Once again we have come to Palm Sunday, the beginning of the week that leads to the death and then the resurrection of the Christ. This Sunday has a unique feel to it. As a child I rather liked Palm Sunday: it was the one Sunday of the year when we were given Palm fronds as we entered into the sanctuary. Growing up in Colorado, palm fronds were a strange and foreign thing, though, of course, living in Florida we find them on every street corner and in every backyard. But to a child born and raised in Colorado, they were exotic. They were also kind of like sticks and so Palm Sunday was the closest I ever got as a child to being allowed to play with sticks in the sanctuary of the church.
Whether you have been a Christian for a long time and have celebrated more Palm Sundays than you can remember, or if you are a relatively new Christian, new to the whole idea of Palm Sunday, it is worthwhile to consider and to take time to reflect on the meaning and the significance that is conveyed in this story from the gospel.
Our reading from today picks up in the middle of the story, which begins much earlier and miles away from Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth had been living in Galilee, and, for the last three years or so, had been engaged in ministry in areas around that town. He had been teaching in the synagogues, speaking in the market places of the small fishing villages around the lake, healing people in the hillsides and along the roads.
Men and women had begun to gather around him, following his teachings, witnessing his healings, becoming his disciples. As word spread about his teachings and his healings, the religious leaders who were centered in Jerusalem grew concerned.
These religious leaders from Jerusalem had come to Galilee to see what all the talk was concerning this man, Jesus. They came to see if the reports were true, if this man was healing with power and teaching with authority. They challenged him; they tried to trick him with complicated questions concerning religious interpretation and traditions.
As long as he remained in Galilee, however, Jesus was safe. He lived among his own people, and they protected him, as is often the case in rural small towns. These educated, elite sophisticates from Jerusalem were not welcomed in their town; they were outsiders.
But as our gospel reading for today begins, Jesus has decided to turn the tables and to go himself to Jerusalem.
Those around him advised him not to go. Why in the world would he risk his life by leaving the comforts of his hometown, and heading off to the capital city where a lowly peasant could get in a lot of trouble?
Nevertheless, he rejected their advice and set off toward the big city.
As they journeyed toward Jerusalem, they joined large crowds of people who were also going to the capital. It was the Passover, one of the high holy days for the Jewish people. It was a holiday that commemorated the liberation from slavery in Egypt that had occurred centuries earlier. There was hope that God would soon free them from their current situation, under the occupation of Rome, another harsh overlord. The crowd and the capital were full of religious and patriotic energy.
Those who were a part of this pilgrimage were likely happy and excited. People from all walks of life would go--families, children, parents, elders.
Word began to spread that Jesus was among them, and perhaps some had their eyes and ears tuned to what he might say and do.
A few miles outside of Jerusalem, in the town of Bethphage, something important began to develop. Jesus told his disciples to go into the town and find a colt. When they returned, he then rode that colt for the rest of the journey toward the capital.
This was a bold action; a definitive statement.
For centuries, the people of God had held onto the promise that was delivered through the prophet Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
In this act, Jesus began acting like a king, a new king, the promised Messiah; the one whom God had said would come and deliver the people from oppression.
In response, the people took off their cloaks, grabbed branches from the trees, laid them on the road and began shouting and sinning, “Blessed is the king, who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Jesus could have chosen to stay in Galilee, to remain where he felt comfortable and safe, where he was surrounded by people that he knew and loved being around, where he was with his own people. He could have ignored the happenings outside of his small circle, to turn his back on what was going on in the world around him.
But that is not what he chose. He chose to leave the comforts of Galilee behind him, and to turn his face toward the capital of Jerusalem. In doing so, he reminds us that his work, the work of the church, is not to remain in our circles of comfort, but to open our hearts and our minds to the world around us.
It is easy for us to justify remaining where we are by convincing ourselves that we are already open to others. But we need to take a moment and look at who comes to our small group gatherings, who is seated around us at our table in fellowship hall, whom we talk to on Sunday after the service. We need to take a moment and to think about who is not there; who is someone that we can reach out to and invite to join us?
Jesus reminds us today that the work of the church is the world. It can be so easy for a church to get wrapped up in its own concerns, but the work of the church is the world around us, the community in which we live, the people who are on the fringes and outskirts and who do not yet feel at home.
Our work is the world that God so loves, and all the people for whom God so died.
This past week I came across a book by George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, in Scotland, in which he writes, "the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as the steeple of the church. Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross, between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his name in Hebrew and Latin and Greek . . . at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where
he died and that is what he died about, and that is where church people ought to be and what church people ought to
Echoing this call to the church to be engaged in the world around us, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his cell in a Nazi prison, wrote, "During the past year or so I’ve come to know and understand more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. I am discovering right up to the moment, that it is only by living completely in the world that one learns to have faith.
By ‘this-worldliness’ I mean living unreservedly life’s duties, problems, successes, failures, perplexities” (Letters and Papers from Prison).
A word that we say frequently in the liturgy and music on Palm Sunday is the word “Hosanna.” It is a Hebrew word that, when translated, means "save us." It is what the crowds shouted as Jesus rode in to Jerusalem on a colt, "Save us Lord!" It is the cry of our hearts when we look at the world around us and see famine and drought ravaging the men and woman of eastern Africa.
"Save us Lord" is the cry of our hearts when we read of chemical attacks on children in Syria.
"Save us Lord" is the cry of our hearts when we know that people in our own cities and the neighborhoods around us do not have enough food to put on their tables.
To these shouts of Hosanna, God's response is two-fold. God sends Christ, "so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Secondly, Christ sends us. After his resurrection, Christ appeared before his disciples and said to them, "do you love me? If so, feed my sheep." And elsewhere he said to the disciples, and he says to us, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
May we have the courage to follow, not only when it is comfortable, but also when it leads us to places we would rather not go, to face situations we would rather avoid, to stand up to power forces in power, to enter into the darkness when we would rather sit warmly in our own light.
May God give us the courage to follow.