I love/hate Palm Sunday

Technical difficulties means this sermon did not get recorded, but you can read it below.

I have a love/hate relationship with The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  The love part of that relationship is relatively new.  There were years, many in fact, when I absolutely abhorred Palm Sunday: so much so, that I convinced my Rector in Foley that we should change things up.  For a few years, we didn’t read the Passion narrative at all on Palm Sunday.  For several more, we read it only after the service was over and we had processed back outside where everything started.  As it is written in the Prayer Book, the service felt too disjointed, bipolar almost, and I couldn’t bring myself to like it.  On top of that, it seemed like it gave people an out.  As if the church was willing to say, “We know that you won’t be here for the rest of Holy Week so here’s the Passion narrative so that at least you can hear it before you show back up on Easter.”  As I went digging for historical data to support my personal liturgical opinions, I came to realize that this was not actually what was happening on The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  What I found is that the reading of the Passion on the Sunday before Easter has been a part of our Common Prayer since the first Prayer Book in 1549.  I was forced, at last, to come to terms with the discomfort that comes with the whiplash of hearing shouts of “hosanna” one minute and “crucify him” the next.  This day, like the week it begins, is all about the extremes.

That first Palm Sunday, scholars will tell us[1], had its own whiplash effect.  On one side of Jerusalem, there was the parade that Matthew recounts in his Gospel.  Jesus came from the East, down the Mount of Olives, riding on the back of a lowly donkey.  The crowd that lined the streets was made up of the poor and the powerless.  They threw down at Jesus’ feet whatever they could find: some laid their cloaks on the ground, while others cut branches from nearby trees.  The palm fronds would have reminded the crowd of the Festival of the Tabernacles, which like the Passover, was a reminder of God saving them from Egypt and sustaining them in the Wilderness on their way to the Land of Promise.  They shouted out “hosanna” which means something like, “God save us!”  They associated Jesus with salvation, and they welcomed him as their king.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Pilate was entering the city riding on the back of a powerful warhorse.  Surrounded by chariots and armies of men, the crowds on the western edge of town praised Caesar as a king and a god, and celebrated the Pax Romana, the peace that came as the result of the mighty power of Rome.  These competing parades and the whiplash they created among the faithful in Jerusalem would mark the beginning of the end for Jesus.  Pilate left his beachside villa this week every year.  He came to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover to make sure nobody got any ideas about recreating the Exodus.  No Messiah figure was going to raise up an army.  No revolution was coming on Pilate’s watch.  And yet, there was already an uprising brewing.  It wouldn’t look like an army and power and might, but one does not parade into Jerusalem during Passover week without raising the ire of the powers-that-be.  So it was that throughout the week, Jesus found himself more and more at odds with the religio-political system such that, by Thursday evening, in the Garden of Gethsemane, it all came to a head.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is this.  Just as you can’t have the resurrection on Easter without the cross on Good Friday, you can’t fully experience the Passion narrative without the rest of Holy Week. We need the story of the Palm Sunday parade.  We need to hear the turning of the tables.  We need to feel the heat being turned up as day after day, Jesus returned to the Temple and challenged, head on, the brokenness of the system.  If Jesus just stumbles his way to the cross, we miss part of what the Passion is all about.  God had sent his Son to call the world back into right relationship, beginning with the Jews.  Through his Son, God invited the humanity he created to give up their idols of power, money, and prestige, and worship God alone.  Through his Son, God invites us to care for our neighbor.  Through his Son, God showed his judgment upon a world that had forgotten his commandments.  The poor were getting poorer as the rich got richer upon their backs, and like the prophets before him, Jesus came to show in his life that God desired something different.

And the like the prophets before him, Jesus died as a result.  The powers-that-be don’t take too kindly to the sort of in-your-face challenges that Jesus brought them during this most holy week.  The parade, the tirade, the teaching, and the growing crowd meant that Jesus had to go, and death on the cross was the best way to make sure something like this never happened again.  Throughout the course of this week, I hope you will take the time to hear the stories, to feel the tension, and to give thanks for the faithfulness of Jesus who, despite knowing what was to come, was willing to continue to take a stand for the will of God: to side with the powerless and the poor; to challenge the authority of Rome; to confront the teaching of the Temple; and to ultimately say, “Father, your will be done.”  This is a week of extremes: of highs and lows; of joys and sorrows, but it only works if we are willing to accept it all.  Walk in the way of his suffering and live in the tension his judgment, so that you can properly prepare to share the joy of his resurrection.  Amen.

[1] See, for example, Borg and Crossan, The Last Week p. 2ff.

2 thoughts on “I love/hate Palm Sunday

  1. I find that my Holy Week 2017 experience is being shaped by the simple but profound Collect that we shared at St. Paul’s Foley this past Wednesday:
    “Almighty God our heavenly Father, renew in us the gifts of your mercy: increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our charity, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
    This simple summary of God’s “gifts of mercy” – faith, hope, understanding, charity (love), service – reminds me of how I am called to carry out God’s will in my life. And as I strive to comprehend this “week of extremes”, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of our Lord’s sacrifice, and of God’s love for the whole world.

  2. I still have problems with the mash up. I grew up with Passion Sunday being the week before Palm Sunday, though apparently the “Passion Gospel” wasn’t read then. A recent documentary claimed that the palm procession probably happened at Tabernacles, the only time prickly and hard to harvest palm fronds we’re available, and that is six months before Passover. So there is that!

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