Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
This picture is from Pakarua Presbyterian where the youth celebrate Palm Sunday in a traditional dance. This parade took place in Port Vila, Vanuatu. You can access the picture at: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54311. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54311 [retrieved March 24, 2016]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yumievriwan/288750960/.
Talking Stones: Luke 19:28-40
Did you notice that our Gospel lesson on this Palm Sunday doesn't mention palm-waving? Also, nobody yelled "hosanna" when Jesus walked by, either. That's right... all of the fun stuff we did today, waving around palms and singing hosanna songs, wasn't even in Luke's version of the story. In similar fashion to our Christmas pageants, our Palm Sunday celebrations are often an amalgamation of a couple different Gospel accounts, organized together for maximum dramatic reenactment. While it is certainly fun every year to swarp around palm fronds and yell "hosanna," I think it's also important to take a closer look at Luke's more subdued version of the story. Today, let's take some time to read through Luke's account, by itself. I think we can learn some interesting lessons about fear and celebration here, if we just take a moment to listen.
The story begins with Jesus just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem during the season of Passover. Let's not forget that Passover was tense time in Jerusalem. Scholars remind us that of the various religious celebrations in the Jewish calendar, Passover is the one most likely to be a foundation for rebellion. You see, Passover was a commemoration of God's liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian rule. According to Michael Joseph Brown, God's victory over that one ancient oppressive empire would have definitely been on the minds of the Jews who lived under another oppressive empire, the empire of Rome. Pontius Pilate and his legions would have been present in Jerusalem during Passover in order to stamp out any sign of revolution. They would have come to keep the peace... but this peace was hardly peaceful. This so-called peace was simply a lack of obvious conflict... a kind of "peace" that only comes through great bloodshed. Scholars note that Pilate would have ridden into town on a warhorse, broad, strong, and fearless, ready to do just what Pilate commands it to do. He would also surrounded by soldiers bedecked in banners and flags, swords and lances shining in the sun.
Let's contrast Pilate's likely entry into town with the description of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Rather than ride in on a stately stead, he asks a couple of his disciples to go borrow a colt, probably from someone he knew. Now, this colt was not a highly trained soldier's horse. No, this colt was young and mostly wild. It had definitely never been ridden before. Jesus probably would have needed help from his buddies to just get on it's back. It might have even been a donkey (Matthew said it was a donkey... Luke doesn't specify). The presence of a donkey makes this scene even more ridiculous when contrasted with Pilate's grand, intimidating entrance. Jesus, a full grown man, could have been astride a half-wild donkey colt, surrounded by a rag-tag line of peasants, fisherman, prostitutes, and tax collectors. Unlike Pilate's soldiers, these folks didn't have banners to wave. All they had was the cloaks off their backs, but they threw them down anyway, trying to make a path for the one they thought would bring true peace.
In Hebrew scripture, in the book of Zechariah, there is a prophecy that says the leader of the Jews will one day enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. This prophecy definitely seems to be on people's minds as they cheer for Jesus. They call him a king and say that he is coming in the name of the Lord. We should notice something very important here: Kathryn Matthews reminds us that while in some of the gospel stories there is a huge crowd of either festival goers or of people drawn to Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead, here in Luke, this crowd is smaller and made up of Jesus' disciples. These are the people who know him most well and have been following him for the longest. They cheer for him because they have been healed by his love, have seen his miracles, and heard his wise teaching. These are not fickle people who will turn on him and cry out for his death, as the crowds do in other versions of this story. No, these are the people who love him most and at this very moment, they finally get something right: They celebrate Jesus as Jesus has been telling them that God celebrates them. They celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem because they know his peace is categorically different than the so-called peace of the empire.
Now, we've been talking about a lot of different celebrations in the book of Luke: parties for lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons. You might remember that some people aren't real thrilled about those parties. This time, we have the Pharisees worrying about the celebration. They tell Jesus to tell his disciples to quiet down. Over the years, many people have tried to explain why the Pharisees would try to stop the shouting. Some have suggested that they were motivated by jealousy or hatred of Jesus. Those two explanations might be true (we can't really know what was going on inside their heads), but I have learned that these are not the only possible explanations for their actions. I am more convinced by the explanations offered by other scholars who remind us that the Pharisees once tried to save Jesus from Herod. It seems reasonable to think that they are once again trying to save him, this time from Pilate. Remember, it is very dangerous to appear to be inciting insurrection in Jerusalem during Passover. They call could be in danger if Pilate heard the people calling Jesus "king." I think it is very likely that these Pharisees are just trying to get Jesus to play it safe and stay under Pilate's radar.
Remember what happened when the Pharisees tried to warn Jesus about Herod? He called Herod a petty little fox who should not be feared. Well, this time, when they warned him about Pilate, he said, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." Jesus was so certain that the testimony of his disciples need to be shared that he was sure that God would find a way to share it. If they were not permitted to shout out their hopes and joy, not permitted to speak of the healing they experienced, God would provide the world with another witness, even if that meant the rocks would cry out in revelation. As Fred Craddock on said, all of creation comes from God and all of creation is capable of attesting to God's great glory, even the typically speechless stones. We can see that the peace that Jesus brought was, and is, worthy of celebration, even if the celebration is risky, even if the powers-that-be will be threatened. Jesus says Shout out now. Celebrate now, even if you know that death is lurking just around the bend. The very rocks on which we walk may join you.
We who have heard this story before know that death is actually lurking just around the bend. This celebration at the entrance of the city can seem heartbreaking when we know Jesus' death will be ordered in the midst of the city. We might remember that these very disciples, the ones who seem so joyful and fearless at Jerusalem's gate, will falter in the face of Rome's lethal might on the hill of Golgotha. As I said, it would be easy to despair, observing this little joyful procession not as a model for the reign of God, but instead, as a harbinger to Jesus' great humiliation on the cross. I hope, though, that despair about the future isn't our only lesson this week. I think we can also learn something about bravery. William Barclay once said that there are two kinds of courage. One is the kind of bravery we exhibit by instinct when we rush to pull a child from in front of an on-coming car. This is the bravery of crisis, a bravery that exists only when you don't really have time to think about what you are doing.
There is another kind of bravery, though, a kind of bravery that sees danger from a long way off and has a little more time to think about how to respond. This kind of bravery knows that danger is coming, but does not change course. This bravery is faithful, enduring great danger in order to complete the mission to which one is called. This is the kind of bravery that Jesus exhibits. And, I think this is the kind of bravery to which Jesus calls the church. We must be willing to risk going against the powers and principalities of our own time to continue the mission that he began in his. We must be willing to see the danger far off and stand firm in the Gospel of love and justice to which we care called. We much be willing to stand up to the death-dealers of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism and call them out for what they are, actions that are contrary to the gifts Christ offers us in the Gospel. We must also be willing to be like the disciples are here at their most hopeful, throwing down whatever we own to make a way for Christ to enter into the city, shouting out praise to Jesus, the one who will build a heavenly peace with us. I pray that we can be both brave like Jesus and celebratory like his disciples. That is how we can find the hope that we seek in this broken world. That is how we can welcome Christ in. Then we won't need the talking stones to offer up our testimony for us.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Michael Joseph Brown: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2801
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4563
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_20_2016
Pulpit Fiction Podcast: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/159-palm-sunday-c-holy-week-bonus
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=733
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2013/11/luke-19-28-40/
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.