Palm Sunday: Rediscovering the Story

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The 2017 Palm Sunday crowd gathers at Our Savior’s Lutheran, South Hadley, MA.

Matthew 21:1-11

A lot has happened this week in the world.

If you could not or did not see the videos of the chemical attacks in Syria, you should at least consider whether you should watch them. They are available online. But a word of caution: to borrow a phrase from earlier in Lent, what you will see if you view them, or what you have seen if you have already, cannot be unseen.

And in response, our own nation has launched air strikes against the Syrian government.

Just last night, 30 Christians were killed in Egypt in Palm Sunday bombings.
And here we are, insisting on waving palms and shouting hosanna, because it’s Holy Week.

It’s Holy Week. So what?

When I first think of it, it seems almost silly with all that’s going on in the world to insist on giving so much time and energy to religious observance. This is especially true when I consider that so many people around us may only show up at Easter at best, and even that, for some, as is at least partially out of obligation.

I do not have precise answers for staring suffering in the face, for violence or death or where to find hope.

But what I do know is that the narratives that form us — the stories of our families, our country, our faith — are the eyeglasses through which we see the stories on the news.

It’s through those stories that we come to conclusions about ourselves and our world and what is hopeless and what is redeemable. It’s through those stories that we see ourselves and our place in the world. For example, if my family story is that people in my bloodline are giving and caring people, then I will be encouraged to be generous and attentive. If we believe that America’s story is one of ingenuity and bravery, then a true patriot will do her best to have courage and see creative solutions to problems.

But religious stories are even bigger than that. They tell us not only how we should live, but how we got here and where we’re going. And this year, we will be telling this story of resurrection literally as creation comes to life in springtime.

This week, we religiously observant Christians (if we dare to call ourselves that) have the opportunity to live the story we proclaim: the story of the last days of Jesus Christ, his death, and an unexpected ending that is revealed on the night that ancient Christians remembered God’s whole saving history.

Right when our world and our nation are at a tipping point, this story is calling to us again, if we dare to see the world through it. We are invited to forget that we know how the story ends and place ourselves into the story itself: to feel the palm branches, to taste wine and bread, to feel cool water on our feet as they are washed, and to come and mourn at the foot of a wooden cross.

In a world surrounded by violence, death, and suffering, we are being called to stare both love and suffering — God’s love and suffering — in the face.

Our Holy Week story began when you first gripped that palm in your hand this morning. That palm, which will be burned to make the ashes when we restart the story next year — that palm made you a part of this story that you’re invited to see the world through.
The paraments have changed to red, telling us to pay attention. We have come to the holy city, Jerusalem, where we have a few things happening with a few different characters. First, at Jesus’ suggestion, the disciples commit what I assume is the equivalent of first century grand theft auto — in the name of the Lord. They take a colt and a donkey and bring them to Jesus — and ostensibly, Jesus rides them both at the same time. Don’t ask me how that worked, but picture it how you will. Matthew’s Gospel is odd like that.

And Jesus rides along, and a crowd begins to gather. Now, this is before social media could gather people from all over the place in minutes, way back when members of a crowd had to hear and see and decide to gather on the spot. And the odd thing about the way Matthew tells this story is that the city and the crowds become speaking characters.

“When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’

The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (v.10-11).

Anyone who has ever loved a city — or any place, really — knows that places have personalities. Each place decides what it values, and it shapes everything from its streets to its rituals. Jerusalem here can be safely classified as “skeptical.” It is a place where religions are born and messiahs are common.

And yet, a crowd still comes to gather around Jesus, the prophet and teacher who has been drawing huge crowds, the one who is rumored to have healed the sick and driven out demons and restored sight to the blind and even raised the dead.

We have a common need as humans to gather around things in community, to gather with strangers in the street and lift up a common purpose. We spoke about this on Wednesday night. We have a need for what Diana Butler Bass calls “the commons,” or, to get fancy with Latin, “communitas.”

Long ago, people understood the value of the commons. Today, we see the remainders of their value of community. In nearly every New England town including ours, you’ll find a town common or town center: a place that once bustled with life, often right outside the doors of the congregational church, as the sacred extended into the world. It’s where people met up, where deals were made, where couples met. In Puritan times, it’s where people were held in the stocks. I always imagined that if I were a New England resident in the 1600s, I would be in the stocks for dancing or, more likely, my favorite charge: “for laughing on the Sabbath.”

And the commons is where people celebrated. New England Puritans may have not been all that into celebrating, but most cultures were. When the day of Pentecost came, it was in the middle of a festival in Jerusalem. How fitting that the Spirit of God that binds people together would show up in the midst of a festival where people celebrated together and laughed and danced with strangers.

But these days, things are more privatized, and we worry a little less about the whole community and a little more about our individual friend groups and family units. Of this, Diana Butler Bass laments that “we have forgotten to dance in the street with strangers.” (1)

Dancing in the street with strangers is exactly what happened on Palm Sunday. The crowds gathered around God in the flesh, celebrating his arrival, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He was, they believed, the one to save them from oppression.

We have largely forgotten how to gather as a crowd with friends and strangers with a common purpose like this.

But it still happens. Every now and then, it still happens.

At Wednesday night supper this past week, we talked a bit about where it happens: at sports stadiums like Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium, or out on the beach gathered with strangers as Fourth of July fireworks pop all around. We still have a capacity — even a need — to have a common bond with others, even people we’ve never met.

This week, you are once again invited to gather with friends and strangers for communitas. In our world of pain and suffering, where so much is confusing at best and horrifying at worst, in a world of things we cannot unsee even when we want to, we are invited to see the world through this story of love and suffering and death and new hope.

We’ll also be reminded that crowd mentality isn’t a universal good because we, as humans, are pretty screwed up people. If you’ve been in church for long, you’ve probably been reminded over and over how the same crowds that shout “Hosanna” on Sunday shout “crucify” on Friday. As a call to worship written by a mentor of mine once read, “Today he rides a donkey that has never been ridden; how soon will you lay him in the tomb that has never been used?” (2)

He knows how this will end, but Jesus still shows up. 

And Jesus will show up on Sunday whether or not any of us shows up to form our community around the story, or whether we choose to see our world through it.

You may not be able to make it on Thursday or Friday or Saturday night. You may have work or family or school obligations or you may just be wiped out from all you have to do. That’s okay.

The resurrection will happen with or without us, tbh.

But we are invited to be a part of it.

We are invited let it form us. To see the world through it and maybe, just maybe, begin to answer some hard questions about justice and peace and suffering and hope. So even if you can’t make it, take some time to observe and ponder: Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper. Good Friday and the crucifixion. Holy Saturday and the Great Vigil. If you need help brainstorming how you can do that if you can’t make it to our service, let me know.

But from now on, you are the crowds. You are the disciples. You are the witnesses. 

Forget that you know how this story ends. Learn again to dance with strangers and see your world through new eyes, so that maybe we can find hope for justice in the midst of the chaos and pain in the world around us. Put on the eyeglasses of the story of Jesus, just for this week.

Today we gather around the table and we remember the palms and wander into a warm spring afternoon. 

After that? Well, I’ll see you Thursday.


1. Diana Butler Bass, GroundedFinding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution, New York: HarperOne, 2015, Chapter 7: “Commons.”
2. the Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming, Call to Worship, written for St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta, GA, Palm Sunday 2010. 

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