Rather than read Passion Story, we read Matthew 21:1-11 as the Palm Sunday Processional Gospel, and then 21:12-17 as the Gospel before the sermon. You’ll see why by reading the sermon below!
I remember Palm Sunday as a kid, we didn’t have the full palm branches like we have here today. In my church growing up we used the ones that looked like reeds – long and thin coming to a point at one end.
Well, I found out palms like that were good for one thing: tormenting other people. Probably no different from any other boy growing up, I’d get bored in my pew and then I realized that I could use the end of the palm to tickle the necks and ears of people in the pew in front of me, trying not to get caught. Super fun game!
I also discovered that if you swung those palms hard enough, they made a great whip….and they stung like crazy when you got hit. So that became my other favorite Palm Sunday activity…..trying to whip other boys – and some adults – while trying not to get hit myself.
Palms….signs and symbols of a Messiah’s triumphant and peaceful entry into the city of Jerusalem, became instruments of torture and violence in the hands of church boys.
4 years ago, I got to travel to the Holy Land as part of my seminary education. We were in Jerusalem, and visited Bethphage – the spot where today’s story tells us Jesus began his entry into the City of Jerusalem. The landscape forms a “V” with the Mount of Olives being one side and the City and Temple on the other. So imagine if you’re everyone in the City – especially the Roman governor in the garrison tower – and you’re watching this mass of people coming down the Mount of Olives, shouting and singing, waving their arms in the air. You can’t quite make out what they’re holding, but you do know this: usually a large crowd, shouting, waving their arms…..it looks like a riot. And if you’re trying to keep your empire intact – it’s a threat.
In light of this, the words of verse 10 of the processional gospel “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole City was in turmoil” make sense. Because it looks like war is a-comin’. And these people want to know……”Who is this?” Who is this one who comes with shouts, who people are calling a king, a Messiah who will set the people free? Who is this Jesus….and what kind of threat is he?
And I think that’s an accurate read of this Palm Sunday scene, based on the second half of the story that I just read. Because when Jesus jumps to action – driving out the corruption that took advantage of the poor and started healing people in the temple – I think the threat became very real to the Priests and scribes and Roman government.
Today is Palm Sunday…and it’s also known as Passion Sunday in the church. Typically the Passion story gets read today – Jesus’ celebrating the passover with the disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his trial and conviction before the High Priest and Pontius Pilate, and his crucifixion, death, and burial.
The church does this because people started skipping out on Holy Week services between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. (Ok, maybe that’s a stretch….but I’m a realist and a cynic!) And if that happens, all you get is today’s triumphant story and the celebration of Easter….and none of it really makes sense without the story of the cross. And people smarter than I said, “We can’t have that!”
But I’d rather not rush through the passion story – because it’s powerful. In fact, I strongly encourage you, if you are able, to take two extra hours out of your week to worship with us on Thursday and Friday. Come, not just to hear words read, but to experience this great story for yourselves. Come and experience God’s great love….present a meal of bread and wine shared in community; present in his Son suffering and hanging on the cross….a story, that I think speaks deeply to the need we have for a God who comes down to us into a world of brokenness and sin, because he loves us.
And I’d rather not rush though the passion story because this story – the Palm Sunday story – raises an important question for us: why are things like peace and love – and those who come in the name of them – considered a threat?
For some of you, this will be a pretty vivid memory…..recall August 28th, 1963… the March on Washington DC. About 250,000 people – both black and white – rallied to call for civil and economic rights for African-Americans. They rallied…..peacefully. These people came peacefully, spoke and announced a desire for peace, and pushed for the powers and decision-makers of this country to ACT on behalf of African-Americans in the name of justice and love.
And I can’t help but think that as these people marched into our nation’s capital, shouting, singing, clapping and waving their hands as they marched into the city…..that there were those looking on from their ivory towers and buildings who viewed this whole scene….as a threat.
Here’s the thing: things like peace, love, justice, and healing always sound great when they exist as strictly ideas and words. But when such things take the form of action – for some, they do become threats. Acts of healing and justice become a threat to the entitlement and privilege of the chief priests and the scribes. A march of peace into a city that stirs everyone up becomes a threat to the power of the Roman Empire.
A march into a city in the name of peace and love for a people who were shut out of society by laws that discriminated because of their skin color became a threat to the same establishment that held power and privilege then as well.
And I believe, when things like love and peace and grace and forgiveness go from words to actions – they pose a threat to us because they force us to be honest about the state of our hearts and the attitudes towards others and ourselves that lie within them.
But to those that have need of them – those who suffer, those in need of healing, those who are brow-beat by perpetual guilt and shame over past sins, those who are shut out of belonging to a sense of community simply because of who they are – such love and grace in action….it not only sounds like good news. IT IS GOOD NEWS.
I think we’re in a time where people actually prefer war to peace. We prefer hate to love. And it’s not because all the world and humanity has gone to hell and we have no moral/ethical compass, it’s because we’re simply fear just how good life could be if words like peace and love and forgiveness and grace became real – actions we did for each other, over and over, without end.
And while our actions on behalf of such things don’t completely save us or this world, our fear of acting is actually a lack of faith that God can and will overcome the sin and brokenness we feel in our hearts, that affects our relationships and our lives, that out of death…God raises to new life.
And in such a time, this story of Jesus’ death and resurrection needs to be told over and over, without ceasing because more than anything, it’s a story of HOPE. Christ will overcome all – suffering, sin, death. Peace, love, justice, and grace will reign.
And it’s a story we don’t just tell in words or as a theory – but as action: WE LOVE. WE FORGIVE. WE ARE GRACIOUS AND HUMBLE TOWARDS OTHERS. WE DO JUSTICE FOR THE MOST VULNERABLE AND WEAK. And like a great negro spiritual from the Civil Rights era, we tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection through our actions because it points to this message of truth and hope people have been faithful to throughout the ages: