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"Who Will You Follow?" -- Matthew 21:1-11 (Palm Sunday)

Artwork: “Power Play” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity |

A Sanctified Art LLC | |

used with permission

We tell this Palm Sunday story every year – with its vivid sights and sounds. We enter into it. We join the crowd and wave our palms – we sing our Hosannas – every year, as we enter into Holy Week. We know the story by heart.[1] Jesus enters into Jerusalem riding on a donkey (or two) to shouts of “Hosanna!” usually reserved for a king. The people spread their cloaks on the road while others do the same with palm branches – it is a red-carpet arrival. “Hosanna! Hosanna! The Son of David! Jesus the prophet from Nazareth! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God!”

And, we know what will happen over the course of the week, so it’s not that difficult to imagine another procession on the other side of town – the arrival of Pontius Pilate on behalf of the Roman Empire – sent for this festival season to make sure the crowds don’t get out of hand – to make sure there’s no trouble – no uprising. It’s likely a very different procession – with the horses and the troops and the armor and the weaponry – as Pilate processes in, in what someone has called, “the gaudy glory of empire.”[2]

Two processions into Jerusalem on what we know is a collision course: (1) The crowds shout “Hosanna!” (2) Pontius Pilate takes his place on the seat of power. And Matthew says, “And the whole city was in turmoil.” In the Greek, it’s more “the whole city was shaken[3]something seismic is going on here.

We tell this story, every year. Last year, when I finished writing my Palm Sunday sermon, I had one question left over – and so I wrote it down – “for next year’s Palm Sunday” – and it was this: What happens to the crowd? It’s all fine and good to stand in this Palm Sunday moment – but we know what comes next – we know about Good Friday.

Between this moment and Good Friday, what happens to the crowd? What happens to the crowd that turns their shouts of “Hosanna!” into shouts of “Crucify him!”? That’s the question I want us to consider as we enter into the story this year: What happens to the crowd?

In this morning’s Scripture, the crowd is all in on the king thing. This is chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew – and Jesus has been out on the road for a while now, proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The crowd has heard of him – maybe folks in the crowd have seen him. Maybe they’ve heard him preach: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek and the merciful. Blessed are you.” Maybe they have witnessed his healing touch – as Matthew describes it, Jesus is “healing every disease and sickness among the people”[4] – just before this, two men born blind receive sight. Maybe some in the crowd were there when he fed 5,000. Or maybe, their hope has been stirred when they’ve heard Jesus say that the reign of those who wield power-over is done, and that the powerless are rising up.

And so the crowds acclaim him king – the Son of David – descended from the royal line. They shout “Hosanna! – Save us!”

Now, there are hints that this Jesus isn’t going to be king like the world might expect. In all this pomp, Matthew says that Jesus enters “humbly,” not with an army, not with power-over. And he enters on not just one, but two donkeys. Did you notice that? Unlike the other gospels, Matthew has two animals in this parade. Jesus sends two men to get two animals – a donkey and the foal of a donkey – a baby donkey. And he rides in on them. Now, set aside for a moment what that might literally look like. Literal is not the point. Matthew takes this Old Testament prophecy, this image – the king comes in on a donkey, establishes his reign – and, the king comes in on, what one writer calls, the “colt of a pack-animal” – a beast of burden – one who serves. Jesus is claiming and inaugurating a new order, not by violence, but by humble service.[5]

But the crowd sees a king,

and they shout “Hosanna!,”

and the city quakes.

So, what happens to the crowd that changes their song from "Hosanna!" to “Crucify him!”? Now, I started with a theory. We know that the city is in turmoil. We know that Jesus is about to provoke the powers – again and again, as he moves through the week – so my theory was that Jesus must do something that turns the crowd against him – he says something that’s just too radical – he turns one table too many in the Temple – and he loses the crowd – they turn on him.

