Scripture: Luke 19:29-40
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “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. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As 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, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
This morning we heard the familiar scripture of Palm Sunday, otherwise known as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I have to admit that Palm Sunday has always sort of puzzled me. As a child, I enjoyed the procession of palms alright, and I loved Palm Sunday because it meant the beginning of what we then called easter vacation, that week off of school wherein my mom would take my two sisters and me out shopping for our one new dress a year. Later, in Minnesota, Palm Sunday was the annual occasion of our town’s “square biscuit breakfast” put on by “the lodge” which was also a fun chance to be with friends. But as you can see, these were basically all cultural celebrations, and I was always left with the question of what it all really had to do with Jesus or Holy Week or Easter, except maybe to be an object lesson on how quickly good times can go bad, or the fickleness of crowds.
It wasn’t until long years later that I would learn about the powerful symbolism of the palm procession as a potent, visual parable about the kind of Kingdom Jesus came to set up. We are told that the first Palm Sunday occurred just a few days before the Jews’ celebration of Passover, that annual reminder of how Moses had, long years before, led them out of the cruelty of slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh. During Jesus’ day, around Passover time, it was customary for the Jews, the oppressed sub-culture now under the rule of Ceasar and the Roman Empire, to get restless about their current oppression as they remembered how God had liberated them in Egypt. Indeed, the Romans viewed the Jews’ celebration of Passover as an act of rebellion! It was a threat to their Roman power as the current rulers. So a few days before Passover, it was common for Rome to put on a parade just to remind everyone of who was boss. Each year the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, left his headquarters in Caesarea, fifty miles to the west and processed through the streets of Jerusalem on a war horse, with dozens of chariots behind him, soldiers with swords in hand, the Roman flags flying. His parade communicated his message clearly: “If you people know what’s good for you, you will keep your dreams of freedom to yourself and toe the line.” It’s the powerful telling the weak: “Stay in your place or else.”
That was the context for that first Palm Sunday. So you can see what a powerful statement Jesus was making when he chose to ride into Jerusalem, not from the west, but from the east, and not on bedecked war horses with soldiers and flags, but all alone, on a humble, almost comical, donkey. He was, in no uncertain terms, announcing the type of Kingdom he was here to begin. He couldn’t have stated more clearly the fact that he was here not to perpetuate the same, old status-quo power narratives like Pharo’s or Caesar’s! Not to start up yet another society where the rich and powerful ruled by terror and got rich off of slavery and oppression! Indeed, Jesus’ procession, much like his birth back in the humble manger to homeless, refugee parents, who had also ridden a donkey; Jesus was again making it clear that his Kingdom would be of a wholly different nature. You could almost say that this procession was a sarcastic, almost vaudevillian critique of the old, traditional power structures, of governments that rule by force and fear. Indeed, it was an inversion of everything status quo, an overturning of the pecking order, an invitation to a whole new kind of community where the currency is not wealth and power and class, but vulnerability, humility and love.
And we know where it got him. Make no mistake: Rome took note! And five days later he was arrested for being the rabble-rouser that he was; for threatening the status quo by giving people a glimpse not of the kingdom of Caesar or Pharaoh, but of the Kingdom of God where justice and love ruled the day. The Kingdom or realm of God, his number one most frequently discussed topic, and the sum total of our work as his followers.
The Kingdom of God where everything is inverted: where up is down and down is up and the first are last, and you lose your life to find it, and the widow’s mite is the best gift and the outcasts and losers are brought up front and center. And a little child shall lead them.
It reminds me of Mother Theresa’ funeral service, where, at her direction, the end of the great processional line, the spot usually reserved for the most revered bishops and cardinals, was made up of street people. The poorest of the poor. And it was they that, at the end of the processional music, filled in the very front rows… Which reminds me of James Forbes, one-time pastor of the famous Riverside Church in New York City, whosaid that nobody gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.
Martin Bell does a wonderful job of describing this upside-down kingdom in his essay, “God’s RagTag Little Army”
“I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe God used to look splendid and fine in that general’s uniform, but no more. God’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at that rag-tag little army! All God has for soldiers are you and me… Strange little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of the tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. God’ll never get anywhere that way. And how about that group over there? They’re all holding hands as they march. The only trouble with this is the people on each end of the line. Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn’t holding onto anything, -one hand is reaching out, empty, alone. And so they double back and hold hands with each other, and everybody marches around in circles. The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle. And thus the march goes on.”
So how about you? To what is God calling you, Federated Church, on this Palm Sunday, 2022? As an interim who was not part of your recent Visionary Action Plan, I cannot tell you specifically. But I can tell you for sure where God is NOT calling you, and that is to Pharo’s narrative or Caesar’s narrative which live by the old pecking order values of power and wealth. No, our God, today and always, is calling us to Jesus’ narrative! Calling us to reject the war-horse march from the West for the donkey stroll from the east. Calling us to be a part of God’s rag-tag little army where the people on the ends double back, join hands, and make a circle and the circle grows ever wider with the least of these, those whom Caesar’s narrative calls the bottom! The poor and imprisoned, the sick and the broken, those disenfranchised by their sexual or gender orientation. The addicted and suffering and hungry and homeless. Those with broken lives or broken hearts, those looking good on the outside but half-dead on the inside, trudging through and merely going through the motions. Those confused and afraid and wondering why getting everything they ever wanted has left them empty inside. Those who do fine by day but wake in the night in a cold sweat at the thought that they will die someday. Those who have a hurting, vulnerable, little child at the core of their personality, despite the accomplished exterior. We, in Christs’s church, are called first and foremost to reach out to these even as we are these! We are not to be a country club for the well and the well-heeled, perpetuating a mere mainline, cultural institution. No! We are to be a hospital for the poor and poor in spirit. A place where the love of God becomes so real and palpable that lives are changed when people discover it!
When I was a teenager in this church, it happened for me. Due to severe health challenges for my parents, they were not able to take up the full mantle of parenthood during those years. This church became my family, and several adult couples stepped up and embraced some of us kids from the youth group, such that I feel I was partially parented by Bob and Molly Rickert and the Audrey and Bob MacDonald and Connie and Dave Caldwell. Several of us kids would drop in on all of the above several times a month, and just hang out at their houses not just with their kids, but with them! The parents! Who loved us as they did their own. One girl found so much love and nurture here at Federated that when she was upset, she would drive here after hours and just sit in the empty parking lot. Now I’m not saying that same thing has to happen now. It is a vastly different time. And ministry can take many different forms.
But thank God the palpable love is still here, and must be protected and nurtured and extended in new and diverse ways all the time. Breathing in and breathing out. This Lent reminds us that we need both in balance. It’s not just about us getting filled up each Sunday for our own benefit and well-being. It’s about taking that fulness, that palpable love, back into a hurting word where we can be representatives not of Pharaoh’s narrative, but of Jesus’ community of joy and justice for all people… We are to be living glimpses of that Kingdom, that realm. We are called to that in each moment, led by a counter-cultural, donkey-riding rabble-rouser whose only currency is love.