What’s Palm Sunday to Us? – March 25, 2018
In the year 30 AD, a grand procession entered the city of Jerusalem to pay tribute to an important Roman leader. Drums and trumpets and a thousand soldiers preceded him as he strode into the city wearing a coat of silver armor and sitting in on a pure white stallion. It was an exhibition of military power, not unlike what Germany witnessed in the late 1930’s or what Russians and North Koreans have experienced in our time.
Three years later, in the spring of 33 AD, there would be another procession in Jerusalem. It was quite a different scene. An unemployed, homeless young Rabbi would enter on a donkey accompanied by a group of his scruffy, country bumpkin followers and greeted by folks waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” It is Jesus of Nazareth.
Welcome to one of the most challenging liturgical observances in the Christian Church. When this service was fashioned in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was intended to provide a full taste of the entire span of Holy Week all in one day with the thought that most people in attendance would not be back in church until Easter morning.
So we began with unusual energy and a procession with palms and grand music and within fifteen minutes we stood in our pews listening to the long narrative—what we know as the Passion—recounting the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.
At St. Paul’s, we wrestled with this for years, substituting for the long, tedious reading of the Passion a dramatic, abbreviated version acted out by members of the congregation. It was once pretty elaborate and eventually pared down to include just a few people. Then we decided to move the Passion in a shortened form to the very end of the service in order to keep more focus on the meaning of Palm Sunday. Still, it seemed like we were on an emotional roller-coaster, moving from the jubilant parade as Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shock and sorrow of his suffering and death. It felt as though the first step in the drama of Holy Week, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, got the short end of the stick, in our rush to get to the Passion story.
Last year, we made another sea change by eliminating the Passion story altogether, making the story of Palm Sunday the emphasis of the day and telling the story in the Gospel reading and offering a sermon to present some thoughts about it.
They say there are three things we shouldn’t talk about: Religion, sex, and politics. But, well, we do. We just do it badly. I think the one thing we really don’t want to talk about is death. So I’d imagine that it may come as a relief that we won’t talk a lot about the death of Jesus today. Still, death is unavoidable and confronting the death of Jesus is as well. Without death there would be no resurrection.
It’s my great hope that we will gather later this week for the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday, all of which include rich meaning, deeply moving ritual, and some of the greatest music of the church year. These three days—called the “Sacred Triduum”—are the pathway to the celebration of a glorious Easter Day.
What about Palm Sunday? If we’ve intentionally veered away from the sadness of the passion and made the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey our centerpiece today, what does it mean for us? Getting back to that ostentatious procession of the Roman governor in 30 AD, we find there a Jerusalem that is rife with conflict and tension. There were religious factions within the Jewish community, Roman authorities tried to impose their culture on the people, Caesar levied taxes on them.
The political rhetoric was fierce and oppressive. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Marginalized people were demonized by the mainstream religious community. In short, things were not much different than they are today.
The elite members of the Jewish community wanted a king, a powerful leader to free them from the tyranny of Roman oppression and the common folk wanted a savior to get them from under the dominance of the religious authorities. They probably expected that he would arrive on a white horse instead of a donkey and be led by a formidable army rather than a dozen bedraggled disciples.
Instead, they got an unemployed, homeless, young rabbi who taught them to forgive one another, make peace with one another, and love one another as he loved us. They got a Messiah, yes, but not the one they expected. Jesus completely overturned our expectation and definition of God.
If you tune in on Good Friday, we will hear the harsh, austere governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, stare down at the tortured, near-death Jesus and say with a snicker, “So? You are King?”
Jesus will then be given a cross to carry and crucified like a common criminal because he wasn’t the king they wanted. “King of the Jews,” was the scornful sign nailed to his cross as he hung on it in agony.
These are rather trying times, not unlike the political and emotional climate in which Jesus lived so long ago. It is a polarized and scary time in the world. Some people feel that the only solution to deep, complex problems is to react to others with hatred, blame and violence. Our present day world is not very different from the world in which Jesus lived and died.
What about us? What are we looking for in Jesus, our Messiah and Savior, the Son of God? Would we have him ride into town on a white horse, in a parade that demonstrates our military prowess? That’s not who the people in first century Palestine got on that first Palm Sunday and it’s not who we get today. God expresses power in ways that are totally beyond our comprehension
We still get an unemployed, homeless, young rabbi riding on a jackass but who happens to be the very face of God, a God who embraces us just as we are, weeps for us when we are hurting and forgives us when we do wrong.
I read a story this week about someone who runs a clinic in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Trained at one of the finest medical schools in the country, she chose instead to work among the indigent who were inadequately served by our health care system.
By the time she sees most of her patients, they are so ill and malnourished that they are terminal. She works ten hour days and has been assaulted twice during her twenty years as a doctor. Why does she do it? Because she actually believes that the unemployed, unarmed, homeless young rabbi who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is none other than the truth about God.
Jesus walked through that toxic environment in which he lived as a peace maker and reconciler with a message of love and compassion for one another rather than one of mistrust and hate. He came to lift up those around him, making whole what was broken, healing the sick, comforting the broken hearted, bringing others to know God’s mercy and all-embracing, unconditional love.
Now he asks us to do the same.