Preached Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be seen, not read. Watch this sermon here.
Today is Palm Sunday. And thus begins our Holy Week journey with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem today, to the Last Supper and betrayal of Maundy Thursday, to the horror of Good Friday, the desolate mourning of Holy Saturday, and the triumphant resurrection of Easter Sunday. This is a great day in the life of the church, and so is Easter next Sunday. If you come to the 10 am service next Sunday…come early. It will be spectacular. But please do not just come to our Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday services. You miss most of the story if you do. Just going from glory to glory leaves out the meat…the part that is hardest to face, yes, but also the part that makes resurrection that much sweeter. So join us on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this week, too.
The celebration of Palm Sunday is always a little mawkish and macabre because most of us have heard this story so many times, we know what happens next. Sort of like a movie we know the gruesome tragic ending to, and so we cringe even when we watch the happy part at the beginning.
First, Jesus, a newly popular prophet (which means truth-teller) has his disciples go and steal a donkey and a colt. That’s right, Jesus asks his people to swipe livestock. He says, if anyone asks why you are taking these, just say “the Lord needs them.” (And friends, please don’t try this at home next time you need a mode of transportation. Saying “the Lord needs this Tesla” at the car dealership probably won’t work as a method of payment.)
The disciples then bring the donkey and the colt to Jesus, and spread coats over them to soften his seat. Then they spread cloaks and palms on the road to soften his path. That is how the people show God honor: by softening the path he travels.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him. They cried out Hosanna! Which means “I beg you to save!” In the procession were all those in need of salvation: the religious outcasts and the inner circle, those on the margins, the lepers and the lame, the strangers, the aliens, the prostitutes, the homeless, the sick. Kind of a scrappy bunch of sinners and saints, hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women, the healed ones and the ones still in need of healing. You know, just like us. Just like our scrappy banged up band of sinners and saints here in this church. All being led by the blessed king who comes in the name of the Lord.
It truly was a great celebration, a pop-up merry band. And in hindsight it just looks shameful. Because this same crowd will spit on Jesus, jeer at him, mock him, and laugh at him while he’s crucified by the Roman authorities just days later.
I always think of the scene in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday. The ensemble in the musical sings a rather sinister-sounding song in celebration of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem: “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna sanna ho, sannah ho sannah hey sannah, hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me, Sanna ho sanna hey Superstar?” T.S. Eliot says that “the last act is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
They sing that song as if they are cheering for him, but for all the wrong reasons. Smile at me, Jesus! Fight for me Jesus!
The real story of Palm Sunday is not about the crowds, though. It is about the Humble King they cheer for.
Jesus’ kingly celebration was different than others. There were no fancy saddles and horses and chariots for Jesus…just a donkey with some coats laid over it to ease his seat. This procession didn’t look at all like a kingly procession—there was no gleaming armor or guards or weapons. Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was.
And whatever the reason for their cheering, the crowd had the humility that day to make his path soft. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, they made the path soft. They didn’t care if their coats got ruined by donkey hoofs and excrement. They didn’t care if they never got the dirt and dust off of their fur coat or prized Patriots jacket or robe and stole again. They threw their palms and maybe even their hopes and their hearts into the path along with them. Hosanna! I beg you to save!
Today we make the path soft for Jesus, our Humble King, because we, too, are in need of salvation.
We start by admitting we are no different than the crowd gathered that day. We’d like to believe we’d make a different choice, of course. But humility requires admitting that we are just as likely to cheer for Jesus, as we are to turn on him. We are just as likely to raise up our leaders and then rip them down. We are just as likely to betray our deepest held values, and even the people we love the most.
What the world needs right now is more people admitting that they are capable of being wrong. Make God's path soft. What the world needs right now is people who are willing to put aside their own pride. Make God's path soft. What the world needs right now is people willing to admit over and over again that they are not God. Now, more than ever. Make God's path soft.
On this Palm Sunday, more than ever, we need a reminder that we serve and follow a Humble King. Make his path soft.
