First Congregational Church
April 14, 2019
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning, in preparation for the reading of the scripture passage, I encourage you to grab one of the bibles near you and turn to page 1631, so you can read along when we get there.
As we begin a week of holy details that make a lasting difference in the story of humanity, I ask you all, how many palms did each Jewish person wave in the air on that first Palm Sunday? Two each: their right hand and their left hand. I know it’s really bad, but really, truly, it was the only other joke I could find about this particular day, aside from the one I’ve shared before, about the little boy who had to stay home from church on Palm Sunday because he had a sore throat.
Those of you who keep track of these things will remember when the rest of his family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds. Little Ole asked them what they were for. "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by," his father told him. "Wouldn't you know it," little Ole fumed, "the one Sunday I don't go and Jesus shows up." That’s it. The only two Palm Sunday jokes out there.
While there aren’t so many jokes to grab your attention, there are a number of details that make it a richer Palm Sunday. In countries where palms are not native, other branches have been used, from box, olive, willow, and yew trees to pussy willows, so some places know this day as Branch Day. Because some traditions understand the day before Palm Sunday, to be the day Jesus raised his friend from the dead, yesterday is sometimes known as Lazarus Saturday.
In the Greco-Roman world, palm branches represented triumph and victory - think Olympic head wreaths, while in other places palms also represented goodness. In ancient Egyptian religions, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. In the Saxon regions of the Netherlands, crosses are decorated with candy and bread, made in the form of a rooster. In Poland, there are artificial palm competitions, the highest in 2008 being 109 feet. I think my favorite would be the practice from the Philippines, where a statue of Christ riding a donkey, or the presiding priest on horseback, is brought to the local church in a morning procession - and one picture I saw had the priest riding in the church. I could be all over the horse riding thing, if I knew how to ride a horse.
Luke 19:28-40 New Century Version (NCV), Jesus Enters Jerusalem as a King
28 After Jesus said this, he went on toward Jerusalem. 29 As Jesus came near Bethphage and Bethany, towns near the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent out two of his followers. 30 He said, “Go to the town you can see there. When you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here to me. 31 If anyone asks you why you are untying it, say that the Master needs it.”
32 The two followers went into town and found the colt just as Jesus had told them. 33 As they were untying it, its owners came out and asked the followers, “Why are you untying our colt?”
34 The followers answered, “The Master needs it.” 35 So they brought it to Jesus, threw their coats on the colt’s back, and put Jesus on it. 36 As Jesus rode toward Jerusalem, others spread their coats on the road before him.
37 As he was coming close to Jerusalem, on the way down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of followers began joyfully shouting praise to God for all the miracles they had seen. 38 They said, “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Psalm 118:26 There is peace in heaven and glory to God!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell your followers not to say these things.”
40 But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if my followers didn’t say these things, then the stones would cry out.”
Thank you, Sharon. Getting back to the idea of details, if you are a retired or current clergy person, you may not answer this question. For everyone else, what do you notice about this passage? What strikes you as odd? No palms, no children, no hosannas.
Thank you for your answers! In one of the earlier episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H the doctor known as “Trapper” gets diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Although initially upset about having to deal with a hole in his gut, Trapper soon beams with joy when his bunkmate Hawkeye reminds him that according to Army regulations, Trapper was going home! His ulcer was his ticket out of the misery of the Korean War.
As the episode progresses, they arrange a farewell party for Trapper. But minutes before Trapper shows up for his party, he is informed by the Company Clerk, Radar, that the Army had recently changed its regulations and his ulcer would have to be treated right there in Korea.
Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed for a good long while until he’s asked to give a final speech, at which time he tells everyone the truth: he’s not going anywhere after all.
Throughout the party, both Trapper and Radar have a look in their eyes that betrays the truth, if only anyone had looked close enough to notice. Trapper smiles and even laughs during the party at times but it’s a bit muted and the sadness in his eyes tells the reason why: it’s a nice party but it’s not going to end the way he had hoped or the way all the other partygoers were anticipating.
I wonder if the stripping down of the eventful entry into Jerusalem is intentional by Luke, so as to get us to look at Jesus’ eyes during that crazy little event amidst the even crazier larger political event of Passover. Passover was that day that celebrated Jewish independence from Egypt. We’re talking Fourth of July celebrations here. It was also the day of celebrating the parting of the Red Sea - that stopped enemy soldiers following in attack, God’s blessing of the Jewish people in the giving of the commandments and the eventual occupying of Canaan. More than political, it threatened revolution, which is perhaps partly why Pontius Pilate left his comfortable palace in Caesarea Maritima for provincial, backwater Jerusalem - to ride herd over the celebrations.
