Startle us, O God, with the story of what happened this day:
a king coming in humility and vulnerability and with peace that passes our understanding. Startle us with the audacity of a faith based on that peace. Startle us with a love that comes all the way down to our city, our lives, our world, and bids us to embrace it and to follow the Prince of Peace, in whose name we pray. Amen.1
I was intrigued by that prayer because I don’t think we’re often startled in church. Maybe, hopefully, once in a while somebody has an ‘aha’ moment, a sudden flash of insight or new understanding. But ‘startled’ has a connotation of being surprised and frightened.
At the church where I did my internship year, we had an Easter vigil. Not like the Easter Vigil service you might be familiar with. A group of us stayed up all night and took turns going into the sanctuary to pray for a time (an hour, I think). Picture a big downtown cathedral church, with stained glass Tiffany windows, choir loft. A beautiful space, but that night it was completely dark except for a few candles. About 1:00 AM, the woman who was taking her turn came back down to the parish hall. Breathlessly, she said that there was a man in the church. He’d come out of the dark sanctuary, and she was so startled, all she could do was run. It turned out that the man, who was homeless had hidden out in one of the nooks and crannies in the building until everyone (he thought) had left for the day. I’d bet he was just as startled by a woman kneeling at the altar in the candlelight.
That’s how I think of being startled. But other synonyms broaden the meaning: amazed, astonished, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, marveling, openmouthed. and my favorite: electrified. So again, I don’t think we’re often startled (or electrified) in church. And if I’m wrong about that, I would love to hear your story.
In any event, in our prayer we ask God to startle us by the story of what happened this day, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, our remembrance of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and death of Jesus. It might not feel like a day when such suffering is at the center of it. It’s more of a festive day. Some even consider it a kind of dress rehearsal for Easter, equating “Hosanna!” with “Hallelujah!” and skipping the hard parts of the story that come in between.
Or as the writer Anne Lamott said, “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb: everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking.”
My usual admiration for Anne Lamott aside, the story – our sacred story – the whole sacred story – demands our attention. And today our attention is on the parade into Jerusalem. An old, familiar one to be sure. But maybe today something will leap out at you and leave you flabbergasted.
The Palm Sunday story is in all four gospels, and what Jesus did that day is still a hot topic of discussion. When the book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem was released in 2007, it was rather startling. It stirred up both interest and controversy – and a new excitement about this day beyond waving palm branches and quickly moving on to Easter: do not pass crucifixion; do not collect 40 lashes. From this telling of the story, many have concluded that Jesus had carefully planned his entry into Jerusalem; the parade was a bit of street theater that mocked the Roman Empire.
Fred Craddock, who was Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, expanded this focus on the parade. He asked – and answered:
What is this: a parade, a protest march, or a funeral procession?
It is all three. Without a doubt, it is all three.
The parade was not just any old parade. It was a royal parade. The Palm Sunday procession was the triumphant entry of a king. The messiah who would be like the great King David, who would defeat the despised Romans. “Hosanna! Save us!” they cried, as they laid branches and even their clothing on the ground before him.
Of course, Jesus offered a different way of being a king. This king rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This wasn’t a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired or wanted people to be able to see him better.
He chose a donkey because he was intentionally enacting the passage from the prophet Zechariah: “Look! Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be banished. This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus came defenseless and weaponless. But he clearly understands the role of power. Riding in on a donkey has all of a sudden become very political, as he all but cried aloud the bottom-line truth that his rule would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, and sacrifice. These priorities would have political implications.
Now we know how the story will go. Jesus will not take on the mantle of a ruler who will lead an insurrection against Rome. The way of Jesus was not one of military might, violence, or hierarchical power. Rather the way of Jesus is a way of peace, a way that involves self-emptying and setting aside of ego, and willingness to be “all in” for the cause of righteousness, justice, and liberation. And that will get him killed. Don’t think for a minute the Roman authorities missed that gesture. They were always on the lookout for people who might be a threat to their power and they played hardball when they found them. Crucifixion was a vile part of their occupation toolbox. The fact that we know what happens next does serve to rain on our parade. And even though we know that Easter will follow Good Friday, today we’re still in Palm Sunday time, where we join in a celebratory parade, full of hope and joyful expectation.
