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Mark 11.1-11

Romans 5.1-11

                                                            Somebody Loves Me

                                                                    (Palm Sunday)

There is a section of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in which the composer ponders the notion of sin, and the possibility, and the difficulty, of penitence:

            “If I could, I’d confess/Good and loud, nice and slow,

            Get this load off my chest/Yes, but how, Lord - I don’t know.

            What I say, I don’t feel/What I feel, I don’t show,

            What I show isn’t real/What is real, Lord, I don’t know.

            No, No, No - I don’t know.”

In movingly musical way, I think Bernstein is trying to confront those two questions of penitence, its possibility and its difficulty, by asking, How do you tell God you’re sorry?

So tell me:  did you really think we were going to make it all the way through the season of Lent without talking about sin?  I’ve occasionally made the joke that sin is the church’s ultimate four-letter word:  while the whole notion of penitence and salvation is built upon it, it seems like we are increasingly reluctant to talk about it.  We may make errors in judgement, or we may have chosen a lesser good, or perhaps made tactical moral compromises in pursuit of greater strategic aims, but sin?  That’s far too strong a word.  But this is the gift of Lent:  it allows us, no, it encourages us to consider the ways we have fallen short of God’s hopes and expectations of us, indeed, our hopes and expectations of ourselves, and provides us with the space and the opportunity to make them right.

The irony of it is, what often stands in our way are some of the church’s most cherished traditions.  For example, some religious persuasions suggest that the way to escape the wages of sin is to recite from memory certain liturgical prayers a prescribed number of times.  Another perspective demands knowing Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior as the way to avoid a painful hell as the punishment for sin.  Still another insists that sin is so deeply inbred in us that not only is there no way to escape it, but there is no use in trying, because humanity is “totally depraved.”  In fact, yesterday’s “Calvin and Hobbes” weighed in on the notion of original sin, when Calvin asks his pet tiger Hobbes, “Do you think babies are born sinful?  That they come into the world as sinners?”  To which Hobbes replies, “No, I think they’re just quick studies.”  These are caricatures, to be sure, and they are not meant to criticize any particular religious perspective.  But I can tell you that I have sat in my office with people who carry a real weight of guilt on their shoulder and in their spirits, people who are in genuine despair because of it, so effectively has their religious background drilled into them the perniciousness of human depravity.  How do you bring hope and peace into the life of someone who can’t overcome their sense of sin and guilt?  How do we deal with our own sense of having done something wrong, perhaps of having betrayed what we say we believe, or of having hurt somebody very close to us?  How do you tell God you’re sorry?

Diane read the familiar story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday.  And the church is of two minds on this too.   Some celebrate his riding into the city on a donkey while they shout their Hosannas.  Others prefer the term Passion Sunday and focus on the events of the coming week, Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and crucifixion.  And predictably, some churches try to shoehorn all of it into one morning.  At the United Church, we take one day of Holy Week at a time:  this morning we observe the triumphal entry, Thursday we recognize the betrayal and arrest surrounding the Last Supper, Friday we focus on the crucifixion, all to make ready for the resurrection of Easter.  But I can also see the wisdom of combining them all, because they are all of a piece:  what is it that transforms the Hosannas of Sunday to the Crucify Hims of Friday?  Or maybe the better question might be this:  is it possible for us to recognize ourselves in the Sunday’s welcoming Jerusalem crowd without also seeing ourselves in the mob that demanded the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus?

Just before I left for vacation, a former parishioner reached out to me and asked me what I thought about the idea of substitutionary atonement.  Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but it isn’t very often that anyone asks me about substitutionary atonement.  What it basically means is that Jesus died for my sins so that I don’t have to.  Jesus was punished for my sins so I won’t be.  Jesus died in my place.  It is an idea that has permeated the church’s theology for ages.  And I don’t like it, and I told my former parishioner I don’t like it, and I will say unequivocally that it is not only bad theology, but it is downright wrong.  Jesus died because the Romans government and the temple leadership wanted to be done with him.  He didn’t die because I neglected to love my neighbor this week.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a dense one, and if you had trouble following as I read it this morning, it’s probably more Paul’s fault than your own.  But I read it because it is one of the places some folks will locate the idea that Jesus died so we don’t have to.  And to a point, I get that:  “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly… now that we have been justified by his blood, we will be saved through him from the wrath of God.”  Wow, this is not exactly the reason we all rolled out of bed this morning to come to Palm Sunday, is it?  But to focus on this misses the heart of Paul’s meaning.  In verse 8 Paul writes, “God’s love is proven for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  There’s that four-letter word again that we don’t like to mention in church:  sin.  Who is a sinner?  Who hasn’t made an error in judgement, who hasn’t chosen a lesser good, who hasn’t made a compromise in the belief it would lead to something far better?  In the events of Holy Week, Paul is telling us, God’s love for us is proven once and for all.  That is, this is not about sin or death or alienation from God, it is about love, pure and simple, God’s love for all humanity, God’s love for you, God’s love for me, and yes, God’s love for Jesus.  God didn’t say to Jesus, “Hey son, you need to die an unimaginably painful death so Alan can live with a clean conscience.”  Both because of and in spite of the glory and tragedy of Holy Week, at the center of it all, at the center of it all, is the love of God.  God’s love for us is proven in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

“Somebody loves me – I wonder who – I wonder who it could be.”  George Gershwin’s memorable song, written in 1924, has got more legs than a millipede.  Consider this short list of musicians who have performed it:  Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Errol Garner, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horn, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Django Reihhart, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Zoot Sims, and to return to the classical world where we began this morning, lyric soprano Dame Kiri TeKanawa.  Like I said, a short list.  But I’ve been singing it in my head all week because of the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  If we were to sum up what we’ve said this morning about Palm Sunday and Good Friday and sin and forgiveness and penitence and salvation, I think it might fit nicely into Gershwin’s tune:  “Somebody loves me – don’t wonder who – don’t ever wonder who it could be.”  Beginning today and throughout the week, God’s love is proven again and again and again in this:  that Jesus Christ is at the heart of the proven love of God.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

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