Sunday, April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

In my mind’s eye, the palms are waving, having shared the keyword “Hosanna!” (there, did it again). I hope you have some sort of rudimentary palm branch nearby—window blind maybe, or unravel a toilet paper roll. And thanks again to our younger members, who have been busy improvising since midweek. “Hosanna!”

One of the curious aspects of the Palm Sunday story is the ever-growing nature of the audience. Like the “one that got away,” the size of the crowd grows with each retelling. In Mark, written first, “many people” gather to greet Jesus. In Luke and Matthew we go from “a whole crowd of disciples” to a “very large crowd.” And finally, in John’s Gospel, a “great crowd” forms to welcome the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Based on the evidence presented then, we can assume it was a small crowd—not socially-isolated small—but small nonetheless. And this assumption, rather than diminish the story, makes it more dramatic. In any form of protest there is safety in numbers—and in this case there was not. These brave few took a big risk that day, something that seems to get lost in the excitement of the day.

The primary clue will come a week from now, when the disciples will lock themselves away for fear of the authorities. And this tells us that danger was present in this earlier episode, but more of an implied danger than the overt danger that followed the events of Good Friday. So, excitement and fear, in equal measure, as Jesus enters Jerusalem that day.

It’s hard to make a direct comparison to what we are collectively experiencing, but I’m going to try. These days we are trying to walk each day, usually down to the lake, through a fairly quiet residential neighbourhood. Even still, there are a few people around, with everyone trying to do the polite thing and make space. So, there is the excitement of time out of the house, and the fear which is now implied in every encounter on the street. And it’s a complex fear: fear that we’re scaring others, fear that we’re offending others when we scramble across the street, and fear—of course—that someone we meet may be ill. It’s a mix of the rational and the irrational, and it’s a way of living that I pray is short lived. But here we are.

Having shared all that, I think you can see the parallel I’m beginning to draw. Imagine the mixture of excitement and fear as Jesus does this new thing. Even his initial instructions (“If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them”) suggests confrontation. By the end of the story the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The extra character in the story is the anonymous other: the one who might demand an explanation, or the one who might bristle at this overt act of defiance. The whole city becomes a character, and the description “was in turmoil,” which actually tells us very little.

Why turmoil? Well, the answer is in the text, because soon after dismounting the animal he has been riding, Jesus heads straight for the Temple. You know the story— he’s turning over tables, he’s making an improvised whip of cords, and he’s explaining as he goes: “This house of prayer,” he says, “has become a den of robbers.” He pauses to heal some people—he always pauses to heal some people—and then the fight comes. As the words “Hosanna to the Son of David,” still surround him, the so-called religious ones protest: “Do you hear what we hear,” they ask, but Jesus has a verse. He always has a psalm in his back pocket, this time from Psalm 8:

From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise.

Again, it’s praise but it’s also protest. By blessing the “one who comes in the name of the Lord” they are also blessing his program, the program where “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7.22) In other words, the existing order is coming to an end and a new creation is dawning. Friday may be a bump on the road, but the road still leads to a new heaven and a new earth.

And change on this scale is always threatening. One of the unknowns in this current crisis is what happens next. There are questions about underfunding in healthcare and public health, but larger questions about income inequality, mounting personal debt, and the cost of housing. Do we rush back to “the way things were” or do we take time to reflect on how our current structures have made this crisis even worse?

The end of our passage is also a good place to end. “Who is this?” an anxious city asks. And answer comes back: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Remember this name, and hold a place in your heart. He comes in the name of the Lord, and his name is blessed. Hosanna (“save us”) the people say, and the wonders begin. Amen.


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