Sermon April 10 2022 – Palm Sunday Let It Go Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever wondered why we do certain things in the church, or where those traditions came from?
Because in some ways one of the very weirdest churchy traditions, at least in my opinion, is actually what we’ve done this morning.
The celebration of Palm Sunday. Every year, the Sunday before Easter, we essentially re-enact Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Not as dramatically as some of our neighbours perhaps – we don’t, for example, truck in the Bethlehem @ Barrington Christmas Eve donkey and take ourselves out on the road for an actual procession –
But we do hand out the palm branches, and we do unleash the Big Organ and All Glory, Laud, and Honour, and we do wave the palm branches – or at least some of us wave the palm branches – the way the crowds did when Jesus entered through the Jerusalem gate on that day long ago…
And it IS – in its own somewhat limited, vaguely anglo-saxon way, it IS really all quite festive.
Which is good – festive is fun – But at the same time, if we really stop and think about it, it’s also all a little weird.
To start with, it’s actually the only time in the church year when almost all churches, every denomination, all re-enact an event in the life of Jesus, except for when we celebrate communion. As part of the regular liturgical cycle – the regular pattern of what happens in the course of every year.
So even though most churches celebrate Epiphany, we don’t re-enact the visit of the wise men every year on Epiphany Sunday. And even though most churches celebrate Pentecost, we don’t re-enact the gathering outside and wind and fire of the Spirit rushing around. We don’t even re-enact what in theory should be the foundational event of Christianity – namely the rolling away of the stone from the tomb of Jesus.
But every year on Palm Sunday, we put palm branches in our hands and we wave them around. Just as they were waved on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. It really is a little strange. And why Palm Sunday? Where did this tradition come from?
The theory is that re-enacting Palm Sunday began in the churches in Jerusalem itself, probably in the third or fourth century. As sort of a broader re-enactment of all the events of Holy Week – Jesus’ last week – which are still re-enacted in parts of Jerusalem even now.
But it’s possible also that the observance of Palm Sunday – like many other observances of other Christian festivals – really took hold because it provided a way of giving Christian meaning to an indigenous or cultural practice that was already popular.
Because in those same centuries of the Roman Empire, there already WAS a Roman festival called the arrival of the tree – a celebration of the Spring Equinox in which branches were paraded through the streets.
Which would be kind of a perfect fit. Palm Sunday and Easter are associated with Passover, which is itself associated with the spring equinox, so if the church was keen to “christianize” a festival that people really enjoyed instead of trying to get rid of it -- which is how they tended to deal with these things –
Then turning the Roman “arrival of the tree” into “let’s re-enact Palm Sunday” would be pretty much brilliant.
But even still: even with all these explanations, re-enacting Palm Sunday may still seem a little strange.
And honestly, I've always thought of it as such. Like essentially what we're re-enacting is all these huge crowds of people greeting Jesus as he arrives in Jerusalem, shouting Hosanna, Save Us, and being thrilled beyond measure –
For all the wrong reasons. Based on all wrong assumptions and with entirely wrong expectations. Because what they're cheering for is a new King, a Son of David, come to smash the Romans and rule triumphant. That's what all they think is happening on Palm Sunday – Jesus arriving in Jerusalem as this powerful crush-all-their-enemies Messiah.
When meanwhile he is NOT that Lord they're looking for. So for me, every year, there's always been this irony of Palm Sunday. When we all wave our palms to join in spirit with these celebrating multitudes.... who completely missed the point. I've always thought it
a little weird. Festive, but a little weird.
Until this year. Which, what's the difference? I don't know.
I've never had any difficulty in the past with identifying quite clearly how easily EVEN Jesus’ closest friends, EVEN the disciples who've been travelling with him since the beginning, how easily even THEY got caught up in all the powerful crush-your-enemies Messiah rhetoric that first Palm Sunday –
and how crucial it is for us to SEE that, and avoid it ourselves. Remind ourselves of Jesus' essential non-violence, remind ourselves that his was an "overturning" of the wrongness of the way things are NOT with the earthly power of crushing but with the radical power of caring and helping and welcoming and embracing.
