United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds April 5 2020

Sixth Sunday in Lent Year A
Palm/Passion Sunday

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Lectionary citations:
Liturgy of the Palms:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

Liturgy of the Passion:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Worship resources for the Sixth Sunday in Lent Year A, Palm/Passion Sunday are at Worship Ways

Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:

Worship Resources
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E_RKfy_VOzelb5jbXV7UW5ytjmiI-_Md-W0H8UaRlaM/edit

Digital Pastoral Care & Grief
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sdalu3udRXIadlo9A_E0J2URF0EqzXHAFlQUhXl_esY/edit

Living psalms are here, scroll down:
https://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 26:14-27:66
Sermon reflection on Matthew 21:1-11

Focus Theme:
Conversations Before the Cross

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

The passion story isn't just a long one, so rich, so full of both trouble and beauty that we hardly know where to begin. It's also very old, going all the way back to Paul and developing during that first century as the Gospel writers filled out the narrative with both theology and details (perhaps the theology is "in the details").

From the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has sounded the theme of fulfillment, and he isn't finished yet (see John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). As he nears the end of his story, Matthew continues to recall traditions that are being fulfilled, but he's also remembering the blood that was spilled at its very beginning, when the powers-that-be (Herod and the Empire that supported him) killed innocent babies because they feared just one little newborn child.

A Gospel with blood spattered on it

Frederick Niedner provided an exquisite reflection on this long text in the March 11, 2008 issue of the Christian Century: "Matthew's Gospel has blood spattered all over it....the Immanuel child who escaped Herod falls victim to a new cadre of frightened leaders."

Frightened leaders use fear to control the people, drawing "just enough blood," Niedner says, "to keep everyone afraid." Like so many people before and after him, Jesus dies at the hands of power: "This time, however, the bloodshed changes everything."

The place and the time

The place is Jerusalem, and the time is Passover, when the Jewish people, Jesus' own people, would remember and celebrate God's deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. The irony, Melinda Quivik writes, is that "the popular and dangerous rabbi who preaches freedom will be killed when the people come together to Jerusalem to celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt."

And so Jesus is brought before power, standing in front of Caiaphas the high priest and Pilate the governor (representing the Empire). But that rabbi who spoke at great length to his disciples and the crowds (check out Chapter 25: all of it, the words of Jesus) now has very little to say before the high and the mighty.

Quivik says that this quiet Jesus "who has had so many words through so many stories suddenly seems to act according to the notion that one picture really is worth a thousand words" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Obsession and over-reaction

We might find the obsession of the "local" religious authorities easier to understand than the over-reaction of the mighty Roman Empire to one small-town preacher in a far-flung province. But Jesus represents something more powerful than a thousand legions, and that is hope.

Richard Swanson writes, "Empire is not seeking simply to crucify one man, whether gentle or troublesome. Rome is seeking to demonstrate that, though it may take a lifetime, it will catch and kill anyone who stirs Jewish hope. In Matthew's story, Rome finishes Herod's hunt…" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). When we say that Jesus "died" for us, we miss the full impact of saying that he didn't just die; he was executed.

We can see God's love for us

Marcus Borg points out the uniqueness of Christianity, "whose founder was executed by established authority." And why was he executed? Borg responds with several interpretations, each one insightful: he sees Jesus' death "as a consequence of what he was doing, but not his purpose....Jesus courageously kept doing what he was doing even though he knew it could have fatal consequences."

The "no" of the authorities is answered by God's "yes," Borg claims, and the domination system (even bigger than just one Roman governor or one religious institution) "disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat."

Dying to one way of being

Digging even deeper, Borg sees Jesus' death and resurrection as the path for Christians: "dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being." And we can all see in the death of Jesus, the beloved Son, "the depth of God's love for us."

Finally, the sacrificial understanding, Borg says, has been misinterpreted by Christians as it's been used most often to interpret the death of Jesus. The earliest Christians would have understood that in laying down his own life Jesus denied "the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God....God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God." The death of Jesus, then, is "a metaphor of radical grace" (see The Heart of Christianity for this excellent reflection).

