Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, March 20
Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm/Passion Sunday)
Compassionate God, your love finds full expression in the gift of Jesus Christ your Son, who willingly met betrayal and death to set us free from sin. Give us courage to
live obediently in these days until we greet the glory of our risen Savior. Amen.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 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. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 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, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
All Readings For This Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Liturgy of the Passion
1. Why do you think the disciples were singing that day as Jesus entered Jerusalem?
2. What do you dare to hope for in your life and the life of the wider community?
3. What does it mean to "keep the peace"? What is the role of religious leaders in "keeping the peace'?
4. How do you respond to Frank McCourt's story from his visit to Dachau?
5. What are the risks of being a Christian today?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Perhaps today should be called "Cloak Sunday" instead of "Palm Sunday," because Luke's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem has no palms, and no hosannas either, two of the most familiar details of this story in the other three Gospels. It's kind of hard to imagine Palm Sunday without them. The cloaks are there, laid out to make his ride easier, as in the other accounts, and there's singing, too - praises being sung, but not by a fickle crowd that will change its mind in a few days and call for Jesus' death. Instead, these voices come from Jesus' own disciples, a whole multitude of them, who have been following him throughout his ministry. They may run and hide when things get rough in a few days, but they never call for Jesus' crucifixion.
These are, after all, people who have seen such great things, who have been so profoundly moved by Jesus' words and his deeds of power that they can't help but sing out today, as Jesus enters triumphantly into their holy city, Jerusalem: Jesus, the hope of a people who long for deliverance from the powers that be, the forces that crush them, that hold them down. Luke says they echo the words of the prophet Zechariah long ago as they proclaim Jesus the king who comes in the name of the Lord, and they sing of peace in heaven, as Sharon Ringe notes, here at the end of Jesus' life, just as the angels in heaven sang of peace on earth at its beginning.
Triumphant joy or ominous peace?
Perhaps it's difficult for us to connect with what's happening in this scene, even though we're familiar with the story. Think of the occasional parade welcoming a championship sports team back to their home city (in Cleveland, this is so occasional that our imaginations are challenged); nowadays this is about the only time we can picture ourselves in a crowd eagerly watching the entry of someone who sparks such celebration. We've all seen old photographs from a time when ticker-tape parades were given in New York City for triumphant heroes of one kind of another. Can you imagine feeling so much hope and joy at the entrance into your city or town of someone who represents not a political, military or sports victory, but the coming of peace itself?
As it happens, if you were listening to this story almost two thousand years ago, when it was written, and of course you lived somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean ancient world, you would hear something more. It would sound familiar to you, very much like the ominous entrance into your city of a military conqueror, escorted by his troops.
In their wonderful book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan begin their account of Jesus' last seven days with a colorful description of this procession by the King of Peace into one end of Jerusalem at the same time that the Roman Empire's representative, Pontius Pilate, full of brute power, enters at the other end. Picture this: Pilate has arrived to "keep the peace" in the city during the turbulent time of Passover, when the crowds always get a little unruly. He travels with troops and flags and weapons, all the signs of empire, very impressive, of course. And he rides in on a magnificent warhorse, in case the flags and weapons and troops aren't a sufficiently intimidating display of power.
A warhorse, or a donkey?
On the other hand, Jesus - filled with a different kind of power - makes his entrance riding a humble donkey, surrounded by his somewhat ragged group of followers, and we know that he doesn't "keep" the same kind of peace Pilate and Rome intend to "impose," a business-as-usual kind of peace that benefits the empire and the folks on top. No, Jesus brings instead the peace that surpasses understanding, and much of what is about to unfold in the next few days will be the price he pays to bring it.
His disciples, of course, have seen things that have changed their lives forever and have raised their hopes sky-high. Maybe they still aren't sure exactly what to hope for, when their leader rides – of all things – a donkey, a humble work animal rather than a grand warhorse. What sort of signal does that send, what sort of statement is Jesus making? Of course, this particular donkey, like any animal suited for sacred use, has never been ridden, and that should tell them something. Something sacred is happening, right before their eyes. Yes, a common donkey may not be the sort of animal one rides to war or in conquest, but this is no triumphant warrior or conquering power coming into the holy city or into our hearts. This is the King of True Peace.
