Scripture: Matthew 21:1-17
Given on Palm Sunday, 04/13/2014, at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
You have to imagine that the road was long and dusty, unlike it had ever been before, as Jesus and his followers trudged along towards Jerusalem with each step feeling heavier than the one before. They had, for the previous three years, walked so many steps like this together and yet, these seemed so much more laborious. When it was giving sight to the blind and raising folks from the dead it was easy, the glory of God bursting forth before their eyes but now came the other side of that coin. Because all their healing, all their words, came at a price, as they often do, and they knew that at some point that price was going to be collected. And so as they cast their eyes forward, in the distance they saw the Mount of Olives arising both as a place of respite in the evenings but also as a symbol of the city into which they were about to enter. Jerusalem, which was never safe on its best days in these times of imperial occupation, felt like a trap just waiting to be sprung on Jesus and his whole collective. The bill would be collected. Romans rarely dealt kindly with anyone seeking to challenge their occupation and Jesus had perhaps done more to systematize Jewish protest of the occupation than anyone else in recent memory. Because he had spoken of the realm of God bursting forth in their sights, his words came complete with a supernatural quality, perhaps even as magical to a growing number of Hebrew peoples desperate to hear some kind of word both of challenge and comfort. But as Jesus stepped into this role, this need within the community of his people he also knew that with it came the sure resignation that it would someday cost him his life. He knew full well that it was futile for this tiny nation of people to challenge the mighty Roman armies on the battlefield of military might. To do so would have led to the mass slaughter of so many, an event that dotted the historical landscape of the Jewish people for hundreds of years. But like any of the great leaders of history will tell you, especially those who lead movements against overpowering forces, rarely do you get to see old age. And perhaps Jesus was better than most at reading the tealeaves before him, maybe he had some amount of premonition concerning what was about to befall he and his movement. Either way, with each step towards Jerusalem, he knew that he was walking towards his own death. And maybe it was in that way that Jesus sought to use this celebration with palms and cloaks, with large gatherings and shouts of, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the most high!” As he sent his disciples to collect the necessary ingredients for this concoction of celebration did he realize that he was also perhaps setting fire to a fuse that would soon engulf the whole of the city? Because he had to have known, he had to have known that creating such a commotion, entering into the city in a manner that had theretofore been reserved for the conquering war hero or the Caesar, was only going to cement his place as a radical leader of a sect of rebels challenging the authority of the Roman occupation. As the crowds swelled both before him and after him, as many lined the streets pledging their allegiance to this chosen one of the Jews, there seemed little doubt where this would end up. Even as the people were crying out, “Hosanna!” it seems more appropriate that they cry “‘havoc’ as they ‘let slip the dogs of war.’”
And it seems that perhaps at least three of the gospel writers want to make sure that we never lose the tension between Jesus the revolutionary radical and Jesus the religious radical. Because in each case, immediately following this entrance into the city that doomed him with the imperial authorities, he goes straight to the Temple. And maybe he was going to have some quiet time, to find a good place to pray. Maybe he was going because he could hide out there for a little while and collect his thoughts before beginning to take on the backlash that was sure to come from the Roman authorities, no one knows. But when he does enter into the Temple, he becomes so overwhelmed with the mockery that they have made of the religion of his childhood, so enraged by the manner in which there are those whose chief living is swindling poor people by pinning them to religious requirements met with their overpriced doves that he simply cannot take it anymore and drives the whole lot of them out of the Temple. As he heals the blind and the lame, the crowds around him continue to swell, the number of people who are able to see, maybe for the first time, the beloved of God standing in their midst joining in with those who have followed Jesus in loud, “Hosannas!” thus severing their own relationship with the Temple (as they certainly were driven out following such a loud outburst and never welcome to return.) Because, just as Jesus sought to break the final strings in the cocoon of safety that might have allowed him to remain alive, so too did those who found themselves shouting in the Temple break with the tradition that undergirded the whole of Hebrew society. So it was that this period of palms and cleansing of the Temple was the moment in which that which had been sweltering and swelling under the surface, all the frustration with Roman occupation, all the lamentations regarding religious leadership that had long ago sought to become wealthy and powerful at the cost of their devotion to God, all came bursting forth in a single moment. A moment from which the world has never recovered. Each one putting their lives on the line in devotion to Jesus, each one destroying the relationship with the past and their elders that had sustained them for the living of this life, each one leaping out in faith in God and in faith in Jesus that whatever was out in the unseen darkness was going to catch them. Not seeing and yet believing. Not hearing and yet believing. “‘From the mouths of children and nursing babies, you have brought forth praise’?”
