For many churches, today is not only Palm Sunday but Passion Sunday as well. Although I am certainly no expert on liturgical history, I do know that if people attend church, most people only attend church on Sundays. Even on weeks such as the one we enter, the holiest of weeks, most people will only attend worship services today and next Sunday. So, I agree that the experience of those who only worship on Sundays is enhanced and deepened by hearing the passion story today, before we hear the resurrection story next week.
Yet for me, I believe we lose an incredibly valuable moment if we do not focus on the palm part of this Sunday. Most preachers will be preaching on the incredibly rich passion story today, but back in Dallas at my home parish of Saint Michael and All Angels, we will be celebrating Palm Sunday alone, with the all festivities of a real, glorious, sacred parade. We will save the blessed story of Jesus' passion for Holy Week. So, today I'll be focusing on the story we just heard - the story of the palms - and I'll just trust that you will go to church at least once more this week.
To begin, I want to put this story into context, not only the biblical story of Jesus' life, but in the importance of this moment to early Christ-followers. The story of the palm procession that we just heard is one of the only stories of Jesus that can be found in all four gospels. That fact alone should perk us up, calling our attention to the important nature of this story.
When I was a child, I loved Palm Sunday because I got to play with something in church. Now be honest, you all know what I mean...and you know that the fun of playing with a toy in church isn't lost on adults! I can remember tying the palm swords into small crosses with my mother in the pews. And just last year, I sat with a few dozen of ladies in our Saint Michael altar guild, tying thousands of palm crosses in advance of this festival day. Palm Sunday is an opportunity for us to really "play church," to celebrate the profound truth of Christ in all the liturgical glory we can muster. Whether we parade around our churches today or simply wave palms in the air from our seats, today is a physically different experience than other days, and this difference is not an accident. Make no mistake: Jesus meant for today to be different, to be special. Jesus meant for this parade to change the world.
If we aren't careful, we can easily skip over the first seven verses of this chapter and get to the good stuff, to the parade, but I want to call our attention back to how carefully Jesus prepares ahead of time. Step by step, Jesus plans his dramatic entry into Jerusalem. I cannot think of another moment in Jesus' story, any other point in time in any of the gospels when Jesus spends as much time preparing to do anything as much as he prepares for his ride into Jerusalem. For Jesus, this moment is huge, this parade is critical to his mission, and he doesn't want anything left to chance. If we read behind the words, I imagine Jesus sent an advance team to gather leafy branches, to organize people along the street and to make sure that the parade he made would get everyone's attention.
And that brings me to perhaps my favorite aspect of this moment: Jesus wants a spectacle. Jesus wants to be seen. Jesus wants to get everyone's attention, especially those who believe they have divine power.
What I just said may not seem like a major idea at first, but the idea that Jesus wanted attention and spectacle has become very important to my understanding of Jesus and my own discipleship. When I first visited the Holy Land, I walked up the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus would gather his followers and teach them these sacred truths. And what I noticed right away is that anyone on the Temple Mount, anyone in and around the Temple, would have been able to see straight across the Kidron Valley to where Jesus was preaching and teaching. Anyone, including the chief priests and political leaders would have been able to clearly see that Jesus was gathering huge crowds. They would have known that Jesus was teaching the ideas they found heretical, and Jesus made sure to do so right under their noses. Jesus was not really the sweet, pastoral, docile rabbi I had heard about when I was a child. No, Jesus was truly antagonistic, challenging the leaders on their home turf, and today's parade into the city was the pinnacle moment of that gloriously antagonistic agenda.
Jesus was mocking the powerful, openly criticizing the strong, and celebrating the simple grace of God. Can you picture the scene? Jesus, a grown man, climbs upon a young colt. He would have looked ridiculous, certainly not proud and strong as victors who typically marched in such a parade. And as he rode through the streets, people would have been waving simple tree branches, not the grand banners of a king or emperor. In every way, this parade mocked the ways in which the leaders of the day put their power on display. And in every way, Jesus would be pointing to the true power of God, a true power that is found in humility, in vulnerability, and in grace.
We have all likely heard that Jesus came to turn our notions of power and strength upside down, but perhaps we need to hear that again in a new way. Our Christian identity is one that many of us take for granted. For many of us, we have grown up in the church, formed by what we tacitly believe is a Christian culture, but our world is most certainly not Christ-like. We all live in a world that seeks to claim the truth that only Jesus brings. In all aspects of our life, leaders claim moral and ethical authority without any sense of the greatest truth, and living in this world is a great challenge to our faith.
Now, let me say that claiming any "truth" is dangerous. I'd certainly like to claim my own ideas as the real truth, but I know better than that. Claiming truth is human nature. We naturally seek to identify and claim an ultimate truth because we seek the comfort and the confidence that truth brings. But today we see that the ultimate truth, the truth that Jesus points to, is so far from our normal desires, far from our basic human condition. The truth Jesus points to is not pride or perfection or judgment, but humility, vulnerability, and grace. The truth that Jesus points to is the truth that God loves us just as we are, and loves us enough not to leave us there.
What is truly on display today is a parade of grace. Jesus prepares to march into the center of life and culture, the center of his earthly power and authority with a vulnerability that will ultimately get him killed. This is not the kind of parade we naturally seek out, but this parade of grace is one that will fulfill and redeem us in every way, one that will meet our every need, and one that will save us from every evil. Today, the parade that Jesus leads is an opportunity for each of us, truly a grand invitation to every one of us to be changed for the good. Jesus' parade is one that will change the world, and He's calling each one of us to join Him.
As we enter this Holy Week, Jesus is calling to us, trying to get our attention by creating a true spectacle. Can you hear the beat of his grace parade? That rhythm is for you and that rhythm is for me. Let's join Him. Amen.