Weekly Seeds: Open the Gates

Sunday, April 2, 2023
Palm or Passion Sunday| Year A

Focus Theme:
Open the Gates

Focus Prayer:
Righteous God, you gather us as a community. You open the gates of righteousness; help us to recognize and dismantle the gates that we erect. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 in conversation with Matthew 21:1-11
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

All readings for this Sunday:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 • Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a • Psalm 31:9-16 • Philippians 2:5-11 • Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Focus Questions:
How do you enter worship?
What elements invite you to participate in worship?
What elements reinforce your sense of belonging to a community?
Where do you find closed gates in your ministry?
How will you observe the progression of Holy Week?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

Processions are a form of gathering. They normally require a place to initially assemble outside the official place of gathering in order to prepare for formal entry into the intended space. Processions involve ordering of individuals according to roles, responsibility, or rank. They can emphasize these distinctions in ways that demean or honor. Processions provide a grandeur to an ordinary or routine event. They can also serve to signal the beginning of something more beyond its own action. In other words, a procession is not a parade, which may be a standalone event. A procession typically is the first part of a more involved activity that contains a progression of events within the event…like a worship service…like Holy Week.

If Holy Week is like an extended worship service, it begins like all do with the elements of gathering. The Greek term for church, ecclesia, means “gathered community.” Gathering is not a happenstance in Christian worship, rather it is an essential part of community formation. Our worship services, as well as the other ways the church comes together, deserve our intention and care in how we assemble as much as the other elements. Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, is marked by a grand processional, also known as the Triumphal Entry. A couple of days later, we find Jesus in the temple turning over tables in sharp rebuke of the manipulative, opportunistic, and extortionist money changers. This might be considered the moment of confession–where we confront our affronts against God, human siblings, and creation. The service is still in gathering mode.

It makes sense that communion would follow after that as Jesus breaks the bread of life with his companions at a table accompanied by the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. Good Friday is filled with the proclaimed word. Truthfully, in Holy Week, the Word is central throughout, but the words from the cross take on a special significance as they reveal the coming kindom with profound grace, reordered relationships, fulfilled prophecy, and the accomplished work of Christ. We depart in the silence of Holy Saturday.

The gathering of Palm Sunday frames what is to come, yet if we take this metaphor too far, it encourages us to assume the community of Holy Week is consistent. The same crowd that cries, “Save us,” is not likely the same crowd that yells, “Crucify him,” although there may be some overlap. The money changers did not sit at the feast and get their feet washed. The community changes even if the action progresses in a definitive manner. Holy Week presents a series of shifts.

A careful reading of Psalm 118 also shifts our attention from one point of view to another. It is a “hallel” (praise) psalm. The opening lines read as a call to worship, and the remaining versus continue with more exhortation to worship, recounting of God’s salvific acts, and claims of victory. The point of view moves from communal command (second person) to collective thanksgiving (first person plural) to individual remembering (first person singular). Like the Holy Week progression of audience and participants, the psalm captures a community with a dynamic composition bound together with a common thread.

Several elements in Psalm 118 — the call to groups of worshippers in vv. 2-4, the plurals in vv. 24.26.27, the prayer in V. 25 — seem to characterize the text as a collective song. It may also be noted that in other texts the refrain of vv. 1-4 occurs in connection with matters concerning the people. To a great extent, however, the psalm is composed in the first person singular. Moreover, since passages in the singular are at the centre of the text, they appear to represent an important aspect of the festival. Who then is the speaker in these passages? And what are they about? Opinions are greatly divided. Gunkel thinks the speaker is a common Israelite delivered from distress. Others take him to be a commander or a king celebrating a victory. Eaton imagines he is the king telling of his peril, humiliation, rescue and reinstatement as shown in a preceding ritual. The mood in Psalm 118 and some of its phraseology recall the memoirs of Nehemiah. Could the speaker be Nehemiah himself? Some authors take the view that the first person singular does not at all refer to an individual here, but to the people praising [the Holy One] for his help.
Thijs Booij

The connective tissue in the psalm is praise. The various elements examined independently may seem jarring and disorienting, but psalms are not necessarily meant to be dissected in this way. The whole is as important as the parts. Praise connects the distinctiveness and stabilizes the disorientation. The language of poetry provides license for greater creativity of expression and reception of the shifts: the community is you, we, and me–all of us as we come and go:

The remaining option is that the first person singular refers to the community here, which, in fact, suits the data mentioned at the beginning of this section. In Old Testament texts, as is well known, singular forms may indeed refer to a social group or a community. This usage is also found in the psalms; there, in liturgical texts, the reference may historically be indirect, as statements in the singular may have been spoken by a liturgical official representing the people.
Thijs Booij

That community is ready to worship the Holy One for who God is and what God has done. By contrast, the Palm Sunday crowd is ready to coronate Christ for what they expect him to do. Their praise rings with the frenzy–and shallowness–of a people who are bound together mostly by euphoria and momentum. An ecstatic experience can be rooted in spiritual grounding, but this seems more like the excitement of anticipating a great performance or the satisfaction of victory after a hard fought war than a new day ushering in the kindom of God. Many in the crowd were caught up in the movement of those surrounding them rather than making purposeful and deliberate choices of their own to join Jesus in a cosmic assignment of liberation, redemption, and restoration.

