Palms and Passion: A Palm Sunday sermon

I was grateful to be able to share this sermon with New Creation Mennonite Fellowship in Newton, Kansas, on Palm Sunday 2022.

The readings were Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 22:14-23:56.

Friends, it is so nice to be here with you today, this Palm Sunday. I am turning into a regular Palm Sunday preacher. I think I’ve preached at least 4 of the 5 last Palm Sundays in my life. You see, I always belong to churches with a part-time pastor, and people want to hear their pastor on Easter Sunday, which leaves Palm Sunday for the B-team, the second string. So thank you for being here, your faithfulness and for your patience. 

Despite preaching for so many Palm Sundays, I have not grown tired of the work, because it’s a happy occasion. We hear it in the first reading for today, from Luke, where we get this wonderful vision of God’s upside-down kingdom: Jesus enters Jerusalem on a little donkey colt. We are reminded of the humility of his mother riding to Bethlehem, the city of his birth, on a similar donkey. “As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.” His little group of disciples seems to have grown, and “the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They look at Jesus and his care for others and see God. They begin to shout, “”Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Having seen his miracles, they want him to deliver what all oppressed people want: peace, peace, peace. But the demand for peace is a demand for justice, which the Pharisees fear Jesus making. So, recognizing the power that he, as a teacher, has over his followers, tell him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” And, in one of my favorite lines from scripture, Jesus tells him of the inevitability of human hearts responding to God’s goodness with praise: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Entry into Jerusalem 1500px cc.jpg

Above, Entry into Jerusalem Relief (German, 15th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, New York.

If you have participated in Palm Sunday services before, this story is likely familiar to you. That’s because the story is told every Palm Sunday. The lectionary is a way of dividing major parts of the Bible into readable chunks. Each day of the year, a particular set of readings is assigned, typically an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalm, a reading from one of the Gospels, and a reading from one of the New Testament letters. Every Palm Sunday, we hear some version of this story, which is told in each of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The readings on this Sunday have a special name: the Liturgy of the Palms. And we get into it, waving palms and singing songs specific to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for Passover. 

But something else happens in the Christian calendar this Sunday, too, and you already have a clue about it, because our readings today were exceptionally long. That’s because I asked that a second set of readings–also from Luke–be read. We skip ahead, in this reading, to the events of Friday. We’ve passed Maundy Thursday, the day when we remember the last time Jesus gathered with his friends, when he instituted the practice of communion and washes their feet. Some of us may have grown up in churches where that event is remembered with congregational foot washing. We have passed Good Friday, too, when Jesus is brought to trial, found innocent, and yet punished with death to appease the demands of a crowd, dying before his mother. We’re reading what the lectionary titles the Liturgy of the Passion–passion referring to the suffering of Jesus and also his endurance–in fact, passion is related to patience. Jesus’ patient suffering, his insight that the fight for justice is often met with violence, his ability to bear mistreatment in pursuit of a new model of love. 

So, in this service today, we are including both the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. 

Why? 

The answer is, first, practical: many of us won’t participate in Holy Thursday or Good Friday services. This week is Holy Week for most Christians around the world–though the Orthodox world keeps a slightly different calendar–and, in other cultures, its culmination, Easter, is the most celebrated holiday of the year. In the US, we tend to focus on Christmas, instead, with its commercialism and focus on family and Santa Claus. In fact, we even spend more money on Halloween than on Easter in the US. But that’s not how it is in other parts of the world, where this week is a time of repentance and celebration. 

But before we get there, to Easter morning, we go through Holy Week. For those of us who won’t participate in other services this week, today’s readings from the Liturgy of the Passion are our reminder that the hope of Easter doesn’t spring from nothing. It begins in Jesus’ suffering at the hands of state violence. 

But there is another reason why I think it is good for us to hear these two stories of Holy Week–of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where Jesus is met with cries of Hosanna in the highest, and of his murder before the crowd crying Crucify him

The quick succession of these stories reminds us how quickly a tide can turn. It’s only a matter of a few days–and two chapters of Luke–before we see the very same people who cheered for Jesus jeer him now. 

Jesus didn’t fault them. “They know not what they do,” he said of those who persecuted him. What did they know?

They knew that they wanted freedom from oppression. They knew that they suffered, and they knew that their suffering was neither fair nor inevitable. They could imagine a world where they weren’t dying under Roman occupation. When the “multitude of disciples” greeted him on his little colt, they were hailing a king who would restore to them honor, glory, and freedom from the Romans. They were looking for someone who would soothe their injured honor and also right the order of things. 

