Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Palm Sunday Sermon

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“Up to Jerusalem

Luke 19:28-40

We mark time in different ways.  We use watches and clocks, calendars and the sun – -all sorts of methods to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  In the church, we use the liturgical calendar to orient ourselves to the seasons and rhythms of church life.  Each season has a color, and we use those colors in our worship spaces.  If you are a visual person, like I can be, page 2 of the PC(USA) planning calendar is a lifesaver.  All on one page, the rhythm of the church year is laid out as a guide that shows the colors we use in worship each week to mark the specific season of the year.  Some days are white for special days in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ – days like Christmas and Easter and All Saint’s Day.  There is the purple of penitence and preparation for Advent and Lent, the emptiness of Good Friday, the bright spot of red for Pentecost, and then the seemingly endless span of green that marks ordinary time – or times of spiritual growth.  The diagram I first remember seeing looked a lot like a pie chart – the year was in circular form, and again, most of it was green, for ordinary time.  Sometimes, when I think about the liturgical year as a marker of time, I tend to think of something a bit more exciting than calendars and charts – my mind turns to roller coasters.

Think about it for a minute – -roller coasters, like the liturgical year are endless loops — yet there is a beginning and an end.  There are peaks and valleys, with one great big high point, drops, and spaces in between to allow us to catch our breath.  Some even have parts that are dark and scary.  If you ever ride Splash Mountain, you will notice that the climb up to the last hill is the scariest part – -or is supposed to be.  The music is ominous, the effects are dark and dismal.  There are even vultures and other birds of prey circling over the car as it makes its way to the top for the final, big plunge.

Liturgically, the church begins our ride on the first Sunday of Advent with the slow climb towards the top of the first big hill – Christmas.  We descend through Epiphany into Ash Wednesday and the contemplative period of Lent before we begin to climb again towards Palm Sunday.  Then we go down into the depths of darkness and climb to the daylight that is Easter, followed by the rush of Pentecost, and the quiet part in the middle – of Ordinary time – -the chance to catch your breath, look around at all the scenery – maybe see some water, wave at the people standing in line, and then the last hills of All Saint’s Day, Christ the King Sunday and the ride is over.  We get begin again with the first Sunday of Advent.

Now, no metaphor is perfect, but this one works fairly well for the beginning part – -especially the parts that carry us from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  Ash Wednesday is a chance to reflect and decide how we will take the 40 day journey that is Lent.  As we continue towards Palm Sunday, there is a chance to look around at our lives, to think about what we may want to do differently to live how God calls us to live.  And then, today we reach the top of the hill – Palm Sunday.  It is a rush of excitement in the midst of the quiet contemplation – -the little hill before the big one – – and we anticipate the excitement of what we know comes next.

But before we get to Easter, the one we are so excited about – -the peak with the spectacular view and the adrenaline rush, we have to descend into Holy Week.  We drop down into dark places; we have to look at each other and ask hard questions about betrayal and eat last meals.  To truly understand how amazing it is to be at the heights that are Easter Morning, we must also experience the depths that are Holy Week.

What did you expect when you came to church today?  Did you wake up this morning and think to yourself, “It’s Palm Sunday – -of course the preacher is going to preach a sermon about roller coasters!!!”  We tend to expect readings about a parade and donkeys, the ringing of hand bells, perhaps references to palm branches and the echoes of sung Hosannas in the air.   We have expectations for Palm Sunday, and this story is one we hear so many times throughout our lives that we think we know what happened.  How do you tell the story of Palm Sunday?  Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, and there was a huge parade for Jesus.  Jesus, of course, was on a donkey with the disciples walking behind him.  The crowds lining the road tossed their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to line his path.  There were palms waving in the air, people calling out to him for his attention.  It was a grand parade, a boisterous, joyful event full of people calling out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”  If you do a Google search for images, these are the ones you find.  We have taken the accounts from all four of the Gospels, mixed and matched them in our communal memory, and from them we tell our story of Palm Sunday.  Yet, when we look more closely, the text from Luke does not give us what we expect to find.  When we examine it closely, we are called to reconsider what we thought we knew about Palm Sunday.

