Sermon for Palm Sunday

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"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

It was an ugly and brutal scene, marked by anguished suffering, a scene that depicted humankind's worst side:

* There were lashes with a whip tipped with lead.
* A crown of thorns pushed down on his brow.
* A massive cross dragged through the crowd-a crowd which jeered and taunted every agonizing step along the way.
* There were the tortuous nails.
* And, finally, the instrument of punishment, the cross, lifted into place for the agonizing trial death would require.

In His suffering we each see him:

* the Gentle Shepherd who drew children into his embrace and blessed them;
* the Great Physician who healed with such consistency;
* the Master Teacher who brought such clarity to understanding God and God's sense of love, peace, forgiveness, generosity, and justice;
* the Son of God, who knows no sin;
* the Christ, our Savior-there in that ignoble setting-filled with agony, his throat parched and dry, his lips cracked and broken.

It is a scene of unbearable suffering. Yet, as St. Luke so poignantly depicts him, even in his suffering, he remains the master of those cruel events, forgiving his tormentors, praying for others, reaching out to the criminal at his side, and refusing to renounce his convictions.

Martin Luther King Jr. said of our Lord's suffering on the cross that it was "love at its best when man had stooped to his worst."

His suffering, like ours, was certainly not something he looked forward to, but when it came, he dealt with it and made it worthwhile.

Today reminds us of many things, particularly, that whoever we are, whatever we may have, whatever we may do, whatever we may accomplish, suffering of some kind is never far away. Today also reminds us very simply and in stark and clear terms that suffering has a dual nature.

On the one hand, it has the potential for tyranny. It holds the potential power over us to beat, to crush, to defeat. It holds within its grasp the possibility that we will lose some of our capacity to love. It holds the power for us to regret our even being alive. Suffering-it has an awful power to cause us even to deny God.

But, on the other hand, it holds the potential, as it did for our Lord, for human majesty. It holds the means to bring our lives to their greatest heights of effectiveness and value.

I freely confess I pretend no answer to why there is suffering, especially for the innocent. I must wait for the perfect answer to that enormous question.

But what I do know as a result of today's lesson, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, is that our suffering in this life does hold value. Let us address this question:

What value is to be found in our suffering?

Because of it, what magnificent things can we weave into the rich fabric of our lives? I would suggest three things so well illustrated by our Lord in his life: his ministry, his teaching, and, especially today, in his Passion-his death upon the cross.

  1. Suffering needs to be seen as the place a Christian visits in the knowledge that there are things within him, within her, that cannot be developed in simple ease or quiet. One's own suffering and often the suffering of those they love, for better or for worse, are a place in this life's journey, in this life's history, when the right-minded Christian acts courageously and righteously. One sees this in the midst of suffering.

His name is Jim. His father had been hard on him-never physically-but with a coldness that may have been for him far worse than physical acts. He was one of the multitude of persons who suffered mightily simply because he had never heard his father utter the simple words, "I love you." Yet, despite his own suffering, and in the throes of his father's final, painful days of dying, Jim came, left behind his busy work schedule, embraced his father and stayed with him when others, in their exhaustion, had left. He forgave his father and told him of his love.

For Jim many things happened in that episode of suffering. He rose to the occasion suffering had created. Most profoundly, he found a level of wholeness, unity, meaning, and peace he had never known before. Like our Lord in his Passion, he took hold of his own suffering and that of his father and he made it redemptive.

What value is to be found in our suffering?
Because of it, what magnificent things can be woven into the rich texture of our lives?

  1. Because of the example of our Lord in his Passion, we are reminded that suffering holds the possibility to love and care in ways we perhaps have never imagined. Thornton Wilder wisely remarked, "In love's service, only wounded soldiers will do."

Suffering does, in fact, teach us a great deal about what it means to love. Suffering-Christ's example of suffering on a cross and our suffering-is a key that can unlock our best capacities to become remarkable instruments of God's care and healing in this life.

Her name was Elizabeth Ann. The painful cancer, which occupied so much of her body and would eventually bring about her death, was no match for her capacity to love in her suffering. All who visited that nursing section in her last days were held tightly in the radiance of her compassionate love: They were captured in her good humor. They were embraced in her genuine and keen interests in the visitor. They were enfolded in the warmth of her touch, the deep affection that marked her countenance and bearing.

Like our Lord on his cross, the generosity of her human spirit transformed her final, painful days from an occasion of illness into an occasion of grace. Like Elizabeth Ann, it is the suffering Jesus who consoles those who grieve for him; it is the suffering Jesus who seeks forgiveness for his accusers; it is the suffering Jesus, who in his final breath, gives comfort and hope to the condemned criminal.

In summary, he moves beyond his own suffering in order to bring hope and meaning and reconciliation to those who surround him.

What value is to be found in our suffering?
Because of it, what magnificent things can be woven into the rich fabric of our lives?

  1. There is always this for the Christian: In the midst of all suffering there is to be found God. Our Lord did not come into the world, and he did not suffer betrayal and the pain and anguish of the cross to somehow perfectly explain the nature of suffering or to remove it from the world, but it is very clear to me that he did come to reveal the fact that God will be with us. But it is otherworldly, remarkable, magnificent. It is God with us on those cruel days when our own self-sufficiency is not enough to cope-with us to meet that which seems virtually insurmountable.

Their names are Barbara and Don. Their youngest child, Sally Anne, had tragically drowned. Their suffering was beyond the bearable. It was written across their faces, evident in their embrace, made known in their trembling, visible in their tears, but there was also their discovery and the discovery of the young priest who sought to care for them. God was with us in that suffering, for I was that young priest.

And 28 years later, it is still the same. The more we bother to look deeply and intensely in life, the more deeply and intensely we look into the reality of our suffering. We see and we find God. Along with Barbara and Don, with you, with me, and all the rest, we discover God's presence in the midst of that which is so anguishing, so painful, and in that discovery, like our Lord upon the cross, we find the means to contend with any form that suffering may ever choose to take. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, may we, following your Holy Week example, meet our sufferings without fear or resentment. Rather, may our sufferings be for us a means by which we witness to your presence working in and through our lives. Amen.

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