Of all the Sunday worship services in a year – Palm Sunday is entirely unique and downright strange.
We start in a different place. Bless palm leaves. And go straight to a gospel reading describing Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. We hear that he was welcomed by adoring crowds. Surrounded by people eager to see a Messiah overthrow the empire in the ways one would expect. That is Palm Sunday.
And honestly – that is where we should stop. With that story. And this service should be a celebration of our belief that Jesus is our Messiah – we should sing songs, and shout Hosannas – and revel in that feeling of triumph just like those crowds. And then spend the days between now and next Sunday – walking with him as that triumph slips away – opening our hearts to that sinking feeling. You know when you’re on top of the world about something – that’s going to change everything – but then – it’s not what you thought it would be and little by little hope slips away. That is part of what walking the way of the cross in Holy Week is about.
But instead – we cram the week into this Sunday. It’s Palm Sunday and its Passion
Sunday. And as far as I know – the church started doing the liturgy this way because Holy Week services just weren’t that well-attended. (I mean who wants to go to church 3 days in a row). So if we went from Hosanna of Palm Sunday to – Alleluia of Easter Sunday – most would skip the cross entirely.
Jesus walks toward the cross from the moment he begins his adult ministry. The writer of Luke says – He set his face to Jerusalem (9:18). The Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem is the equivalent of one of those high noon showdowns we can remember from an old Western movie. Pontius Pilate is entering the western part of Jerusalem most likely on a stallion and with his army – because that’s how the ruler traveled. Jesus entered the eastern part of the city with crowds that had followed him from Galilee and the people who were there to greet them.* Because word had spread and excitement was in the air!
Someone was coming who would “fix it” – who had performed miracles – who said he is the one who is king. And who rides on a donkey. On the one hand that fulfills the words of the prophet Zechariah from the Hebrew scriptures (9:9). But on the other hand I imagine it was a rather strange feeling to be shouting Hosannas to a guy on a donkey – a female donkey at that who was dragging her colt along with her. Donkey vs stallion. Poor crowds vs powerful army. I imagine that sinking feeling, the beginnings of disappointment in this “king” was felt by some of those disciples right then and there.
I hope and encourage you to experience the liturgy of Maundy Thursday – when we eat together as Jesus and his disciples did – hearing Jesus give a new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. I hope and encourage you to experience Good Friday – to hear this passion story again from the perspective of John, different than Matthew – and to pray at the foot of the cross on behalf of all the suffering in our world. In my experience to do so – makes for a much richer experience of Easter morning.
But regardless – I hope you will find some time between now and resurrection to pray about what that cross represented for Jesus in his time – and what it represents for you in yours. It is the mystery of faith – that symbol. That foolishness of God. Not a god that would ransom the life of a son as some form of payment for our sins. But the foolishness of proclaiming – no matter what – love wins.
Sundays in Lent we have listened in on conversations Jesus had – with very different people – each of whom was ashamed of something about themselves.
Zacchaeus, a prominent leader who snuck off at night to talk to Jesus – why at night, what was he ashamed of? John 3)
A woman at a well – who got her water in midday so she could be all alone – ashamed of multiple husbands and the stigma that brought (John 4).
A beggar – born blind – and yet blamed for his condition – who sinned, this man or his parents all the people want to know. (John 9)
And Jesus talks to each of these people and says – that is not how God operates. God is not ashamed of you – your condition – your circumstances – your choices – your mistakes – your past – your present. God literally cannot be shamed.
Jesus shows this by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a steed. He shows this by not shaming Peter and the others who abandon him. Jesus shows this by hanging on a tree – which like the donkey is also reference to Hebrew scripture – Deut – for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. Jesus on the cross – God’s son on the cross - is the sign that no one can ever be under God’s curse – ever again. And that is what is triumphant. That is the wondrous cross – that nothing – not shame – not death – can ever separate us from the love of God through Christ.
So – this week – what separates you from believing you are worthy of God. If you were going to take something from your condition – your circumstances – your choices – your mistakes – your past – your present – and give it over so that you could shout the loudest Alleluia of your life – what would it be?
What would you put up on that cross right there. And look at it – even though its hard – knowing that “it” – whatever “it” is - hangs right above that altar where we hear Jesus’ words remind us that everything Christ did was for us to know belonging – and forgiveness. That no matter the stumbling blocks on our way – through Jesus – God knows them too – and the power of God, is a divine foolishness in the self-sacrificing power of love.