Undoubtably, some of our best memories of church have to be centered around this day in the Christian year, each year. Perhaps you can remember years passed when you watched your children, your grandchildren proudly march into the sanctuary, bearing palms and shouting out Hosanna. Perhaps you can remember you yourself doing the same thing. This day resides in my memory of growing up as the only time I was encouraged to yell in the sanctuary, my commitment to the cause of Jesus being evidenced by my hearty crying out of, “Hosanna!” Of all the choirs (back in the day when you had multiple choirs) processing in together, from the youngest to the oldest waving branches and singing, “hosanna in the highest!” And each year, I would try to as I did this year envision what it must have been like on that day. Would it have been like the president coming to my hometown? Would it be like a really big rockstar marching in the local town parade? Would it be a festival atmosphere with t-shirts to mark the occasion? For us in this place, this day also has the effect of being something of a pep rally. A coming together of the faithful to lift each other up on the precipice of the darkest part of the season that we will each struggle through over the next week and maybe it was for such a time as this that Palm Sunday comes each year giving us a chance to smile, laugh, and celebrate for just a bit before the task of dying is more firmly set before us. And maybe we all need this, maybe we all need an hour of rest from the onslaught that is to come and if that is what it is for you on this morning let me say that is ok. We all need a rest every now and then. But even in the midst of rest on this day, let us not confuse ourselves into believing that this was a day of rest on that day. And so I would ask you, “what does it mean to say, ‘Hosanna!’ today?”
I ask this because we sit at a point in history in which the church must seek to reach out into the streets and lift people out of darkness and into the light in a much more concerted manner than it has previously. As the number of the faithful dwindle, we must, as a faith, band together and join hand-in-hand to undertake the work of God in the world. To be the hands and feet of Jesus. Because as much as this day might feel like a day of happiness, of unbridled celebration of our faith and commitment to Jesus before the final week of his life, we cannot, on this morning, pretend that this world is how God would have it to be. And we cannot pretend that the challenges that plague our world happen halfway around the world from where we are, no matter where you are, a struggle is always nearby. And we cannot pretend that the work that sits before each of us was or is completed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Revolutionaries die but revolutions don’t. And so as we ponder what to do with this passage from this morning, it seems that the best way to honor those who stood up and were counted on that day is to figure out what it is for which we are called to stand up and then place ourselves there. That we cast our eyes across the expanse of our town and our world and see those places where our greatest joys might meet the world’s greatest needs and dance together a dance of justice and love. Those who gathered on the original Palm Sunday gave their lives, some physically, all wholly to a cause greater than themselves in which they could not see what lay ahead of them. They did it solely on faith. They stood as a reminder of the radical nature of the movement at its inceptions, calling people to be their best selves, calling people to give of themselves, calling people to see light where others see only darkness, calling people to leap believing that they will be caught, calling people to be children of God. On this day, their memory, the faith that we all claim, deserves a radical recommitment to change the world, a permanent revolution of love from which no one will ever recover.
We have each traveled a great distance together this Lenten season. We have each seen pieces of ourselves thought to be essential, thought to be unchanging, thought to be crucial to who we are as people fall away in a new devotion to God through the path of Jesus. We have held each other as we have weathered troubling times in which death and illness have seemingly come like a thief in the night and stolen the piece of mind that we thought we had. And we have each walked, at least part of the way, alone. Much like Jesus, surrounded by those closest to us and yet in our minds completely adrift by ourselves. And yet. And yet, here we stand today with palms in hand and singing or screaming at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God!” Here we stand, saying we are followers of Jesus. Here we stand declaring light in the dark, hope out of despair, good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of God’s favor for all people. Here. We. Stand. Amen.