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Sermon for Palm Sunday

April 9, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Characters in the Story, Daniel Hollis

Luke 19:29-44

Everybody loves a parade. This week as we were thinking ahead through the church year, the staff got excited about having a First Parish float in the Christmas in the Village Parade. Pastor Dan and I practiced our wave and imagined children, youth and adults gathered around a manger built up on a flat bed truck, all dressed up for the Drive Through Nativity, aka Journey to Bethlehem that takes place the following week.

         People pour out from everywhere to participate in this annual event, with singing and waving, free popcorn passed down the line, and stories shared among neighbors. We love a parade. Mainers love a parade, and apparently the people back in Jesus’ day who lived around the Village of Bethany about a half hour walk to Jerusalem loved a parade too.

         Children especially love parades and the day we call Palm Sunday as Christians brings to mind the awe and wonder of a child at that first Jesus parade so long ago.

“Look at all this! What’s going on? I may be just a little kid from Bethany, but I know something big when I see it! I’ve just… [grunt] gotta get… [grunt] to the front… if all these people would just get their stupid legs out of the way. Wow… I’ve never seen anything like this! People are throwing their stuff on the ground. Palm leaves and… coats? They’re throwing their coats on the road in front of that donkey! They’re gonna get… [stage whisper] donkey poo on their coats! [Laugh] This is the best day ever! And who’s that guy riding the donkey? Everybody’s cheering for him, he looks so cool! Everybody’s looking at him, and… HE JUST SMILED AT ME! Right at me! I don’t know why he’s got tears in his eyes, but… but I do too. There’s just so much energy and feeling everywhere and we’re all caught up in it! It’s amazing! I heard some creepy guy in the crowd say the man’s name was Jesus. I wanna be just like Jesus when I grow up! Jesus! Over here!”

 

         The purest fun always belongs to children who experience all of the joy and none of the worry. But this Palm Sunday story is anything but chlld’s play. This is Jesus’ victory march and his death march on Jerusalem. The whole world was there that day, called to join Jesus in God’s upside down march for peace. We got dressed that morning and showed up too. Notice where you stand in the crowd. Pay attention to how you feel.

         You recall how it went. The Disciples were there, sent out ahead of Jesus to procure a donkey for him to ride into town. Like town criers, they returned to join a great and growing throng of marchers ready to shout out:

         “Blessed is the king

    who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven,

    and glory in the highest heaven!”

         As word spread in advance that this now well-known healer and teacher named Jesus would be traveling through their own small town, somebody sent for security in case there was a need for crowd control. Whenever we hold Marketfest or the Village Faire, we’re also required to hire local police to make sure everybody stays safe. And so it was that Roman guards likely interspersed the crowd along the parade route, watching for signs of trouble, and preventing the crowd from getting out of hand.

 

“Easy there, calm down. I’m a soldier of Rome, you do as I say. Go on now, step back from the road. [Sigh] I don’t know what we’re doing here. Most of these people don’t look like they could cause any trouble. They’re all happy, enjoying their little parade. Sure there’s a couple troublemakers in every town, but what are they gonna do? A good swift kick’ll send ‘em on their way. Gods know why everyone’s making such a big to-do of this. Didn’t the local priests just say they were gonna arrest this Jesus character the minute somebody told them where they could find him? Well there he is, riding on a donkey with his pack of thugs behind him. He doesn’t look like some big threat to Rome. Seems pretty friendly actually. I’m more worried some drunk’s gonna try to get his hands on my spear. These people are really excited! It’s probably why we’re keeping the peace and not doing something about this guy. Well you folks have your parade, and I’ll keep this funny-lookin’ lady over here from throwing that rotten fruit at anybody. [Sigh] It’s a living.”

     

The guards had more reason to be on alert than they knew. It wasn’t the rabble-rousers, or the drug addicts or the bored youth who were likely to cause trouble. The risks were far greater even than that. Among the ordinary men and women and children who had poured out from their homes to see this Jesus were a few who did not trust him, who were angry with his actions, and who sought a way to shut down the show. Those murmurings, furtive and knowing looks and whispers were carried on while the distracted thoughts of a local woman from the village, like all of us, had a lot on her mind.

 

“I’ll let my son watch for a bit; I won’t be able to get what I need for dinner until the parade has moved on anyway. I have to toss out this rubbish and then get the wash back to the house, but the house is on the other side of the street and I’m not getting through this crowd. I asked the angry looking man over there who it was everyone was cheering for, and he almost spat at me. He said it was Jesus of Nazareth, but he didn’t look in my direction or even take his hands out of his robes. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind. I’ve heard of this Jesus; he sounds like a wonderful man, and very kind. A miracle worker. Mary and Martha keep talking about what he did for Lazarus. It would have been something to see him bring a man back from the dead, but I was busy at the market buying bread for my family. They say he’s a healer and a prophet, and I think we could use both these days. Good for you, Jesus, I’m glad you’re getting the recognition you deserve. Now, if I could just make it through to the rubbish heap I could get rid of these wormy apples and finally have an extra hand free for the wash.”

