FAIR WEATHER FANS
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “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. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As 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, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
(Luke 19:28-40, NRSV)
I hope some of you were able to see our Palm Sunday donkey this morning. This miniature beast of burden reminds that on this day over 2,000 years ago Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as the people waved palm branches in celebration. Today was our fourth ecumenical Palm Sunday Service with our friends the Lutherans from across the street. After 4 years I think it officially qualifies as a tradition!
The idea of having a live donkey for Palm Sunday goes back to 1993 when Colleen and I served as assistant ministers at a United Methodist Church in Somerville, Massachusetts. Somerville had 3 churches in a four block proximity—a Congregational Church, a Baptist Church, and a United Methodist Church. Every Palm Sunday members and clergy from each of the 3 churches gathered in Powder House Park for a brief ecumenical Palm Sunday Service. Following the service, the crowd walked up College Avenue toward Davis Square dropping the Congregationalists and then the Baptists off at their respective churches. We then lined up outside of our Methodist Church. The hymn started, the choir processed down the aisle followed by our senior minister, rope in hand, leading the donkey right through the middle of the church…on the carpet.
The donkey’s owners told us that as long as the donkey kept moving there would be no “unfortunate accidents.” Halfway down the aisle the donkey decided it wanted to stop. Our minister tugged on the rope. The chair of trustees jumped out of his pew to push the donkey from behind. They pushed and pulled until the carpet buckled under the donkey’s hooves. For a moment it was an epic battle of man vs. beast, but in the end the man, or men, prevailed. They managed to get the donkey out of the side door of the church just in the nick of time! The end result of that eventful Palm Sunday morning was buckled carpet, an unfortunate mess on a public sidewalk, and the pastor throwing his back out for two weeks! Not to worry, history will not repeat itself in our sanctuary. We have a strict no donkey policy -- no buckled carpet, no messy walkway, and no backache on my part.
As far as we know, on that first Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago, the donkey walked willingly surrounded by excited children and cheering adults. Jesus also went willingly, riding the humble donkey through the eastern gate into Jerusalem, the Holy City. Riding the humble donkey, Jesus may have felt a knot in his stomach for fear of all that was to come. Holy Week’s happy ending was still a long way off and the worst had not even begun yet.
To get the most out of Holy Week, it helps to suspend our knowledge of the Easter miracle. We need to forget about the empty tomb, the faithful women who came to prepare Christ’s body, and the unknown man who may or may not be a gardener. Holy Week, if we take it seriously, is about more than dyeing Easter eggs or planning a big Easter feast. It’s about more than Easter lilies and looking in the back of the closet for white shoes that have been gathering dust since last summer. Let’s be honest, the majority of Holy Week is not one of those feel-good times in the life of the church, nor is it meant to be. Holy Week is the most painfully human week in the life of Jesus. It doesn’t offer humble shepherds and regal Magi. There’s no midnight choir of angels or sweet baby cooing in a manger. Until we get to Easter, Holy Week is about broken dreams, betrayal, suffering, and death. And yet if we short circuit Holy Week by jumping from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday we’ve missed the point entirely. Without the death of Jesus there is no Easter miracle.
ABC minister, Rev. Kate Penfield, echoes these feelings saying, “I don't know how you feel about Palm Sunday, but I am here to tell you that for me it is always the most confusing day in the church calendar. It has the festive feel of a prelude to an Easter high with its fragrance of spring flowers and stirring sound of trumpets; yet it has the dark and down, old, cold shadow of Good Friday looming on the horizon, with its smell of death and its sound of silence. In fact, the only way to get from Palm Sunday to Easter is straight through the darkness in between - shortcutting the pain of this week that stretches before us will only short-circuit the power on the other side. Trying to get from the peak of Palm Sunday to the peak of Easter without descending into the valley of death [misses the point].”[i]
We have a choice to make this Palm Sunday, are we going to stand on the sidelines waving our palms as fans of the Jesus we’ve molded in our image or are we going to put away our palms tonight and get on with the business of following Jesus to the dimly lit Upper Room on Thursday and the hideous cross on Friday?