These disciples are, as usual, clueless. They don't know what's about to happen in the next few days; today, they're just full of joy and expectation. (Evidently, they haven't been listening any of the times that Jesus said he had to suffer and die but would rise again.) But the Pharisees, like many religious leaders in all times, are worried. They seem to have better instincts than most folks about these things, and they can sense trouble brewing. They know about Pilate coming in the other gate of the city, and they're not ignorant of what can happen if Rome feels threatened even by a ragtag group of religious enthusiasts. Rome steps on people, brutally, and puts them in their place. So the Pharisees fret: "Teacher," they say, "tell your followers to hush. They're going to bring down the heel of Rome on all our throats. Don't be causing trouble now."
All creation wants to sing out
Jesus tells them that it's no use and reminds them – and us – that, despite our best calculations and precautions, all creation longs to participate in the drama of salvation. Even if you could get the disciples to quiet down, he says, the stones would shout out the good news, or, as the wonderful preacher Fred Craddock puts it, just as stars can guide, lions and lambs can rest together, and in a few days, the earth can quake and the sun can go out at the worst moment of all. Ironically, these worrywart Pharisees are the ones that now disappear from the story. This is their last appearance, this word of fear their last word, in the Gospel of Luke, before they step off the stage of the drama that is about to unfold.
The worst moment is still ahead by several days, and this day is just one of joyful anticipation, at least on the part of the disciples, if not Jesus himself. After the deeds of power they've witnessed, why should they fear anything or anyone? Their faith has been emboldened by what they've seen, as long as they can forget what they've heard: Jesus' repeated predictions of his suffering and death. But their faith has raised their hopes into dreams of something we can't quite assume we know. Perhaps this entrance of Jesus evokes the kind of joy and relief that we can only imagine, for example, when United Nations troops arrive in a country torn apart by genocide, or when a convoy of trucks carries grain to a starving people. But whatever their hopes, the song these disciples sing comes from deep within them.
Making the decision to follow Jesus past the celebration
This week's passage kicks off, if you will, the holiest of weeks for Christians. There is no "off-season" for being a follower of Jesus; it's an everyday thing, week in and week out, 24/7. Not just Sunday, not just holy days and not just when we're in church or when we're praying. Being a Christian is an every-day, every moment, all-of-our-lives journey. Still, this week is Holy Week, which comes at the end of Lent, a season of conversion, of turning around, of re-orienting our lives toward God just in case we've slipped off course. It's been a time for us, as individuals and as a community, to study and pray and examine our lives, to look inward and to ask ourselves the difficult question of whether we're ready and willing to follow Jesus not just today, in this glad procession, but all the way to the cross.
The cross. Everything Jesus has said and done leads up to the cross, all the healing, the teaching, the calling of disciples, the fasting and praying, the driving out of demons and the calming of waters, the multiplying of loaves and the blessing and breaking of bread, the time in the wilderness and the time on the road, the words to his disciples and the arguments with the powerful, all of his life, has come to this, the facing of death on a cross.
This death was the ultimate gift, the "going all the way," as my friend who is in recovery once told me, that Jesus was willing to go all the way, to pay the ultimate price to show us how much he loves us. I believe that is what the death of Jesus is about – the ultimate gift of love, the gift of a compassionate God who anguished at the death of Jesus, who wept at the death of Jesus, not the ultimate sacrifice required by an angry God, the only sacrifice that would "satisfy" such a God. Rather, I believe God, who is compassion, God who is love, grieved the death of Jesus so much that God said no to death itself and raised Jesus up again on the third day, and this God will raise us up one day, too.
