Weekly Preaching: Palm Sunday

April 7th, 2017

When we plan for Palm Sunday, we always ask, Is this Palm/Passion Sunday? Or just straight up Palm Sunday? This decision does impact music, prayers, etc.; but I suspect that theologically, and for the sermon, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no chipper, happy Palm Sunday; dark shadows are already looming, and Jesus clearly has set his fact to enter the Holy City understanding the conflict and certain suffering to come. “Hosanna, heysanna!” from Jesus Christ Superstar captures the mood dramatically.

Here is what I did on Palm Sunday, 2014 — with a little humorous use of Donkey in Shrek: “Are we there yet” (over and over) but then redeeming himself with a spiritually suggestive “Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer.”  At the culmination of Jesus’ long journey, involving a donkey, we finally see his true face — and believe.

Last year, with the election looming, I observed how Jesus is humble, courageous but not angry; but we fawn over leaders who are arrogant and angry — and we are driven by fear. I’ll leave that alone this year, I think.

The humility, the intentional upside-downness of Jesus, not just in his Palm Sunday entry but from birth to death, isn’t a byproduct or ethical implication of the Gospel; it is the Gospel. This is God, who (as David Bentley Hart put it so eloquently in The Beauty of the Infinite) “apparels himself in common human nature… brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds.”

There are at least three fruitful approaches to what’s going on here. Many people will recently have seen the movie “The Shack.” Its best line, I think, is when Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?” He answers, “No, not at all — most roads don’t lead anywhere. What I do mean to say is I will travel any road to find you.” That’ll preach.

There is also the fascinating, historical setting painted so well by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan in The Last Week. With Passover due, Pilate with his Roman legion is marching into Jerusalem from Caesarea to the west, arms clattering, swords glinting in the sun, the thunder of hooves and chariots meant to intimidate, to quell any thought of an uprising with the huge crowds visiting the Holy City. Simultaneously, from the east, as clear a counterpoint as you could imagine, Jesus enters, not on a war stallion, unarmed, not to intimidate but to unmask the powers, to conquer evil and hate with mercy and love.
And then you could use Howard Thurman’s thoughtful musing as a springboard: “I wonder what was at work in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey. Perhaps his mind was far away to the scenes of his childhood, feeling the sawdust between his toes in his father’s shop. He may have been remembering the high holy days in the synagogue with his whole body quickened by the echo of the ram’s horn. Or perhaps he was thinking of his mother, how deeply he loved her and how he wished that there had not been laid upon him this Great Necessity that sent him out on to the open road to proclaim the Truth, leaving her side forever. It may be that he lived all over again that high moment on the Sabbath when he was handed the scroll and he unrolled it to the great passage from Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor.’ I wonder what was moving through the mind of the Master as he jogged along on the back of that faithful donkey.”

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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