Palm Sunday: Rally & Protest

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Luke 19:28-40

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

So begins a song from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I. The story of The Hunger Games is one that’s familiar to us and all humans: a struggle against oppressive powers for freedom, and not only that, but a struggle so real against a power so brutal and oppressive that people are willing to accept death in order to win freedom.

The story is familiar, and real. It plays itself out over and over in fiction and in reality; only the faces and details change. 

In the scene in the movie Mockingjay: Part I where this song is sung, the people of Panem, are mobilized. Panem, you see, is a fictional dystopian and highly oppressive nation located where the United States used to be. The breaking point has come, and the people gather in huge numbers, singing the song together — it is an Appalachian rallying cry. They charge a dam, an important electricity source to the powerful Capitol, and they keep singing as they march forward in overwhelming numbers. Even as guards gun them down, the crowd eventually overwhelms them, and the people keep singing:

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…”

The breaking point has come, and freedom has become more important than life for the people in the crowd. 

The Hunger Games tells a fictional story of a real struggle that plays itself out over and over in human history and it’s still playing itself out on the news around the world today: people gather to resist an oppressor, knowing that the result could be catastrophic for them personally. Freedom becomes more important than life.

In 1989, East Germans flocked to border crossings along the Berlin Wall to see if they could pass through. Speaking of this event, I heard an historian say, “History turns on these little hinges.” The guards could have fired on the crowd, but they didn’t. The people passed through. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and shortly thereafter, an oppressive regime.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree?

And today, we remember another crowd which gathered to resist an oppressor, for whom freedom was more important than life. We remember the crowd in Jerusalem, which gathered to greet the teacher that some said was the one who would save Israel from Rome. This story has been sanitized in story and in song for so long that we can forget how much the people in the crowd were risking. We also forget because we wave our own palms every year, risking little to nothing, which can leave us thinking that the original crowd was as safe as we are.

But remember: this was Rome, where the only ruler was the emperor. Rome, which put down several Jewish rebellions, and brutally. The Pharisees know this well, so they tell Jesus to send them away, but he won’t, and they wouldn’t go away anyway. The people of Jerusalem still gather to give Jesus a king’s welcome, laying down their coats, and daring to wave palm branches, symbolizing victory, shouting Hosanna — literally “save us, we pray!” To a Roman, this would’ve looked and sounded like a rebellion, a coup. Every person in the crowd — including Jesus and the disciples — knew that this could have serious, possibly bloody, consequences. But freedom was more important than life.

History turns on these little hinges. The Romans could have arrested or killed Jesus right there, and killed people in the crowd, likely starting another rebellion, but they didn’t. So the Holy Week story that we know, the story of the last week of Jesus’ life is allowed to continue. God was in the midst of the people who struggled to be free.

And here we are, stepping into the crowd, and into the story, for another year.

“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?
The dead man called out
For his love to flee
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

Later in the week, of course, the crowd will figure out that Jesus isn’t the going to be the military leader that they had hoped for. He wasn’t going to overthrow Rome. The crowd that shouts “Hosanna!” today will famously shout “Crucify!” on Friday. The disciples will flee, too. Jesus will stand alone, with a few women and one man at the foot of the cross, as the only ones for whom freedom is still more important than life. After that, the world will change.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree?

Death is the greatest deterrent that power holds, but when a people no longer fears death, power is in deep, deep trouble. The anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death was this past week. Bonhoeffer was Lutheran pastor and theologian, killed for resisting Hitler and the Nazis. He was hanged. Here, on the other side of the ocean, countless Black souls and others were hanged for resisting the oppression of white supremacy and the KKK in my native Alabama and here in the North, too. Sometimes they were killed just for existing.

Make no mistake: the story of Palm Sunday is not just a story of long ago. It is the story of oppression and freedom, of fear and courage. It is a story of resistance. It is a German story and an American story, a Jewish story and an immigrant story. It is a Stonewall Inn story and a Selma, Alabama, story. It is a Massachusetts militia story and an American Revolution story. It is a Syrian story and a Venezuelan story. 

It is a human story. 

Welcome to Holy Week. 

Are you coming to the tree, on Friday? Will you sit at the table of love and fear on Thursday? Will you gather outside the tomb on Saturday night and remember all the times that God was in the midst of the people?

Will you wait to see how the story will end?

I say this every year: this week, don’t skip stuff. Place yourself in this all-too-human story and forget that you know the ending. Mary and Peter and John didn’t clap each other on the shoulders at the end of the first Good Friday and say “Wait ’til Sunday.” They went away devastated and they hid out of fear. They lived in the excruciating place of grief and death — a place we all know all too intimately. 

This story is our story, and I’m convinced that if we continue to live this Holy Week story year after year, we will, God willing, be resilient enough to resist oppression and death when it comes knocking on our own doors again, as a nation or as individuals.
Because, until kingdom come, it always will. 

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

God is in the midst of the people.

I’ll meet you at the tree. Jesus will, too. Amen.

If you’re local, join us for Holy Week:
April 18, 7PM 
– Maundy Thursday: A Feast of Friends.
We remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. An actual meal will be served.
April 19, 7PM – Good Friday: The Old Rugged Cross.
We accompany Jesus to the cross. A service of prayer and song.
April 20, 7PM – Easter Vigil: The Celebration Begins
A one-of-a-kind celebration of fire, story, laughter, and communion. Children are especially welcome at this fun service. The service will be followed by a reception of desserts, wine, and juice for children.
Our Savior’s is located at 319 Granby Road, South Hadley, MA. 

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