Rev. Jerry Van Marter
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019
Our story today begins yesterday
[“Jerusalem Tomorrow” – Luke Van Marter, vocals; Chris Ellwood, guitar; Doug Yeager, flute]
The first signal should have been the donkey. Jesus told the disciples that they would find a donkey for him to ride that day in dusty old Jerusalem. I’m sorry, but superheroes DO NOT make their grand entrances like that. The Batmobile WAS NOT a Nash Rambler. The Lone Ranger saved the West riding a white horse named Silver, not on a Budweiser Clydesdale. Han Solo zipped around in the Millennium Falcon, not a Piper Cub. Harry Potter DID ride a broom, but it was certainly not the eight-dollar-and-ninety-nine-cent special I buy at Ace Hardware.
So this was not your typical “triumphal entry.” This was not a regal king riding on in majesty, greeted by adoring crowds. This was a country preacher, trailed by a ragtag band of followers who hadn’t known quite what to make of him from the very beginning and who would, later in the week, either deny they even knew him, melt into the crowds as anonymously as they could, and in one tragic act, betray him. They were certainly no match for the Roman legions stationed all around. So what, exactly, were these followers of Jesus expecting to happen?
One of my favorite current TV ads shows two little kids, huddled in a shower, with indescribable stuff of some sort covering their faces and bodies. I don’t even know what the product is — I can’t take my eyes off those two little kids. Their exasperated father asks, “What were you thinking?!?!” He is met, of course, by blank stares. He asks, “Whose idea was this?” and after a seemingly endless pause, one little kid nods his thumb at the other. This is how I would have felt if anyone had asked me that day in dusty old Jerusalem what I was thinking and whose idea it was to “triumphantly” enter a city that was packed to the rafters with Roman soldiers seeking to keep a lid on a simmering Israelite resistance to the occupation.
At least according to Luke, this was most definitely NOT a “triumphal” entry. Some in the crowd spread their cloaks on the road as Jesus passed, trailed by his motley crew. Probably they were just trying to keep the dust down. I have a sense that Luke, in keeping with his constant theme of justice, is indicating that his story is not to be interpreted as a King headed for his victorious throne, or like a victorious general returning from a triumphant battle. No, these folk, by removing their cloaks and laying them in the road, in Luke’s mind are divesting themselves of their symbols of status instead of putting on the trappings of wealth or military victory. They don’t see any triumph in this donkey-ride through Jerusalem.
No, this “triumphal” entry is for Jesus’ followers. Verse 37 tells us that it was ONLY the disciples who shouted, praising God. The verse further tells us that the disciples are not proclaiming any kind of cosmic victory – they apparently don’t know what this little parade is for. They are praising God, not Jesus, “for all the deeds of power that they had already seen.” The crowd seems, if anything, indifferent. In Luke’s account, there are No palms, no “Hosannas.” For him, this is just another day in dusty old Jerusalem.
But not for the Pharisees. They have made an uneasy arrangement with the Roman officials. If they keep the masses from raising any kind of messianic ruckus, the Romans won’t mess with their religious (meaning lucrative) authority. So in Luke’s story, they ask Jesus to curb his followers, to “keep it down.” And Jesus’ response is telling: “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Here’s the thing: that “triumphant” Palm Sunday ride through dusty old Jerusalem WAS a pageant. But it wasn’t the arrival of a “King” as many Israelites had been wishing and praying for for many years. It wasn’t a pageant celebrating the overturning of the Roman occupation by military or any other means. It wasn’t an economic payoff for following this guy around for three years, living off the kindness of strangers. It was not a celebration of finally the last becoming first and the first becoming last.
This was a pageant of God’s kind: a procession at once splendid and dreary. It was something to rejoice over and mourn about. It was a pageant that has played out over 20 centuries: of the strange love of God walking about on the earth, exhorting people to love and obey but forever hurt and despised; of God choosing people like those disciples, and like us, and living with the collective pain of never quite figuring it out or measuring up. But a pageant that is, at the last, triumphant. Not back then in dusty old Jerusalem; not now in the era of Trump and Putin and Maduro and Bolsonaro and Duterte. But in countless times and places where the dreary and the splendid coalesce only because of God’s faithfulness to us. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “Love will find a way; indifference will find an excuse.”
During the worst days of Cuba’s revolution – before the Castro government realized that the churches were not the enemy on the island – now-retired Pastor Hector Mendez of First Presbyterian Church in Havana recalls walking into the pulpit on Sunday morning and being greeted by three worshipers. Three. “Two of them were elderly women who didn’t care what the government could do to them for attending church,” Hector says. “The other was a government informant, who reported the content of my sermons to the government to see if I said anything seditious.” Today, worship at First Presbyterian Church in Havana is standing room only and people crowd the courtyard and the sidewalk out front to listen to the word of God.
Jesus told the Pharisees, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. I have been told by more than a few people that they experience the stones crying out when they visit Auschwitz; or the beach at Normandy; or the John Lennon memorial in Central Park; or the garden at Gethsemane just outside Jerusalem. We all have those “thin places,” where the stones cry out to us. There is a silence that is NOT golden: the silence of unbelief, of indifference to suffering; of hostility to the immigrant among us; of complacence with injustice; the silence of not caring, of timidity, of hesitancy.
Who knows what those disciples were expecting that day in dusty old Jerusalem. But whatever it was, they got way more. They got way different. They got forgiveness, and healing, and redemption, and a reason to live, and salvation. I lived during (and through) the Pet Rock craze. I’m sure there are thousands, heck, millions, of Pet Rocks out there, tucked away in basements, under beds, in closets, garages, sheds. Imagine if the next time you were silent – for any reason – in the face of God’s promises and demands – ALL those PET ROCKS cried out. Terrifying, right? FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T LET IT HAPPEN!
Lyrics by David Olney; music arranged by Emmylou Harris
Man, you should have seen me way back then ¾
I could tell a tale, I could really make it spin.
I could tell you black was white; I could tell you day was night;
Not only that ¾ I could tell you why.
Back then I could really tell a lie.
Well I’d hire a kid to say that he was lame;
Then I’d touch him and I’d make him walk again.
Then I’d pull some magic trick, I’d pretend to heal the sick.
I was taking everything they had to give.
It wasn’t all that bad a way to live.
Well I’m in this desert town and it’s hot as hell;
But no one’s buying what I got to sell.
I make my lame kid walk, I make a dumb guy talk.
I’m preaching up a storm both night and day,
But everyone just turns and walks away.
Well I can see that I am only wasting time
So I head across the road to drink some wine.
This old man comes up to me,
He says “I seen you on the street”;
You’re pretty good if I do say so myself,
But the guy that come thru here last month ¾
Man, he was something else.”
Instead of calling out for fire from above,
He just gets real quiet and talks about love.
And I’ll tell you something funny ¾
He didn’t want nobody’s money.
Now I’m not exactly sure what this all means;
But it’s the damndest thing I swear I’ve ever seen.
Well since that time each town is just the same;
I can’t make a dime, I don’t know why I came
I decide I’ll go and find him
And find out who’s behind him.
He has everyone convinced that he’s for real;
Well, I figure we can work us out a deal
So he offers me a job and I say fine;
He says I’ll get paid off on down the line.
Well, I guess I’ll string along;
Don’t see how too much can go wrong;
As long as he pays my way I guess I’ll follow.
We’re headed for Jerusalem tomorrow.