They weren’t wrong to want that. 

They just didn’t know that Jesus’s attack on the inequality of the Roman empire wasn’t an establishment of a different hierarchy that favored the oppressed but a flattening of all hierarchies, one that eradicated oppression itself. Even his closest friends couldn’t seem to understand it, as they continued, up until the end, to fight about who would sit at his right hand–that is, about who was going to be on top within their own social sphere. 

The people who wanted Jesus to free them from the daily suffering they faced under Roman occupation weren’t wrong to want that. They just wanted too little. Jesus knows that domination causes suffering in everyone in a system of domination, so he was not interested in creating a new system of domination, one with his followers on top and their persecutors on bottom. In Luke 19:43, the verse just after our reading today ends, we see Jesus looking over the city of Jerusalem as he approaches it. He says,“If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” They want to turn the system in their favor, not to discard it, which is what would bring them peace. 

No wonder, then, that they grew angry when he didn’t deliver on their hope for a militant leader who would invert, not tear down, the system of domination. It is Pilate who asks Jesus if he’s the Son of God, but this is what the crowds have increasingly been assuming. “You say that I am,” Jesus tells him cryptically. “If you say so,” might be a more sarcastic answer. “You’ll make me into whoever you need me to be, regardless of who I say I am” might be a clearer one. And the crowds do just that: they make him into a hero that he’s not. 

And then they are disappointed–and angry–when he’s not. 

Crowds are weird, difficult things. For years, I taught Sociology of Disaster, a class that you might really like if you like learning about horrible things that people do to each other, whether out of neglect or ineptitude or malice. In that class, students learn a bit about crowd science–about the psychology of how crowds work, about how to design for crowd safety, to prevent things like stampedes and riots and mass panic. While there is a lot we still have to learn about how crowds think, two major theories are useful in understanding how crowds behave: contagion theory and convergence theory.

Contagion theory argues that being in a crowd shapes how people think and behavior. The anonymity of the situation may prompt them to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t. New ideas develop and spread. A feeling takes hold. A chant starts. Suddenly, a crowd turns from cheering to jeering. Someone demands “Crucify him” and people begin to collectively consider violence that, independently, they wouldn’t do.

Convergence theory says that people join a crowd because they want to achieve certain ends. You show up at a rally because you believe in its cause. You come to the public execution because you want to see someone executed. “Crucify him” is the whole point, but you can’t do it alone, so you join with others. 

We don’t know, exactly, what made this crowd change, and it could be both contagion and convergence. Some people came for the violence; others came, then found the violence. And I should recognize: we don’t know, of course, that any of the same people were in the Palm Sunday crowd as the Good Friday one. But, regardless, this is a story of abandonment and betrayal, from Judas to Peter to the crowds who were once cheering him. And it follows the arc of the Hebrew Bible, of God’s rescue, the people’s adoration, then the fading of their commitment. We see it in the Exodus story, where they forget salvation and build a golden calf, then whine about manna. We see it in the Jonah story, where the prophet is angrier at the Ninevites than he is grateful for God’s grace. It is the cry of the minor prophets, who retell the story of God’s faithfulness and the people’s faithlessness over and over. It’s the whole story of the book of Hosea. 

It happens so fast in the story of Holy week that you might think it was only for dramatic purposes. Surely, hearts don’t change that quickly. Surely the people who witnessed Jesus’ miracles wouldn’t so easily discard them. 

But they do. Hearts change that quickly. Memories are ignored. God’s faithfulness is forgotten. We do it ourselves–and we do it to others, too, forgetting that God loves them as quickly as we get angry with them. We forget that our enemies are God’s children as soon as we’re threatened. How quickly, for example, even those of us who proclaim peace feel a little thrill a little bit at war when it’s for a cause we find just. 

This week, our challenge is to recognize ourselves in both crowds, in the Luke 19 crowd and the Luke 22 crowd, in the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. At the end of Lent, a season of reflection, we step into Holy Week honest and vulnerable about who we are, grateful that God joyfully created us and loves us and yearns for us, knowing that God sees us fully and welcomes us and accepts us and also finds our hopes and dreams to be too small. We are challenged, this week, to admit when our mercy has been narrow, when we have set false limits on God’s love, when our commitments have been shallow or weak., when we have been distracted from the work of love by the call of power. 

I hope that we hold on to the joy of Palm Sunday all week, confident in Jesus’ teachings, trusting in and making visible to others a wider, bigger, deeper peace promised to us. 





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