Sermon April 5 2020 Palm Sunday (Matt 21:1-11) Rev. Betsy Hogan
So here's the thing. I've said it before, and I'm going to say it again. Palm Sunday is the single weirdest 'day set apart' in the church calendar that we celebrate every year.
Not because it's not the actual ushering in of Holy Week, the remembering of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, these last intense and fraught and anguished days before the crucifixion –
Palm Sunday IS all those things in the church calendar and that does matter, in our moving through the fundamental story of our faith – from remembering at Christmas the intimacy of Godness born into this life, to remembering at Easter the astonishing incapacity of this life to destroy that Godness with us –
Palm Sunday does matter in that story unfolding as we travel through it afresh each year – but it's still the single weirdest 'day set apart' that we celebrate each year, in terms of HOW we celebrate it.
Because this is the day – usually – in churches around the globe when we hand out palm branches or some approximation of same, and we encourage ourselves and we encourage our children to wave these palm branches enthusiastically and with great excitement.
In a massive dramatic re-enactment of the great crowds of people who gathered long ago to shriek and holler "Hosanna – Save Us" on the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus entered in... for all the wrong reasons. And because they were totally misguided.
It's spectacularly bizarre. Literally every year we replay this scene and we cast ourselves in it as exactly the great multitude who cheered for Jesus because they were wrong about him. They believed he was the Messiah who would save them – absolutely. But they were just as absolutely wrong about how.
They thought he'd be like a king, like a warrior. They thought he'd cast down the Romans from their power and scatter all their enemies and smite all the bad guys and shower them with prosperity and usher in the age of triumph. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and wave those palm brances because oh my word – they are so ready.
This is what they've been waiting for -- for the Messiah to arrive, with mighty fist and with a mighty power, the answer to all their prayers. And so Cheer, O People of God, and shout and sing and lay down your cloaks and wave your palm branches because Here, O People of God, Here is your King. And he will come with power. He will come and save you.
The crowds in Jerusalem cheered for Jesus because they were wrong about him. They were cheering for an idea of Messiah that had nothing to do with who he actually was.
And when within days they realized that – realized how wrong they were, realized he was not in fact the Mighty King with the Mighty Fist they'd thought he was, but instead was all about forgiveness and self-giving and non-violence and unconditional love –
Within days when they realized that, they turned on him. All those multitudes who'd waved their palms so fervently. Within days they were so angry that he wasn't the Messiah they'd been waiting for that they cheered ON the authorities as loudly as they'd cheered FOR him, when the authorities arrested and tried and executed him.
It's spectacularly bizarre that one of our most 'dramatic' Sundays of the year is when we all kind of pretend to be this crowd. That didn't understand who Jesus really was at all, and cheered for him for all the wrong reasons, and threw him to the wolves by the end of the week.
Even when we're participating in it, obviously, as ourselves and from our own perspective. We're still literally re-enacting this scene where everybody's cheering for the wrong reason. And everybody's cheering for the wrong thing. Because everybody's missed the point entirely.
Unless.... maybe in a strange way, that's actually what makes it meaningful.
Because we're not that different from the crowds in Jerusalem. They're not bad people! They're just ordinary people who want their world to be better. And more just. And less oppressive, and less fearsome. They want security, they want peace, they want enough to eat and safe places to live.
That crowd in Jerusalem, they're just ordinary people who want the world to be the way they KNOW, they TRUST, God also wants the world to be.
And if they make assumptions about how that better world can happen, how the world can be 'saved', those assumptions really aren't complete lunacy. They're based on experience, the messages they've always heard. What gets rid of oppression and enemies and injustice? Mighty kings with mighty fists!
So if God's going to save them, if God's going to end oppression and enemies and injustice, how do they figure that's going to happen? Well, obviously, a mighty king with a mighty fist!
It's an entirely reasonable assumption. And sure, they're quite wrong – but it's so easy to BE wrong like that. We're not that different from those crowds in Jerusalem. It's so easy to cheer for the wrong reason – to pin our hopes on the wrong thing.
It's so easy to fall into familiar patterns and go with what we've always been told. It's so easy to think surely THIS is what we need. SURELY all else is chaos. Surely THIS is what saves us.
And then it turns out we're wrong. We're really not that different from the crowds in Jerusalem. We really just want better and we tend to default to the patterns and solutions and values... we know.
It's why this might actually be our best Palm Sunday ever.
It's tempting to admit that it might be our best Palm Sunday ever because no one's going to hand us a palm branch and glare at us until we wave it – inwardly crushed by a sense of embarrassment and Canadian reserve –
But that's really just a bonus.
The reason I think it might actually be our best Palm Sunday ever is that this whole catastrophic THING has really opened our eyes. It's tipped over, it's kind of crushing, a whole lot of assumptions about patterns and solutions and values that have been held for so long about what's necessary, what 'saves' us, that we'd kind of ceased critiquing them.
The people of Jerusalem cheer for the Messiah who's a Mighty King because they've lost sight of any other paradigm.
But our experiences over the past few weeks have literally crashed us into all our usual paradigms... and crushed them.
It's not even just a matter of what I do think is the epic realization that literally the people keeping society together right now are grocery store clerks and truckers and custodial staff and bus drivers – along with everyone in all levels of health care. We know quite well that LOADS of other people are keeping the pieces together too, working from home – from civil servants to financial advisors to educators and library staff and whoever it is that makes 'Zoom' operate.
But shop clerks and custodial staff, rock bottom basics, we can't do without them. That value can't be forgotten. This is showing us a new paradigm for what saves us.
But it's not even just that. We've had folks in our congregation who've lost a loved one who lives elsewhere during this lockdown. And they haven't been able to GO. They haven't been able to be with that person, or with other family in the mourning period.
And that's made me catch my breath with grief for them. But that's what it's like to be poor. You can't just GO, there's no money to GO. It doesn't make me grieve any less for those who are devastated right now because they can't just GO –
But it's like, that shouldn't be a thing for anybody. This is showing us a new paradigm for what saves us.
And it's not even just that. I've been watching this crazy process on Twitter where a thing emerges either locally or more widely, where a set of people or a group or a situation hasn't been remembered, hasn't been figured into the equation, hasn't been addressed by leadership. And this advocacy starts on social media.
And literally, within a day, two days, our leadership catches it. And there's action taken. Decisive, firm, for the common good, no question. Are we going to forget that that's possible? I hope we're not. Because this is showing us a new paradigm for what saves us.
The sheer degree to which we we've crashed into the inescapability of being responsible literally for each others' lives. This is showing us a new paradigm for what saves us.
Except that all these things – they're really NOT new are they. They're actually everything that was embodied in who Jesus was and what he was about and what he wanted us to understand we were MADE FOR and what would save us –
When he arrived at the gates of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. It's the paradigm of what saves us that's been here the whole time.
Making sure everyone has enough, and what they need. Covering for each other, sending out safety nets for each other, advocating for each other. Thinking not only about what we WANT but also – no wait, what effect could that have. Learning in the core of ourselves HOW MUCH love and caring and other people matter to us as human beings. And how fully and completely the Spirit of God is embodied in the earth and ocean and the sky and the restoration of springtime.
What saves us is the deep and abiding and strengthening and connecting love of Godness that's been here the whole time. That entered through the gates of Jerusalem. But if the crowds we usually pretend we're part of when we're all together on the usual Palm Sunday morning – if they all miss it, and cheer for the wrong reasons, and pin their hopes on the wrong thing –
We're not going to miss it this year, are we. Best Palm Sunday ever. Amen.