Sunday, April 12th, 2017
Rev. Jeremy Smith
Introducing the Scripture
When a story is in multiple gospels, I like to compare how they treat the little details. Who says what, how the scene is set or described, tells us what the writer wants us to know. Today’s scripture of the entrance to Jerusalem is an example of that. The Gospel according to Luke, which we aren’t reading, has the parade consist of the disciples alone and Jesus only rides to the outskirts of Jerusalem before getting off his pony. This is consistent with Luke’s message that the kingdom of God comes not in the centers of power and not acclaimed by the crowds, but on the fringes, recognized by the faithful, honored by the few. The parade was staged for the Disciples’ benefit, not the city’s.
Not so in John. In John, Jesus is super-human, closer to divine than human. Jesus is amidst a “great crowd” that goes to the very center of Jerusalem, so large that the religious authorities who seek to silence Jesus get frustrated they can’t get him in such a crowd. The city knew who he was, what he was about, and the stakes are even higher in this rendition written about 40 years after Luke.
I hold onto this difference because I have to keep both Jesus’s in mind. What did Jesus say to those in power when Jesus was seen as an equal? And what did Jesus say to those in power when Jesus was seen as powerless? And which am I in my situation that’s on my heart?
Sermon Intro: Missing the signs. Missing the point?
Associate Ministers don’t tend to preach on Holy Week. Our national preaching days are usually the Sunday after Christmas or after Easter, or the Fourth of July, or the day that we set our clocks to spring forward, in other words, the dates I’m looking forward to assigning my associate in the coming years. Donna has graciously given me the pulpit this year. So the bad news for you is that for 8 of the past 11 years of preaching, I haven’t preached Palm Sunday of Holy Week. So I have 8 years of stored-up messages, all of which I will preach today. Shelly/Jonas has strict instructions to not play me off the pulpit like it’s the Oscars.
And yet the sermon may be shorter than you think. I confess that after 8 years of simmering on the message of Palm Sunday, I keep missing the point of it.
There’s a story told by Rev. Barry Boulware in Missouri about a new pastor in England who became interested in the history of his church and started to look up all the different heirlooms and burial plots and names adorning the church walls. He was making great progress but then hit a snag: located right in the center of the church was a flat stone with the initials HWP. He poured through the records but could find no prominent dead parishioner with the initials HWP. The letters were written in a different scrawl than even the oldest tombstones, older than our 1852 congregation, so maybe it was even older than that?
After 8 years of this private quest, he finally published an appeal in the church newsletter that went far and wide. He immediately got a reply from a church member who said that his own father had laid that stone, only about 20 years before, certainly not before 1852. He concluded his call by saying “and you should know, the initials aren’t for a person, but they are for an important reason indeed. You see, HWP marks the location of the hot water pipe.” I feel akin to that pastor. For 8 years, he misread the signs, missed the point.
10:30 Keeping the Faith
It’s not always the preacher that gets it wrong. Sometimes it is those in the crowd as well. The 2000 movie “Keeping the Faith” follows the lives of a New York young rabbi Ben Stiller and priest Ed Norton who do unconventional church and synagogue messages and worship. And there’s one scene in particular that is just perfect for Palm Sunday. [[SCENE]] That scene has everything for us as we study Palm Sunday today. A young prophet. A breaking of religious rules. A humdrum defender of the faith. And a bringing in of people who do not belong: not prostitutes and tax collectors this time, but a black Christian gospel choir into the jewish synagogue. And then the reception afterwards where everyone wanted to get to know the young prophet, even as a religious authority sneered from the corners. They were missing the point, but so was the crowd, with their joy at idolizing their leader rather than joy in God’s work.
Accomplishing Everything and Nothing
I have trouble with Palm Sunday, trouble understanding what it means. It seems so worthless and premature, a flash in the pan, a false spring before the winter sets in again. It was as futile as dressing yourself yesterday in Portland when you didn’t know what weather pattern of rain, sunshine, and hail was going to happen and when. Palm Sunday seems a similar exercise in futility: glad shouts soon fade into silence, hosannas deteriorate into hostilities. Accomplishing nothing, how could it accomplish everything?
