I remember as a kid, Palm Sunday always felt a little ... out of place. I could tell that Lent was serious, even somber. And then all of a sudden, there we were, parading through church, singing, celebrating, waving palms, and shouting “Hosanna!” It was almost like Easter. But then we plunged right back into somber – with the gravity of the rest of Holy Week and Good Friday.
Since seminary, I’ve learned that we actually have a choice – we can think of this Sunday as Palm Sunday – focusing on Jesus’ triumphal entry. Or we can think of it as Passion Sunday (Passion in thesuffering sense of that word – like com-passion – suffering with). With Passion Sunday, we focus not so much on the triumphal entry, but on Jesus’ suffering in the garden, and in the courtroom, and on the cross. And that choice feels somehow odd too. We can think of today as EITHER Palm Sunday – with its ironic hope – OR as Passion Sunday – with its suffering and pain.
I suggest we consider them both, as we move toward communion.
Now the first thing I notice, though, is the crowd. And I think: “Y’all need to stay home. Y’all need to do your social distancing. Y’all need to stay six feet apart.” And then I snap out of it. But I have to say, oh, what I would give for us to be able to be in a big crowd– I’d just love the freedom to go join a good protest right about now.
But that’s their world, and this crowd has been popping up throughout the Gospel of Matthew. They’ve followed Jesus out in the wilderness to be baptized. They’ve listened to him preach his Sermon on the Mount – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are those who mourn.” They’ve been miraculously fed – thousands of them – twice. And here they are. Laying down palms in the street – shouting “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a donkey and a colt. They’re thinking, “maybe, maybe this is the one.” The one who can change everything.
The scene is set up to look like a triumphal military parade – like the Roman army, with their chariots entering a vanquished city – or our modern day equivalent – with tanks rolling in. But I like the way that Katie Hines-Shah describes it in the Christian Century. She says if this is supposed to be about a show of power, then “Jesus gets it all wrong.
Instead of entering Jerusalem on a tank, Jesus rides in on a tractor.”
And we realize that this parade isn’t so much about a display of power-over. It’s more like Dr. King gathering a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial to defy and dismantle the power of white supremacy. It’s more like Gandhi, marching with thousands to the sea to make salt, to defy and drive out an empire. This gathering is a flash point, that rises up out of the hard realities of their lives, in the long arc of collective action that will lead to a better day. Maybe that’s why Palm Sunday felt so out of place to me years ago. It’s this shout of hope – in the midst of a hard, hard world. And after the shout, they are still there in those hard realities – they carry that hope, back into their world of bare-subsistence living, back into their world of imperial violence, back into their world of hurting and harm.
That’s the world that Jesus keeps moving into as he enters Holy Week and the story of the passion – the suffering – that unfolds from this point on. The religious leaders go after Jesus. They do everything they can to trap him. Jesus is betrayed by a f