Sermon of the Week
Steadfast Love on Parade
Palm / Passion Sunday. #pcusa
Keywords: Palm Sunday, Entry Into Jerusalem, Roller Coaster, Crowds and Quarantine, 2014 AL Wild Card.
This is a great story.
It’s Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week,
when, according to Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the first time.
If you’ve heard about Palm Sunday before,
you might remember the donkey, and the branches
and the crowds shouting Hosanna,
and those words from Psalm 118
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Matthew tells the story in his own unique way.
Did you catch that in this version,
there’s both a donkey, and a colt?
Yes, two animals, and Jesus enters Jerusalem on both, apparently,
and we could get into why, but this is less a sermon and more a meditation
and maybe you might just prefer imagining Jesus astride both
on this fine Sunday morning.
There are some great pictures of cowboy shows, if you search Google for them,
if you were bored one day
I don’t know, maybe because you’re stuck at home or something
because there’s no live baseball and you’ve watched all the Tiger King episodes
and you’ve resorted to finding the end of the internet to pass the time….
there are these cowboy shows out there, apparently,
where you see a performer with a ten-gallon hat
and a bandana around his neck
standing atop of two running horses, waving to the crowds…
I think I’ve heard of a few of those shows down in Branson.
But that’s not what Matthew is suggesting here.
Instead, he’s just trying to tell us that this moment, right here,
because it is the moment that a prophet named Zechariah
long ago predicted:
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
Zechariah used an tried and true technique called parallelism
to accentuate this moment, and so does Matthew,
so two animals for Jesus it is,
just like it was predicted so long ago…
This is a big moment for Jesus.
It is a big moment for the people of Israel, if Zechariah foretold it.
It is going to be a big moment, Matthew says, for the whole world.
But it is a moment within a larger context.
To hear Matthew tell it,
Holy Week is a doozy of a week,
a true roller-coaster.
First, with any roller-coaster,
there’s that powerful suspense as you’re going up the first incline,
as the cart is slowly taking you up the hill and you’re about to look over the edge
to that first huge drop.
That incline is what all the chapters before our reading today feels like,
where Matthew is introducing Jesus to his readers
telling them about his compassion,
his deep understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures
and the unique power of God that is within him.
Matthew isn’t a very short book.
We’re all the way in the 21st chapter today,
and before that you have all these stories,
all these moments that make an impression:
the sermon on the mount is here—
blessed are the poor in spirit, the peacemaker, blessed are the pure in heart.
turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for those who persecute you…
that’s all in Matthew,
all part of Jesus’ teaching about the realm of God,
what the world that God is working toward looks like.
There are parables, windstorms,
contentious debates with religious scholars
meals with despised tax collectors
there’s collecting grain on the sabbath, which was a no-no
the feeding of a whole lotta people on a hillside
when it was getting late
and all the restaurants were closed
and the disciples were caught unprepared
and who thinks that a few loaves of bread and some fish are going to do the trick…
all of these moments, where Jesus tries to show
how God really has got this
how people can rise up and do powerful things when they are leaning on God,
how God’s care and compassion really are universal, really are for everyone,
and particularly for those who are hurting and hungry and on the margins,
how God is working, even today, to make all things new,
and peaceful, and whole again.
I don’t say this to minimize those stories;
we learn so much about God in those day-to-day stories up to this point.
But there is a feeling throughout all of them that
you’re on the incline of the roller-coaster.
Jesus keeps dropping hints about needing to go to Jerusalem,
About some sort of confrontation that he’s going to have there in Jerusalem.
He talks about Zion, the great city.
He talks about his arrest there, about a betrayal that is to come
He talks about the temple, which is in Jerusalem.
As foreshadowing goes, it’s not very subtle.
So you have the whole story leading up that first incline,
and this story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is at the very top.
He’s been working toward THIS moment.
There are such high emotions:
huge crowds, shouts of celebration and acclimation,
people rushing from all over to watch
cutting down branches from trees, you know, as you do
to lay them on the ground, along with their coats
so that this can be a “dignified” sort of affair.
This was the poor-man’s red carpet treatment, for this Jesus guy,
whom many in the crowd likely hadn’t seen before,
but had just heard about, stories of healing and wisdom and compassion.
Scholars like to point out that there is a lot here that is meant to compare and contrast
with an actual royal parade,[i]
where the ruler of the area would arrive
with chariots and with armies
with trumpet and herald announcing “make way for the king.”
On display would be wealth, and power, and empire.
And, by contrast, here you have Jesus, humble, on a donkey (and a colt)
with coats on the ground and branches underfoot
cheered on by people yearning for change, for salvation.
It was really the high moment of the week, for Jesus,
and it shook the whole city.
Our reading says the city was “in turmoil”
but that word has its roots in the word ‘seismic’
which is to say that Jesus’ entry shook everything up
and people were asking about him
he was the talk of the town.
And then, what follows, is when the cart goes over the hill
and the roller-coaster plummets down
and the rest of the events of holy week ensue:
Jesus turns over some tables at the temple and disrupts the powerful
he is confronted again by religious leaders and secular powerbrokers
and he refuses to soften his criticism or to temper his teachings
he shares a meal with his closest friends,
goes to a garden to pray,
is arrested, and tried, and….
walks a long walk to Calvary.
