A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland
March 29, 2015
As 21st century Christians, I’m not sure we know what to do about Palm Sunday. To be sure, here at First Church, we have our traditions which lead us directly into Holy Week – beautiful symbolic practices which have us beginning our service with celebration and ending it with a hint of the devastation to come. But when we go home, what then? How do we take this day and bring it into our everyday lives? Should we?
Maybe Palm Sunday is meant to simply be a transitional Sunday – a day that helps us move liturgically from one season to the next. Holy week, then, is the church’s long dark night of the soul, an obscure tunnel through which we must pass every year so that we can come out on the other end and celebrate the joy of Easter morning.
I’m not kidding. For many of us, Holy Week in general feels too hard. The brutality, the grief, and our various understandings of why the crucifixion happened in the first place – all contribute to our confusion and discomfort. When there’s so much suffering and struggle in our own lives, in our community, who wants to hear about the horrible pain and suffering of Jesus. When we are told that God is merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, what do we do with the nagging in our souls that makes us as: Why would such a thing happen to God’s own son? Why should we focus on that when the healing and teaching of Jesus are much more helpful, much more hopeful for our lives?
I wonder if the disciples, when they looked back over the few years they had with Jesus asked themselves much the same questions? Follow me! Could mean a lot of things, but I doubt if Andrew and Philip and Peter and the rest of them thought it would mean ending in despair in Jerusalem! But when Jesus called those fishermen, when he healed women and children, when he invited rich and poor alike to follow him, it didn’t take long before they realized that he expected all those who would follow him to get down in the muddy reality and muck about with him.
So when they finally came to the city, It was a huge moment for them all. They were finally bringing the healing work of Jesus to Jerusalem. At last, they were taking their liberating work beyond the farmers and small town people. They were ready to expand the work of radical inclusion, reaching the lives of those who lived nearest the Temple, but still remained on the fringe of acceptability- those whom the powers in Jerusalem considered the unclean dregs.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the disciples, the crowds, even Jesus were excited. All they had to do was remember how he healed the crazy one who lived in the cemetery, how he brought Peter’s mother back from near death, how more than 5000 people were fed by 5 loaves and 2 fish, how at every turn, he worked to break down oppression and to heal suffering. The crowds of people who followed them into Jerusalem wanted to testify to their salvation. Those who who never found acceptance anywhere else in Israel found a friend in him. The ones who couldn’t even get permission to make Temple sacrifices because they were so unclean found renewal and hope.
They were bringing their new power, their new sense of belonging, their fully healed and cleansed selves to the only place they could fully celebrate, fully worship the God who made all this happen. They had to return to the home of their faith – to Jerusalem.
In the midst of all their excitement, it seems like they all forgot what life with Jesus had been like. In this moment – when it looks like Jesus is being welcomed to the throne of power, it seems that nobody remembers what Jesus had been about from the beginning.
This may actually be the hardest thing about Palm Sunday – because if we are truly honest – we have to see ourselves in the crowds of followers – followers that included the people who were nearest and dearest to Jesus’ heart – followers who had learned from him, even helped him. It means we have to admit that like his disciples and like those crowds from the villages and towns, we’d rather have a glorious and transcendent Christ who leads us magnificently through the city streets with joy; who magnanimously (and magically) fixes all our problems, making a new kingdom by wiping out the old one with a sweep of his royal arm.
The truth is – if we are going to enter into Palm Sunday at all, if we are going to engage in any Holy Week practices, we need to begin by acknowledging the truth that as much as we might wish it otherwise, most of the time, the life of a disciple is not filled with Palm Sunday glory. For the disciples, following Jesus meant getting their hands dirty. It meant dramatically changing their understanding of holiness to include relationships with prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers. It meant spending time counting heads and looking around to find food on hand, hauling that food around, and making sure every last one gets fed AND THEN sticking around to pick up the trash.
Following Jesus meant walking and walking and walking from town to town, doing the hard work of making the good news real. Then, as Presbyterian preacher and teacher Tom Long put it: just when they think they’re entering Jerusalem to claim glory for King Jesus, they have to go into town, muck around in a stable, looking suspiciously like horse thieves and then try to wrestle the darn thing back uphill where Jesus waited. (Tom Long, “Donkey Fetchers”, Christian Century)
When Holy Week feels too hard, when our questions about the brutality, the grief, the crucifixion bring us only confusion, when there’s so much suffering and pain all around us, we can remember and give thanks that Jesus didn’t come to move someone else out of power so he could rise in the same oppressive system. He came to show the world that rising to power means being raised up on a cross. We can remember and celebrate that Jesus didn’t come to rule over the people, demanding absolute obedience as a sign of support for his reign. He came to save by breaking the chains of political and religious oppression.
But most of all, we need to remember that Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem, into our very hearts because he wanted to lord it over us. He came as one of us, to save the world by inviting the world – inviting us to share his power and to work side by side with him in the realities of a world that would rather rest and relax in the status quo. Even now, he invites us to join him on the road to Jerusalem. Knowing that when we do, we’ll be joining him on the road that leads to the cross.