We shouldn’t forget that mixed into all that political quagmire was the Jewish hope for someone, anyone, a Messiah-one who would come to set the people free from the imperialism of human and financial burdens that the Romans placed on them. Over 500 years before Jesus came along, Zechariah had prophesied that there would be one who would come in the “name of the Lord,” and wasn’t that what Jesus had been saying who he was for over the last three years?
Against the backdrop of all that, if you or I had been riding into Jerusalem that day, knowing what Jesus knew, I wonder what people might have seen in our eyes. What would we hope people would see in our eyes? Would people even notice the probable fear, sorrow, betrayal and anticipatory pain, not just in our eyes, but in our body language and on our face?
Part of the reason I asked you to think about this last thought is to get all of us to not just understand but to more embrace the idea that whatever it is that we face, Jesus gets us, gets the real crappy parts of human life, as well as the good stuff.
I know that there are people who think of Jesus as just a good teacher and a moral leader, and okay. But he’s not apart from us, but of us. He understands how hard it can be to be dying on the inside while trying to hold it together on the outside. He understands how hard it can be to try to control tears while others are singing joyous songs of praise around him. And he understands that just because something is hard doesn’t mean that it is okay to avoid the pain that will take place in the going through, because at the end, there is the hope and joy and promise of a time when pain and sorrow will be replaced with joy and glory that is beyond our comprehension.
Good ol’ Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary put it superbly. “Joy for Christian people is a last feeling, not a first. Christian joy is refined and thoughtful because it has passed through death.” Perhaps the writer of Luke allows us to see the darker side of this day not because it so Lenty, but because there is such deep hope in it - even joy because we know that the story doesn’t end here.
In the version we heard a few minutes ago, the crowd was shouting, “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! There is peace in heaven and glory to God!” (Side note, when Luke was writing about the birth of Jesus, he wrote that the angels were singing, “Give glory to God in heaven, and on earth let there be peace among the people who please God.” That peace is what happens when we realize that there is nothing in this world or the world to come that will change the depth and length of Christ’s love for us - or God’s - or the Holy Spirit’s love for us.
When the Pharisees told Jesus to tell the crowd to shut up, he told them “If my followers didn’t say these things, then the stones would cry out.” That phrase caught my brain this week. What would it take, what would it look like, what would have had to have taken place that the stones would proclaim this depth of love, because human beings couldn’t or wouldn’t? Maybe a zombie attack or an apocalypse? Nuclear bombs lobbed by too many enemies, she suggested darkly? I know it sounds rather facetious, but seriously, what would the world look like if stones were the ones shouting “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! There is peace in heaven and glory to God!”?
For kicks and giggles, I got to thinking about the rocks and the stones, non-living things, but not just the little pail of stones at the back door or sitting in the garage waiting to be put into service someplace. Part of that wonderment was because Stephan Garnaas Holmes had some prayers this week that included stepping stones and stumbling blocks, a dream stone as in Jacob’s pillow, tablets of stone as in commandments, the stone that was rejected, that stone that was rolled away from the tomb. Which of course, took me on a mental tour of Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon and that crazy Stone Forest in Shilin, China. As a sad testament to humanity’s failure, there is still hope in these and others singing God’s praises.
We aren’t stones, we’re humans, with hearts that can be happy and sad and sorrowful and silly and whatever state our heart is in, God holds it precious - holds you precicous. As precious as the heart God held when he turned to face an immediate future that none of us will ever experience - for us.
That heart will walk with us, look at life with us, face what we will face, and will not turn away from us. Christ didn’t just die and go back to heaven for a big reunion. He went through what he went through so that we would know we are not alone, ever. That we are loved, forever. And that none of that will change, ever.
For this day of love, let us pray. God of Life and Love, we thank you for your love, of which you give us a glimpse through your Son and our Savior. Truth be told, we don’t have enough thanks, ever, to express our full gratitude. So enable us to act out some of that gratitude in the way we live. Be present with us when there is hurt and give us your risk in loving those who are hard to love. Give us your thoughts and your voice in the way we treat strangers. Give us your courage when we have to ask for forgiveness and your mercy when we have to forgive. Redeem our fickleness and give us joy, even before road bumps and stumbling blocks, knowing that we will have joy again. Bless our brokenness and transform evil, not that we might have happy lives, but that we might resist the need for rocks to assume jobs that are rightfully ours. Enable us to live in your revolutionary love in all confidence that is possible. And may we live into all that you have ever seen us to be, as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.