Palm Sunday, positioned at the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, is generally seen as a joyous, upbeat celebration that sets the stage for an even more joyous, upbeat celebration – the glorious proclamation of Easter – but in-between these two high points, we need to go through such a deep valley: the bittersweet sacred meal in the Upper Room, the betrayal of Jesus by one friend and his abandonment by others, the trial/s, and the sadistic horror of crucifixion. The route from Palm Sunday to Easter, then, “has some elevation to it”, as we would say here in the mountains.
So often, I view Palm Sunday either from the viewpoint that is 2,000 years and 10,000 km from the original time and place, and from this safe distance I can evaluate the similarities between that story and more contemporary stories of political agendas and betrayal and martyrdom, and enumerate the connections in an almost technical way… or if I attempt to put myself in the original picture, it’s as one of the crowd, someone who has heard of Jesus but never met him, waving a palm branch or dropping my cloak on the road. Where I have seldom pictured myself, is in the inner circle of disciples: the named twelve disciples, and the group of women and men who were attached to the group. What might they tell us about Palm Sunday that would inform our faith journey today?
Pastor Troy Treash, of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in Houston, shares this observation:
“The word liturgy, which we use to define the ways we create purposeful worship, means literally ‘the work of the people’ — a group project. As we return from the COVID pandemic and are able to be together, sing together, worship together, eat together, and see each other’s faces, it is apparent how much we have missed being a group project.”
The sermon topic at Resurrection MCC for Palm Sunday is “‘We Are a Group Project’ as we consider Jesus’s team of disciples, preparing for the entry into Jerusalem and the celebrations of the week of Passover. Together through the hurt, the pain, the storm, the rain, we join those first disciples in our moment to stand for God’s love and justice.”
Pastor Troy’s words truly gave me food for thought, and I would like to bring you along this pathway, of considering Palm Sunday not from a safe analytical distance, or as one of the crowd, but rather from the standpoint of someone deeply invested in Jesus – someone who knows him and is moved by his mission and committed to it, someone who has walked some hard roads and some amazingly rewarding roads with Jesus. As those entrusted with the mission and ministry of Jesus in our time and place, I am basically asking you as disciples, to come up close and personal with the reality of those first disciples.
Pause with me, for a moment, to imagine yourself as part of that group project, as Pastor Troy would call it: the people who not only knew about Jesus, but travelled with him, loved him, served their shared mission by carrying out tasks both big and small.
You stand on top of the Mount of Olives, surveying the route you will be following. This route, only about a kilometre, also “has some elevation” – down into a valley, then back up to Jerusalem. And as beautiful as it is, it’s really clear that this is not your home. You’re not a city person from Jerusalem or anywhere near here: you’re from Galilee with its farms and its fishing villages and a couple of towns. Up where you live, you grow the grain and the Romans are taxing the life out of you; you fish the Sea of Galilee, which is in reality a little lake about half the size of Lake Okanagan, mostly for subsistence and for a bit of trade; and you provide the Tektons, the stonemasons and builders involved in the big fancy developments of Sepphoris and Tiberias. So you are most definitely not from Jerusalem. But where you are from, is a place where some folks – the fishers and the farmers – were struggling to subsist, while others were completely dependent on construction projects of the Romans and the friends of Herod and for them it would have been feast or famine. If you’re looking for a modern example, you’re from a place where you should be able to make a living off the land but you can’t, where the best you can hope for is to get a job working on the rigs: physical, good-paying work, when it’s available.
Jesus was also from that land, the son of a Tekton who could make things with his hands. He understood what was going on in your part of the world, and he had the chutzpah to talk about it. And when he talked about the inequality of things – the way that the rich ones, the friends of Rome, the friends of Herod, never want for anything, while you and virtually everyone you know in Galilee has to scuffle, and borrow, and hope you can feed your children – you are all ears. He talks about injustice, not just as unfairness, but as an affront to God. He talks about human dignity as something that everyone should possess in equal measure, for each person bears the image of God. And he embodied all these things, it wasn’t just “words.” He cared about the human price of inequality. And something about his concern for these things, told you that God cared too.
Having travelled with Jesus for many months, mostly in and around Galilee, you and the other disciples have seen some things: some of them encouraging, some of them threatening, but you’ve always known where you are and what’s happening and who has your back. You’re a Galilean, after all, you know this place, you know these people. But now you look down toward Jerusalem and you are concerned.