To some it was a ludicrous site and to us, we see it as powerless. But we mistake the story of Palm Sunday when we forget the people didn’t see it as powerless or worthless, they saw Jesus as revolutionary.
The hidden revolution
John is the only Gospel, look it up, John is the only Gospel that explicitly says the crowd waved palm branches. If you were a first century Jew, the meaning would be clear.
150 years prior, Judas Maccabeus led the Israeli victory over the Syrians, The crowds celebrated his victory by waving palm branches, and to commemorate the victory, Judas, whose nickname was awesome, he was called “The Hammer” They really ran out of awesome nicknames by the time of Peter the Rock and Doubting Thomas. Judas stamped an image of palm branches into their coins, symbolizing victory for the Jews over their oppressors. So when about 150 years later, when the Jews are again oppressed and surrounded by empire, Jesus of Nazareth was greeted to Jerusalem by a great crowd, waving palm branches and shouting hosanna (which doesn’t mean glory, laud, and honor, it means “help help please help us now”), the Roman and Judean authorities could not see it as anything other than revolutionary. Palm Branches were first century versions of the clenched fist of resistance, and Passover was their version of the Fourth of July, celebration of freedom from oppression. (San Francisco Lighthouse, 2015)
But who they were greeting didn’t match their vision. Former pastor in this pulpit Rev. Laron Hall wrote about Palm Sunday in 1989:
“Such an improbable King, not what the people had in mind. Rather than a warrior on horseback, he’s a prince on a pony or donkey, even a ludicrous site, riding that beast with His feet dragging in the dust. He is love coming to confront power and most of this troubled world does not believe in love, not really, for love, we think, is weak. Love won’t get you anything but killed and it doesn’t seem to make a difference that day. Loveless power has closed the door on apparently powerless love.” (Hall, 1989)
They thought Jesus was coming to stand up for them and take care of their problems. They thought if they just.
They were wrong. Jesus was coming to play an important, critical, couldn’t happen without him part of setting the world to rights and giving unwashed dirty shepherds and shiny tax collectors alike a direct line to God’s love. But Jesus had already done that, a process of atonement that would culminate in the cross. So today, Jesus was coming to empower the people to live into their identity as one of God’s beloved and to speak that truth to power.
It’s time to speak up
Albert Camus was a French novelist and philosopher during and after World War II. It was an unimaginable time when newspapers were ridiculed, defunded, and made to print alternative facts, when the arts were silenced and defunded, certain ethnicities were persecuted, protections for minorities were rolled back. Unimaginable time. And then, as now, much of the church spoke with a garbled voice, fearful of losing status in the corridors of power.
Right after WW2, Camus met with a group of Christians. He told them he was working in the underground shepherding Jews and persecuted minorities out of Nazi Germany and occupied France. Camus said he kept waiting: waiting for the church to condemn what was happening. He said this:
“What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation of wrong and injustice in such a way that never a doubt, not the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest person. What we need today is men and women resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally.” (Hall, 1992)
For John, Palm Sunday parade was more than a party for Jesus. It was a call for courage and commitment and assurance that when you stand for the powerless, when you let God’s love reign in your heart and it comes out in word and deed, you walk beside the donkey and the palm branches and the coats.
It may seem that we’ve accomplished nothing, but indeed we’ve accomplished everything. No one knows this better than the African American community supporters of Atticus Finch, protaganist of 1962’s film adaption of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Here’s the final scene where the verdict is read and it seems like nothing was accomplished. [[SCENE]]
Palm Sunday is as much about us as it is about Jesus. It is a call to stand up and be counted. It is a call to stand along with those who struggle for freedom and justice. Sometimes you stand alone. Sometimes you have a balcony of the marginalized. But you always have Christ with you. Glory be to God. Amen.