It is easy to be a fan of Jesus when life goes the way we want it to. It is easy to keep the faith when our children are thriving and our parents are healthy. It is easy to thank God for our blessings when we’re gainfully employed and living the American dream. And it’s easy to believe in the goodness of God when we keep our eyes fixed on our own happiness and success. But what about when life is not so rosy? Can we keep the faith when our children or parents are in crisis? Can we still believe in the goodness of God in times of suffering and loss? Are we fair weather fans or committed followers of Jesus even in the shadow of the cross?
It is easy to approve of a Jesus we assume approves of all of our choices and all of our opinions. But what about a Jesus who, instead of giving us a thumbs up, points away from us to people in our world who are hungry and homeless, people who aren’t the “in” crowd, are not the beautiful people, and can do nothing for us in return? What about the Jesus who wants us to sacrifice for others in the name of love, who wants us to take risks for the outcast and the downtrodden? Are we willing to stand up and be counted as a community of faith that recognizes the futility of violence and instead embraces Christ’s message of peace and love? Are we willing to become more visible in our community as a church that welcomes everybody, Spanish speakers as well as English speakers? We pride ourselves in welcoming the gay community, but what if someone is openly trans or bi? Will we welcome them just as warmly? I believe the answer is yes. Lest we forget, wherever we draw a line to exclude someone, we can be sure that Jesus is standing on the opposite side. Eugene Peterson writes, “We can’t live a life more like Jesus by embracing a way of life less like Jesus.”[ii]
It is easy to worship a Jesus created in our image. From beginning to end Palm Sunday is about people celebrating the arrival of a messiah whom in actual fact they do not understand. They think they get him but they don’t get him at all. The crowd praised the predictable Jesus when they thought he would follow their expectations for him. Yet as the week wore on it became evident that Christ’s plans and the plans of the people were in conflict. They turned on him when it became obvious that he would not lead Israel out of Roman oppression like a modern day Moses or restore the monarchy like a modern day David.
Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing the track record of the prophets who had preceded him, and knowing that his claim was much more radical than theirs. He knew the unpredictable nature of any crowd and the fickleness of the human heart. He knew that his old enemies from the religious establishment would hear of his entrance into the city and would be keeping close tabs on him. He knew all of this, but he went anyway.
Of course, it wasn’t just the common people who turned on to him. Jesus had been having run-ins with the Pharisees for several years, and they enjoyed making his life difficult. Shortly after entering Jerusalem, Jesus once more angered the religious establishment by entering the temple and driving the cheating moneychangers out the door. Now Jesus had gone from being a religious threat to being an economic threat. The Pharisees didn’t like his views of the law of Moses and they didn’t like the way he talked so personally about God, as if he had the inside track. They didn’t like the threat he posed to their power and influence. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” But then as now, peace is often absent and fragile at best. So throughout this week we call “holy,” the religious leaders worked to eliminate the Holy One himself. Palm Sunday’s hosannas and high hopes gave way to a Roman cross. The fair weather fans who cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday became his detractors by Good Friday.
What about us? On this Palm Sunday we have a choice just like the people who witnessed that first Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago. Are we going to be fair weather fans of Jesus, cheering him as long as he doesn’t cross us, as long as he remains a tame messiah who affirms our lives instead of a radical messiah who challenges our priorities? Jesus has plenty of admirers, what he really needs are faithful followers who, instead of skipping from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, follow him into the depths of Gethsemane’s dejection and Good Friday’s execution. If it’s the hope of Easter we’re after, we must first endure the heartbreaking tragedy of the cross. And then we wait without even a donkey to distract us. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
[i] Kate Penfield, "Doing and Dying" in Pulpit Digest, March/April 1997, p. 45
[ii] Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005, p. 313
Loving God, we gather to prepare ourselves for this week we call holy. Sustained by the power of your Spirit we will try to follow Jesus, though we might lose our way. Keep us on your path, we pray. On this Palm Sunday, we wave branches like the joyful children of old. Help us remember that your beloved Child came in humility to challenge death itself. And so we too shout our hosannas, blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord, even Jesus Christ our Brother and Friend.
Adapted from a prayer by Thom Shuman found at http://l ectionary liturgies.blogspot.com/.