This is the message I preached Palm Sunday, March 25, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. For folks hoping to join Easter Sunday, we have an Easter Sunday service outside at 7 AM, with breakfast following; then Sunday school at 8:15, and our full Easter service at 9 AM.
12The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” 14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
Still-speaking God, whose Word echoes not just through the pages of holy Scripture but also in every corner of world, each moment of our lives, each person we encounter, and even in our deepest selves, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Scriptures. Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts by acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
(Begin having folks run in with signs, protest song and shouts, immediately following prayer).
Can we give our actors today a hand? I want to thank our little group here for their demonstration. It feels weird, doesn’t it, to have people crying out protest songs here at church, where we want everything to be done decently and in order?
Yet how appropriate!
So often we picture the event we read about in our Scripture, Palm Sunday, as something cute and comfortable: well-dressed children waving palm branches and singing hosannas, all lined up in a row.
Such a tasteful, orderly, pretty, upbeat gathering is not what the Gospel describes. Instead it is a scene much like what we just re-enacted, with signs of protest lifted high and cries for justice being raised against the powers that be. It is a confusing, disorderly, raucous crowd moving fast on Jerusalem’s highway to the House of God. As my country kinfolk from Eastern North Carolina might say, it was a “hot mess.”
The people’s cry, “Hosanna,” literally means “come save us”. This is a protest song of sorts, calling out for the oppressed to be set free. That protest song echoes loud and true from the voices of hard-working folk pressed down by life, most without land, jobs, or prospects, who stand shut out of the system by rich and wealthy landowners. A wealthy few have gobbled up what little land and money is in Palestine, forcing even those blessed with work to slave night and day upon land they themselves can never own, harvesting crops and resources they can never enjoy. The ones crushing these ordinary folks under foot are the very people running the royal palace and the house of God. To keep this system in place they got in bed with the same foreign Roman oppressors who had conquered them and were daily using and abusing their fellow countrymen & women. What’s more, these wealthy few whom the cry “hosanna” protested, though they ran both the House of God where God’s presence ought to be found and the royal palace where God’s justice ought to be able to be sought, had ignored the call of the very same Bible which commissioned them. The book of Isaiah proclaimed that no one can gather up land upon land, pushing out their fellow citizens as those leaders have done, without forsaking God’s presence. And the book of Leviticus tells us to preserve God’s justice, in every generation the wealthy few are required by God to return the land and wealth they gathered over the years back into the hands of ordinary working folk fairly and equally, while canceling every single debt.
This cry of hosanna is a challenge against this way of mistreating people, which as we talked about last week, is a way of treating people Jesus spent his ministry preaching and teaching against. When Jesus proclaimed “the kingdom of God has come near”, he was not proclaiming just heaven someday in the bye and bye but also challenging the status quo here and now, the ways we oppress ordinary people and all who were deemed different. When Jesus called the wealthy to sell their goods and give to the poor, he was asking folks like these landowners to give up the need for wealth at any cost, to work against the ways their community had begun to take advantage of the least of these, by putting what they did not need to run their business and care for their family into a common pool which could be used to lift up out of poverty those being crushed by business as usual. Even baptism and communion which today may seem like quaint ceremonies were not so for Jesus. Instead in them Jesus was announcing in a way that could be seen and felt by all the radical message that forgiveness, community, grace, and access to God aren’t limited to a select few based on their wealth, class, education, and other factors that are not the state of their heart as the religion of his day, run by these wealthy landowners, had come to suggest, but is instead as available to all as the simple bread folks everywhere break everyday at their family tables, just as free as the water in the river around the corner from our church. All Jesus said and did stood against powers of oppression in his day that crushed people’s necks underfoot.
Jesus’ ministry fulfilled the words later spoken by Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who in explaining his choice to resist Adolf Hitler’s deadly persecution of Jews, people with disabilities, and people who were gay during World War II, said “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Like Bonhoeffer himself, who was executed by the state for his stand, so Jesus will be killed in part for speaking up publicly against those who use, abuse, and mistreat the least of these.
