“Palm Sunday”

pdficon_small Download a PDF of this sermon here.


Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 14, 2019

Matthew 6:9-13Luke 19:28-40


I have to confess to you that Palm Sunday has never been my favorite holiday.  It comes around every year, and every year, I think to myself:  Again?!  What am I going to do with it this time?

Honestly, I don’t love parades to begin with.  Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, and parades tend to attract crowds.  Maybe it’s because I’m a New Englander, and I don’t like making a scene.  Maybe it’s the lasting effect of too many years of forced participation in the marching band during my childhood (full head-to-toe polyester uniforms, white gloves, and those ridiculous hats with feathery plumes on top…).  But in any case, the idea of parading around with palm branches (the church I attended in seminary actually had people begin outside, waving their palms [some of us, admittedly, halfheartedly] and parade into the sanctuary) has never really appealed to me.

This year, as I was preparing for today’s service, I recognized another reason for my Palm Sunday skepticism:  the palms themselves.

Not because I don’t like palm trees, to be clear.  Not because I object to these frondy EcoPalms or wish we would go back to the old-school ones that you could fold into crosses—or use as spears if you happened to be so inclined (not that I would know anything about that).  I have nothing against palm trees or the places where they grow, or bringing green things into the sanctuary (you know I love that).

It’s just this:  the palms were not the point.

The followers of Jesus didn’t think to themselves, What would be the fanciest way to adorn his path into Jerusalem?  They didn’t (forgive me, Deacons) order the branches from the florist to be imported from halfway around the world and delivered by the appropriate date in the liturgical calendar.  What they did was grab whatever was at hand:  branches, leaves, perhaps flowers, certainly clothing and cloaks and blankets.  They grabbed what was in reach and used it to make beautiful the path Jesus would follow.

In some way, it would be more authentic for us to grab some bare branches from a nearby oak or maple tree.  It would be more appropriate for us to grab some evergreen boughs.  It would be more fitting for us to grab some budding pussywillows and add a few of the daffodils that are currently blooming on the south side of the sanctuary.  It would be more authentic for us to strew the aisle or the chancel with the coats we wore into church this morning.  That’s what those disciples did:  they took what was around them and put it to use in the service of the One they followed.

And if you imagine what that would have looked like, I suspect that it would have seemed a little bit haphazard, a little bit disorganized, a little bit ragtag, a little bit untidy.  I suspect that it would not have lived up to the aesthetic standard that many of us have come to expect.  It certainly would not have looked like a procession fit for the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior of all humankind.

But then, Jesus didn’t look like the kind of Messiah the people expected, either.

He came riding into town, not astride a battle-tested warhorse, but sitting on a little colt who had never been ridden before.  He was surrounded, not by the movers and shakers of the day, but by unruly peasants.  He was not decked out in shining armor or a fancy uniform (with a plume on the hat and everything), but was probably wearing the same grubby robe he wore every other day of the week.

He didn’t exactly look the part.  And it turned out that he didn’t exactly act the part, either.

For the people who were waiting for a Savior, it was no idle proposition.  Their interest was not purely hypothetical or intellectual.  They were living in the midst of hardship and struggle, occupation and oppression, and they needed help.  They needed the One who would bring the power of God into the situation, who would overturn the tables and flip the hierarchies and cast the mighty down from their thrones.

And instead, they got Jesus.  They got this donkey-riding itinerant preacher from the middle of nowhere.  They got the one who told his disciples multiple times that his destiny was to suffer and die—not to vanquish his foes by the almighty power of the angel armies of heaven.  The one whom they greeted with shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” didn’t turn out to act like the kind of king they expected at all.  The story we tell this week, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, is not a story that sounds kingly, for it is a story of suffering, of betrayal, of desertion, of torture, of death.  It sounds like a story of failure, not success; of submission, not power; of defeat, not victory.

Our Wednesday Noon Bible Study group has been reading our way through the gospel of Luke in recent months.  We arranged our schedule so that we would read the stories of the end of Jesus’ life around the time of Holy Week, and so, last week, we spent some time talking about Judas.  We wondered about his motives:  fear, or greed, or jealousy, perhaps.  One person mentioned a theory that Judas may have been a radical revolutionary, and that his betrayal was an attempt to force Jesus’ hand, to put his back to the wall, to make him act decisively to overturn the Romans’ authority and bring about God’s realm immediately.

If this is true, then Judas understood how radical it was to say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  He recognized that to name Jesus as king was a direct slap in the face to the human ruler who had proclaimed himself king, a pledge of allegiance away from the principalities and powers of this world.  (A little bit like praying the last line of the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever,” in a world where very different claims about power and glory dominate the airwaves; a world where an obsession with private ownership, with what is “mine,” drives much of our lives.)

Judas knew that Jesus was about nothing less than the transformation of the world.  But Judas—like so many others at his time, and like so many more who have come since, and perhaps even like some of us—he missed the depth of the change Jesus was making, the truth of what kind of Savior he was.  For this is not just a question of redirecting our loyalties from one power to another—from Caesar to Jesus, from humanity to God.  It is a disruption of the very nature of power itself.

What Judas missed—like so many others at his time, and like so many more who have come since, and perhaps even like some of us—Judas missed the deeper message of the story of this week, which is that the logic of might makes right, the logic that drives those who rule by power over, by domination and oppression and violence and fear, is not the logic of God.  Could Jesus have called down the angel armies of heaven?  Sure.  Could he have used force—physical or spiritual—to stop Judas by force from turning him in?  Sure.  Could he have exacted revenge on the soldiers who tortured him?  Sure.  Could he have leapt down from the cross to turn everything upside down?  Sure.  But he didn’t.  And the reason he didn’t, I believe, is that to do so would have reinforced the very lesson he was trying to get away from.

For the deeper message of the story of this week is this:  that the power of sacrificial love, which looks an awful lot like weakness, is so much stronger than any force, any violence, any hate, any condemnation, any betrayal, any desertion, any denial—stronger even than death.  That the love that leads to the cross also leads to the empty tomb, where the worst of the worst that the world can do is transformed into the best story ever told.

That the same God who turns swords into ploughshares and spears into pruninghooks… the same God who offers second, third, endless chances to try again… the same God who seeks out the last, and the lost, and the least… the same God who took human form in a tiny, vulnerable infant, born to an unwed teenage mother in a rural backwater of an occupied land… the same God who gathers every one of us into her embrace, and charges us to live as manifestations of that love in the world—that same God is the one to whom we entrust ourselves and everything we know when pray every week, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.”

So Palm Sunday is still not my favorite holiday.  But the message of the day—that’s something I can get behind.


Hungry for more?  Read another sermon from our sermon archive.