God comes to find us where we are

This is the same note struck by Barbara Brown Taylor in her sermon on this passage, when she agrees with Niedner that everything was changed by this death, and with Borg that God's love is revealed in it: afterward, "the world was a different place, and the world knew it. The earth shook. Rocks split. Tombs groaned and fell open to the light....God [became] flesh and blood in order to bring divine love to life...."

In giving us Jesus, Taylor writes, God is saying, "You don't have to come to me where I am anymore. I will come all the way to you where you are, through this beloved child'" (Gospel Medicine).

Doesn't this sounds like the stories of Jesus, who spoke of a widow pulling her home apart to find a lost coin, or a shepherd going in search of a lost sheep? God comes to find us where we are.

Betrayal at the center of the story

There are so many images and themes in this reading that a preacher hardly knows where to begin. Perhaps it might be fruitful to focus our attention on the betrayal at the center of the story.

Many commentators write with deep feeling not just about Judas but also about the disciples who promised loyalty and then failed Jesus: "Then all the disciples deserted him and fled" (26:56b). Not just some disciples, but all the disciples ran away. They surely didn't want to be cowards, and yet they were free to stay with Jesus or to go, just as we are free to choose our path today.

The human condition

Thomas Long sees this failure as part of the human condition. Peter's promise illustrates human freedom to choose faithfulness (or not), but when Jesus responds, "'Truly, you will break this very night,' he speaks the sad truth of the way it goes in human life."

Long puts Peter in a line with so many others, all the way back to Adam, who will, "when the chips are down, choose another way." The disciples don't intend evil, but they are weak, and Jesus is no less abandoned; in his hour of need, the disciples "prefer the sleep of avoidance. Jesus is alert to God's will; Peter, James, and John slumber through his time of anguish" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

Isn't it interesting that Peter, James, and John, who went up to the mountaintop and witnessed the Transfiguration, were also the ones who fell asleep in the garden?

A question of free will

We've been taught about free will, and these disciples certainly exercised theirs. Judas chose to remove himself from the community; he wasn't expelled from it. He was there, at that final dinner, sitting at the table with his mind elsewhere.

As we read about that supper, we might wonder what was going through the hearts and minds of those gathered for this not-just-another-Passover meal. Jesus knew that these friends of his, the innermost of his inner circle, would turn him in or at least abandon him in his hour of need. And yet, Barbara Brown Taylor says, Jesus "is forgiving them ahead of time" (Gospel Medicine).

Life, in the long run

Indeed, even in the face of their impending desertion and weakness, Jesus offers them life in the long run, and the promise of God's love and presence with them always. Niedner writes of Jesus' compassion and care for his followers (and perhaps his sorrow as well) as he shares one last meal, one last cup with them: "Drink this," Jesus promises, "and my lifeblood becomes yours. Tomorrow I die, but you go free. Wherever you go, I am with you" (Christian Century 3-11-08).

When we think about the betrayal and desertion of the disciples, don't we too easily go to the place of "relating" by remembering the times we've been betrayed or abandoned? That's the human thing to do. But Niedner offers a compelling and discomforting reflection, appropriate for this Lenten season of self-examination and repentance: "the disciples need forgiveness and reconciliation, not merely freedom," from this rabbi who preached freedom.

And so do we, for we have all betrayed just as we have been betrayed.

The betrayals we have perpetrated

We might ask, with Niedner: "What becomes of traitors, not only Judas but those in our congregations and communities, or the intimates who stab our families in the back?" But Niedner reflects on his own "large and small betrayals that have cost others, including those I love, their joy, their sanity, their ability to trust, even their lifeblood...."

What better time than Holy Week, what better place than at the foot of the cross, to reflect on the betrayals and desertions we have perpetrated on others? And where do we find our hope? In the empty tomb and, Niedner writes, the "promise of the shepherding God who never pauses until every lost one is found…" (Christian Century 3-11-08).

Our own brokenness and need for forgiveness

Quivik, in her commentary for preachers, offers an overview of this rich and complex passage, this old, old tradition in which "we readily see the circumstances of human life (the trouble we are in, the need we have for God's mercy, the 'law' that burdens us because we cannot fulfill it) and we also see the inexplicable beauty (the release we have been given through Jesus' silence and death, the desire of his friends to maintain fellowship with him, the desire of human beings to follow and to comfort, the 'gospel' that gives freedom). The beauty is in the unfathomable and yet undeniable power of this entire story" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Trouble, yes, and beauty, indeed.

