Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death.
Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.
But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.
And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves.
Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.
The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)
Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:
I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song.
Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.
Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope
This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.
Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.
Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…
Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”
And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing.
To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.
Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.
Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable.
Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.
Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.
Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!
All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.
And, to be clear, they are true.
There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.
There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.
There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.
Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.
Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.
The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.
Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.
Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace.
The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.
You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.
It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:
At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives.
We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it.
The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.
And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.
Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!
Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city.
The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.
On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”
Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.
What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem.
A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.
At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”
You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.
But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.
By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.
But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.
After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?
Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?
Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?
People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.
On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection.
Hosanna literally means “save us.”
Save us from what?
Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.
And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!
The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus.
Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…
But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?
Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”
It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing.
It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.
We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.
He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.
Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.
Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.
That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us.
God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.
It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?
The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them.
And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “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.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The city was occupied.
The occupiers came through once a year with a big military parade to remind the occupied that they were, in fact, occupied. And they were smart about it, they knew that the religious festivals in the spring were a time when people got all ramped up, so they prepared to make a sign of strength at the same time to, as they put it, keep the peace.
And so it came to pass, early one Sunday morning, the roads were cleared as the citizens of the city hid behind the curtains in their homes, the parade began. The weight of the tanks broke up the smooth city streets, the ICBMs were pulled behind countless trailers, and scores of soldiers marched in step while shouting out their maniacal military mantras.
It was terrifying.
And it was meant to be.
On the other side of the city, another parade was starting, though this was was different in every way imaginable.
The Teacher, that’s what they called him, had sent two of his followers ahead very early in the morning with the simple instructions to find something that would help them get into the city. They searched in vain, knowing that many were afraid of the comings and goings on the other side of the city with the displays of violence, but eventually they came across an abandoned tricycle sitting on its side in the front yard of what appeared to be a vacant house. So they took it and brought it to the Teacher.
Hours later, while word of the military parade spread from house to house, the Teacher rode into the occupied city striding atop his tricycle, with pink and purple streamers coming out of handlebars. It was a richly symbolic act, entering from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner of those on the other side. Instead of riding on that which kept people afraid, the teacher came with the anti-war parade – it was a mockery of the occupiers’ intimidation and it was triumphant.
As he rode and swerved left and right through the streets, Twitter was ablaze with the news that the Teacher was finally in the city, and droves of people left the shelter of their homes to get a glimpse of the one who they believed was coming to deliver them. The numbers grew and grew, and the fervor swept over them as they took off their jackets and waved them high in the air. They even started taking flowers out of the ground and placed them on the road like a royal carpet.
They shouted things like, “The King is here! Finally! Save us!!!”
The further he made it into the city, the louder the crowds became, and the people were in turmoil – between the two parades that Sunday morning they knew not who would win.
Everyone was so preoccupied with the occupation and the signs and the singing that no one noticed the Teacher’s face, because the longer he rode on his tricycle, the more he cried. He wept knowing that he was enter as the prince of peace, and yet within the week those very crowds that shouted for salvation would also be the ones begging for his execution.
On Monday, the Teacher made his way to City Hall with other citizens. Knowing all that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the crazy man with the expectation that things were finally about the change. He walked slowly, taking in the sights of the marginalized being pushes even further toward the margins, and the bankers lending out money with exorbitant interest rates.
For three years he had been going through the surrounding territories berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and the outcast, he once told a yuppie to sell everything and give it away, and that Monday morning, before anyone realized it, the Teacher grabbed a nearby lamppost, pulled it right out of the ground, and started swinging. He destroyed the tables and the stands and the signs of what was happening in the heart of the city, and the crowds stood in shock.
The elite and powerful, those who benefited from the occupation, now had their attention on the Teacher. It was one thing to have a crowd cheering for a man on a tricycle, but to disrupt the economic scheme that was putting money in their pockets was something else entirely.
Something had to be done.
On Tuesday, the Teacher went back to City Hall and he began to teach in the open air. If the people were excited to see his entry into the city, they were now even more eager to hear what he had to say having thrown out those who represented all of the economic disparity. Of course, it wasn’t just the poor and downtrodden that gathered to listen, some of the religious authorities and the elite were there too and they kept demanding to know who he thought he was to speak with such authority.