At the same time, this parade was a protest march. Jesus knew that on the other side of the city another parade was getting ready to march. A Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem. It happened every year at Passover time: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea down on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be in the city in case there were riots. Passover was the most politically volatile of all the Jewish festivals. With the governor came troops and war horses to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.
Why would a lovely religious holiday like Passover be an occasion for riots? Think about it. Passover celebrates the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, their escape long ago from lives of oppression under Pharaoh and his army. And now where did they find themselves? Occupied by the Roman empire and living under the boot heel of Caesar’s army. Passover was a bittersweet day indeed. And it could enflame protests and rebellions against this current situation of bondage.
Into this scenario comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, blatantly proclaiming himself as a ruler – albeit a ruler of peace. It’s no wonder that the crowds lined the street and cheered him on. And where did Jesus go and what did he do after he dismounted that colt? He went to the temple and drove out the money changers. Talk about being startled! He confronted the religious leaders who were exploiting the poor and powerless and cleansed the temple of corruption, at least for a few hours. Authorities, both political and religious would not have been happy with Jesus. and they were already plotting to arrest him and get rid of him. In the words of Dr. Craddock, “You could hear the groan of God each step along the way. He was not marching into a welcoming city, but to his own grave.”
It’s no wonder we want to skip over that part. In one of our Confirmation classes, the question came up of why – if Jesus defeated the cross – is it the central symbol of our faith. Great question. And as we enter into a week in which suffering will take center stage, it’s the best question. We talk about the cross, not because Jesus suffered to keep us from suffering. He suffered because we already suffer. His suffering shows us God’s vulnerability, God’s identification with us. We don’t go seeking the cross. The cross already stands in the midst of life. We’re reading When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner in our book discission group. And early on, the author makes one important point. He says that people often refer to the book as Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. He tells them – and us – it’s not about why suffering happens, but when.
The theology of the cross – a term coined by Martin Luther – reveals to us a God who doesn’t stand aloof, a God who doesn’t wag a finger at us, but who empties God’s self for us, who is with us when we hurt, and even suffers along with us.
Fred Craddock, who I mentioned earlier, explains it like this: a child falls down and skins a knee or elbow and comes running to mama. The mother picks him up and says, “Let me kiss it and make it well.” She kisses the skinned place, holds him in her lap, and all is well. Did her kiss make it well? No. It was that ten minutes in her lap. That does more good than all the bandages and medicine in the world.
Then he sees his mother crying. “Mama, why are you crying? I’m the one who hurt my elbow.”
“Because you hurt,” the mother says, “I hurt.”
The story of Jesus coming to dwell among us begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. It is the story of God stooping to pick us up. We thought if there were to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the gates of hell. And God still stoops, in your life and mine. Craddock asks:
What is the cross? Can I say it this way?
It is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt.
I can’t think of a better story to lead us into Holy Week. Today’s triumphant royal parade, edgy protest march, and grim funeral procession – all rolled into one – has many treasures for us to unpack. Maybe there’s something new in there that has been amazing, astonishing, or at least interesting. But if you take nothing else away from this day, I hope that you will remember that in this week between Palm Sunday and Easter is the heart of our sacred story. When we partake of the events of Holy Week, we enter into that story – not only as a remembrance of what happened long ago, but what happens in the lives of you and me.
In our times of doubt, of pain, of fear, of suffering – God is there. And the greatest gift we could ever receive is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt.
Luke 19: 28-40
After this teaching, Jesus went ahead to Jerusalem. Nearing Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of the disciples with these instructions:
“Go into the village ahead of you. Upon entering, you will find a tethered colt that no one has yet ridden. Untie it and lead it back. If anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Rabbi needs it.’”
They departed on their errand and found things just as Jesus had said.
As they untied the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you doing that?”
They explained that the Rabbi needed it. Then the disciples led the animal to Jesus and, laying their cloaks on it, helped him mount.
People spread their cloaks on the roadway as Jesus rode along. As they reached the descent from the Mount of Olives, the entire crowd of disciples joined them and began to rejoice and praise God loudly for the display of power they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they were to keep silent, the very stones would cry out!”
1 Sermon, “A God Who Stoops,” Joseph S. Harvard
2 Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, p. 140.
3 Fred Craddock, (Cherry Log Sermons: Why the Cross)