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Sunday, April 2, 2023: Palm/Passion Sunday – “A Spiritual 180”

Sunday School Activities

A Spiritual 180
Matthew 21:1-11
Palm/Passion Sunday – April 2, 2023 – Parkminster United Church
It happens to me every year, about a week or two before Palm Sunday. I start to think
about the shift that happens as we move into this day. It’s a spiritual 180-degree kind of
Sunday. One that starts with palms branches waving to a joyful hymn that tells us of
Jesus’ joyful entry into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy
Week – the time where we boomerang between parades, donkeys, palm branches and
a trial, and death via barbaric means.
There is something so powerful and deepening about these days of Lent and now Holy
Week. Palm Sunday is an occasion for irony and ambiguity; it reminds me all over
again– this is what life is like. There are questions and quandaries, plots and subplots
swirling about this story, even as the little children and people wave their branches and
skip along the road with such innocent abandon and excitement.
I was brought up with the joy of palm branches on this day, but even then, I knew there
was something mysterious and powerful lurking in the shadows just beyond the
excitement. The late Peter Gomes, who was a theologian, professor, and chaplain at
Harvard for many years, wrote that he was part of the palm waving crowd growing up,
but as the years went by he came to see that there was a lot more going on here—in
some ways, the palm waving was a way of skimming over the indignity and
embarrassment of the days ahead.
Anne LaMott writes that in some ways, she doesn’t have the right personality for the
events of this coming Holy Week—“I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of
one of the kids in Sunday School who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny coming out of
a tomb—everlasting life and a box of chocolates. Now you’re talking.”
But here we are on the uphill side of Easter, with only a week that separates us from
that Great Getting Up morning. It is Passover in Jerusalem and Jesus is getting ready to
enter the city. Passover would be the worst moment for anyone with any kind of
questionable reputation to try to get into the city. It’s teeming over with excited pilgrims
who have come to observe the ceremony of their liberation centuries before. They are
full of high hopes and a zealous fervor so strong, that each year the governor of the
province moves his troops into town just in case there is an uprising. Roman soldiers
are everywhere you look and around every corner you turn. It is a highly charged
moment—anything can happen.
Jesus comes into this city, full of heated excitement and fired up crowds bordering on
chaos. In an instant, the crowds recognized what he was doing; they see and remember
the ancient promise— “Your Sovereign comes to you without display, riding on a
donkey.” They were hoping that salvation from Roman domination had finally
arrived. There was unexpected joy and overwhelming relief among the people—they
could hardly handle the moment—off come their coats and down come the branches
from trees lining the road— “Hosanna to the Heir to the House of David! Blessed is the
One who comes in the name of the Most High! Hosanna in the highest!”
Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel has written that “religion
begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” There is probably no other day in the Christian
calendar when this is truer than Palm Sunday, when this slightly odd rabbi from the
Galilean countryside becomes a marked man, simply by grabbing the reigns of the colt
and sauntering into town during Passover.
Some of us don’t want our religion to be political. We want to separate our faith and
worship life from the realities of our political world. And there are good reasons for
wanting to keep things separate. We have seen acts of violent terror being perpetrated
on people in the name of God. We see how religious conviction can be twisted into
hurting instead of liberating. It can make us uncomfortable to see religion used as a
political force.
But here’s the distinction. The politics of Jesus are different. Adam Erickson says,
“Jesus was a different kind of king and that the Kingdom of Heaven is a different kind of
politics. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was revealing that the
reign of God is in stark contrast to the reign of Rome and every other political system
that seeks triumphant victory by influencing people through violence and coercion. The
Gospel of Jesus is different. This Gospel is the politics of humility, service, forgiveness,
and a nonviolent love that embraces all people, but especially those we call our
enemies.” (Anna Golladay, The Whiplash of Palm Sunday, 2023.)
So here we are. Why, we ask, in the name of God, would Jesus come into the streets
on a donkey at Passover? Why would he want to get involved on such a messy,
political, potentially violent event? He couldn’t remain in the desert of private
experience. Aware that things might end up horribly, he was called out. Through this
story, we know that God gets mixed up in human life, because that is where God lives.
The central affirmation of our faith is acted out today – God in Christ enters our human
story and experiences our life and suffering with us—not above us or beyond us, but
with us—in the midst of us.
If faith begins in mystery, then we can see Jesus embracing the mystery of his own
calling—to challenge the authorities with unexpected gentleness and humility. We can
see Jesus speaking truth to power without words—using a non-violent gesture of
peace. Indeed, throughout the coming week, we will see Jesus responding to hate and
violence with a quiet steadiness and dignity— “Surely,” as the guard at the cross said,
“this person is of God.”
In the end, the realm of God didn’t come, and the overthrow of the government did not
take place. Jesus was not crowned sovereign or elected as head of a new government.
The salvation so hoped for by the people didn’t happen. But something else did—
spiritual transformation. Through the life of Jesus, we claim a renewed sense of dignity
for each human being and all of creation and a desire for freedom for the human spirit.
We must speak about the cross today. Towards the end of our service this morning, our
rowdy Palm Sunday celebrations will be hushed by the solemn knowledge of what is to
come. Many mainline denominations, including our own, sometimes struggle with the
cross, feeling that it focuses the Christian story on suffering rather than hope or new life.
We would rather be Easter people than Good Friday people.
But this morning we remember that we live in a Good Friday world. As one of my
mentors has said—we can’t get to Easter without heading straight through Maundy
Thursday and Good Friday. We acknowledge on this day that the world holds so much
beauty and terror—suffering and hope.
“As Christians, we love because the cross draws us towards love — its power is as
compelling as it is mysterious. The cross pulls us towards God and towards each other,
a vast and complicated gathering place. Whether or not we want to see Jesus shamed
and wounded, here he is, …This is the solid ground we stand on. Stark, holy, brutal,
and beautiful.
To take up a cross as Jesus does is to stand, always, in the center of the world’s pain.
Not just to glance in the general direction of suffering and then sidle away, but to dwell
there. To identity ourselves wholly with those who are aching, weeping, screaming, and
dying. Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul
and body that surrounds us and pouring our energies and our lives into alleviating that
pain — no matter what it costs.” (Debie Thomas, A Crucified God, 2020.)
The palms we throw on the path leading into the city will lead us to the road out of the
city to the cross. So, welcome to Holy Week. Here we are, and here is our suffering,
sorrowing, loving God. Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hungry, and
hopeful. Our journey continues … Amen.
Rev. Heather Power