The Teacher spoke in riddles, telling stories about one thing that were pointing at something else. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful were actually the weak and, worst of all, he called them hypocrites.
He accused them again and again of neglecting to honor the very things they talked about all the time, how they were the ones truly responsible for the occupiers entering year after year, and that no matter what they did or said or believed, there was nothing they could do to stop him.
The Teacher had quite a following at this point, he had taken away the means of economic injustice from those in power and now he was calling them vipers. They tried their best to trap him in his words, but went on as if they weren’t even there.
On Wednesday the Teacher left the city and traveled to a nearby hill where he continued to teach. Some of his followers made comments about the beauty of the city from their high vantage point, but he responded by telling them that all of it was coming down, not one stone would be left.
He talked about his new order, one in which those would be blessed who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, befriended the lonely, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick.
He pointed at the children in their midst and said that unless the adults started acting like the kids, none of them would have a spot in the new kingdom. And he ended with his favorite catchphrase about the first being last and the last being first.
For those at the bottom of all things, this sounded like Good News, but for those in power in the city, this was too much.
On Thursday, the Teacher continued to teach and gather with his followers, but it was time for the religious festival so he retreated to an apartment in the city with his closest friends. They told stories about the past, what had led each of them to where they were. They shared a few bottles of wine, and kept partying late into the night.
But before it was all said and done, the Teacher took a nearby loaf of bread and said, “Hey, this is me, and I’m going to give myself for you. So when you eat it, remember what I did.” And then he took a nearby cup and said, “This is my blood, I’m pouring it out for you and the world. Do this whenever you drink to remember me.” They feasted and celebrated, but one of the friends left through the backdoor when no one was looking. He loved the Teacher, but some of what he said had gone too far, and he was going to put it to a stop before they were all killed.
Later they traveled to a nearby garden, the Teacher urged his friends to stay awake but one by one they fell asleep. So he knelt on the ground and he prayed about all that was going to take place. The last thing he said in his prayer was, “Let your will be done.”
And as he looked up from his posture of prayer, the betrayer arrived with soldiers. They quickly rushed into the garden and arrested the Teacher. The dozing followers ran off in fear not knowing what was about to happen.
On Friday the Teacher was brought before the occupying Governor, the one who arrived at the city in the military parade. The soldiers and the leaders demanded that the Teacher needed to be publicly executed. But the Governor, strangely enough, could find no fault with the man. So he decided to bring the Teacher before a crowd of people and offer them a choice. They could free the Teacher, or a leader of the terrorist rebellion who was responsible for destruction across the city.
The same people who were on the road less than a week before shouting “Save us!” now shouted with reckless abandon, “Execute him!” So the leader of the rebellion was freed, and the Teacher was sentenced to death.
Soldiers stationed nearby beat and whipped the Teacher right to the point of death and, to mock him, they covered him with a three piece suit and a striped power tie. They forced him to carry the instrument of his death, a noose, up to the top of a hill for all eyes to see. As the soldiers strung up the line from the highest branch on the highest tree, the Teacher looked out over the scene and said loud enough for people to hear, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”
And then they placed the rope around his neck, and pulled until he was hanging in the air. And the Teacher died.
Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with Hosanna and ends with Crucify. It begins with life and ends with death.
Typically, I resist the temptation to tell the whole story of Jesus’ final week on Palm Sunday because I want to encourage folk to come to services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But, knowing this year is a strange year with the calls for Social Distancing, I know not who will be able to join us online for worship on Thursday and Friday and I can’t help but think that if all we encounter today is the crowds waving their branches with their Hosannas and their hope, then Easter doesn’t make sense.
Or, to put it another way, why did Jesus go from being loved to being dead?
The passion week, no matter how it’s told, refuses to let us imagine it as some sort of spiritual or ethereal dilemma. It is fleshy and tactile and real. It takes place in time, in our time. It compels us to encounter the truth of the incarnation, that God chose in Christ to come and dwell among us. And even more, it forces us to come to grips with the fact that we nailed him to a tree.