Jesus is even making a statement in how he rides into town: atop a vulnerable baby donkey rather than a war house. This statement
is made more clear in Matthew’s version of Palm Sundy, where he brings up details overlooked by John, Mark, and Luke. Matthew pictures Jesus comically riding in astride between two animals – a mother donkey, and her nursing baby colt, which is the donkey we see described here in John. At the same moment Jesus rides into town on this pair of weak vulnerable animals any farming family could have pulled out of their barn, on the other side of Jerusalem there was at that moment a military parade going on. Roman armies were marched victoriously through town as they did every Passover, trumpets blaring, upon armed war-horses, as a reminder to Jesus’ people who on top and who was crushed under foot.
By riding into town this way Jesus is saying: your power is limited, Rome, armies, you wealthy, all who oppress and push out the poor, the last, the lost, and the least. Your way is not the way that lasts. There is another kingdom ever and always breaking out which can shake you to your foundations. A kingdom built not on the backs of armed horses, in the barrel of guns, or on the wings of fighter jets in the sky but instead in the compassion and love God can teach us like the love a mother shares with her children. A way of being together as people built on recognizing all around you as equally children of one Parent, that one Scripture calls both Mother and Father, who is the Creator God who births each person into the world as God’s very own, calling us each “my child, whom I love, in whom I am well-pleased”.
Jesus announces a kingdom found where people tear down everything that oppresses and excludes, building in their place communities based on sharing, being a servant to each other, and letting every voice be heard. Jesus is inviting all who hear him that day, now, and always, into this work.
Knowing that this is what Jesus is making clear by this protest allows us to understanding how Palm Sunday led to Good Friday. As UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann often says, “Jesus did not get crucified for being a nice man”. No, it was for standing against exclusion and injustice.
This was Jesus’ stand. Jesus’ protest cry.
Where do you stand? What causes capture your attention? For what will you raise your voice? What will lead you, like Jesus, into the public square? What is worth the risk of being seen and heard, of causing waves? What status quo in your family — your community — your church — your neighborhood — your workplace — might God be calling you to work to change?
Often we are less like Jesus and more like the crowd, waiting for someone else to speak up before we will act. Sometimes we are not even willing to join in the songs and cries for change like the crowd does, but like the bystanders we stand watching, unwilling to take a public stand ourselves. If we are honest, we are also all sometimes more like Jesus’ critics — standing on the sides, saying of those who raise voices of protest “why all this raucous? Quiet down. Don’t cause a scene!” wishing to not have to face into what is wrong in our lives and world, and what must be changed, let alone to be a part of the change ourselves.
I think our Scripture today calls us to embrace the challenge of realizing we are called not to simply be the crowd with palm branches, nor the bystanders watching with our mouths wide open at the scene before us but not joining the work of change ourselves, and definitely not Jesus’ critics who mock his willingness to risk it all to make other’s lives and our world better. We are called, friends, to follow in Jesus’ steps, to take up our crosses and follow Christ.
This challenge reminds me of the words of Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. She writes:
“Theodore Roosevelt [once said]
“’It is not the critic who counts; not the [one] who points out how the strong [person] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
“’The credit belongs to the [one] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who responds [themself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [they fail], at least fails while daring greatly…’
Brene continues, “Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.
“Vulnerability is not weak and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face everyday is not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.
“Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be – a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation – with courage and willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is daring greatly.”
This challenge — to know who you are called to be, what you are called to speak up for and how you are called to step out with your feet and hands at the ready to be put to use as a force for change, is the call of Palm Sunday. It is a call to not just wait until you feel ready, not just wait until you won’t be hurt or rejected, and to not just wait what you can guarantee what you are called to do will succeed in the eyes of the world.
Let us embrace this challenge, trusting that whether we are greeted by warm voices and hands joining us in our cause, or like Jesus we face crowds calling out our names in derision, and seem to others a failure in the eyes of the world, we are people of resurrection. We know by faith that no good work done in God’s name is fruitless and even if it seems to fall to the dust empty, like Jesus’ work seemed to fall that Good Friday after this Palm Sunday, such falling is not final. For God can raise it up, making it like seed planted in the ground that, in dying, bears fruit — for our God can bring us each to our own individual Easter resurrections. Let us find our place, hear our call, raise our voices, and roll up our sleeves for the things God has called us to, even though it leave our brows covered in dust and sweat.
Amen and Amen.