March 24, 2013
Preaching on Palm Sunday is always an interesting challenge for me, because Jesus’ processional into Jerusalem begs for re-enactment–sights, smells, sounds, and all–the chaos, the grit and dust of the streets, the fervor and emotion of that day. I will never forget, during my childhood, attending my grandparents’ Methodist Church one Palm Sunday. A man in costume processed into the church on a live donkey as we shouted our praises and waved our palms! Now, that was a Palm Sunday to remember!
We do our best here, as we add our singing and palm waving to the children’s march around the sanctuary. Yet, our twenty-first century rendition merely hints at the intensity inherent in those raucous events so long ago.
The surface of the scene which we recall is noisy, enthusiastic, and ebullient. Its underbelly is secretive, nefarious, and sinister. The crowds offer homage to Jesus in hopes of deliverance from the crushing grip of the Roman Empire. Instead, God comes disguised as a humble, suffering servant.
How do we hold the complexity of this day–and the days that follow it–in our hearts? How do we join the joyful throngs in the streets while listening for the sinister whispers from the back rooms and alleys? How do we cheer in expectation of deliverance while paying attention to the false Messiahs we humans so easily worship? How do we truly learn from the One who really came?
We in the 21st century church are gifted with hindsight as we tell this ancient story. Not one person in the crowd that gathered in Jerusalem was blessed with our vantage point. To them, this was drama unfolding before their eyes. It was late-breaking news.
As I ponder Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I am riveted by the intentionality that Jesus experiences and the seeming spontaneity of the crowd in all its acclamation and fervor. There is no opportunity for Jesus to set up a Facebook event page (I don’t think he would, anyway). There is no twitter feed or list-serve to post on. There is no chance for the disciples to announce a public processional in the local newspaper.
There is just this man named Jesus, determined to go to Jerusalem, no matter the opposition or cost. There is just this man who loves, heals, serves, and teaches. There is just this man who welcomes and befriends the marginalized and forgotten, while challenging the rich, powerful, and well-connected. There is just this man who consistently gets into trouble for his disregard of proper behavior and proper company. And there is this makeshift parade, this spontaneous outpouring.
Jesus is adored. He is followed. Some have purer motives than others, to be sure. Some have faithful hearts but misplaced hopes. Some look for quick fixes and fast answers. Still others view Jesus as a threat and nuisance, even a blasphemer who makes a mockery of God.
Recently on CNN, I watched the crowds pack Vatican Square, waiting for the white smoke to billow forth and proclaim the selection of a new pope. Hundreds upon hundreds stood for hours, at times in the rain. I saw the sea of umbrellas pop up.
When the moment of decision finally came, I heard the cheers, saw the tears, witnessed the embraces. I listened to newscasters discuss what it could mean that the new pope chose the name “Francis,” was the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from South America.
As a rather non-liturgical person, I was struck by all the pomp and circumstance, the elegant dress and detailed protocol, the crowd’s devotion. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast this event with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, not on a king’s stallion but on a commoner’s donkey.
“This all must feel rather uncomfortable for a Jesuit pope who took a vow of poverty and simplicity,” I mused.
Amid all this anticipation and celebration of the pope’s selection, amid all the simplicity and spontaneity of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, the real issue is always what comes afterward.
With Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s selection as pope, will the poor of the world get more attention than they have for so long? Will Pope Francis tackle the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church in bold, uncompromising ways? Will he preserve the conservative moral teachings of previous popes? Will the long cries of lgbtq Catholics, women religious, and others be heard? Will he connect with young Catholics around the world, responding to their ideas and yearnings? These are all questions that are being asked in various circles worldwide.
No matter how big or splashy an event can be, no matter how beloved a leader can be in the moment, no matter how adoring a crowd can appear–whether at a parade, processional, solidarity march, ordination, coronation, or installation–it is what comes afterward that makes the real difference.
We know what comes afterward for Jesus. The cheering crowd gives way to a profoundly different trajectory–a savior weeping over Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple with his bare hands. A final meal among friends, hours of agonizing prayer followed by betrayal and arrest. Physical and verbal abuse, a death sentence wrung out of a crowd. Execution on a Roman cross, burial in a borrowed space.
And on Sunday morning, the mystery and miracle of an Empty Tomb.
There is something fundamentally wrong with leaping from the accolades of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter morning. The critical days between Sundays are filled with faithfulness and fickleness, insight and denial, friendship and betrayal, grace and cruelty, joy and sorrow. Life is experienced at its most visceral and challenging level. The stakes are high and the outcomes unclear.
I invite you to take this journey with Jesus, both individually and in community. The liturgical folks have it right when they gather every day of Holy Week to remember each step along the way with Jesus.
Thursday night, we come back together here in a service of scripture, silence, song, prayer, and Communion. We remember Jesus’ Last Supper, his betrayal, and arrest. Friday evening there is a Taize Service at Fairchild Chapel. The juxtaposition of light and darkness as reflected in the simple chants of Taize help us recall the agony of Jesus’ crucifixion and the dashed hopes of his followers as well as the promises of God that continue to endure. Easter morning we arise to sorrow transformed into joyful amazement.
Some of you are not able attend the evening events, but you can accompany Jesus right where you are. Read through the Gospel stories of his last week. Meditate on their striking power. Accompany Jesus on the journey from his entry into Jerusalem to the cross and the empty tomb.
We are invited to bear the sorrows of the world with Jesus. Imagine if millions of Christians worldwide did this together between today and next Sunday! Each of us can hold in our hearts the countless thousands and millions who have suffered and continue to suffer every day from the indignities of injustice and violence unleashed by abusive power. Jesus experienced this journey intimately. We enter the darkness and bask in the light.
Don’t jump from hosanna to alleluia. Life is not like that. Your life and my life is not like that. Jesus’ life is not like that. Enter Jerusalem this week and stay with Jesus there. Amen.