April 5, 2020 - Palm Sunday
Luke 19:28-40 NRSV Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
Our story of no palms
Today is Palm Sunday! It is the Sunday before Easter, and it is often a time that we wave palms around during worship and celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem! Often, the story of Jesus’ entrance has palm branches placed on the ground like a red carpet of sorts. Palm Sunday was one of my favorite Sundays growing up. I would collect the palms from worship and fold little crosses all week in preparation for Easter. It is still one of my favorite things to do. We often sing a lot of hymns and have wonderful music, and we read the whole story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, his arrest and beating, and then his crucifixion. This year is a little different, and it is different in a lot of ways. We aren’t together in-person this year. Holy Week this year will be completely different than we are all used to. And that is stressful and sad and even frustrating. We aren’t waving palms around today or making little crosses. Our worship director Maren Haynes Marchesini and I talked about this odd Palm Sunday we are having this year. And we wrote this sermon together, in mutual support, reflecting on the spiritual practice of solidarity. Our gospel reading for today is a little different than the other gospels as well. Luke’s narrative doesn’t have any palm branches in the story either. Jesus’ entrance had all of the same elements as a traditional Greco-Roman procession: the leader is escorted into the city by the citizens. The procession is accompanied by hymns and acclamations. The entrance is followed by a sacrifice. Many anointed kings had entered similarly to this, but there was something a little off with this one: the king was riding a borrowed donkey. And his crowd was not your typical crowd. When Jesus was entering Jerusalem, it was almost Passover. Thousands of people were making the pilgrimage to the temple to remember their liberation from Egyptian oppression. Passover is one of the most political feasts. It is a protest, a revolution! It is a time to stand together in solidarity and remember their deliverance. Jesus traveling to Jerusalem was risky. And it was needed. As Jesus rode along on the borrowed colt, people spread their cloaks on the road. And they chanted ‘Blessed is the king, who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’ Does that sound familiar to you? It is what the angels sing in the nativity story at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. They are singing this song of God’s good mercy and love brought here to earth. But the Pharisees cry out to Jesus as he is riding the colt: “Hey! Call your people off! Knock this off. Calm down.” Those in power were not too thrilled with Jesus entering the city like a king. And they definitely did not like the crowd of the multitude praising Jesus. The Romans didn’t like crowds of underdogs. They didn’t trust those who spoke truth to power. And the Romans were powerful. Writer Tacitus said this about the Romans: “They rob, they slaughter, they plunder--and they call it ‘empire’. Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace’.” And yet, this crowd, they continue forward, into the city. And Jesus’ ministry continues to escalate. He continues to speak truth to power, leading to his crucifixion soon after.
Where are you? Who do you think these folks in the crowd were, waving hands and palms as Jesus rode through the center? We know from this story that these were not Roman centurions, powerful priests, or wealthy patrons coming to hail the strength and might of the kind of King who could return them favor by way of prestige or money. Rather, I imagine all of the people in Luke’s gospel who have experienced Jesus’ gentle, healing power. I imagine these rather ordinary, likely overlooked people crowding around Jesus, amazed and grateful. The people I imagine in this crowd are the ones healed by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Simon’s mother-in-law was healed of a sickness. One day, as the sun was setting on Sabbath, people brought out those among them who were sick, and Jesus moved through the crowds and healed them. A person with leprosy is cleansed. Then ten more are cleansed. Don’t forget that man who was paralyzed on the side of the road, and his friends lowered him down to Jesus’ feet. There was a man who had a withered hand. And the Centurion’s servant was healed. A widow’s son raised from the dead. A demon-possessed man healed. Jairus’ daughter was healed. The woman who hemorrhaged for twelve years. A boy with seizures. A woman who was bent-over for 18 years. A blind man able to see again. Even the high priest’s servant’s ear was cut off. Jesus healed him. I think the most telling part of listing all of these people who were in the crowd, is to discover that no one has a name. In a culture where your name was your everything, none of these people were given names in the gospel. No identity. Maybe their town is named. Or a family member. But their names weren’t seen as important enough to be recorded. Indeed, to most of the powerful in Jerusalem in that day, these were people so void of earthly importance, of proximity to power, one might even call them faceless. Nobodies. Jesus was a faithful friend to the faceless. His whole flock of followers were a ragtag bunch. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day, the cloaks laid on the road were not expensive robes like kings before Jesus’ entrance. They were modest, some shredded and dusty—some, I’m sure, laid down their only coat, like the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her good perfume, or the widow who gave her last mite. The act of laying down a cloak like this for God to walk upon was an act of faithful honor, given on behalf of a Jesus who saw their pain and attended to it. Jesus did not look upon this ragtag crowd with contempt or pity—Jesus knelt down as a friend, a brother, a servant, looked each one in their forgotten face, and performed an act of healing love. As we know too well, this world leaves many of God’s children faceless, forgotten, and mired in the pain of rejection and suffering. But this is not how God sees us. Jesus is the king of the oppressed and suffering, and he shares our hardships in solidarity, and accepts us when others deny our existence and worth. Jesus embodies God’s love for us. The people in the crowd stood and sang as living proof of that love. And marched in solidarity with all of creation.