 

Luke tells us the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God with a dangerous song based on Psalm 118. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” To some authorities it must have sounded like “Blessed is King Jesus, we will not be moved. Peace in highest heaven through him. We will not be moved”

“Who were these people who had seen Jesus’ deeds of power? Zacchaeus was probably up in front. Jesus had just stayed with him in Jericho and that encounter changed Zacchaeus forever. The recently healed man who had been blind was likely in the crowd, as well as others who had been made well: the man who had been lame for life, and the man cured of leprosy. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James must have been there for they’ll be remembered by name at the empty tomb.

“Other women were there, too, because Luke places them at the cross on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. (23:49) Maybe the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon’s dinner party was there. Jairus and his daughter might be there, too, walking with the woman cured of the twelve-year hemorrhage. The woman who had been bent over for 18 years is standing tall and there are lots of children for Jesus made it clear they were always welcome.

“These were the ones who had seen Jesus’ deeds of power. John the Baptist had said it would be so back in Luke 3. When religious leaders claimed their special inheritance, John said, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Now those stones had come to life! People treated like nobodies were walking like somebodies! It was glorious.” (Barbara Lundblad)

The rest of the gathered crowd pressed in upon Jesus, each with their own thoughts, feelings and agendas. All wanted a chance to connect with this mysterious person who seemed to know God; made blind men see, restored lepers to their community; forgave sin; challenged authority; fed hungry people; ignored Sabbath law, taught in parables about love and the place in God’s kingdom for all people. No matter who they were, or where they were on their life’s journey, they were welcome to come and follow him.

         This is where the peaceful parade turns ugly. The upside down kingdom was at hand and it threatened the way things had always been. The political climate of the Roman Empire was already so scary. And the church (the synagogue was the one safe place where you could count on things always staying the same. Then came Jesus who put their cherished traditions and history at risk. We can see how this angered and frightened them. He had to be stopped.

That’s why there were terrorists planted in this crowd of happy villagers. The religious leaders had, in terms we understand today, been radicalized. How else can you account for the fact that by the time Jesus reached Jerusalem, as close to Bethany as York Beach is to First Parish Church, the Bible says that they were looking for a way to kill him. They no longer wanted to chat with Jesus. They wanted him gone. In just a few days it appeared as if they were successful.

         In these final days of his life, they asked Jesus to order the disciples to stop marching and to keep quiet. But Jesus would not, could not stop the loud and growing hosannas. He said to the Pharisees: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

         People who had no voice were lifted up. People captive to disease and sin and economic oppression had been set free. The prophesy of Jesus’ mother Mary was coming to fulfillment. Before Jesus was born, she had proclaimed.

“He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.”

“As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.’”

It’s easy to blame those prejudicial and mis-guided religious leaders for their attempted plot to kill God’s good news. It’s easy to blame the Jews. One of our UCC clergy Talitha Arnold wrote this week that in the neighborhood where one of her friends grew up in Brooklyn, Christian boys prowled the neighborhood looking for Jewish boys to beat up for killing Christ. It’s easy to blame others when things go terribly wrong. It’s so much harder to own up to the ways that our quiet judgments, criticism and insistence that we’re right get in the way of God’s good news and Jesus promised peace. What happened to Jesus wasn’t about race or religion. It was about fear. We humans have the capacity to do unspeakable things to one another when we’re afraid.

      We were there on Palm Sunday. The whole world was there. We got all dressed up in the morning to go and see Jesus as we did today. Some of us come with child-like wonder. Perhaps Jesus healed us and we can’t help but follow him. Maybe we showed up cranky about something that disturbs our peace. When this Jesus makes a fuss and pushes us to the place that we’re uncomfortable, we join the Pharisees in saying, “Knock it off.”

         God, the I am, came to us in Jesus, saying: “I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, I am the Good Shepherd.” This very day, commit your life to follow me, becoming fishers of people who make for peace regardless of the consequences. This coming week is going to get really hard. It’s going to feel like the worst possible news. Keep your eyes on Jesus and keep walking regardless the cost.

God has created for you a plan and a purpose, as the prophet Jeremiah says, “to give you future and a hope.” If God’s plans for the world could not be killed on Calvary, then nothing, no thing in heaven or on earth can separate you from the way God will work for peace through you, if you will risk following him.