Have you, Galilean, even been to Jerusalem, ever? Scripture makes it sound like all Jews, at least the males, were expected to go to Jerusalem three times per year for the festivals (cf. Exodus 16, 23, 34), but only a well-off Galilean family would have the financial resources go even once per year, and for some folks it would be a once in a lifetime trip – if that. So, you may have been to the city a time or two, but this is not home, or even a home-away-from-home. You don’t know these people, you don’t trust them, and there were signs of Rome everywhere. Bring to mind places you have travelled that have been just a bit too big, or too different, where you may have been enthralled by everything but also really wary of it. If I imagine myself as a disciple at Palm Sunday, I suspect that no matter how holy Jerusalem was considered to be, it would have been a stressful place to be. And furthermore, what did Jesus have to gain by going there? He’d been talking about death lately, in worrisome ways.
So here you are, having spent time in Bethany in the comfortable and familiar surroundings of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and there’s this plan by Jesus to “make a statement” in the city. The Bible gives a sense of the amount of planning needed to make it happen: there’s a donkey/colt tied up, and here’s what you need to tell the owner, and there will be people, lots of people. My sense is that many of the disciples would have been on “security detail” this day. The Bible paints this exciting, glorious picture of palm branches waving, and people shouting Hosanna, but let’s picture it from a disciple’s eye view: are these people REALLY with us? Are there spies here? It’s so loud and energetic, it would be really easy for someone to throw a rock or draw a sword. And while Jesus never tried to hide what he was doing, there was some safety in being up north, a place known for its disdain for Rome, but far enough away from Jerusalem that the threat was isolated. But now, with something so public, in the Holy City itself, danger was being invited. If the authorities didn’t perceive Jesus as a threat before, they certainly would now.
Today, my friends, I invite you into that challenging, chaotic space, a place of hidden danger. From that place, in the streets of Jerusalem, or perhaps still up top on the Mount of Olives, playing out all the scenarios in your mind, I invite you to touch base with places in your life that are unsettled or upset, your own places of challenge and chaos: there’s COVID and there’s Ukraine, there are other places of armed conflict, there’s wonderings about what comes next after the visit to the Vatican. There’s fear of getting sick and there’s the unfamiliarity of being together with others, even here in Church, and there’s the price of groceries and the price of gas and all-round uncertainty about, well, a lot of things, and there’s the fault lines that have developed in many families and communities.
When you’re just standing by the side of the road waving a palm branch, you can engage Jesus as much as you want then get back to daily routine, but when you choose to be a disciple, well… you choose to be a disciple. You take to heart his message of peace and love and inclusion, of equality and equity and justice, you aim your words and actions and choices toward a world where privilege ends, and personhood and opportunity are lifted up for everyone. And you hold these things, not just as pleasant principles but as the key work you need to do here on this planet.
Whether surrounded by jubilant shouts of hosanna, or in the impending danger of Holy Week, Discipleship is a lived state of committed love, supported by the courage of Christ. Discipleship is keeping on keeping on, forging ahead in faith even when things are chaotic, even when there is horrible news of war atrocities, even when the most basic things we used to do so easily seem new, different, uncertain.
As disciples of Jesus, we have the great advantage, of knowing that Easter does come. We always, every day, know of resurrection, of hope for a better day, of the gifts of love and life in this beautiful world the Creator has made, and I want to embrace these things right now. Even when we can see that Good Friday is coming, so is Easter; and I want for us to hold the good news of Easter in all its glory, even in the hardship – especially in the hardship. These promises of Christ are promises we hear and see and fee, with eyes wide open… with ears attuned to the cries of the world… with hearts open to those regarded as “the least” by the powers of the world, the same ones that Christ’s heart is open to. Let Palm Sunday be a time when you not only cheer on the life-giving words of Jesus; let it be a time when you remember your relationship with Christ, and walk on your shared path as you have done before, and keep doing what needs to be done, and embodying his reconciling love in your home and in your relationships and in all your ways. This path with Jesus is a path that leads to life, my friends, and it is indeed a group effort.
May this be so, Amen.
Crossan, John Dominic. Resurrecting Easter. NYC: HarperOne, 2018.
Safrai, Shmuel. “Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus.” https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/2392/
Treash, Rev Troy. “We are a group project.” Congregational mailing to Resurrection MCC, Houston TX, April 8, 2022
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.