What a Party!
This is one of my favorite days in the whole church year.
The obvious reason is the celebration,
the holy chaos as the kids and I stumble into the sanctuary
and fill the chancel as we sing:
All glory, laud and honor
To thee, Redeemer, King!
To whom the lips of children
Make sweet hosannas ring.
Its not every day we make such a fuss. And I love it.
But I also love this particular Sunday,
Because for those of us who think that faith is all about transformation
Where following God in Jesus MATTERS
Because it reminds us, convinces us, that we are loved
And because of that love we are changed forever
To love ourselves
And to love others
And to serve the world
For those of us who think faith is all about transformation
This might just be the most theologically significant
Most relevant, day of the entire year.
It is an occasion of such ambiguity and irony, and to be honest about it,
Life is like that.
And through that ambiguity and irony, Jesus leads us towards redemption
Toward new life, toward God.
There are big issues and major QUESTIONS swirling about
as the people sing hosanna and wave palm branches.
Now, today we read just the beginning of the story of Holy Week.
But many places choose to read much more.
Sometimes the entire Passion narrative is read: all of it:
The triumphal entry into Jerusalem,
The plot to kill Jesus,
Judas’s deal to turn Jesus over to the authorities
For 30 pieces of silver,
The Last Supper,
The betrayal and arrest,
Peter’s denial that he ever knew Jesus,
The hasty trial,
The crowd, once adoring Jesus, now demanding his execution,
The Roman Soldiers mocking and tormenting,
The crucifixion. Jesus’ death. His Burial. All of it.
Sometimes we’ve used this Sunday in that way too, to look more closely
at what happens later this week, on the way towards the Cross.
Partly we did that because we aren’t sure that we would reflect on it otherwise.
Most of this story is told at special services on Thursday and Friday
And who has time to go to services on Thursday and Friday too?
Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t.
That’s how our lives are these days.
So there sometimes is this push to focus on ALL of it on Palm Sunday.
And that’s important,
Because it is in this week that we might draw closest to God
When we connect Jesus’ fear, and hurt, and anguish
His concern and his pain
With the real hurt and pain that you and I carry everyday.
But there are other reasons why we are tempted to skip that part of the story.
If we’re honest.
Sometimes we prefer the happy tales to the more realistic, but less joyful accounts.
Just a few examples of this from my reading this week:
Peter Gomes, the former pastor of The Memorial Church at Harvard University,
Said something revealing when he admits how he was brought up
in the “Lets have a parade theory of Palm Sunday.
That discrete form of Protestantism that doesn’t much care
for the embarrassment and indignity of the cross.”
Too easily we remove the Passion from Palm Sunday, Gomes says,
and we’re too quick to turn the occasion into a festive dress rehearsal for Easter:
“Saving the suffering for the faithful few who will come to church
On Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday”[i]
[I don’t know how to respond to the idea
that our services this week might feel like suffering to those who attend]
Or there’s this:
I know that some of you, like me, have found Anne Lamott’s reflections on faith helpful.
She says something similar in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith:
I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion.
I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection.
In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision
of one of the kids in our Sunday School,
who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb:
everlasting life AND a basket full of chocolates. Now you’re talking!”[ii]
But let’s resist this temptation this morning, shall we?
Lets be sure that we go beyond the RIGHTFUL celebration of this day,
And ask the deeper questions that bubble up within us…
The way Matthew tells the story,
Oh, about halfway through the accounts of his public ministry,
Jesus’ focus starts to shift:
From Galilee, his home territory,
Toward Jerusalem, in Judah, in the south—The city of David, built on Mount Zion,
The capital of the nation,
The heart of his people’s history, culture, and collective hope.
It doesn’t seem like a great idea, frankly.
A lot can happen in the city that doesn’t happen elsewhere:
you can get lost
stuck in traffic
shoved and jostled on the sidewalk
yelled at by protestors
confronted on a corner by the hungry wanting a sandwich
musicians pounding on empty paint buckets or a guitar.
Some of us love the energy and the activity of the city,
But suffering and misery can also be magnified there.
