"This is Jesus"-Sermon for Palm Sunday, Matthew 27:11-54
In an offhand conversation some weeks ago, my oldest daughter noted her name, Amelia Brandon, would not be a great name for a pop music superstar. Now, I can’t recollect what occasioned the random comment…though my daughter is a talented singer with a beautiful voice, and I can imagine her as a professional singer. But, whatever brought the topic up, she noted her name just didn’t have the flow, the vibe, the cache…of say a Tay-Tay or Beyoncé or Bono…or the like. Perhaps Amelia Brandon just has to many syllables in it. Perhaps, she could go with one of her nick names like Millie…maybe in the spirit of Cardi B…she could go with Millie B. For my part, I responded that I like her name as it is. Amelia is a name with Hebrew roots that means something like, “The Work of the Lord”. And, indeed, she is a work of the Lord. But setting the randomness of these teenage musings aside, my daughter was on to something…something that is very true…which is that names mean something…names have power. For instance, whatever your political leanings…if I were to say Obama or Trump…surely big feelings, strong emotions, and many memories flood our minds. For, again, names have power. They actually affect us…they move us in some way for good or for ill. They can bring us peace or passion or fear or foreboding or hope.
In the sermon I preached on St. Julian’s Feast Day last year, I quoted William Shakespeare’s familiar words from Romeo and Juliet, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In that sermon, I was pointing out that, as the early 20###sup/sup### century writer and scholar Logan Pearsall Smith, writes, “Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” The flower we call a rose elicits something in us because of our past experience with roses…their scent, their color, the time of year in which they bloom, the special occasion they were given to us as a gift. It is such experiences we have had with roses, that is their essence, that gives the flower’s name meaning to and for us. Similarly, the power and impact people’s names have on others are built upon something…perhaps most importantly…the bottled-up essence of past experiences with that person…how they treated us…what they did for us…what they did for others…for the world. This is true whether we personally know the person whose name is uttered aloud or not. And, surely this is true for the name Jesus. So, I will begin where I will end…which is with a question…what does the name Jesus mean for and do to you?
Now, in our first Gospel reading this morning, the one read outside during the Liturgy of the Palms, Jesus asks his disciples to head into a neighboring village to retrieve a donkey and a colt to assist him as he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the very first Palm Sunday. Jesus tells them that immediately upon entering the village they will find the animals tied up. And, he tells them, further, that if anyone says anything to them, that is presumably questioning why they are taking these animals that don’t belong to them, tell them, “the Lord needs them”, and then the actual owner will immediately send the animals along with these strangers to bring them to Jesus. Thus, one could suggest that the name, one of Jesus’ many titles, the Lord, obviously has meaning to the animals’ owner, who, once hearing it, will immediately and without question release his animals, a precious commodity in those days, into the hands and care of these strangers. Was the owner fed by Jesus when he turned a few loaves of bread a few fish into an abundant meal to feed 5000 hungry people? Was his life radically transformed by Jesus’ teaching at the Sermon on the Mount? Was this person or someone he loved healed by Jesus? We don’t know. But, clearly Jesus’ name means something to the animals’ owner. Surely, some past experience with Jesus, the person behind the name…the essence of who Jesus is, has inspired this man’s generosity…his willingness to give, share, and serve. Names have power.
We also encounter Jesus’ name alongside one of his titles, in our second Gospel reading this morning…in our dramatic reading of Jesus’ Passion…which takes place on Good Friday about 5 days after the first Palm Sunday. As I am sure you recall, Matthew writes, “And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’”
Now, this naming of Jesus is quite different from the experience days earlier at the first Palm Sunday. As Matthew states, this naming of Jesus, that is the sign nailed to the cross above his dying head, was a charge…really intended as pure mockery and condemnation…for none of those participating in Jesus’ death thought he was actually a king…not the king of Israel…and certainly not the King of all Creation. For them, Jesus, not unlike the two criminals he was crucified with, was just another low-life, rabble rouser…just a powerless peasant when placed alongside Imperial Rome who claimed to hold a divine like power over even life and death. They thought Jesus, the name above all names, was, in fact, just another nameless one…another life snuffed out and forgotten…to make more space on the earth for those who actually matter. For the light of love is so often crucified in our world when the “powers that be” perceive it as a threat.
But, friends, I know you recognize the great irony here. For, Jesus is willingly submitting to his torture and death…an act of his own free will. When offered, in the moments before his crucifixion, wine mixed with gall…that is a narcotic…to dull his pain…he refuses it. He chooses to feel all of it. For in his suffering his own life is connected to all the pain and suffering contained in this world...all that was and all still to come…including our own…our own death co-mingled with Jesus’ death. For, in doing so, we are also co-mingled with Jesus at his resurrection which comes soon and very soon. Jesus’ death shatters the power of sin and death for all time and forever. In Jesus’ passion and resurrection, light and love will stand at the end of all things…for all things…for all time. Thus, the sign that names Jesus as king on the cross is no joke. It is entirely accurate. For, his dying on the cross is the most supreme, kingly like act of all time…giving his life in its entirety for the welfare of all of his people…even you…even me. Jesus is, indeed, our Lord, as named at Palm Sunday, and our King and our Savior as established at Good Friday. Jesus’ name was not snuffed out at the cross. The opposite…his name and all the titles we give to him to just begin to describe something of his essence is established for all time at the cross. Names have power…and Jesus is the name above all names. I say this to you with all my heart…with every fiber in my being…for me Jesus’ name is the air I breathe. It is the name I want a try to live up to, and it is the name that has saved my life…all of our lives.
I was driving my youngest daughter to one of her softball games a couple of weeks ago and in front of a small church in the neighborhood where the playing field was located was a giant chair. A picture of it is on the screen. Written on the chair, as you can see, was the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” And, it just as easily could have asked what does Jesus’ name mean to you? Or, what is the bottled-up essence upon which the name Jesus is built? And, as you see, there was also the invitation to write people’s answer to that question on the chair with a marker attached. And, as the chair is quite large and in the front yard of the church facing a public street, clearly this was an invitation to the larger community to respond to the question. And, though hard to see on the screen, some of what was written is as follows:
Jesus is: “A good shepherd, a friend to sinners, a toxic myth, my anchor, the definition of death, complex, nature, a chill guy probably hanging with the homies, risen, just alright with me, kind of a pain in the rear, a medium, peace, a lover of kids, the one who took my place on the cross, one in a long line of peace activists, not the “expletive” who mistreated me, an impotent man, light in the dark, a smile on a dog, my friend, even if he was just a man he can inspire us to be better and build bridges, he was for everyone, leader of a death cult, king of Kings, forgiveness, love, my Lord and Savior.” Now, that’s quite a wide-ranging list and not exhaustive…but what I could read from the pictures I took.
Friends, this week…this Holy Week…as we live once again through the stories of Jesus’ passion and resurrection…is our time, if we dare to take it, to answer the question for ourselves. What does the name of Jesus mean, very personally, to and for you? Names have power…and for my part…Jesus’ name is the power that has saved my life and the life of the world. Such a confession bursts my heart wide open. Thus, Jesus’ name, and all it is built upon, does elicit strong emotions and big feelings in me that fire and fuel my life…like hope and passion and safety and overwhelming love.
But you must come to your own conclusion. And, I for one will never cast judgement on your conclusion…all are welcome in this place. But, nonetheless, the life that Jesus lived, died and lived again…compels us…maybe most especially on this of all weeks…to, at the very least, try and find some quiet time between now and Easter…and consider the question. Thus, I will end as I began…what does the name of Jesus mean to and do for you? Amen.