Mis-reading the Bible
Alas, we Christians, we followers of Jesus, have not done such an excellent job of "getting" this message of compassion and love. Instead, for two thousand years, we've often been part of the same kind of brute power systems that stepped on those people of Jerusalem long ago. For centuries, once we got the upper hand, we participated in a whole array of horrors, from the Inquisition to religious wars, from witch-burnings to the repression of women and the selling of slaves, from colonial empires to the killing of Jews…and we used a misreading of the Bible in every case to justify what we did. And all of this time, the God of compassion and love must have wept.
Perhaps it is most appropriate, then, here on the edge of Holy Week, to reflect for a moment on the awful history of events set in motion by a misreading of the events of Holy Week that blamed the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. Just as we can carefully read Luke's account and see that the palms and hosannas that we assume are there, aren't actually there, a mis-reading of the New Testament distorts the story of Jesus' death and blames the Jewish people instead of the powers-that-be, the powers that be in every age and every place that wound the heart of God.
A mis-reading of the New Testament ignores the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew, as were the Apostles and his mother and our ancient ancestors in faith, Moses and Abraham and the rest. When I think about the deepest suffering of the world, I think it is something that most powerfully unites us, that ought to help us find common ground, to recognize the humanity of each of our brothers and sisters, while seeing the image of God in them, too.
Prayers that reach the heart of God
One of my favorite writers is Frank McCourt, who told the beautiful story of his young adulthood in his book, 'Tis. I had read Angela's Ashes, the story of his heartbreakingly difficult childhood growing up in a slum in Limerick, Ireland, when times were tough and his father drank away the family's food money, and he and his mother and brothers barely survived. A lot of this suffering was rooted in the terrible injustices and cruelty of the British Empire against the Irish people, about which we learn less in our history books than in the life story of Frank McCourt.
As a young man, McCourt was a soldier stationed in Europe not long after World War II. One day he was on laundry assignment, an assignment that took him, of all places, to Dachau, one of the most notorious concentration camps of the Nazis, which was now empty except for where the laundry for nearby military camps was being done. One of the other soldiers, Rappaport, was Jewish and, in great distress, refused to enter the camp. McCourt went in, and as he looked at the ovens and thought of "what went in there," he wondered if he should touch them, and whether "it's proper to say a Catholic prayer in the presence of the Jewish dead. If I were killed by the English would I mind if the likes of Rappaport touched my tombstone and prayed in Hebrew? No, I wouldn't mind after priests telling us that all prayers that are unselfish and not for ourselves reach God's ears….I don't know if it's proper to say the Our Father touching the door of an oven but it seems harmless enough and it's what I say hoping the Jewish dead will understand my ignorance" ('Tis: A Memoir).
Better than any skillful misreading of the Scriptures, Frank McCourt's clumsy but heartfelt theologizing at the mass graves of innocents surely touches the heart of God. It draws us back again, ironically, to why Jesus died, to be the face of a compassionate God who lets nothing come between us and the love that holds us every day of our lives, not just during Holy Week, not just when we're in church, not just when we're praying or feeling particularly holy ourselves. This week, as we stumble toward Jerusalem, we can rely on God's grace to carry us every step of the way. On this Palm Sunday, though (with or without palms), in this one moment, we can make a way for Jesus, we can throw our cloaks on the ground and sing our songs of praise, and trust the unknown future to the God who works good in every circumstance and in every holy week of our lives.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Beverly Donofrio, 21st century
"One day can change your life. One day can ruin your life. All life is is three or four big days that change everything."
Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
"The measure of a man is what he does with power."
John Steinbeck, 20th century
"Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
"The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving."
Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, 20th century
"Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time."
Wilma Rudolph, 20th century
"I ran and ran and ran every day, and I acquired this sense of determination, this sense of spirit that I would never, never give up, no matter what else happened."
Thomas a Kempis, 15th century
"Great tranquility of heart is his who cares for neither praise nor blame."
"Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace."
"Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love."
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 20th century
"How come we play war and not peace?"
"Too few role models."
Samuel Smiles, 19th century
"An intense anticipation itself transforms possibility into reality; our desires being often but precursors of the things which we are capable of performing."
Norman Cousins, 20th century
"Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences."
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