Crime. Poverty. Hunger. All magnified there.
A message challenging the authorities of the day can be magnified—there.
Jesus’ disciples try to persuade him not to go. Stay here. Its safer.
When he persists, they drag their feet, follow behind reluctantly,
Alternately amazed at his courage and determination, and scared to death.
As parades go, it was rather understated, unorganized.
Don’t try to compare it with the Saint Patrick Day parades you saw on TV a few weeks ago.
In fact, it was downright comical:
a couple of borrowed farm animals,
one man somehow astride them both,
accompanied by a retinue of fishermen and taxmen,
lunatics and prostitutes,
beggars and blind men,
bleeders and the lame. All these…nobodies…shuffling along together.
It must have been quite a sight.
But… everybody loves a parade, everybody loves a celebration
so the city’s inhabitants came out anyway. And what a party!
Hundreds of them, perhaps thousands.
And like any throng that gathers in the streets, the crowd took on a life of its own.
They began tearing off their cloaks and grabbing branches to cover the ground.
This makeshift band of followers shout to him in Hebrew , “Hoshianna!”,
meaning “save us” –
as if he were a king,
as if he could save them from their distress, whatever it might be.
Those in his entourage seemed renewed, refreshed by him,
as if he had, in fact, already saved them.
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” they cried.
And the words were picked up by the swarm coming out of the shops
and market stalls and homes and alleys.
“Hoshianna!” Save us!
The noise grew along with the crowd.
What had started as a minor entrance to Jerusalem now became a major event.
“The whole city was in a turmoil.” reports Matthew (Mt.21:10)
Yes, what a party indeed!
Everyone was asking the same question.
It was whispered along the edges of the multitude.
It raced through the neighborhoods.
They all wondered,
as they sensed a strange stirring of the Spirit that day: “Who is this?”
This account is unique in the gospels. Its found in all four of them, but its unique.
It is the only time where Jesus encourages making a scene on his behalf.
Most of the time he’s telling his disciples to tune it down,
To not make such a big deal about his teaching or healing. Don’t cause a scene.
But HERE, he chooses to ride animals that the Psalms say would carry a king
To inspire a response fit only for a royal procession
Cloaks on the road, branches waved on high.
The image is not lost on his followers.
The procession into Jerusalem is part political rally,
part royal arrival, part protest march,
part religious revival, part celebrity sighting.
It leaves the city disrupted, asking “Who is this Jesus?”
Matthew himself seems confused at times as he tells the story.
In the few lines we read as part of our own procession here today,
the Gospel refers to Jesus variously as Lord, King, Son of David, and a prophet.
Which will it be? Who is this Jesus?
Not a simple question. No easy answers, really.
That question actually drives the composition of the Gospels themselves.
In the first sentence of the first chapter of his book Matthew assigns three names to Jesus:
“the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,”
and then Matthew spends the rest of the book trying to clarify things, to sort it all out.
The harder the Gospel writers try to prove just who Jesus is,
the more muddled it becomes.
They call him Son of God,
Son of Man,
Lamb of God,
King of Israel,
Light of the World.
What is clear, though, is this: from the moment of his birth, people wonder who he is.
His own neighbors don’t know him when he begins to preach.
Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?
Who do you say that I am?”(Mt. 16:13, 15)
At the end, Peter, who had recognized him, denies he knows Jesus.
And at the trial of Jesus, questions about his identity cost him his life.
“Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” the chief priests will ask,
seeking to catch him in blasphemy.
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Pilate will inquire, hoping to nail him for sedition.
“You say so,” Jesus replies, and there’s no turning back.
Palm Sunday is such a wonderful day, because
It holds within it the paradox of Christian faith:
this one whom we worship as Lord and Savior,
this one who enters Jerusalem as a king,
this one who is called by a score of powerful names,
turns out to find his greatest power
when he assumes the one title no one had yet assigned him:
the Crucified One.
