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Filled with Excitement
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
April 14, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.
As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
There are two schools of thought with regards to planning worship for Palm Sunday, both valid, both with substantial treatment in the Presbyterian Book of Worship as well as in many other fine resources. The first roughly conforms to what we are doing this morning here at UPC, and it’s going to sound a little strange when I say it, but stay with me — the first school of thought about Palm Sunday in worship is that you should celebrate Palm Sunday. Yes, I know. What that means is that on Palm Sunday you should read one of the Gospel stories about Palm Sunday, and that you should have palm branches waving because it’s Palm Sunday, and that you should sing hymns more or less about Palm Sunday, which are easily identifiable because most of them have the word Hosanna in them about 35 times, and that you should in general locate your worship service there with the crowd praising Jesus on his entrance into the city on Palm Sunday. Hopefully this all sounds obvious to the point of perhaps being a little insulting.
The second school of thought — which, again, is valid — is that on Palm Sunday you should perhaps begin your worship with palms, but, by the end of it, you should have advanced the story much further into the week. After all, though many congregations, ours included, will have services on Thursday celebrating the Last Supper and on Friday observing the crucifixion, and on Saturday, waiting at the Easter Vigil, the honest truth is that not everybody comes to church on Thursday and Friday night and that Palm Sunday then becomes an opportunity to tell the stories of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to folks who won’t otherwise hear them. In this worship service you start off with Hosannas, sure, but by the end you’re singing “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” which I suppose in a sort of helpful way puts you far ahead of schedule but in another sort of less satisfying way feels like we’ve abridged the whole thing, 5 chapters of Luke’s Gospel and here we can speed through it in about half an hour.
I’m partial. I like the way we do it. I like taking our time. But I also recognize that doing it this way does run the risk of giving Palm Sunday a bit of naiveté. I mean, we have been six weeks in Lent now, six weeks since we painted our foreheads with ash and declared ourselves bound for dust, six weeks journeying through flood and wilderness and desert and mountaintop and none of that is supposed to be particularly easy. It’s meant to turn us slowly but surely towards Jerusalem and all of the inevitability that waits. And then we get here. Jesus shows up on the horizon, the text noting the shadow cast by the Mount of Olives as he approaches the city gates, there is meant to be some dark climax here, this is the showdown we have been waiting for, this is the hero riding in to face the final boss, with tympani and coronet and some orchestral theme revved up for battle. But instead, we get Hosannas. We get palm branches. We get a donkey. Instead of a showdown we get a children’s pageant. Instead we get Hosannas.
It feels like such an innocent liturgy, innocent bordering on naive. None of the characters seem particularly savvy. Jesus orders his disciples to go steal a donkey and if anybody stops them, they should just say that God needs the donkey and they agree because this apparently seems like a plan that is going to work, I mean, don’t they know better? And then, because apparently the joke is on me, the plan does work, and the owner just sort of lets the donkey go on faith, I mean, doesn’t he know better? All of which is just preface for the real naiveté on display in this text, which is of course this crowd cheering, chanting, singing to this Messiah, as if they think he really has a chance against Caesar, against Caiaphas, as if they think he really has a chance against Jerusalem itself, as if they can’t imagine themselves in that same crowd five days later demanding Pilate string him up on a cross. Don’t they know better?
I have preached a version of that sermon before. It’s a pretty common one for Palm Sunday, no matter how you celebrate it. This crowd is such an easy target. I mean, if we’re honest, crowds in general don’t have the best reputation; they don’t always make healthy decisions; they don’t always make informed decisions; the one in this text seems entirely swayed by the thinnest evidence that this outlaw rabbi riding into town on stolen livestock is gonna somehow make all their dreams come true. But of course it doesn’t end quite like that because God doesn’t always work in the ways we expect God to work. This story is about God overturning our naive expectations, or least that’s how I have preached this sermon before, and you can’t preach that without making a little light fun of this crowd that simply has no idea what’s really at stake. Every story needs a patsy. Or maybe especially this story needs a patsy, and Lord knows we can all identify with being not entirely sure what God is up to.
