Would you show up?
Would you show up?
April 14, 2019
If you grew up in the church, you probably remember Palm Sunday. The obvious reason that you would remember this would have little to do with Holy Week and everything to do with the door prizes. On that day, against all common sense, every child was handed a palm frond, which every child immediately understood was a spear that was to be used to stab your friends. An alternative understanding was that the palm frond was to be used to make palm crosses. However, arts and crafts were never my forte’ since they required that you listen to directions (what?) and actually sit down and work on something (not happening!). You might have even grown up in a church in which a parade was staged that set all the worshipers, young and old, marching around the church, yelling, “Hosannah!” (I will just remind you that I have Presbyterian roots and such “displays” were really not likely to happen!)
Here’s the thing about Palm Sunday in Luke’s Gospel. There are no palms that are waved or thrown on the ground. There is no mention of palms at all—which really kind of puts a crimp in Palm Sunday. There is not one “Hosannah!” either. This is a little like the year at Thanksgiving when no one made mashed potatoes—and yet, they expected us to celebrate Thanksgiving. This is a little like the year when I was in Japan for the 4th of July and all it was was July 4th—just another day. (I know, I should have realized that ahead of time but, hey, I was just 17 at the time.) We have our expectations in life. It’s hard, when those expectations aren’t met, not to be a little disappointed…
And yet, when we recognize that those expectations aren’t being met, there is a giant invitation to ask, “What’s going on here?” The mashed potatoes didn’t arrive because one of the older attendees had been put in charge of them and they forgot which led to the question, “Who really cares, anyway?” It wasn’t crucial. And standing in Japan and expecting them to be celebrating America’s Independence Day, well, let’s just say that was the first of a whole host of experiences in my life that have shown me how narrow my focus can be. If life isn’t all about me or everyone being like me then it certainly must be about everyone seeing things the same way that I see them, right? What…that’s wrong?
There are four Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday, each of which presents these events from a particular point of view and was written to a particular audience. Like the rest of life, seeing things from multiple points of view doesn’t have to be threatening. Rather, it actually is what thinking, questioning, reflective people seek out. Truth is rarely owned by one person or one group. That’s the great wisdom of those who assembled our New Testament. Though they eliminated some Gospels, they included four. And if you read those four, they rarely tell the same story from the same perspective.
So, what is the story that Luke tells? At one level, the universal human experience that this story taps is the courage it takes to do something hard. If you were a protester, showing up at the Edmond Pettis bridge in Selma, Alabama, it took courage to stand and stare down the authorities and those whose only authority was the bat that they were waving in your direction. Things were about to get hard fast. If you’ve ever been through chemo or had to show up for surgery, that takes courage. Things are going to get worse before they get better. If you’ve ever been steeling yourself for that hard conversation—with a friend, with your spouse, or at work, it takes courage to open your mouth and your heart and get started. There are moments, large and small, where we know that things are about to get very difficult. Yet, we believe that what we are about to do, no matter how hard it is, is worth it. Jesus had told his disciples repeatedly what was going to happen: that he was going to be arrested; that he was going to suffer; that he was going to die and rise again. Who shows up for that? Only the most brave…only the one’s who love unconditionally.
Such moments almost never happen spontaneously. We think things through. We plan. Jesus planned, too. He takes two of his disciples aside and shares the plan with them. In a moment that seems a little like a scene from a good spy thriller, Jesus gives them their mission—to pick up a donkey in town—and tells them the magic words, “If anyone asks, tell them the Lord needs it.” Though this must have seemed an odd errand, the disciples go and do exactly as they are told. The words work. They are now the proud owners of one donkey (or at least have temporary custody.)
Again, we can connect to this moment experientially in a couple of ways. Haven’t we all had moments when we felt like we played some small role in a large plan? We ask a friend in need how we can help and they answer, “Could you go to the store and pick this up?” What’s going on might be something much larger. However, we had a small role to play and playing that role felt good. At other times, we might have been the owners of something that was needed for a larger good. If you think about it, a donkey, especially a young donkey, was a real source of economic stability for a family. That animal was going to serve them well for a long time. “So, someone showed up and took the donkey and said, ‘The Lord needs it’ and you let the donkey go? Did they happen to mention when they would bring it back?” Sometimes, we give in pretty substantial ways, just because what we have is needed.
