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.”
Lent Sermon, Week 6 Year C
Here we are again, y’all. It’s Palm Sunday. What is Palm Sunday? you ask. Well, let me tell you.
Palm Sunday is the last week of Lent, the first day of Holy Week as we near the day of Easter.
Palm Sunday is also called Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It’s a day of celebration where people lined the streets, overflowing with eagerness and anticipation about who Jesus was and what he was going to do. It is a day of declaration that Jesus is King. The crowds chant, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Luke says “the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully for all the deeds of power they had seen.” So some churches have this tradition of processing into the sanctuary on Palm Sunday with joy and waving palm branches above their heads like some kind of Christian version of a New Orleans jazz parade, equal parts chaos and jovial frivolity. And that’s true. Palm Sunday is like that.
But it’s also nothing like that. Because let’s not forget that the people gathered along the street that day were looking and hoping for a kind of king they didn’t end up getting. So Palm Sunday is also an irony parade.
Palm Sunday is a declaration of the kind of King Jesus is. He is one who rides into town on a donkey, for one thing, rather than a chariot or a warrior horse. As the crowds say, he ushers in peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven. He’s unarmed. He has no bodyguards or security detail. Jesus doesn’t have “handlers.” All of which is rather terrifying. It’s like shuttling the Mona Lisa around in a shopping cart and just leaving it in the middle of the parking lot.
Palm Sunday is a reminder that the disciples are, as per usual, veritable dimwits who don’t seem to have any clue about what’s really going on. I could be wrong about this. I know the focus of the story is on Jesus here. But to me, they’re like little chess pieces in this story. Go here, Jesus says. Get me that donkey, Jesus says. Tell the owners the Lord needs it. And they nod and shuffle along and go over there and get the donkey and tell the owners the Lord needs it without any sign from Luke that they a) had any clue about what was happening or b) had any idea that this was the beginning of the end. Even though Jesus had told them, I don’t know, about one zillion times.
Palm Sunday is a reminder of the importance of preparation, because I assume there was some back story conversation between Jesus and the donkey owners before all of this went down, maybe the last time he swung through town. Something like, “Jesus, is there anything we can do for you?” And Jesus says, “Well, yes, actually, one day soon I might need to borrow your donkey.” So you Type A planner people can rejoice. Jesus thinks ahead.
Palm Sunday is a significant shift in Jesus’ operating procedures. The messiah who loves to hide, the one who shushes people when they want to tell others about who he is and what he’s done, all of a sudden allows himself to be the center of attention in one of the most public and loud ways possible- with a PARADE. With a parade, you guys. And not just any parade, but a parade where the crowd had religious leaders in it who were bold enough to tell Jesus to shut it down, to which Jesus replies in zinger esoteric fashion, “If they were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Palm Sunday is an ecological tale about how we really underestimate stones. That all this time we have had it all backward when asking ourselves the inane philosophical question about “if a tree falls in the woods when nobody is there to hear it does it make a sound” when the trees are apparently just waiting for us to leave again so they can get on with their conversation.
Palm Sunday is an example of mob mentality, group think, tribalism. It proves that we were picking teams and rooting for them long before the NFL came along. And somehow it seems worse when what’s at stake actually matters. Exhibit A: every nation’s foreign policy.
Palm Sunday is depressing, because it’s such a stark contrast to what will happen a few days from now…indeed, what is already in the process of happening. It’s a parade with a really bad ending. It’s like in Chutes and Ladders when you get to the top of the game and you land on a chute that sends you all the way down to the first row again. It is the worst parade let-down in the history of everything. I get depressed just talking about it. All these people cheering and yipping who will become all these people shouting and yelling “Crucify him.”
Palm Sunday is like a Where’s Waldo book- it’s busy and crowded and overwhelming and everything kind of looks the same but everything is in fact not the same at all and there are endless things you can find there if you decide you’re looking for it. It is the reason why there are endless pages of commentary about Palm Sunday, because you can find just about anything in it if you decide it’s what you’re looking for. Where’s Jesus? we ask. And we know what he looks like and we know he’s in there but it takes us forever to find him because there is so. much. other. stuff. in our way, cluttering our eyesight.
Where is Jesus? we ask. And we know he’s right there in the middle of everything, the guy on the donkey, the one you could see if the tall lady in front of you would put her palms down for one blasted second and let you get a good look, for Pete’s sake.
