Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. We began the service with the story of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, with the crowds singing “Hosanna!” and proclaiming, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Some Pharisees in the crowd tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop – to stop this spectacle, to stop their praises, to stop their allegiance to him as a Saviour or a King.
We know that, all too soon, they will stop. They will change their minds, change their allegiances, and change their shouts to “Crucify him!” And so today is also Passion Sunday when we remember how the people turned away from him, how they betrayed and denied, and ran away from Jesus.
Luke reminds us in the Gospel story that when the disciples do stop – when they stop following, when they stop praising, Jesus is still the King. They don’t stop because he is not worthy. They stop because they are scared. And Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” All of creation knows and witnesses that Jesus is Lord and King, even when we humans fall silent in fear.
When I was speaking with the children this morning, we talked about times when we change our minds or change our plans. We do it all the time.
Sometimes our changes of mind are God moving us towards the good. For example, when we decide that Yes, we will take on that invitation to serve or help or lead. Or when we decide that Yes, we will take time to visit a friend, or take a break with our kids, or make a call to a relative who may be lonely. Or when we decide to focus our work or our service in a new way that uses our gifts, and brings us joy, and brings blessing to others.
But other times, our changes of mind are really changes of heart, and the problem is that we are afraid.
Think about times when you said No to an invitation to serve, because you were afraid of failure. Or when you did not stand up for someone in trouble because you were scared you’d be dragged down with them. Or when you didn’t pick up the phone or give your time to building relationships because you were afraid of being vulnerable.
If you’re like me, when those decisions need to be made, you often have mixed feelings. It’s not that you are happy and content one day (like the disciples waving their palm branches) and then suddenly change your mind completely and run scared.
At the very same time, in the face of an important decision, you may feel simultaneously happy and excited, as well as anxious and fearful. Some of your feelings are pushing you forward towards courageous generosity and brave new ventures, and some of your feelings are threatening to hold you back.
Back when I was in seminary, I spent a summer doing CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) in a hospital setting. Basically, we students served as hospital chaplains, visiting folks before and after major surgeries, standing by them through medical crises in the ICU, and comforting families after the deaths of loved ones.
And as we went about this work, we did a lot of intentional and intense reflection on our pastoral practice and our feelings about everything that we were encountering.
Some of us struggled a bit with getting in touch with our feelings and naming what was going on inside us in the midst of the stressful and important work that we were doing with the patients and families. So we had feeling charts to reference (like this one). Look at the chart. What do you feel like right now?
I remember feeling devastated, because a patient I really liked was dying. One morning I was nervous, because I was going on rounds for the first time with the cardio team. Another time I felt satisfied, because it seemed like one recent visit that I did really helped someone to feel supported.
I learned that summer that I almost always had at least two feelings going on inside me at any given time. Often, one of the feelings was “tired,” but there were lots of different combinations.
I was reminded about those feeling charts recently, after I became the Moderator-elect for the 2019 General Assembly of our church. You see, people keep asking me how I’m feeling about it, and I am generally responding by saying that I have mixed feelings. I’m both excited and nervous.
If I’m honest, I’ll add that I’m simultaneously hopeful and fearful. I’m feeling both proud and woefully inadequate. I’m worried and I’m happy at the same time.
Can you get in touch with how you are feeling right now? How are you feeling about stuff going on in your life, in your family, at work, in your relationships? Likely, there are lots of different feelings as you reflect on different aspects of your life right now.
But maybe just think about a hard thing you’re experiencing right now. For me, it’s the prospect of serving as the Moderator. For you, maybe it’s a challenging role you need to play at work, a relationship you need to reconcile, mistreatment or bullying that you need to respond to or deal with, or a loss or grief that you need to experience and work through.
I wonder if you also might have mixed feelings about that situation… whatever hard thing you’re thinking about in your life right now.
The Scripture readings for Passion Sunday suggest that a variety of feelings are to be expected when we experience hardship, challenges, or suffering. And they hint that Jesus also might have had mixed feelings during the most difficult week of his life.
First, we heard a reflection from the prophet Isaiah. These are the words of a Suffering Servant who is seeking to help support and guide his people who are in exile in Babylon. His determination to minister to others puts him at risk of violence and persecution, but he is determined and strong, and he will not be put off his mission.
It reminds me of so many brave people who have put themselves in harm’s way for the freedom and well-being of others. The Christians who hid Jews in their homes during the Holocaust. The young Canadian woman who lay down in front of a bulldozer in an attempt to stop the demolition of a Palestinian community. The worshipper in a New Zealand mosque who tried, unarmed, to wrestle a gun from the one who was shooting at his friends and neighbours.
The Suffering Servant declares that he has given “his back to those who struck [him] and [his] cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. He did not hide [his] face from insult and spitting.”
He stands up for justice and goodness even in the face of violence and persecution, and he gives credit to God for helping him. He invites those who might join in his mission of justice to stand up with him, and he challenges his enemies to confront him.
The feelings we imagine in this prophet and activist are courage and determination, maybe some anger at the injustice he is fighting, and passion for the people he seeks to help.
In contrast, the poet who wrote Psalm 31 is struggling with the suffering that he is enduring. He cries out to God for help in his distress. He laments that his life is spent with sorrow and his strength is failing while his bones waste away.
He feels powerless to stand against his adversaries. He is overwhelmed by their whispering and their taunts, and he is almost ready to give up.
The psalmist and the prophet share the voice of one who is scorned, shamed, and assaulted. But while the prophet stands up courageously, the psalmist seems to falter.
As we read these texts on Passion Sunday, we cannot help but think of Jesus and how he must have been feeling in the midst of all that he was going through. In the Gospel stories, we witness his courage and determination to go forward – knowing that he will suffer and that he will be killed.
At times he seems to willingly accept his fate, showing trust that somehow through his faithfulness, God’s people will be redeemed and return to God and God’s ways of love.
But we also get glimpses of other feelings… a prayer of anguish in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God to save him from his suffering… a cry of despair from the cross, wondering why God has forsaken him to pain and death.
And how much more, internally, might Jesus have felt sorrow, regret, hopelessness, or devastation, if we could know his inner thoughts and feelings?
This line of reflection should be an encouragement to us in the midst of the complicated human emotions that we experience day-by-day and moment-by-moment… when we face difficulties or suffering, and we feel both courage and doubt.
Jesus knows what it is to face adversity, and to have mixed feelings about it. Jesus held together his determination and passion for us with his fear and loneliness and sorrow.
But in the end, he was like the psalmist. As his enemies plotted to take his life, he declared his trust in the Lord, saying, “You are my God… My times are in your hand.”
As we walk with Jesus through this Holy Week, remembering his suffering and his love for us, let us remember that he walks with us each day as well. Whatever suffering, whatever challenges, whatever difficult tasks we may be facing today or tomorrow, Jesus is with us to guide, strengthen, and help us to trust in God as he did.
We will undoubtedly have mixed feelings about the missions we are given and the hard things we must experience, but with God’s help we can endure. As the Apostle Paul said, “Let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.”