I set out to test that theory – and kept reading past Palm Sunday – on into Holy Week, and what I found... was that I was wrong. That’s not what happens. To be sure, Jesus provokes the powers, and the powers don’t like it. Not one bit. But the crowd stays with him. Jesus turns the tables in the temple; he tells stories that suggest that those in power will lose power; he calls the authorities hypocrites; he pronounces woes against just about every power – and says, plain as day – the shaking of this city means that every stone is coming down.[6] Something seismic is happening here.

Now the authorities don’t like that. But there’s nothing that suggests that Jesus loses the crowd. In fact, the crowd seems to stick with him. The authorities and the powers decide early on to arrest him – that grows into a plan to kill him – but they don’t – because they are afraid of the crowds.

The crowds stay with Jesus... until... until.. a very particular moment on Good Friday. Jesus has been arrested, taken before Pontius Pilate, and Pilate says he really doesn’t see anything to charge this guy with – his wife warns him not to. But Pilate asks the crowd. There’s a tradition that during the festival, the people can have one prisoner released. And Pilate – having seen the crowd follow Jesus – asks, “Do you want this Jesus?

And Matthew says, “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas [another prisoner] to be freed and to have Jesus executed.” That’s where it happens. That’s where the crowd turns. The city is quaking – and a few people in concentrated power say the word, and the crowd’s “Hosannas!” turn to “Crucify him!” The old order strikes back, and the power of the crowd aligns with the power-over in the hands of those few, and the crushing power of empire grinds into gear.

There are folks who study crowds – Why do crowds do what crowds do – particularly when they turn to violence? There’s a theory that’s been around for a long while that “people in large crowds lose their sense of self and become emotionally impulsive and susceptible to others.”[7] Modern-day researchers critique that theory as insufficient: It leaves no room for personal responsibility – and, it doesn’t explain why so many protests don’t turn violent.[8]We know that during the Civil Rights movements, where protesters were grounded and trained in the practice of Non-Violent Direct Action, protesting crowds were able to remain nonviolent in the face of the worst that power has to offer – physical and verbal abuse at lunch counters, dogs and firehoses unleashed on protestors. We know that movements and crowds can also do great good.

Studying actual protests and crowds and riots, researchers now say that “crowds are neither inherently wise nor reckless. Instead, the attitudes and behavior of the crowd reflect the intentions that brought them together in the first place.”[9] Much depends on the sense of identity that individuals bring to the crowd; their sense of who they are, who they are following, and where they are going.[10] Where crowds are unmoored and drifting; or where they identify with leaders and systems that wield power-over and advocate violence, they are indeed susceptible to the influence of concentrated power in the hands of a few.

It’s not at all clear that the crowds who shout “Hosanna!” have a shared sense of who they are or of who they are following. What is more clear – is that they expect a king who will overthrow the existing powers by force. What is more clear is that they are still operating within those old systems of power-over, violence, and domination.

Stuck in those old systems of domination, with just a word from concentrated power in the hands of a few, they turn, and fall into line. They become part of the violence – a willing tool of the very system that does them harm.

We should be on high alert for efforts to concentrate power in the hands of a few, perpetuating the old systems of domination. We see that all over the world today. An autocrat in Russia launches a war that the world can’t stop because he wields the threat of nuclear holocaust. In Israel, we see an effort to consolidate power by crippling the judiciary – power seeking to wield that power unchecked. And of course, that particular power grab is aligned with attempted power grabs we see in our own nation – power grabs that try to invoke and incite the power of crowds.

We’ve seen that in the January 6 Insurrection.[11] A crowd gathers to protest election results. The would-be autocrat who has lost the election attempts to seize power back by provoking a crowd – tries to undermine and stop the constitutional transition of power. And a group who have come to do more – with concentrated power backed by Presidential goading and encouragement – turn the crowd into a violent mob who storm the Capitol, kill a police officer, and hunt down elected officials in the halls of Congress, including even the Republican Vice-President.

We’ve seen that in the past few weeks – the same playbook of the old order – as that same former president – when threatened with judicial process – begins to provoke his crowd – seeking to obstruct justice and shut down the judicial system.

