recreation of one of the most recognized, iconic and recreated paintings of all time, Leonardo DaVinci’s classic painting of The Last Supper, the original of which still can be seen in the place where it was created: on the wall of a dining hall in a monastery at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, Italy.
Maybe you remember how a few years back, DaVinci’s painting – a mural, actually – was fully retouched, refurbished and renovated. This was a process that took over 20 years and cost over eight million dollars as a small group of restoration experts painstakingly scraped some 500 years’ worth of grime off this priceless work of art. And the dirt was just the beginning: over the years, the painting had also fallen victim to at least nine previous attempts of retouching; near destruction by Napoleon’s troops, who had used the church grounds as a stable; an Allied bombing during the second world war; and this is to say nothing of a huge amount of greasy build-up that emanated from the nearby kitchen! It took paint and dirt being flaked away a millimeter at a time to get at DaVinci’s original masterpiece, the hope being that The Last Supper would be sharper, more beautiful and intensely colorful than ever before.
And… it was! At the same time, however, you might remember there were many historians and art critics who began to talk about how this massive restoration project had done more damage than good, and that a great many important details of the painting had been stripped away, leaving nothing more than fragments of DaVinci’s original work. In fact, as much as 80% of the mural was actually lost in the restoration, with the intervening space being filled in with… watercolors! So, in other words, what resulted was not so much DaVinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper, as much as it was a lovingly and carefully created, yet ultimately blurred depiction of what it once was!
Very interesting, indeed; and actually, it seems to me that therein lies something of a parable for what we’re doing here this morning.
I mean, it’s Palm Sunday, right? Without question one of the most powerful and celebrative days of the church year: a time for hosanna shouting and palm waving, triumphant worship music, and lots and lots of little kids of every shape and size dancing around the sanctuary with palm branches waving as the congregation sings forth its yearly rendition of “The Palms.” (“Join all and sing; His name declare! Let ev’ry voice resound, unite in acclamation!”) Now, obviously this year our observance of the day is going to be different; but the story we’re telling today is just as powerful as ever, and it carries images indelibly etched into our memory: Jesus calmly riding into the city on the back of a donkey as the crowds cheer and children dance; the people spreading their cloaks on the road before him, all the while cheering: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” And we cheer right along with them, joyful in knowing that our cries of Hosanna this morning (even the ones cried “remotely!”) are simply a prelude to the louder shouts of Hallelujah next Sunday when we discover the empty tomb and hear the good news that Christ is risen, indeed!
We know the story well, and yet…
…and yet, I dare say like the refurbishing of Da Vinci’s masterwork, our retelling of this incredible story risks blurring a great many of the details. Like for instance, the fact that Jerusalem, this “whole city in turmoil,” as Matthew describes it, might not have been crying so much for joy on that fateful Palm Sunday as for… rescue. It’s important to note that “hosanna,” a word that we’ve long associated with joyous proclamation, in the original Hebrew actually means “save us now.” So in one very important sense, what those people gathered along the streets of Jerusalem were doing that day was crying out for help! Because they saw Jesus as the one bringing that help, coming “in the name of the Lord” to deliver them from Roman oppression, to resurrect the dominion of King David, and thus revive Israel’s hope and its power… all in all suggesting a different kind of atmosphere that that of unbridled singing and dancing!
Of course, that’s where the crowd misunderstood: Jesus had not come to resuscitate the rule of David, but to manifest the reign of God, bringing forth a time when every relationship in every setting would embody divine love and justice, when poverty would be replaced with abundance, and where God’s peace would come to all and abide with all; but do you see you easily the details of that particular story become blurred?
Especially when we consider the details of what happened next.
Painful details… how in just five short days Jesus – the Son of David and God’s own Son, the one who was proclaimed as coming in the name of the Lord – would be literally abandoned by those closest to him; how he was shoved from one “judgment” to the next from the “powers that be” that wanted no part of him and how he was then sentenced to die: but not before being stripped, mocked, ridiculed and beaten without mercy; not before the very instrument of his execution was placed upon his shoulders so he could be forced to carry it through the streets to the outskirts of the city, all accompanied by the sound of hundreds of angry voices jeering him as he staggered by, this the very same crowd who’d only a few short days before had been shouting those joyous hosannas in his direction. And what about the ringing of the hammer as it strikes upon the nails driven into his wrists and ankles; what about the realization that this one who was born a Savior – the very one who was promised to us as a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) – was now being hung upon a wooden cross, left out in the hot desert sun to die a long, slow and excruciatingly painful death between two common criminals.
That’s the thing about Palm Sunday, you see… once you get a clearer view, the truth of the whole story begins to fall into place… and as they say, it’s not pretty… but it’s necessary.
I think that’s one reason I so love this picture of the “Last Supper,” because it truly does depict that moment just before the events of our Lord’s Passion begin to unfold. It also serves as a reminder that as tempting as it is for us as Christians to move straight from Palm Sunday Hosannas to Easter Alleluias, there is no avoiding the painful details of the cross. It’s understandable that we’d want to; even as people of faith we have a hard time understanding why celebration must lead to crucifixion and triumph give way to tragedy. Why must the suffering and pain of Jesus be real? Why does there have to be this most horrible, excruciating death? Truly, it’s the singular question for which all of humanity has for centuries cried out for an answer: Why must there be the cross?
But you see, as hard as the question is, the answer is simple, really, and clear; it’s for LOVE.
It is love – God’s love – seen and personified in the person of Jesus Christ crucified. It is a love so great that it brings God’s reign into every heart that ever has torn itself away from God; it is a love that is so deep and so full and so all-encompassing that it lifts you and me up out of our shame and disgrace and saves us with the vindication we need before God, moving us out of the judgment of our mortality and into an eternity with him. It is a love that Jesus gives freely, willingly and obediently; and it is a love that demands our attention and calls for our devotion!
And ultimately, friends, that’s the reason we’re here today: it’s what has drawn us out of our isolation and fear in these strange and uncertain times; and it’s what brings us, even in a virtual setting, the kind of fellowship and support and hope that we are so desperately in need of right now. We’re here today for the LOVE of it all… the clarity of life and light that our Lord has given us by his sacrifice on the cross; we’re here to walk with Jesus from the streets of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha, taking our place at the foot of his cross so that we might bear witness to the greatest love that the world has ever known and that we can ever receive. It’s a gift, beloved… a gift by grace and infinite love, and it’s offered to us here and now by a Savior who is truly “dying to love us.”
It is love, friends, that will give us life in these times; life true, abundant and eternal. In the words of the old hymn, for “dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. And trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.”
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.