Palms and Prayers and not the way we'd do it
I fessed up to a couple of people this week that I feel really really silly on Palm Sunday. I feel silly leading the parade, embarrassed waving my palm – not quite unabashed enough to wave it with flourish and devil-may-care attitude, but not wanting to just timidly tip it back and forth. I feel some pressure to lead this thing, and it makes me begin to wonder what we are even celebrating at all. Ironically, the people I confessed this to said they didn’t really feel silly doing it; it’s just what we do on Palm Sunday.
This is the only biblical story that we feel compelled – across virtually all denominations and in all places, I might add – to reenact as an entire congregation. This day, across the nation in churches big and small, countless whole congregations are doing some version of this procession and singing some form of Hosanna to kick off their worship. It’s only natural, apparently. We are in this story. We are the crowd, we see ourselves in them, somehow. So much so, that many of us do not find it embarrassing to wave those palms – it’s just what we do.
But why? We don’t reenact other crowd scenes. We don’t cross a fake red sea or pretend to pass baskets of loaves and fishes when we tell the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. We don’t emulate the same mob we’re copying today, when their yelling becomes “Crucify Him!” in a couple of days. It’s not like reenacting crowd scenes is something we do in church on a regular basis.
There is something about this moment – the celebration as Jesus passes – each person reacting and interacting with the possibility Jesus represents, before it all goes dark and gloomy, that we can step into. And it’s more than just the simplistic celebration of it.
In this scene they are saying something true, about themselves and about the world and most importantly about Jesus – who he is and what he’s about. But they don’t really know they are. In their minds they are saying one thing- here comes the guy that’s going to overthrow Rome! Hooray for the promised one who is coming in power to deliver us from our oppressors!
The words they use are the same the angels sing to peasant shepherds on a hillside announcing that God is breaking in, that God has come to share this life with you and me, that something irreversible is about to take place- “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth!”
And then the crowd projects onto Jesus everything they want Jesus to be – king, deliverer, conqueror, redeemer, worthy of all glory, laud and honor, even if he is only riding on a donkey and not being drawn by a team of horses in an ornate carriage,
even if he is wearing peasant garb instead of dressed in robes of royalty, even if his procession is made up of children and day workers and the sick and broken seeking healing, instead of dignitaries flanked by guards in polished silver, even if the authorities are hiding away plotting his death instead of rolling out the red carpet and setting out the feast to welcome him to town. They see Jesus as they want him to be, and ignore all the inconsistencies before their eyes.
But then, it’s kind of always been this way with him, hasn’t it? Messiahs are supposed to be heroic, brave and strong and striking and larger than life and not really in any way weak or ordinary or foolish. But he was born in a smelly barn in a thrown-together moment of making-do, to a shamed girl and her frightened husband, and he was celebrated and welcomed by nobody shepherds and suspect foreigners. And now, this moment of triumph, this debut to all the world, is mirroring the first announcement and debut in its last-minute, rinky-dink wrongness.
But all along God is seeking to give up power and take on humanity. Real, raw, basic, dirty, complicated and dying humanity. And so this moment declares that God is breaking in, God has come to share this life with you and me, and something irreversible is about to take place. But just maybe not like you think.
If they were designing a savior, he would ride into town and materialize an army – human or angelic, and bring vengeance and justice and take down their oppressors – preferably humiliating them in the process.
Even the religious leaders who told him to silence his disciples – if they were doing this thing – which they would never be caught dead doing – they would have a bit more decorum, and they’d step way back from the line of blasphemy and idiocy and handle themselves more properly, devoutly. So Jesus, get your people in line.
And I must say, If I were God – a kind of risky game to play but go with me here – if I were God, I would NOT have done it this way either. There would NOT have been a ridiculous parade at the beginning and a cross at the end of this week. I would not have done it in such an ugly, tragic, cruel and base way.
It would be cleaner and softer. I’d make the world a guest room with crisp sheets and a thick comforter and flowers in a vase and warm, homemade scones waiting on a tray. And the world would just get it, just apologize and forgive and choose love, and come and have a nice warm bath and put on a big fluffy robe and tuck in for the night and I’d make a huge pancake brunch in the morning. That’s how I’d bring salvation.