This is how the old, crumbling structures of power work – for far too long it has been their playbook: We stay stuck in the old paradigms of violence, power-over, and domination. Without a clear alternative vision, the crowds are manipulated and become complicit in the brute power of the old order.

In this morning’s Scripture, as the city quakes, the crowd falls into line.

The only one who remains calm and steady is Jesus. Jesus knows who he is. Jesus has heard the voice saying, “You are my beloved Son.” And he knows where he is headed. He has told the crowd – and us – again and again what he has come to do. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for justice – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – they are inheriting the earth.” The crumbling old order has had its day. Jesus proclaims and inaugurates a brave new world – grounded not in domination -- but in mutuality of relationship and human dignity, where those who have been held down low, at long last, are being lifted up.

With clarity, Jesus knows where he is headed. He’s been telling us all along. He knows what the powers will do. “The Human One must suffer and be killed.” And he knows what God is doing, and “on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus knows that he is heading to the cross, and that when the powers have had their say, beyond the cross what lies ahead is Resurrection – life beyond what we could ever imagine – alive in the world – a brave new world – right here and now and forever. And so Jesus sets his face like flint – that image from this morning’s Psalm – Jesus sets his face like flint and moves into Holy Week.

I have preached a good number of sermons here.

· Sometimes in those sermons, we engage the big issues of the world, seeking justice;

· sometimes we talk about spiritual practices – prayer and mindfulness and silence – grounding ourselves in what is true;

· sometimes we talk about community and inclusion – God’s love embodied in our sustaining love and care for each other and the world;

· sometimes we talk about how to live our imperfect lives, day by day, by the grace of God.

Every bit of that, every bit of that, in some way or another is about being prepared for this moment. It's about being prepared for this moment and for every moment when life brings us challenges that seem too big to face. It’s about moving forward together, amid all the world’s noise and shouting, through a world that is shaking, with our face set like flint, knowing who we are, who we are following, and where we are headed. It’s about trusting and knowing that, by God’s grace, we will get there together – and live there together in this Brave New World that Resurrection is opening up, even now.

As the echo of the Hosannas fade, we move into Holy Week, following Jesus –

knowing what lies ahead –

knowing whose we are and who we follow –

knowing that everything that lies ahead is life.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on this text, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp.400-06; Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976), pp. 202-03; O. Wesley Allen, Jr.,, Commentary in Connections, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), pp.111-13; Bruce Reyes-Chow, Commentary in Lenten materials from A Sanctified Art. [2] See H. Stephen Shoemaker, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp. 153-57, citing Borg and Crossan, The Last Week (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 1-5. These two processions are reflected in the featured artwork this week (see above), “Power Play.” See Artist Statement by Lisle Gynn Garrity, [3] Waetjen, pp.202-03 [4] Matthew 4:22-25. [5] See Waetjen, pp.202-03; Allen, pp. 111-12. [6] See Boring, p.401, for a summary chronology of Holy Week in the Gospel of Matthew. [7] See Seamus A. Power, “What Keeps a Crowd from Becoming a Mob?” Scientific American, at; see also Benedict Carye, “Making Sense of Mob Mentality, New York Times, Jan. 12, 2021, (quoting the originator of this theory: “The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed.”). [8] An informative summary of this evolution in thought is included in a study commissioned by the City of Seattle to better understand policing methods (and clashes) in a crowd/protest context. See “Crowd psychology, policing and interactional dynamics: analyzing the early stages of the 2020 protests in the city of Seattle,” . (“This relatively new theoretical model [-- the Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behavior (ESIM) --] portrays collective behavior in crowds as meaningful to those involved and as social action made possible through a shared group membership that is psychologically salient among participants. Far from losing rationality through assumed anonymity, crowd participants are understood to psychologically reorient toward a shared contextually defined sense of group membership.”). [9] Seamus A. Power, “What Keeps a Crowd from Becoming a Mob?” Scientific American, at [10] See id.; Catherine A. Sanderson, “Psychological Factors Help Explain the January 6th Insurrection,” Psychology Today, [11] See Carey, supra.


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