I return again to the question of Jesus’ death. It is strange that Jesus was killed considering how we so often talk about him inside and outside of the church. Jesus who just wants us to love each other a little bit more. Jesus who just wants us to engage in active listening. Jesus who just wants us to spend more time in our Bibles and more time in prayer. Why would anyone kill anyone pushing that kind of message?
Why did Jesus have to die and why did he have to die on a cross? Well, because that’s the way the Romans executed those deemed a threat. Hang them high so all can see what happens if you challenge the powers and the principalities.
Why did Jesus have to die? He wasn’t what we wanted.
We don’t crucify people anymore – we’re too dignified and respectable for that. Instead we isolate them in prison, we demonize them on Social Media, and we berate them behind closed doors. We can’t stand those who would call into question the practices and policies that put money in our pockets, we stifle anyone sniffing around our firstness and rightness and presumed righteousness. And we certainly don’t want anyone to ever call us hypocrites.
Or, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.
Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.
But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.
Holy Week isn’t about us. It’s about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of Jesus’ death we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can to do save ourselves.
Jesus enters the city under occupation and in the end occupies our place on the cross.
The crowds demanded their salvation, and Jesus gave it to them by giving himself.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for Palm Sunday [A] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21.1-11). Todd is a Baptist pastor serving Snow Hill Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including age differences, The Jesus I Never Knew, perfect subversion, the reject stone, The Princess Bride, paid participation, parades, unpacking Hosanna, and keeping the cross in Easter. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Subverting Expectations
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.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered 74 years ago today.
Many Christians know of his life and work, particularly his outspoken preaching against the nationalistic leanings of Germany that led to the rise and power of Adolf Hitler. Many Christians know that he was arrested for his work and was executed one month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. And because Christians know of his harrowing bravery and conviction his life is often displayed as this quasi unattainable example.
The challenges faced by Bonhoeffer are very different from those faced by Christians today. The primary conflict upon which Bonhoeffer worked was against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine such a profoundly clear example of evil. It was dangerous to speak against the status quo in his home country, so dangerous that it got him killed, but as a Christian Bonhoeffer had little choice but to say and do what he said and did.
Today we live in a very different world and we are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have one.
Everything is far more complicated.
During Bonhoeffer’s life, part of the problem stemmed from the church’s desire to be everywhere which led to it being nowhere. It stretched itself so thin and became so common place that it no longer stood for anything. Moreover, the desire for the church to be everywhere led the church in Germany to turn into the world without the world looking more like the church.
Which is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the only German pastors who spoke out against what was happening – the church was so intricately tied together with the nation-state in which it found itself that the two largely became one.
In August of 1933, 12 years before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his grandmother. In it he opined that the church was changing so rapidly that it could no longer be reconciled with Christianity. He then suggested to her that “we must make up our minds to take entirely new paths and follow where they lead. The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better. The greatest danger of all would be in trying to conceal this.”
When the crowds cheered for Jesus during his entry in Jerusalem the Pharisees begged him to quiet them down. To which Jesus memorably replied, “Even if they were silenced, the stones would shout out.”
At the heart of Christianity is a willingness to speak, and in particular to speak about Jesus.
So too, in Bonhoeffer’s life he reminded those who follow Jesus again and again that the preaching of Christ and the celebration of his crucifixion and resurrection makes possible lives that can point out and identify the the lies that threaten our lives.
One of the greatest temptations in Christianity today (particularly in America) is the desire to appear nice. We avoid saying anything of real consequence out of fear that too many feathers will be ruffled – such that we are stretching ourselves so thin that we’re no longer know what we stand for.
So perhaps as we prepare to follow Jesus’ on his way into Jerusalem, it is good for us to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t killed for being nice, and neither was Bonhoeffer.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for Palm Sunday [C] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Luke 19.28-40). Joanna serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper pronunciations, BBT’s Leaving Church, debates about Passion Sunday vs. Palm Sunday, the spiderweb of the Bible, the craziness of faith, joyful obedience, giving palms to children, being an ass in church, King Jesus, and scaring people for the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: There’s Nothing Sexy About Palm Sunday
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and other spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
While growing up in the church there were few Sundays as exciting as Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday we, as children, always arrived a little bit earlier to church with joyful hope and anticipation for the parade of palms that would mark the beginning of worship.