And if we’re honest, I think part of the reason we preach the story this way is that there’s something that feels just a little bit naive about this whole enterprise, about you and me showing up on Sunday morning and proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ over a creation that otherwise seems most of the time indifferent. This whole thing sounds fanciful, and it always has. Every faith tradition somewhere along the line gets taken for a fool’s game, and Christianity is certainly no exception. Writing as far back as the second century, the Roman philosopher Celsus puts it this way: “The following are the rules laid down by [the Christians]. ‘Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent … but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed persons, let them come with confidence.’ By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid …”
I want to stick up for my people. But I also read the papers. I read the stories about desperation and violence and corruption and we all read the same stories and they are all stacked through and through with death and in the face of that death Palm Sunday does not feel like a sophisticated and well-researched alternative. The world breathes despair — from so many corners and from so many voices — and here we are talking about a donkey. The world breathes hatred — on so many faces and in so many disguises — and here we are talking about palm branches. The world breathes death, in and out, death, it has always been death, and here we are singing these children’s songs like we don’t know where this ends, like the rest of this week doesn’t happen, like the betrayal and the corruption and the execution aren’t just around the corner. Maybe this service does need a little bit more Thursday and Friday in it. Maybe it does need a bit more reckoning in it. Maybe it does need a bit more of the real stuff in it. The world breathes death, and instead we choose Hosannas. Don’t we know better?
Maybe this crowd does know better. Maybe they know just a bit more than we like to assume. The unique thing about Luke’s take on the Palm Sunday text is that in every other rendering of this story, the throng who lines the roadway into Jerusalem is described as a crowd of people — maybe from the city, maybe from the countryside, it’s entirely vague. But in Luke’s Gospel, in describing the folks who line the road, he identifies them as a multitude of disciples. Now, I wouldn’t take that word disciple too narrowly here — he likely doesn’t mean that it’s just James and John and Thomas and the rest who pick up palm branches, or at least, not just them. What Luke is implying is that the crowd that welcomes Jesus to the city is at least substantially made up of folks who have already been following Jesus in his ministry. They’ve already seen him do his miracles. They’ve already heard him preach. They’ve already heard him talk about who he is. Which means that for at least some of those disciples they’ve already heard him predict exactly where this week is going. They know he’s showing up to die. And still, we get Hosannas.
They could have walked away. This is the last chance; they could simply disappear from the story, but instead, they line the streets. So what do they know that we don’t? What do they know that we forget? What have they seen, following this Jesus of Nazareth for weeks on end? What have they witnessed? This Palm Sunday crowd is such a perennial punching bag, as if they must not know what this Messiah really is, but maybe they exactly know. Maybe they have already heard it directly from his lips. Maybe they have already seen it directly in his ministries. Maybe they have already come to their conclusions, and done their calculations. Maybe they’ve already seen something far beyond the sophistication of the age. Maybe they’ve seen something still invisible to the Roman authorities. Maybe they’ve seen something still unrevealed to the religious leaders. Maybe they’ve seen the Lordship of this Jesus of Nazareth and have no more fear of the powers of sin that wait within the gates of the city. Maybe they have seen something that even death can’t quite contain.
Maybe they know exactly what awaits in the week ahead, full of betrayal and corruption and death, maybe they know all of it, maybe this crowd is the savviest bunch around, maybe they’ve read the papers, too, maybe they’ve watched the news, maybe they’re entirely versed in the odds, maybe they know the reality on the ground perfectly fine, maybe they have indeed looked the desperation and violence of the world squarely in the eye and in the face of all of it, despite the inevitability of it all, despite the inexhaustibility of it all, despite the shadow of the cross looming over it all, maybe they have looked it all squarely in the eye and have in response chosen not sophistication or savvy or the cynicism that feels like wit, but instead they have chosen this Messiah, this moment, these simple palms, this simple melody, this simple refrain, these simple words of praise, these simple Hosannas. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!
So this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to have our Palm Sunday just as it is, not because we don’t know what’s coming, but precisely because we do. We’re going to wave our palm branches, not because we don’t know what’s coming, but precisely because we do. We’re going to shout our Hosannas, not because we don’t know what’s coming, but precisely because we do. Because we know what waits on the other side of those doors. We know with what violence the world beckons. I certainly hope you will come to worship with us on Thursday night, on Friday night, on Saturday night, but even if you can’t, even if you won’t, even if we don’t gather again until the far side of the grave, nonetheless we already know the shape of death that hangs over the week. We know all of it. We’ve seen all of it. Friday’s coming, and we’ve all been there. But we also suspect something about this Jesus of Nazareth. We suspect something about this Word made flesh. We suspect something about this one who rides in like a king, even on a donkey. And so we, too, choose palm branches. And so we, too, choose Hosannas. And so we, too, choose Palm Sunday. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!