A week of such highs, and lows,
reminding us that we can see ourselves, maybe, if we’re honest with ourselves
in either of those crowds
the one with jubilant cries of Hosanna, or that other one
with shouts of “crucify him” before he is led away to the cross.
It is really amazing how different these stories sound
depending on your context.
Most of the time I really can get into thinking about those crowds
but it is really hard to do in the age of self-quarantine and sheltering in place.
Over the past week, I really only went driving once or twice for something essential,
and the roads were so empty, it was almost eerie.
Our local community paper, the Shawnee Mission Post,
published a story this week about a noticeable decline in traffic accidents
since all this started, because no one is out on the roads.
The park is unusually empty when we walk our dog Annie there.
I don’t know how it is where you are, but it’s really quiet around here.
So, in looking for my place within this story,
trying to put myself in a crowd right now is kind of hard.
But on Friday night,
the Kansas City Royals re-broadcasted the 2014 Wild Card game
on their Facebook account.
It was one of the best Royals games of all time.
The Wild Card game is a one game playoff to get into the post season
winner take all
and the Royals had not been to the playoffs in a generation.
That game featured a dramatic 9th inning comeback to tie it
and an even more dramatic 12th inning finish to win.
The Royals would go all the way to the World Series that year
falling just 90 feet short at the end of the decisive Game Seven.
But that Wild Card game.
I was lucky to be at that game with my friend Brian,
and I can remember the roar of the crowd. I can hear it. I can feel it.
The way that it moved in unison,
groaning, sighing, praying, clapping, jumping for joy
gasping as Salvy ripped a breaking ball past the A’s third baseman for the final run.
Have you ever been in a crowd of people and felt something stir like that?
You don’t have to be a Royals nut like me to get the point, I think.
I know some of you can’t stand sports.
And if you’re an Oakland fan, my apologies for bringing up the memory.
But maybe you’ve been in a concert that just moved you to tears,
or saw a fireworks display on the fourth of July.
Being in a crowd can be so powerful,
sometimes good, honestly sometimes not so good…
but powerful, even if the thought of it seems a bit foreign
on a day like today, where any more than 10 people isn’t quite right, not right now.
If I’m honest, I miss the chance to be with a group of people these days.
I miss chatting up close with my neighbors.
I REALLY miss seeing my good friends.
Zoom happy hours help. Sure.
But I miss them.
I miss Royals games and I miss being with my church for Palm Sunday.
It is all for an important cause:
physical distancing is a gift of love for your neighbor
particularly your vulnerable neighbor
who could just as easily be your good friend or your partner or your parent or your kid.
But I miss them. I miss you.
There’s something just so bittersweet about reflecting on this Palm Sunday parade,
in the heart of the most important community holiday of their calendar, Passover,
which means the busy tourist season for Jerusalem,
and memories for us
of that time when life moved more normally than it does right now.
What would we learn,
if we were there, in the crowds,
moved at the arrival of Jesus at the Jerusalem Gate?
Well, I’ve been turning again and again this week to that Psalm that Mich read today,
because it has so much life for us right now.
Give thanks to God, for God is Good
God’s Steadfast Love Endures forever.
When the Psalmist talks about God’s love, it is always a steadfast love.
Not subject to whim or circumstance.
Not faltering because of my limitations or failures.
Willing to go all the way to the cross. Steadfast love.
It makes sense that Matthew would tie that Psalm to this moment in Jesus’ life,
that the crowds would quote this Psalm in saying:
Hosanna: Save us, Jesus.
Because at this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life, in our life,
when all the world seems to be watching and waiting
and the powerful with their armies and the empire turn to Rome
Jesus arrives at the gates
bearing only Steadfast Love
a couple of animals
a rag-tag group of followers
and the hopeful yearning of a people…and it shakes the whole world.
On this Lord’s Day, I am thankful that
in our up-and-down moments,
whether we are merely inconvenienced by staying at home
or stressing about a job
or grieved over a loved one or friend stricken ill or now living with the Lord,
I am thankful that on these sorts of days
we can lean on the steadfast love of God,
who knows what it means to worry,
who encourages us to bind together in friendship
the one who strengthens caregivers and scientists and leaders
and all of us,
to do what we can
to piece our broken world back together again.
As you prepare for Holy Week,
as you continue to work through your own particular worries and concerns
remember that God’s steadfast love is the thread
that ties all of these stories together,
the very thing that carries Jesus through his most difficult days
and the very love that God offers for each one of us.
It is enough. And it is for everyone.
May we, my friends,
claim God’s steadfast love as our own
and, particularly, may we lean on that steadfast part,
knowing that we can trust in it
and gain courage from it
and be so moved by it
that we can embody that love,
in the crowd, or in our moments of solitude,
as we ride the roller-coaster of these days.
May it be so.
[i] For example, see John Rollefson “Homiletical Perspective” for Matthew 21:1-11 on the Sixth Sunday of Lent (Liturgy of the Passion) in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 Lent Through Eastertide. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) pp. 153-157, and his citation of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crosson’s The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2-4.