Like shepherds guiding the sheep, we were herded into a single-file line down the hallway by the narthex, we were each handed a single palm frond, and were given these detailed and explicit instructions: “You will march down the center aisle, you will wave your palms, and you WILL NOT HIT EACH OTHER.”
And so the hymn would begin in the sanctuary, and we would quickly file into the house of worship waving palm branches above our heads while all the adults shouted “Hosanna!”
That was the routine every year. Regardless of whatever was going on in the world, or even in the church, on Palm Sunday the kids got to participate in, and frankly lead, worship.
At least, that used to be the routine.
Sometime among the years, we decided that we could march down the center, we could wave our palms, but it would be far more fun if we did so while we were hitting each other with the palm branches.
It started subtlety, one young boy raised the palm branch higher than usual, and instead of waving it back and forth, he brought it down with passion on the head of the girl in front of him. To which she turned around and smacked him across the chest. And as if the message shot throughout the aisle, we all began pummeling each other until the formerly apathetic adults jumped into the pile and broke up the fight.
The was the last time they let the kids lead the parade.
And, to be clear, I am not advocating for brawls to break out between the pews. However, that palm branch debacle was probably more faithful to the truth of Palm Sunday than any peaceful and cherubic portrayal.
This world of ours revolves around, and is perpetuated by, violence, war, and aggression. Therefore, the question remains: what does it mean to wage peace?
When we open our eyes to the brokenness of the world, we cannot ignore the immense pain, conflict, and destruction around us. On Thursday night we had a bible study here at the church and I challenged those in attendance to fill the white board with examples of problems just in our local community, and in a few minutes we completely ran out of space.
We are broken people living in a broken world.
The people in Jerusalem were crying out of deep fear, pain, and grief, when Jesus rolled into town. Like the scores of young people who marched on major cities this weekend, they saw the world around them as imperfect and they were looking for a change.
Jesus came proclaiming and promising that the kingdom of God was near, and everyone assumed they knew what that meant. Even the disciples had their own ideas about who this Messiah of theirs was. All were eager to make sure their understanding and expectations of a new beginning were met in the person of Jesus.
And so they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom!”
We might hear those words and picture perfect children singing in 4 part harmony, we might even imagine the scene from Jesus Christ Superstar when a bunch of hippies surrounded a white Jesus in color coordinated liturgical dance moves. But those imagined scenes do a disservice to the truth: the crowds were looking for a revolution.
It’s hard to translate the word “Hosanna” but the closest connection might be the expression “Save us!” It is an emphatic demand, a desire for the status quo to be disrupted; it is a call of desperation.
That same phrase of “Hosanna!” was shouted in those same streets of Jerusalem 150 years before Jesus rode into town. There was a Hebrew family named the Maccabees who stirred up a violent political revolution that somehow drove the mighty Roman Empire out of their city. That family ruled after the bloody battle until, inevitably, the empire returned and reasserted their violent power.
When the crowds during that Palm Sunday shouted “Hosanna!” they were doing so with the memory of what happened the last time a revolutionary paraded into town. Their cries to be saved and delivered came with the expectation that blood would roll through the streets of Jerusalem as they took their city back.
But, of course, by the end of the week, only Jesus’ blood would be rolling through the streets.
If this sounds difficult to process, or if your mind is having a difficult time rationalizing the fact that on Palm Sunday Jesus appeared more like Che Guevara than Mother Teresa, it’s because we’ve watered down the frightening truth of the beginning of Jesus’ final earthly week.
Parading into Jerusalem with the crowds screaming and waving was a seditious act; it was a street demonstration, one in which the Romans were probably waiting in their riot gear for the first sign of violence. It was a rally that teetered on the verse of a riot.
Jesus rode straight into the heart of the empire’s kingdom in Jerusalem, into the realm in which violence and destruction ruled the day. The people gathered and shouted and cheered him on with hopes that a revolution would begin.
And he did it all on the back of a colt, with no weapon but the Word.