The problem is none of us particularly like humility, if we’re being honest. Humility is not a character trait we herald in our kings. We want our kings to be tough and raging. Manly. Invulnerable. Like we wish we were. We want our kings to fight with the people we think are wrong. To call the cheering crowd righteous, and the jeering crowd a basket full of deplorables. To take down our enemies in war, or on Twitter.
But the scriptures tell us that the easiest way to know God is through his Son Jesus. And so we know that raging, power-hungry, murderous Kings are not God. That’s humanity. Ann Lamott says that we can trust we have made God into an idol if God hates all the same people that we do. We are raging, jealous, and vengeful, but that’s not God. We worship a God who loves without stopping to inquire who is worthy of it. We worship a God who demands that we love each other the same wasteful way we are loved. We worship a God who forgives even as he empties himself on the cross. We worship a God who rides the road of humility.
So let us make his path soft.
And let us make the path soft for one another. The people sitting next to you here in this church, or out driving on the highway, or in line with you at the grocery store—these people are all opportunities to see and know Christ. And so we must make the path soft for one another. Throw off whatever you are hiding under that coat you are wearing and put it on the ground. Practice humility.
Of course this is easy for me, since I am the most humble person I know.
For those of you who are new to us, this 300-plus member Christian church is the most theologically diverse church I know of. We are the result of all of the town churches coming together during World War II—the Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Unitarians. As a result, we have every denomination here. We have atheists, agnostics, a large percentage of recovering Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists. We have rather Conservative Christians who believe that Christ is the only way to salvation, and your average progressive Christians who love hippie Jesus. We have Unitarians, Trinitarians, not-sure-and-don’t-care-itarians. We even have some Jews and Buddhists. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. And mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
Navigating our religious differences is often both difficult and transformative. At our best, we learn from each other’s faith by being open to try new things, by singing each other’s hymns, by remaining flexible, and by using humor, especially when we screw it up. It requires a great deal of grace.
When I first got here, I thought I was pretty awesome. The first called and settled female minister to serve First Church, I was right out of divinity school and feeling pretty smart and holy.
I was just getting to know everyone, and the quirkiness of First Church. “Oh, I can do theological diversity,” I kept saying to everyone. “It’s fun.” I think I prided myself in being able to like, minister to the whole world with the ease of Jesus himself. I was disabused of that myth quickly.
One of my delightful, irreverent deacons who shall remain nameless described herself to me when we first met as a gun-toting, Fox News watching Conservative Baptist. She and I were serving communion together by intinction one day early in my ministry here. When I went to serve her the bread and cup, I placed bread in her hand and said, “this is the bread of life for you. And I held up the silver cup and said, “this is the cup of hope.”
And she looked at me with steely eyed determination and said, “No. This is the cup of SALVATION, Pastor.” And dipped her bread in the cup with a smile that said, “don’t give me that liberal crap of yours’. I’m getting into heaven with this grape juice.”
“That’s what I meant,” I said quickly. “This is the cup of salvation.”
I never made that mistake again. She taught me something about humility that day, and therefore brought me closer to God. She reminded me that I’m not the one in charge; none of us are. She reminded me that maybe we all need a little saving. She reminded me that like the grape juice we serve instead of wine, sometimes hope’s not always a strong enough cure for what ails us. Hosanna! I beg you to save.
We make the path soft for Jesus when we make the path soft for each other.
St. Paul’s letter to the Phillippians instructs us:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
As we journey with Jesus on Holy Week, follow the humble path. Follow a savior who would enter Jerusalem to preach and heal and save, despite his fate. Follow the path of a God who would rather climb up on a cross and die to show us how loved we are than to save himself. Follow the path of a savior who instead of choosing anger and scorn at the tormenters in the crowd, instead said, “forgive them, father. They know not what they do.”
Make his path soft.
This Holy Week, remember how much you are beloved by God despite your tendency toward pride and hypocrisy. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Listen to one another not always for agreement, but for understanding. Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Let us not regard our belovedness by God as something to be exploited.
Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord. His steadfast love endures forever.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.