Note: A helpful resource for preaching on the texts for Palm/Passion Sunday is Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem.

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The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Rob Bell, 21st century
"Our tendency in the midst of suffering is to turn on God. To get angry and bitter and shake our fist at the sky and say, 'God, you don't know what it's like! You don't understand! You have no idea what I'm going through. You don't have a clue how much this hurts.' The cross is God's way of taking away all of our accusations, excuses, and arguments. The cross is God taking on flesh and blood and saying, 'Me too.'"

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 21st century
"We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity."

John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 20th century
"An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There's a punishment for it, and it's usually crucifixion."

W.H. Auden, 20th century
"Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith."

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, 20th century
"It is to the Cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his Master: no path of redemption can make a detour around it."

Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century
"Power consists in deciding which story shall be told."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
"What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

William Wilberforce, 19th century
"You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know."

Attributed to Rabbi Tarfon and the Talmud (commentary on Micah 6:8)
"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Act justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century, as he was taken to his death
"This is the end, but for me the beginning of life."

Sermon reflection on Matthew 21:1-11*:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

The whole city waited breathlessly for his arrival. There was excitement, and lots of talk, not the kind of talk we'd call gossip but talk that was full of hope, wild hope that, no matter how bad things had been, no matter how long the people had suffered, things were going to be different now, because of him. People tried to figure out the best way to welcome him, to prepare for the wonderful future he was going to bring.

He was The One, the one they and their fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers before them had been waiting for, hoping for, dreaming of. Some people even now had started to call him "the King." Life for the people of this city and its surroundings was going to be different--transformed--because of his leadership, his powerful gifts and what they promised, and the people of the city would be filled with pride and self-confidence once more.

They'd see themselves in a new way, and their city in a new way, or better, their city would be restored to its former glory.

Ah, yes, I remember it well. It was only eight years ago when the city of Cleveland erupted with joy in anticipation of the arrival of LeBron James, "King James," the greatest prize ever in the NBA draft, the player that ignited the hopes of a city so long downtrodden (in spite of an almost mythical past of ancient sports glory) that it no longer cared so much about having a world-class medical center, or a premier art museum or orchestra.

No, what the people on the street wanted was hope, and glory, and a national championship--football, baseball, basketball--it didn't matter. What they wanted was hope, and glory.

But it wasn't just about glory. The once-great city by one great lake was suffering, and its people were tired and struggling. The city's formerly outstanding school system was now failing to meet even minimum standards, many of its neighborhoods were impoverished and dangerous, jobs were few even in a decent economy, foreclosures were common, and the streets of downtown were mostly empty, especially at night and on the weekends, when those with money retreated to their homes outside the city.

To be realistic--what this hero promised was more than a sports championship and the celebration and bragging rights that come with it. His presence meant jobs, jobs for the people in the parking lots, the arena, the hotels and restaurants, and all the other places that would be hiring in a city now filled with new life, new hope, new promise. A city that was no longer depressed.

Even LeBron said, being a hometown Cavaliers fan, that he understood what it would mean to this city to win a championship, that this was going to be more than just a sports championship. It was actually an awful lot to ask of one 18-year-old boy.

Well, we all know how that turned out, and how the crowds that exulted in his arrival can now barely say or even hear the name of LeBron James. And the city? The city struggles even more now, with a poor economy and rampant foreclosures, and companies moving away and taking jobs with them. Once again, the people are even more hungry, and looking for reason to hope.

Jerusalem was a lot like that, back in the first century. Actually, for many centuries Jerusalem had been a city of both hunger and hope, and always recalled its past glories and its future promise. Remember heroic King David, the great leader who ruled in justice and peace, whose memory inspired the people to long once again for a king who would restore them to those former glories?

The messiah himself was said to be "the son of David," and they hoped he would be the king of Israel, a nation that had lived under the heel of one oppressive, violent empire after another, all the way back to Egypt, and later Assyria, Babylon, and now Rome.

The Romans extracted heavy taxes from the people, stationed troops overlooking the temple itself to keep a kind of peace in the city, and chose from the people a few collaborators to keep things running smoothly in this land so distant from the center of the empire. The situation in Jerusalem and the countryside was not good: many people were drowning in debt, a high foreclosure rate on the land concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, and most people were hungry, jobless, and desperate.