It's been the message I've found in and proclaimed out of the Palm Sunday story, year after year after year. So what's the difference this year? I don't know.
But when I looked at this all too familiar story afresh this year, all I could think was "I wonder if they all just needed a parade. I wonder if they all just needed to feel a sense of shared hope, and a reason to cheer, and a sort of bonding in joyfulness.
"I wonder if it had felt like a long metaphorical winter, and they just needed the sheer release of finally it's spring. And here comes this Jesus whose teachings and miracles have been amazing and inspiring people – and it's pretty exciting and it's kind of an EVENT! And we should go! Because EVERYONE'S going, so we should definitely go!"
I wonder, if they all just needed a parade. Because if they did, then the really beautiful thing about this story is how much Jesus obviously understood that.
Because where else in the gospels do we see Jesus basically encouraging the crowds to make a huge deal about him? Nowhere. All throughout the gospels what we only ever see about him is humility and not wanting any fuss. His teaching is pointed and his miracles are awe-inspiring, but it's not like we've heard he's been walking around with a sort of circus barker working up the crowds by announcing his every move –
It's always humility, it's always just calm. The point is the message, the point is the healing, the point's always 'this is what love looks like, now go and do likewise'.
And then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there's this big production number. There are props he's planned in advance – "go before me to this house and you'll find this colt" – there are cloaks laid down and a whole crowd of extras and they all break into song – and he's THERE for it. All of it.
Never mind humility and bring on the fuss and let all the people say AMEN – because maybe, just maybe, they really just need a parade.
Something random and special and joyful and uplifting. And does it accomplish anything useful? Not a thing. Except, who really knows?
Because WE can look at the rest of how this week ahead unfolds, and know now just as surely as Jesus knew then that things'll be looking quite different by Thursday night –
But we don't know -- and maybe Jesus DID – whether that Palm Sunday experience, for all those who for whatever reason that day NEEDED that kind of random joyous abandon of feeling like they were part of something bigger than themselves, whether that Palm Sunday experience in fact DID make a difference for them. If not in the short term, maybe in the long.
Like maybe in the crowd that day were some of the people who in the weeks after the resurrection, as the news spread and the disciples began their own preaching, found themselves paying attention again. Remembering that Palm Sunday parade and how it had spoken to their spirits, made them feel hopeful, given them courage.
Maybe Jesus knew that'd happen. If when they really just needed a parade, there was a parade.
But even if things DIDN'T unfold like that in the long term, even if Palm Sunday accomplished absolutely nothing of any import on the ground, still: the notion of Jesus understanding – even as he's facing down Holy Week – how much people who are worn out and worn down might just need a metaphorical parade – it's kind of breathtaking.
Because what he created for them that day was the sheer exhilaration of reveling in the big wide goodness of undefeatable trust, of undefeatable hope, of undefeatable Godness alive and at work around them, lifting them up.
And what a gift that is. And we know it is. And as surely as the early church did, we recognize how intimately and easily our spirits automatically locate that same exhilaration in our own personal celebrations of "the arrival of the tree".
Like, throw open the windows and let in the air, because spring is here. And wait for the bees then rake up those leaves, because spring is here. And watch and watch and watch for the browns to shift to green, for the earth to reawaken, for the crocuses to make way for forsythia. Spring is here.
So revel in it, says Jesus from the back of that donkey he's rigged up for a weirdly out-of-character Palm Sunday parade. Revel in its big wide manifestation of the big wide goodness of undefeatable trust and undefeatable hope and undefeatable Godness alive and at work around you.
Consider it a gift. Breathe it in. Let it lift you up. What does it accomplish, this Palm Sunday parade unfolding around us? What it needs to. Just, what we need, at the end of a long winter and not much reason to cheer. A thanks be to God and let the people say Amen.