“Up to Jerusalem” Colchester Federated Church, April 10, 2022, (Luke 19:28-40) Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week—the holiest week of the year for Christians.  During this week, we walk with Jesus through some of the highest and lowest moments of his earthly life.  The week begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. 

The Gospel writers don’t tell the story exactly the same.  If we look carefully at how Luke tells the Palm Sunday story, we notice that palm branches are not mentioned.  So much for all those traditions and this is the way we’ve always done it.  Instead, the people spread some of their clothes on the road before Jesus as he rides the colt up to Jerusalem.  It was a gesture of respect.  Jesus is welcomed with shouts of, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”[1]  Though our Gospel story ends with conflict that foreshadows the events that are to come—if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what’s going on beneath the surface.  The story ends with the Pharisees complaining about the Palm Sunday parade.  Some of the Pharisees from the crowd say to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples!  Tell them to stop!”  But Jesus answers, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”[2]

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is presented as a rejected prophet.  The theme plays out that Jesus the prophet must die in Jerusalem.  Jesus taught that compassion was the central quality of God and the most important moral quality of a life centered in God.[3]  As New Testament scholar Marcus Borg often emphasized, Jesus’ central teaching was—be compassionate as God is compassionate.  There was a holiness world view at this time.  Jews argued among themselves about purity laws.  Jesus was right in the midst of these arguments as he sought to reform Judaism from within.  Jesus questioned who was “pure” and “impure”—even sharing meals with those deemed “impure” by others as a sign of God’s compassion.

We can recall that this was a common criticism—Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors.  We just heard that specific charge leveled against Jesus a few Sundays ago when we contemplated the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The Pharisees and legal experts gathered around Jesus and grumbled, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[4]  That grumbling led Jesus to teach about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  This kind of compassion got Jesus into trouble because he was challenging categories of separation that gave meaning in the midst of Roman occupation and oppression.

After telling some of the grumbling Pharisees in today’s story that even if the crowds were silent the stones themselves would shout out, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.  If we believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, these human emotions are understandable.  From here, Jesus moves up into the holy city and cleanses the Temple.  Jesus drives out those who had made God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers.  There’s a joke that if anyone asks, “What would Jesus do?” remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility.  Somehow, we tend to gloss over that story in the Christian Church.  Perhaps Jesus with that much anger over injustice makes us uncomfortable.

The point is that if we really listen to what’s underneath the Hosannas this morning, we can hear and feel the tension building.  These conflicts are going to come to a head because how could they not?  Jesus questioned the Temple sacrificial system and what it takes for a person to be righteous.  Marcus Borg explains, “The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.”[5]  Jesus waded right into these religious and political questions, the questions that defined the times.  And Jesus called for compassion and he called for peace.

Part of the reason that we go outside to have our Palm Sunday Processional here at Colchester Federated Church is that I believe it helps us to better imagine the crowds that gathered before Jesus.  Worship is an embodied experience.  It’s about engaging our minds, our hearts, and our bodies.  These events took place outside on the Mount of Olives and Jesus rode along a road, coming to the city of Jerusalem to observe it, weep over it, and then turned to the Temple to make things right.  Embodying the story helps us to imagine an excited crowd shouting, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”[6] 

We can even imagine that some people looked on with hardened hearts—asking Jesus to silence this racket.  To give the Pharisees some credit, there was understandable reason to fear what was happening.  Perhaps they thought this moment was too political and the Roman Empire in all its might would retaliate.  After all, the Romans were in Jerusalem in full force during Passover and there was no disturbing the peace of Rome without consequences.  Usually those were violent consequences given the military strength of the Roman Empire.  The crowds are shouting, “Blessed is the king.  Hosanna!”  They are laying their clothes in the road.  They are lining the road as Jesus is riding down the Mount of Olives and up into the Temple itself.  One can only imagine how this might look to Roman eyes.  “Hosanna” roughly translates as “save us”.  Who is asking to be saved?  Who or what are they asking to be saved from?  We are beginning to understand how this will all end for Jesus.

Palm Sunday is a political demonstration.  It’s a joyous parade.  It’s foreboding.  It’s prophetic.  It’s a complicated beginning to this holiest week for Christians.  Perhaps Luke’s version especially reminds us of the human pitfall of jealousy.  It is no wonder that envy was recognized as one of the seven deadly sins.  Envy has a way of hardening the heart, it leads to bitterness.  At the heart of envy may just be fear.  Fear of not being treated fairly.  Fear of being overlooked or undervalued.  Fear of being replaced.  Fear of being wrong.  Fear of not being good enough.  There is fear present when the Pharisees ask Jesus to scold his disciples and tell them to stop.  Some of that fear is understandable.  Yet we are not meant to live lives of fear.  Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give you.  I give to you not as the world gives.  Don’t be troubled or afraid.”[7] 

In the end, if we are to be compassionate as God is compassionate as followers of Jesus Christ, that means that fear must not be at the heart of who we are or what we do.  The peace of Christ is already within us, that gift has already been given.  Because even if those followers were silent out in the streets, the stones themselves would have shouted out the good news.  Because God was up to something more than people could possibly imagine on that first Palm Sunday.  Spoiler alert—fear will not be the final word in our story.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 19:38, CEB.
[2] Luke 19:39-40.
[3] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, 46.
[4] Luke 15:2.
[5] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 52.
[6] Luke 19:38.
[7] John 14:27.

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.