Timothy Hart-Anderson tells about one Lent when, at his church
They held a “re-enactment” of Holy Week:[iii]
The adults and youth prepare a living tableau
that begins with a re-creation of the entry into Jerusalem.
The younger children grab the palms in their little hands
and hold them through the rest of the story,
dragging them through the hallways of the church,
past the Last Supper,
the garden, the trial, the cross,
the grave, and the resurrection.
For them it is a powerful drama.
I’m told that one little four-year old, as they got to the grave,
stood there in silence,
staring at the scene in utter amazement, transfixed by the image.
Then, as they prepared to move on,
he stepped forward and touched his palm
to the feet of the body of Jesus.
He seemed to understand:
this Jesus who enters in triumph will go to his death for us.
The parade of palms will soon become a procession to the cross.
And THERE we will meet the Jesus whom we follow.
More than one resource calls this the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.
The triumphal entry.
If that’s true, and I believe it was
It sure is a different kind of triumph.
Those who were there and who heard the cries of Hosanna
Would have remembered this reading from the Psalms Tabe shared with us
They would have quickly put two and two together
And deduced that, finally, HERE was the one
who would liberate the Hebrew people,
ostensibly through the sword, through might-makes-right.
But this…Jesus..whoever he is,
HE enters on a little-respected beast,
HE comes with a pitiful entourage,
And rejects any claim to military conquest.
This Jesus would find his strength in peace
His greatest power in choosing to show others a better way.
And, ultimately, he would be condemned to death for it.
Who is Jesus?
The one who shows us the way to God through the cross.
If the Incarnation (Emmanuel) means God WITH us, then the cross means God FOR us.
WHEREEVER there is persecution and oppression and darkness,
there is Jesus.
WHEREEVER people suffer and die,
When missiles fly and poison chokes and the innocent suffer,
there is Jesus.
WHEREEVER culture and church exclude and reject,
there is Jesus.
WHEREEVER systems are brutal and crush the weak,
there is Jesus.
Jesus is “the one who lives for others,”
or in the language of today’s psalm, “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Who is this Jesus?
Well, there are a lot of possible answers:
–Is he the champion of strict moral rectitude some would want him to be?
–Is he the darling of the prosperous because to follow him is to be “successful”?
–Is he the chaplain to our consumer culture, “the greatest marketer ever”,
as one writer calls him?
OR is he something else altogether?
I can remember the first time I ever seriously grappled with the identity of Jesus.
Not that I still don’t continue to work on it, every day
but the time that I finally got how important this question was.
I was going through confirmation,
and someone asked me to reflect on this, as part of growing up.
I froze in my chair.
“Just Who IS Jesus?” I wondered.
And I HAD TO LET GO of my NEED to force Jesus to be something he was not.
As I did, I moved into a faith that would sustain me the rest of my life
One that would compel me to live FOR OTHERS.
To try to live, as best I could, as Jesus lived…
In those times when I have come face to face with deep suffering – my own or others’ –
in those times when unconscionable injustice in the world is revealed,
I have come to know and trust and love more deeply
this one who lived, and died, for others.
THIS Jesus, is the one welcomed on that day
as the crowd surged out of Jerusalem to greet him.
They will soon call for his crucifixion, but that will not deter him.
He goes to the cross forgiving EVEN those who fix him to the tree.
My Friends: Palms and Passion mix on this Sunday,
They always do
as the one hailed as king, this one who is for others,
rides on “in lowly pomp” to die.
Who is this Jesus? As we walk through THIS week, this holy, hard, painful week,
we all find out.
But first, let us celebrate
This one who enters the city with festivity and with joy
Who welcomes you to join the throng, to enjoy the party
Because God’s love is on full display
To our broken and hurting world.
May our hearts and our minds and our whole lives
Be captivated by this humble rabbi, who gave his life to set us free.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Gomes, Peter. Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), pp 68-69.
[ii] Lamont, Anne Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005) p. 140
[iii] Citation for this reference has been lost to time, but credit for the citation and Hart-Anderson’s influence on the themes of this sermon are due.
Image: Palm Sunday (1956) by Jacob Lawrence.