Jesus was, and is, a revolutionary. But his revolution is one that begins in the heart, and transforms the world. His way is a new way, a new kingdom, a deeper covenant, in which strength is found in simplicity, wealth in generosity, and power in humility.
No one’s blood would be spilled except for the revolutionary on the colt, who heard the crowds shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.
And all the while, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. When we think about Palm Sunday we are mostly consumed by the images of the road, and the crowds, and the branches. But in the actual scripture, most of the passage is about the plan. Go to the village, find a colt, tell them the Lord needs it, bring it to me. The preparation is part of the plan.
And all of these elements are important because they point to the greater political ramifications of this poor Jewish rabbi upending the world.
Jesus begins at the Mount of Olives, which was the traditional location from which people expected the final battle for Jerusalem to begin. It was there that Jesus began his final campaign in the holy city. Jesus sends out the disciples for provisions, all of the items necessary for the revolution. However, the items and the situation become rather weird. The Lord does not require weapons of warfare and conflict, but a small colt (not even a full grown donkey). Jesus parades into the heart of the empire’s imperial stronghold unarmed and on the back of a small animal.
It is a parody of power.
The whole scene, from the Mount of Olives, to the crowds screaming, to arriving late in Bethany, they all show how Jesus is turning worldly notions of power upside down. It is in these things that Jesus proclaims, through his actions, that the last will be first and the first will be last. It is explosive in scope because here, in this scene, Jesus is at his most wild and political self.
It truly was the beginning of the revolution.
And yet, we portray this frightening and pivotal moment with a levity that should leave us reeling. This decisive event cannot, and should not, be limited to an opening processional where children, or even a whole congregation, are waving palm branches, with cute smiles and contentment.
We have the benefit of knowing the whole story, we know what happens at the end of the week, and still we, like the crowds and the disciples, assume we know what’s best for Jesus. We make Palm Sunday all about us and the ways we celebrate and we remember. But this day is really not about us. Save for the fact that we just as easily vacillate between asking for God to save us and shouting for God’s destruction.
Palm Sunday is focused on Jesus, on his willingness to upset that status quo, on his subverting the powers and principalities with a new revolution.
On the other side of Easter, when the earliest disciples began spreading the news of the resurrection, when the birth of church took place, rumors began to spread about these Christ people. They were strange and subversive, not because they plotted to overthrow the empire with violent means, but because they gathered together for meals and prayer, they shared all that they had, and they made sure that no one was in need.
At first they were simply called people of “The Way.” A way that seemed very strange to the world. But very quickly, as they began to grow and spread throughout the greater Mediterranean area, they we given a new name. They were called world turners, because they were charged with trying to turn the world upside down.
They believed that power, true power, was found in sacrifice and not in violence. They believed that love would always be more powerful than hate. And they believed that Jesus, the one they followed, made the impossible possible.
If any of you turned your televisions on yesterday, you saw millions of young people in this country, millions of young people all over the world marching toward the places of power. They were marching for their lives, because they believe a change needs to come.
I saw a video of one of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which he was asked, “What are you hoping to accomplish? What needs to change?” And he said, “I don’t care if Congress is with us or against us, change is coming.” (That sounds pretty seditious right?) He ended by finally stating, “Today the revolution begins!”
Frankly, I agree with him, and the church should be allied with those who are seeking peace in the world. However, there was one thing he said that was wrong: the revolution didn’t begin yesterday – it began on Palm Sunday. Amen.
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.
We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.
And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.
You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.
You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?
Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.
Jesus knew how to work the crowd.
And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”
But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.
We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.
And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.
The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.
Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.
Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”
Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.
Such is the reality of worldly power.
But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.
Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?
Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.
I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.
Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.
We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.
And that brings us to Romans 8.
Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.
But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.
When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.
Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.
Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.
You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.
Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.
And in so doing, we will suffer.
But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.
We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen
The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing the one and only Dr. Eric Hall (Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Professor of Peace and Justice at Carroll College) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for Palm Sunday during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Eric gave us a lot to think about particularly regarding Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn more about Jesus Christ Superstar, the parody of the passion, and the average lifespan of a donkey, you can check out the podcast here: Palm Sunday – Year A