The Gospel of Luke has an account of Palm Sunday that is calmer and quieter than what we read in the other three Gospels.  First of all, I hate to be the one to tell you, but…there are no palms in Luke’s telling of the events of that day.   There are no branches waving in the air, and none on the road under the feet of the donkey.  This account of Jesus’ entry into the city is markedly different from the other parade that happened that week.  Yes, there were 2 processions in to the city that Passover week.  Pilate entered the city from the west, described as being “draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor.”[1] Pilate moved in at the beginning of the Passover week to make sure that nothing got out of hand – -for you see this was the week the people told and retold their story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt – insurrection was in the air.  This first procession was one designed to show the military strength and the power of the government.  It came with all the trappings of a grand state affair and was designed to intimidate those who gathered to witness his arrival into the city.

And then a second procession came from the east.  It began at the Mount of Olives, the place from which tradition held the messiah would appear.  This was a different kind of procession  — one that we knew would come — even if we did not know how it would be.  This procession fulfills the ancient words of scripture, affirms that Jesus is a prophet, and that what he foretold will indeed come to pass, including what he has said about his death.  We begin with the arrival at the Mount of Olives, and Jesus sending his disciples into the next village to find a colt that has never been ridden.  Un-ridden animals were reserved for sacred and sacrificial uses.  He anticipates that the disciples will be asked about why they are taking it, and supplies their answer, “because the Lord needs it.”  And these things come to pass, just as he said they would.  Jesus’ entry into the city is a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The disciples put their own garments on the colt – there is no armor, no insignia, no saddle, and they begin the remainder of their journey.  The chanting of the Psalm we read this morning, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is sung by the disciples – not those gathered alongside the road.  Those watching the procession put their cloaks on the ground to cushion Jesus’ ride as they watch him pass.

In our collective memory of the story, the disciples are often in the periphery of the action.  Yet, in the Lukan account, they are central.  It is the disciples who acquire the colt for Jesus. It is the disciples who remove their own clothing and place it on the back of the animals for Jesus to sit on.  It is the disciples who help him mount the animal, and the disciples who call him the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  All the cheering and praising God we expect of this day do not come from those who came into the city for the Passover festival, nor from those who heard about his raising Lazarus from the dead.  The cheers and praise are not raised by those who gathered to see for themselves who this man named Jesus was, but by his friends who followed him faithfully.  The disciples make all the noise, and, yet, in the Lukan account, they are not the ones who later in the week change sides and call for his death.  Those accounts come from other places.  In the Lukan text, the Palm Sunday parade is subdued, less crowded, and is, as Fred Craddock puts it, “an event of and for believers, and its meaning lies in Jesus and in their faith in him…This is not to say that Jesus’ followers have come to clarity and maturity; the events soon to transpire will test them, and some will fail.  But at this moment, descending the Mount of Olives, they are right.”[2]

And so they descend as we will descend.  They accompany Jesus into Jerusalem as they will accompany him to the end.  And we go with him too.  Today we are right to sing our praises to God, we are right to shout Hosannas and celebrate the festival day.  And then we will continue on our Holy Week journey, into the darkness and depths.  We too, will gather around the table for a final meal.  Our hands will dip the bread into the cup and hear the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” with new ears.  We will watch the shadows lengthen as the light grows dim.  Together, we will enter the shadow of death.  There will be silence, stillness.  The altar will be stripped.  The bell will toll. The Bible will be shut.  The light of the world will be dim. We will remember the time, so very long ago when it went out.  When Jesus was taken from cross to tomb, the stone rolled in front.  For a time, we will go into the darkness ourselves.

We are a people who have been here before.  So we know that in the darkness and silence and stillness, something else will come.  After the noise of Good Friday and the stillness of Saturday, on Sunday we will once again experience the joy that is Easter morning.  We will again see the return of the light of the world, we will proclaim the words that announce his resurrection and hope for us all.  The women who gathered at the tomb expected to find a body for anointing.  They expected to attend a funeral.  But Jesus was rarely anything we expected.  Which is why, today, we can proclaim, with strong voices the words of the Psalmist, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.  God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  It is why we can celebrate with songs of anticipation and call out, along with the disciples, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  We know what the view from the top of the next hill looks like, and it amazing.  I invite you this week to not simply skip over the hard parts, but to consider the full journey we make each year.  Today’s service is actually only the beginning – -the end is in seven days, when we complete the story.  Just as we cannot skip the drops on the roller coasters, and simply move from the top of one hill to the next, nor should we hop over the events of this week.  Our story continues – -today’s parade is but the beginning.  Will you join us for the rest?  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…Amen.

[1] Shoemaker, Stephen H. in: Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume 2, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors.  Westminster John Knox Press. P 152.

[2] Craddock, Fred.  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. (227).


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