The psalm would have been used in worship so the shifts reflect that there are more than one story being told. It is inclusive of a community who have been through some things and are remembering that story.

“Verses 19–29 begin with a reference to the procession to worship for the purpose of thanksgiving to the God who comes to deliver. The voice is again the voice of the representative person of faith who has been rescued. This surprising rescue was an act of YHWH to bring life out of death and to renew the right relationship with the petitioner. The psalm then shifts to the voice of the community, where this rescue is received as a marvelous act of hope. Verse 25 then articulates a petition on behalf of the community; perhaps the community’s crisis is not past. The import of verses 26–27 is obscure, but perhaps the reference is to the one who was delivered and that person’s testimony of thanksgiving has brought renewed hope for the congregation, which celebrates now, even in the midst of a continuing time of trouble and petition. God has brought light, and the response is thanksgiving. The psalm concludes as it began, with a renewed call to praise and thanksgiving to the God who persistently brings good and mercy.”
Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr.

In the midst of the claim, we find a plea: “Open the gates of righteousness.” This is the moment of gathering, after all; the point is to enter which is hindered by a closed gate. It’s not a physical gate that concerns the psalmist any more than Jesus is concerned with material considerations during his Holy Week encounter in the temple. When Jesus overturns tables of hypocrisy and exclusion occupied by money changers, he opens the gates that were closed to sincere seekers of God’s kindom, grace, and gathered community.

How many gates has the church erected to keep people out when the Holy One’s being, presence, and actions beckon all who seek God to come in?

We have erected gates of doctrine and theology that have divided the kindom into siloed communities rather than intimate groupings. Gates of unexamined tradition and practice eschew hospitality in favor of prestige and privilege. Symbols and rituals of nationalism form a gate that distorts the gospel. Restrictions and diminution of categories of God’s beloved children build gates upon gates. Our gathering spaces themselves can form a gate, through isolation and insulation, that keeps us contained when Christ came to set us free.

The psalmist reminds us that the body of Christ was never intended to be a gated community. Jesus was almost constantly on the move, even in the last days before his passion, he progressed from place to place in righteousness, grace, and overwhelming love. As disciples, we hear those simple words from Jesus, “Follow me.”

The gates are open.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

Historically, the nation has been long on promise and short on performance. The American promise contained in the Declaration of Independence is probably the most humane ever reduced to language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”2 The promise embedded in these words is theologically correct and anthropologically sound. The democratic ethic, representing the ideal with respect to the historic social experiment, is rooted in religious realism and grounded in the Christian doctrine of humanity. Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous epigram puts it well: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Humankind has the capacity for justice and injustice, for creativity and destructivity. In America, necessity has perennially outweighed capacity. The democratic ideal has yet to flower. Irrespective of constitutional guarantees, congressional acts, presidential pronouncements, and denominational proclamations, America must be viewed through the lenses of microscopic realism rather than those of telescopic idealism. This was to be that place under the sun where freedom’s flag waved in the interest of all, but!—How bright with promise was the nation’s beginning, but!—What a glorious harvest its springtime promised, but! Every attempt to articulate the nation’s glory serves only to dramatize its shame. A simple, surface diagnosis of “The System” reveals a sick sociology based on a faulty anthropology, which emanates from a false theology. A person’s attitude toward others reflects the nature of that person’s ultimate values.
–William Augustus Jones, Jr., God in the Ghetto: A Prophetic Word Revisited

For further reflection:
“She had thought she arrived. But life was always arriving. There was always another gate to pass through. (Until, of course, there wasn’t.) She walked through another gate. What was a gate, anyway?
A doorway, she thought. A portal. The possibility of a different world. The possibility that you might walk through the door and reinvent yourself as something better than you had been before.”
― Gabrielle Zevin
“If you close your door to the world of books, the gates of the world of ignorance automatically opens and quickly pulls you inside!” ― Mehmet Murat ildan
“A poet in his senses knocks vainly at the gates of poetry.” ― Ben Johnson

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.