Where are you in this story? Maybe you see yourself standing there, healed and changed by the power of love. All of these people changed by Jesus also understood what “going to Jerusalem” meant. Even though they went to pay homage to a person who had honored and restored their personhood and pain, the act to hail Jesus as a King was seen by the authorities as politically-motivated and rebellious. Each of these people faced threat, danger, and risk to go against the Roman empire to lay down their cloaks, wave their palm branches, and shout “hosanna.” Jesus’ response to the Pharisees references the Hebrew scripture book of Habakkuk, and it is about those who build their lives on injustice toward others and personal privilege. He answered them, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ And Jesus basically says that nothing can stop the disciples from speaking out on behalf of justice and showing God’s love through mercy. Nothing can get in the way of God’s love. As I was working on this sermon with Maren, she explained the response from Jesus like this: that the persuasion for justice is so ingrained into creation that even the stones will cry out for justice. And here it is, living proof of justice, love, and restoration. These faceless nobodies—they are beloved somebodies! They are speaking with more than just words but with their very presence. Their actions. Their marching. Their witness. Their gifts of their cloaks.
Is Luke telling us that acting on behalf of justice is a dangerous thing? I will let you decide on that. But Jesus proceeds bravely: Jesus refuses to avoid the public eye. Pharisees want him to hush, but they seem to disappear once he enters the city. We often have the temptation to back out of the spotlight when faithfulness to God’s way raises the specter of resistance. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about this in his letters from Birmingham City Jail: He said that there is the temptation to be more devoted to “order” than justice, and to prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. How quickly our minds race when discipleship has a great cost and great risk! We know the risk Jesus would face in the days that followed this fateful march into Jerusalem. Yet we also see how he remained prayerfully faithful. We are put in positions to make decisions like this. Like how to care for the refugee or the unhoused...or who gets to be ordained and married in the United Methodist Church...or when to cancel in-person gatherings during a pandemic. When we are put in these kinds of places to decide how to be in the story of God’s mercy, I invite you to think of that crowd of the multitude; the living proof of restoration standing in solidarity with all of creation.
How do you want to respond? There has been a variety of human responses to Jesus throughout history. And, specifically, in the passion story, we see all of them. There is one thing that is constant and reliable: God’s will to show mercy and to save. To restore. To heal. To forever be bringing justice toward all things in creation. This week, a week from Easter, we try not to jump ahead to the end of the story. Even in the midst of this Holy Week story, God is at work for good—on earth as it is in Heaven. Even the stones know this ultimate story and stand willing to shout if we are silent! God and all of creation stood in solidarity and choose justice—especially for the unnamed and the faceless. This is the relational aspect of our faith. Today is a parade that will probably make us cheer and weep. As we enter Holy Week, do we yearn for the ragtag bunch? For solidarity? Do we yearn for no tension? Or do we yearn for justice?