The kings of Israel themselves, after David, had done a terrible job of living up to what God expected of them, and that's why the prophets often scolded Jerusalem for its neglect of the poor, its injustice and greed.

Jerusalem was both the holy city and, as Jesus said, "the city that killed the prophets." But at this point in history, the power rested in the hands of the Romans, and those who collaborated with them.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan draw a wonderful picture of that "Palm Sunday" long ago. They describe not one but two processions into the city that day: one, from the west, was led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor coming into the city to "keep the peace," no, better, to keep order, during the Passover, the Jewish high holy day celebrating Israel's long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire.

"Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city," Borg and Crossan write: "A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful."

This was the power of empire on display, but it was also a kind of theology, too, because the Roman emperor claimed to be the son of God, so "the way things were" were that way because their "god" decided it should be so. Works out well for the Romans and the wealthy, but not so much for the people under their heel.

Now, on the other side of town, from the east, came a very different procession, one we read about in Matthew's Gospel account today. This "king" rides in not on a warhorse but on a donkey, surrounded not by cavalry or foot soldiers with helmets and banners but by peasants, the urban poor, and the spiritually hungry as well, holding palm branches, and exuberantly full of praise and hope that has been kept alive by those prophets who promised a time of peace, and justice, and a leader who would inaugurate that great and glorious day.

Zechariah and Isaiah were two of those prophets, and Matthew quotes them in this passage, but he also recalls something that happened earlier in his Gospel, when Jesus was a little tiny, humble baby whose birth caused such a stir in the city that powerful King Herod felt compelled to strike out at him in fear and violence.

Jesus was seen as a threat to the powerful then, and during this Holy Week, he will be seen that way again. The powers that be of the temple will hand Jesus over to the powers that be of the empire, and that empire will kill Jesus. That's what empires do.

That's what these two processions are really about, one kind of power confronting another. For a while, it will appear that the empire, that violence and suffering, injustice and greed have won. But on the third day, we know, that God will say no to this kind of power, and yes to the power of love and justice, compassion and peace, yes to the power of new life.

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Saying yes, and saying no. One scholar observes that Jerusalem had to make a decision that day, about what to "do with a Messiah who ushers in a reign of peace, not warfare." That wasn't really what some folks had in mind, so their expectations were disappointed. They wanted a different kind of glory, a king who would rise up against Rome. Jesus, you might say, did not fulfill popular expectations.

We wonder, don't we, what he was thinking on that donkey, riding into a city that was going to reject him in just a few days. But the wonderful preacher Fred Craddock cautions us against picking on the Holy City, here at the beginning of Holy Week: "What city is there today," he asks, "with its values, its centers of power, its established institutions, that would not resist strongly the radical realignment of values and relationships, of priorities and commitments, that Jesus teaches and models in his own life?"

Another, very different, story about Cleveland: when my children were small, their daddy and I joined a small, African American church in an impoverished neighborhood on the east side of the city. Each year, our little congregation went on our own Palm Sunday procession to another church several blocks away.

This was a neighborhood that had erupted in flames and riots when Dr. King was killed, and years later its violent crime rate was very high. The "Hough riots" happened right in front of our church, and the church members remembered looking out at the buildings as they burned.

I confess that I was a little uneasy each year, as a mother of small children, wondering if it was wise to take them on this walk. The choir led us in spirituals as we processed down Ansel Road, and I remember watching my sons and daughter as they took all of this in, especially when they looked up at windows that had no glass in them but only blankets across them, and children who pulled back the blankets to look at the procession passing by. This was where those children lived, every day.

How could we take that walk on Palm Sunday, how could we say and sing that we wanted to follow Jesus, and not make the connection to the suffering of the people that surely touched his own heart and led him to say and do the things that eventually brought him to this moment, to this confrontation with the powers that be?

It is so much easier to say that Jesus died for my sins and washed them all away than it is to take up the cross of the suffering of the world, to make a choice between one procession and another, to choose non-violence, and justice, generosity and peace, rather than opting for power and security and judgment, even at the cost of arms and violence and the suffering of those who pay that cost.