But the bigger question is- what are you looking for? A king? A political leader? A hero? A winner? Do you want him to avenge your honor? To justify your beliefs? Do you want him to restore order in order to maintain the status quo? Do you want him to make his disciples stop with all the racket? Do you just want the parade to be over so you can get your donkey back, or your coat back? Do you want him to turn around and leave town? Do you want him to keep going?
Palm Sunday is a gut check. Because we do look for those things. We do want those things, at one point or another. Maybe not all at the same time, maybe not to the same degree. But we are a confused people lining the streets for reasons we don’t really know. Where is Jesus? I don’t know, which Jesus are you looking for?
Kaitlin Hammond told me one time that she was on an airplane getting settled in for a long flight home and there was a little boy, about 5 or 6, sitting in the row in front of her. The boy’s mom was on the same row but across the aisle, and so he kept leaning into the aisle to ask her for things. And she kept saying, “No, not right now, honey.” “The drinks don’t come until later, sweetheart.” “We have to wait until we get up in the air for you to have your DS.” “Yes, you do have to buckle your seatbelt.” “Yes, the whole time.” “No, you’re not allowed to get up and go to the bathroom right now. You have to wait until the seatbelt sign goes off.” “Yes, then you DO have to put your seatbelt back on.” “Yes, for the rest of the flight.” And after a barrage of these gut-wrenching setbacks, the boy just hit a wall. He couldn’t take it any more. So he leaned his head back, and started singing:
“You can’t always get what you waaaant
you can’t always get what you waaaaaaaaant
you can’t always get what you waaant
but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you NEEEEEEEEEED.”
Palm Sunday is like that, too. All of Holy Week, in fact, is like that. We don’t get what we want. We don’t get disciples who exhibit bravery and valor, or really much of anything at all that could be considered virtuous. Judas doesn’t come to his senses in time, or change his mind. And when he does, he tells these religious leaders who tell him they don’t care, and then he kills himself. Jesus prays for the cup to be passed and God doesn’t answer yes. Peter denies he will deny Jesus and then goes on to deny him three times. There is no dramatic Jesus jail breakout. We don’t see justice served in the court system. Pilate doesn’t heed his wife’s warning not to harm Jesus. In what would seem like a sure bet, Jesus ends up losing the get out of crucifixion free card to who Matthew calls a “notorious prisoner” named Barrabbus. And by “notorious” we can assume people are pretty aware of the bad things Barrabbus did- “notorious” things. Barrabbus is, at the very least, another coward to add to the growing list, which will come to include every last one of Jesus’ disciples. Nobody in the crowd- seriously, in all of those people, not ONE person is recorded as trying to stop the humiliation or the beating. Nobody seemed to speak up for Jesus, or protest, or stomp away and try to make a scene. Even Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross. It’s not like he offered. We have no idea what he felt about the matter. None of the soldiers showed restraint. None of the stones cried out.
We can’t always get what we want. We don’t even know what we want. We can’t even say what we want. But this time, we will find, we get what we need.
I know I’ve already quoted a song tonight, and I know if I were to quote a Leonard Cohen song that you would rather me quote Halleluia,which is all of a sudden everyone in the world’s favorite song, but it’s Lent and I’m not technically supposed to have said that word. So instead I want to share with you the lyrics to his song Anthem.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government –
signs for all to see.
I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
and they’re going to hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring …
You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
What is Palm Sunday?
Palm Sunday is the day when we must finally, once and for all forget our perfect offering. WE DON’T HAVE IT. we don’t have it. It doesn’t exist. We may have our shining moments from time to time, but Holy Week isn’t it. Holy Week is the week where we don’t get anything we want because we can’t even fathom the kind of Savior we need. We have no perfect offering. I heard a rabbi say once that when God made the world, God made it good and not perfect, and that was on purpose. Forget the perfect offering. We are a confused and half-hearted people most of the time. We are people who throw parades without even knowing what for. There is a crack in everything, in every last one of us. But that’s how the light gets in.
Palm Sunday is a day of salvation and not satisfaction. We gather, clueless, confused, misguided, with unclear intentions and unvirtuous motives for Jesus to be what we want him to be for us. We don’t get no satisfaction in our desires. What we get instead is salvation.
Hosanna, we cry, waving our palm branches like the idiots we are, gunning for the mud pies instead of the holiday at the sea. Wishing for revenge instead of redemption, power instead of true peace. Hosanna, we sing loudly, while confining Jesus’ life to little more than a political rally and a popularity contest. Hosanna!!
But the joke is on us. Because hosanna means save us. And that is exactly what Jesus does. Amen.