March 28, 2021
Every year Palm Sunday gets harder and harder for me. Part of it is because of how much I enjoyed this Sunday as a kid in the church. Who wouldn’t? You get to walk around and wave these palms. The whole day has the feeling of a celebration. There is excitement when Palm Sunday comes around each year. Planning for today’s worship… I still wanted to try to capture that element of excitement… the feeling of the crowd coming into Jerusalem. Just because it has changed for me why should I take that same enjoyment away from kids today. Next Sunday is the celebration of Easter with all the added kid friendly traditions of having an Easter basket and candy and all the other fun stuff of the American holiday of Easter. As a kid that’s the experience. Right? And really… don’t get me wrong here at the beginning… it’s a good experience. It may even be a necessary experience.
Getting older though, things change… you then learn and begin to notice all this other stuff. The story expands out and the more you learn… the more your vision widens… the harder it is to hold onto that experience you had as a kid of just pure celebration. The story… like so much of what you thought you knew… what you believed to be true… the story begins to twist and the lessons start to change. But that’s the nature of the gospels. That’s the nature of Christ. It’s never about staying in the same place… it’s never about having the same faith all your life… it’s never about an unchanging relationship with a living God who is still at work in the world.
All the self-reflection of the season of Lent is supposed to roll into Holy Week. Last year at this time we were still in that… by comparison… innocent time of being taken by surprise by the unexpected consequences of a worldwide pandemic. We were just beginning to experience what it meant to lock down… to distance ourselves… to be aware of the environment around us so that we wouldn’t come into contact with this virus. There was plenty of denial and unrealistic and ungrounded hope. Everything will be fine. That’s the message we wanted to hear as news of deaths around the world began to tick up at an increasing rate. The churches will be full at Easter. It’s nothing more than the flu. There won’t be many more cases than there are now in the US. I couldn’t begin to imagine for myself what was still coming. Nothing in my experience gave me any insight. We tried our best to adjust and adapt as things happened. I know that for myself I kept thinking in about three month increments. Three months in my mind was a long time and long enough for this thing to pass us by as an unpleasant interruption. It took how many months before I could finally give up on that way of thinking and start learning to think differently? It’s hard shift… emotionally… experientially… spiritually. It’s hard to let go of something so that something new… even a new idea… a new vision can take shape. Even when the causes of change are so stark.
And that’s what Palm Sunday has come to mean to me as we tell this story of Holy Week again. Palm Sunday represents a way of seeing… a way of thinking… a way of framing our life and the world around us… a way that has to be let go of in order to get to that next step in the journey of our faith. It’s one of those great ironies of thought that throughout Lent we’re supposed to let something go in our lives… we’re supposed to give something up. But in reality… really what we’re only doing is taking a break… we’re only fasting for a time because come Holy Week… come Easter time what do we do? We break our fast. We take back up whatever it was that we had let go for Lent. And when you’re doing something surface-y for Lent… in the end it doesn’t matter. But if this was the year that a pandemic disruption in your life caused a deeper self-reflection… to take up again whatever it is you had let go… to grab hold once again isn’t moving forward… it’s going nowhere. It means… we aren’t learning anything. Our eyes want to return to the comfort of blindness. Our ears to the peace of the deafness that we’ve only recently become aware of.
The whole story of Palm Sunday is full of all the symbols of the Messiah triumphantly entering into Jerusalem. The newly anointed king moving forward and taking the throne of David. The colt. The palms. The cloaks laid out on the road. The cries of Hosanna! Everything screams expected Messiah… not necessarily the Messiah the story of Jesus so far had been framing… not necessarily the Messiah Jesus was telling the disciples to expect to appear once they reached Jerusalem. In Mark’s gospel where Jesus has been telling people to keep the news that he is the messiah a secret… this procession stands in stark contrast. And had this been the brainchild of the disciples and the apostles to have Jesus enter Jerusalem in this way… well… that would easily fit. But Jesus sends them ahead. Jesus orchestrates this. Jesus let’s all these symbols be attached to him… and the people go crazy. They love it. They want it. They celebrate it. And they are completely unaware to its disconnect with what Jesus has been saying. This is what they want. This is what they believe they need. This is the path they want to follow into Jerusalem and beyond. Triumph. Victory. Accolades. Jesus had said… “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose in, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel , will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” No one in that procession is taking away that message from the scene before them. When given the choice… they are choosing instead the messages of all these symbols making this a triumphal entry.
Unique to Mark… one of those reasons I so like this gospel story… unique to Mark is how this whole procession… the energy and the excitement… making its way into Jerusalem… surely more people get caught up in the crowd… recognizing the symbols… knowing what is to come next… drawing conclusions and creating meaning… the whole procession makes it to the Temple and then… nothing happens. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus gets to the Temple and then drives out the sellers of the sacrifices… turns over the table of the moneychangers… bellows how you have turned this house of prayer into a den of thieves. It’s the appropriate punctuation for the whole scene. A great big exclamation mark! But in Mark… in Mark nothing happens. The procession takes the people nowhere to nothing. It’s too late in the day and Jesus turns around and leaves Jerusalem without doing anything. I love that. The colt, presumably, gets returned. The people wander back along the route to pick up their cloaks. The palms get left to in the road to dry out and become debris that needs to eventually get picked up at some point, I guess. Because Palm Sunday… the excitement of Palm Sunday… the symbolic traditions of Palm Sunday… the expectations that buzz around Palm Sunday does not lead to the joy of Easter. Palm Sunday is not part of what Jesus has been telling his disciples what will happen in Jerusalem. Not in a positive sense at least. We can imagine that the unfulfilled expectations of the procession into Jerusalem leads to the disappointment and the turning of the crowds as the week progresses. It’s easy to imagine the cries of “hosanna” becoming the shouts of “crucify” by those left dejected and feeling fooled into believing again in the message they wanted to hear.
Palm Sunday is the last stop in the Easter journey where we get one more look at what we’re holding onto… one more look at what we are using to define who Jesus is… and one chance to leave it behind. Palm Sunday today is not going to fulfill the Palm Sunday hopes I had when I was a child. I have to let those go and leave them behind. I don’t want to. There is hurt in doing so. But to move forward I can’t stay back when… I can’t hold onto to symbols that have been emptied of their meaning by what has come to pass. The expected Messiah of Palm Sunday doesn’t exist. It’s not up to me to change that… or create one. It’s up to me to follow into this week the Messiah God gives.
Dropping those thoughts… or hopes… or systems… or old beliefs that get in the way of making that journey to the cross that is coming. Because Saints, if I can’t journey to the cross… how can ever I hope to get to Easter. Amen.