I have heard it said that churches that demand the most of their members are thriving while those that are the most relaxed in their rules and requirements--their expections--are in decline. Perhaps we need to be clearer about just how much the gospel requires of us. "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" the song asks. But what about today?

Are we there with Jesus, willing to pay the price with him for holding onto that dream of God, the reign of God when, as the prophet Isaiah says, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more"? The prophet Micah speaks these same words, but he adds, "They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid."

No more hunger. No more war. We dream with God of that great day, as we hear this story at the beginning of another Holy Week, finding ourselves in that story, finding ourselves in one procession or the other.

I hope we will remember, as we make our own decision, what Margaret Farley has written about what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus: "Christianity," she writes, "is a religion of resistance and hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death."

The choice, then, is before us. What it will be? Which procession shall we join? Will we dare to hope, and to follow Jesus on his way?

(Note: This sermon was preached at First Congregational UCC in Sioux City, Iowa on April 17, 2011. Readers will note that the story about LeBron James has had a very different, and positive, outcome. I would also like to share that, as I was preaching this sermon in Iowa, my mother was having a stroke back home in Ohio that led to her hospitalization and passing away several months later. She was waiting to be taken to church that Palm Sunday morning, and I am reminded of her ninety-five years of faithfully joining that procession with Jesus.)

For further reflection:

Andrew of Crete, 7th century
"Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet Jesus, not scattering olive branches or garments or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 21st century
"So I never doubted that ultimately we were going to be free, because ultimately, I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life."

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
"It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for."

Mark Twain, 19th century
"Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it."

Blood-stained kindergarten leaflet with day's prayer (when 4 girls were killed in church bombing in Birmingham in 1963):
"Dear God, we are sorry for the times we were so unkind."

Albert Schweitzer, 20th century
"Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight."

Albert Camus, 20th century
"Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as quietly as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings, a gentle stirring of life and hope."

Eudora Welty, 20th century
"People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths."

William E. Gladstone, 19th century
"We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace."


Lectionary texts

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

with

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

O give thanks to God,
   for God is good;
God's steadfast love endures
   forever!

Let Israel say,
   God's steadfast love endures
forever.

Open to me the gates
   of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to God.

This is the gate
   of God;
the righteous shall enter
   through it.

I thank you
   that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.

This is God's doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day
   that God has made;
let us rejoice
   and be glad in it.

Save us, we beseech you,
   O God!
O God, we beseech you,
   give us success!

Blessed is the one
   who comes in the name of God.
We bless you
   from the house of God.

The Sovereign is God,
   and God has given us light.
Bind the festal procession
   with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God,
   and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God,
   I will extol you.

O give thanks to God,
   for God is good,
for God's steadfast love endures
   for ever.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
   the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
   the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens —
   wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
   and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
   and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
   from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me;
   therefore I have not been disgraced;
   therefore I have set my face like flint,
   and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
   who will declare me guilty?

with

Psalm 31:9-16

Be gracious to me,
   O God,
for I am in distress;

my eye wastes away
   from grief,
my soul and body also.

For my life is spent
   with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;

my strength fails
   because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn
   of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,

an object of dread
   to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street
   flee from me.

I have passed out of mind
   like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.

For I hear the whispering of many —
   terror all around! —
as they scheme together against me,
   as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O God;
   I say, "You are my God."

My times are in your hand;
   deliver me from the hand
of my enemies and persecutors.

Let your face shine
   upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
   who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
      as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death —
      even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
that is above every name,
   so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
   and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Matthew 26:14-27:66

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, What will you give me if I betray him to you? They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover? He said, Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.' So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me." And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, "Surely not I, Lord?" He answered, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" He replied, "You have said so."

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'
"But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee." Peter said to him, "Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me." And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Again he went away for the second time and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand."

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him." At once he came up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him. Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you are here to do." Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?" At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'" The high priest stood up and said, "Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?" But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you,
    From now on you will see the Son of Man
      seated at the right hand of Power
      and coming on the clouds of heaven."

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death." Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, "Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?"

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." But he denied it before all of them, saying, "I do not know what you are talking about." When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." Again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man." After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you." Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, "I do not know the man!" At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." But they said, "What is that to us? See to it yourself." Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money." After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter's field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me."

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people a a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 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."

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"

Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

or

Matthew 27:11-54

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.

While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him."

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!"

Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!" So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 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."

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."