If we were saving the world, let’s face it, we’d all do it differently. We’d accost the world Robin Hood style, relieving the rich of their horded wealth and delivering it triumphantly to the poor so they could be fed and clothed and nobody would be hungry or in need.
Or we’d convert the world to our own faith, or our own version of our own faith, so any arguing would cease in the pervasive daze of agreement and happy conformity. Done, salvation.
If we were saving the world we would immediately cure cancer and wipe disease from the face of the earth through some miraculous ingenuity and generosity, and everyone would have access to any medicine they needed at any time, and it would always work. Saved. You’re welcome.
Or we’d summon the world to our office and close the door and have a respectful, firm and informative conversation that would change the world’s mind and open the world’s eyes, and the world would leave enlightened and empowered and it would waste not, want not, reduce, reuse, recycle and start taking family vacations and stop taking mood-altering substances.
Or we’d put the world into a deep sleep and give the world a life-changing dream, everyone simultaneously, and the world would wake up and pile all their weapons on a big bonfire and sing cumbaya and roast marshmallows over its embers and give each other carpool rides home afterwards. Salvation complete.
But not this way. This is embarrassing. And horrifying.
I would bet not a one of us in this room would choose to ride a donkey straight through people’s wildly wrong expectations and competing agendas, into controversy and conflict, politics and power - not once calling any of them wrong or defending your reputation, intentions or very life, by the way - and submit to whatever comes of it.
How does God do salvation? Way back at the beginning, when God spoke existence into being, and in the relentless attempt to be close to humanity, to crawl inside the experience and share it with us, to ensure that we are not alone, to break down whatever keeps us from being who God created to be, this is the plan God chose to go to- to live with us and die for us. Who would’ve believed it? Did the angels in heaven join in the celebration the street that day? How silent was the shock of the cosmos when it led to the cross?
Like it or not, the parade of Palms finds its response in the cross. And as the people gathered there to see him and shouted out their praise - in all their hope and anticipation, their fear and desperation, their need and all the expectations and assumptions that they waved before them when he rode by on his donkey, God heard them, as God has always hears them, and God answered. The answer is just not one we would choose. It is not our answer. It is God’s answer to us.
And this is not unlike prayer, actually, which has been our focus throughout all of Lent. And it occurs to me now, that maybe when we pray, we lift up all our own ideas about what we think will save us and we wave them around in God’s face, and we even tell God, from time to time, what would work best, in our humble opinion. And God takes all of that into Godself, and does it God’s way instead.
I will enter right into your prayers, I will take them all deep into myself, I will let them crush me. And God takes those prayers, whatever they may be, however pure or selfish their intention, however well spoken or wordless, and bears within Godself all life and death itself, for us.
And I, for one, feel a brief moment of wanting to stop God – like, wait, God, not that, ok? Isn’t there another way? I can think of all sorts of better ways, why this?
And God, who came to share EVERYTHING with us, shares even this sentiment, a few days after this scene, when Jesus, sweating blood he’s so freaked out and shaken up about what’s coming, prays his own prayer begging that there be another way. Because instead of all the strong and sexy and sterile ways we’d bring salvation, all pain-free and perfect and completely outside our experience as human beings, God chose to do it this way: vulnerable, weak, messy, and foolish, letting what breaks us break God too.
So today our palms are our prayers. We pray because God has invited us to - to wave before Jesus our hearts on our sleeves. And our own schemes and hopes for salvation, while perhaps misguided, reflect our need and our hunger and our longing - for healing and wholeness, for reconciliation and forgiveness, for things to be made right. And God hears our prayers.
And also, like the crowd gathered there that day, when we pray, we say something true, sometimes without realizing it, even when it doesn’t feel like it, even when we don’t believe it, even when we KNOW we will turn our back on it at one point or another. When we bring our prayers to God we say something true even despite our own betrayal and shame, our own doubt and fear, our own apathy and selfishness. We stand here with our palms and our prayers and we actually say something true: that God is breaking in, that God has come to share this life with you and me, that something irreversible is about to take place-
So, Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace on earth and blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
(This message was adapted and updated, and is the newer version is posted at "Not Our Way" March 29, 2015)