Palm to Passion

Palm to Passion                        The Rev. Brian Backstrand                   March 29, 2015

When I was a senior in high school one of my friends was a guy named Alan Amos.   Alan was lanky and had long hair and loved both buildering and mountain climbing. He sat in front of me in AP English class and talked of some of his mountain climbing experiences with the Mazamas (a First American word for mountain goat), a local mountain climbing group in Portland Oregon. I got interested and eventually took one of the Mazamas rock climbing courses.

In the middle of that last year in high school, one day in January I found Alan quite subdued.   He had been climbing up Mount Hood with a friend, Carter Smith. The idea was to do a night climb to the top of 11,250 foot Hood and send a signal back to Portland. The first climbers to reach the top would send the signal.   I suppose it is fair to say that both Carter and Alan did not really count the cost of their climb, fathom the risks of climbing on New Year’s Eve in the dark.

Somewhere up on that dark mountain, Carter slipped. My memory is hazy but I seem to remember that Alan tried a belay but was also swept off his feet. The two went down the mountain on a jagged ice field.   Both men knew that ahead of them was a drop off, an edge of a cliff that meant death.   Alan rolled on his stomach to stop his and Carter’s descent and almost did, but his cramp-on on one of his boots caught the ice, flipped him so that he was heading down the mountain head first.   He tried again and finally succeeded.  He lay on the slope exhausted but alive.

Shaken, cut and exhausted, both walked down the mountain in the darkness after that horrendous experience of a free fall down a steep icy slope.

For me, Palm Sunday is a lot like that experience of my friend, Alan.   It begins in glorious fashion. Jesus enters the holy city. Palms are laid down and robes grace the roadway, making his entrance into the entrance of a king.

For a while, in the holy city, things go well. Jesus confronts his religious opponents,   Jesus cleanses the temple in some gospel accounts, Jesus hold a private Passover seder meal.

But then things radically change.   Exultation and control and powerful mastery of the situation turns in one moment when Jesus is betrayed.   From the disciples’ perspective, everything unravels. Life becomes a free fall down a jagged icy mountain slope and there is no escape.

Here are some of the events of this time that moves so quickly from glory to an ignominious death. In listing them I am also going to include a quotation or phrase or two.

The entrance into Jerusalem~ Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord

The cleansing of the temple~My father’s house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it into a den of thieves

The dispute with religious authorities

The Passover meal in the Upper Room ~ A new commandment I give to you that you love one another

The Prayer Vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane ~ Could you not watch with me one hour? My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;   nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.   The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Betrayal and The Healing at the time of betrayal ~ Put your sword into its sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me.

The interrogation during that first long night

Peter’s betrayal and the crowing of the cock three times

Caiaphas and Pilate

The crucifixion

The seven last words

Father forgive them for they know not what they do

Mother behold your son; behold your mother

Verily verily I tell you today you shall be with me in Paradise

I thirst

My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken me

Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit

It is finished

The centurion’s proclamation: Truly this man was a Son of God

The curtain of the Temple is rent in two and the earth shook

The burial of the body Joseph comes to claim the body

The empty tomb


Free fall.

One of the groups to recognize and identify with this suffering journey that we know as The Passion of Christ were the African communities enslaved in the new world. And one of the haunting and probing spirituals from the slave community in the United States is the famous   Were you There?

This hymn is Hymn 172

Let us read the first stanza

This hymn was first published by William Eleazar Barton in 1899 in a collection of African American spirituals entitled Old Plantation Hymns. Our version includes the final stanza which reads Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? The Old Plantation version does not include this stanza but in its place has the following: Were you there when the sun refused to shine.

In 1940, it was included in the Episcopal Church hymnal, making it the first spiritual to be included in any major American hymnal.   As reported in Howard Thurman‘s autobiography, the song was one of Mahatma Gandhi‘s favorites.  

The song has been recorded by artists including Marion Williams,[4] Johnny Cash,[5] Phil Keaggy,[6] Max Roach,[7] Diamanda Galás,[8] Harry Belafonte,[9]

Were you there?     Today we begin the journey but the question lingers. Are we going to journey with Jesus and with his bewildered and scared disciples and with his mother and all those other women who followed him along the way to Golgotha?

Today we are invited by the Spirit to a time of meditation and reflection. Let us journey together on Thursday evening and on Friday afternoon in preparation for what we know awaits us in the glorious season of Eastertide.

In the name of God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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