Again, though, the big picture point is that this act of courage on Jesus’ part depended on having a plan and people following through on that plan. Everyone did their part—which is pretty much the only way that most things of value happen in this life—with each person doing his or her one thing that they can do and all those things adding up to something far larger. Not only are we almost never as alone as we might feel, we also are almost never acting alone, either.
So, Jesus has his donkey. When the disciples get to Jesus, the force of what Luke says is that they “set” Jesus on the donkey. Our translation speaks of “helping Jesus get on.” However, the force of what Luke says is that he is placed there. Why does this matter? I think a great deal of what is playing out in Palm Sunday is the swelling, growing, escalating hopes of who Jesus is about to become and what he is about to do. Everyone was sick of the Roman occupation. Everyone was tired of the corrupt authorities who compromised with Rome to hold onto their power. Everyone was ready for some serious change. I think a lot of people in that crowd were hoping for a revolution: “All we want is for Jesus to be who we want him to be!”
Crowds are a tricky thing in life. One minute you can be treated like a hero but look out for what’s coming next. I think for any Gospel reader this is part of what makes Palm Sunday so bittersweet. What is fresh in our minds is not what the crowds thought on Palm Sunday but what they did to him later. Given the chance to free a prisoner—either Barabbas, a known thief, or Jesus, the man they adored a few days before, they chose Barabbas. In just a few short days, the people would betray Jesus. Why? They would betray him because he refused to be who they wanted him to be: the king, the messiah, the one who would lead the revolution. History has despised Judas for betraying Jesus with a kiss. If we really pause though and think for a moment, we realize that he was betrayed by nearly everyone and mostly for the same reason: he refused to be who we wanted him to be.
Again, this should not be a stretch for us to understand. Most of us have spent time as conditionally faithful people. We’re turned to God in prayer and, one way or another, said, “God, I”ll love you if… I will love you as long as nothing bad happens. I will love you as long as things go my way. I will love you as long as those whom I love are safe.” The problem is that conditional love always fails. The love that wins in this life is the love that says, “I love you no matter what!” Only a handful of people loved Christ in that way and they weren’t the ones who were hooping and hollering along the way. They were the ones who had been seeing the sadness and the loss coming for weeks but who just kept on loving him.
In leu of waiving palms and yelling, “Hosannah!” Luke’s crowd on Palm Sunday does something amazing: they shed their cloaks and lay them on the ground. Now, I was trying to explain the significance of this in an odd way to someone this week. Maybe I’ll try it with you. Someone was telling me why New Yorkers dress “to the nines” as we used to say when I was growing up. They are very fashion conscious (which is just one more thing that would make me a terrific New Yorker!) This person, who lived there, was saying that since no one has cars, clothes are how status gets expressed. Somewhere else, it might be all about what car you drive or how huge your house is. In New York, it’s all about the clothes you wear.
What I want to suggest is that it was all about cloaks in Jesus’ day. Everyone knew everyone else’s status based on how colorful your cloak was or how intricate the design might be. When people see Jesus on Palm Sunday, for a moment, a really faithful moment, they don’t care about status. They don’t focus on who is in and who is out. In the face of Jesus’ courage and standing in his presence, they shed such concerns. For a moment, everyone views everyone else as an equal. I like to call that moment a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.”
My only question is how long it took for individual members of that crowd to go back to their old ways. Was Jesus still in view when the first person ran out onto the road and shook his cloak off and wiped off the donkey tracks and put it back on? Had their cries about a king even quit reverberating before they let go of that joy in order to reclaim the satisfaction of being better than they guy standing next to me? And when Jesus reached the gates and there was no armed revolution and it looked for all the world like nothing was going to change, how long did it take for their joy to become anger?