Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Year C (2019)
By Michelle Bullock
Over the last five weeks of Lent, we’ve walked through the Way of Love together, learning what it means to turn, to pray, to learn, to bless and to rest. Today, we talk about what it means to worship.
In the Episcopal Church, when we use the word worship, we mean the practice of gathering with others before God to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, give thanks, confess, pray, and break bread. When we worship, we believe that we are made one, and that we are called to then go out into the world to practice the Way of Love. (1)
Now, I’ll be honest with you, I struggled through how to preach a sermon on worship with so many texts. I mean, sure, we can point to Palm Sunday as a worshipful time, but what about all the other readings that are so full of suffering and even a crucifixion? That’s heavy.
Well, a few weeks ago, I attended a Music that Makes Community workshop. (2) For an entire day, we learned new ways to bring song into worship. At the end of the day, we sang a beautiful song called “With My Voice Alone.” (3) The song talks about the small impact of one voice, but the power of many voices combined. I thought, that’s it! That’s what worship is! Worship is the gathered voices of many who then give us the strength to go out together and walk in the way of love.
I’d like to share a little bit of that song with you, as we walk with Jesus from the gates of Jerusalem, all the way to the cross.
With my voice alone, there is little I can do. Add your voice to mine—what more can two voices do? If we gather more and more, we become a mighty roar, our voices loud and strong, speaking out against all wrong.
When I think of Palm Sunday, I usually picture Jesus on a donkey, with coats on the road in front of him, and lots of palm branches waving every which way as people sing Hosanna. To be honest, it also reminds me of countless hours of weaving palm fronds into hundreds of crosses with my youth group, but I digress.
When I was in seminary, my worship professor changed my picture of Palm Sunday. He explained that Pilate lived in Caesarea (about 70 miles away from Jerusalem) and only came to Jerusalem when it was necessary. Passover, which was a feast remembering the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from oppression in Egypt, brought thousands upon thousands of religious pilgrims into the city. So, it was necessary for Pilate travel to Jerusalem in order to maintain peace.
When Pilate arrives in Jerusalem, he comes in through the main Western gate on a war horse, accompanied by an entourage of soldiers. During this symbolic Feast of Freedom, Pilate sends a strong message to the Jewish people that Rome was in charge and that any counter narrative would be crushed. (4)
When Jesus enters Jerusalem, he does not enter in haphazardly through the most convenient gate, or ask for a colt because he is tired of walking. No—Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was carefully planned as a counter-narrative that challenged the Roman power and authority. Jesus comes in through the opposite gate of Pilate—the Eastern gate—the gate the Hebrew scriptures said the Messiah would enter. Jesus did not ride in on a war horse, a symbol of military might, but instead he chose a colt that symbolized meekness and peace. (5 & 6)
The Jewish people are familiar with all of these symbols, and so when they shout the Hosanna Psalms as Jesus arrives, they name Jesus Lord, a title reserved for the Emperor alone. Luke says it wasn’t just one or two people shouting after Jesus, it was a “whole multitude of the disciples” and they were loud.(7) Their words are political and they are dangerous. When the Pharisees try to stop the disciples from shouting, perhaps seeing the danger and trying to keep the peace, Jesus responds, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." (8) Jesus and the crowd are standing together with their voices against Rome’s oppression.
With my strength alone, there is little I can do. Add your strength to mine—what more can our forces do? Gathering all our strength as one, we can move a stubborn stone, and with our power combined, tear down each dividing wall.
Rabbi Amy-Jill Levine says “[t]he salvation for most of the Scriptures of Israel is not about spiritual matters, but about physical ones.” (9) The crowd is crying out that Jesus is the one who deliver them from their oppression. "The crowd…wants what we all want. It wants political reform; it wants a meek king; it wants compassion rather than conquest. It wants a balanced budget, affordable health care, a strong military, clean water, peaceful streets, lower taxes, good schools…”(10)
But, here’s the rub, “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” in the Psalms is not a king that does everything alone. [The] Psalms insist that kings must rely on God,” and not only that, but “[t]hey must also rely on the people to carry out God’s will." (11)
As Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem ends, so do the loud voices of praise. As the story continues, the disciples begin to miss the point, fall asleep, or move to the sidelines.
As Jesus moves closer to the cross, he tries to leave his disciples with the practices we’ve been learning about in the way of love-- to turn, to pray, to learn, to bless, to rest, to worship and to go. But the disciples misstep all over the place. When Jesus instructs them on how to remember him in the bread and wine—they aren’t’ soaking it in. They are sitting around the table one-upping each other and arguing over who is the greatest.
When Jesus is in the garden pouring out his heart in honest, gut wrenching prayer, he asks the disciples to stay awake and pray. The heaviness of Jesus’ disposition and the fear of what he’s told them is about to happen puts them to sleep. They aren’t strong enough to stay awake. They turn themselves off. They check out. (12)
And what about Peter? Oh dear Peter, who confidently says he’ll never deny Jesus, but that same night he denies Jesus three times. I can’t help but wonder if Peter might have responded differently if he had not been on his own, away from the other followers who might have stood with him to say “yes, we know Jesus.” Instead, he’s left to answer in fear all by himself. Surely playing in Peter’s head is Jesus’ warning, “If you follow me, then you better be ready to take up an actual cross and die on it, because that’s where I’m going.” How could he answer to that alone?
I think there is good reason that we pray and make our confession together in worship each Sunday, saying “we believe.” Aren’t there times, especially when we feel the world is accusingly knocking at our door, that we need each other’s strength and confidence to keep praying and to keep confessing our faith?
But, friends, please don’t miss that Peter’s story does not end here. He went out and “wept bitterly,” as Jesus said he would, but we also know that just as Jesus said, Peter went out to strengthen the faith of his brothers and became the rock on which the church was built. (13) Peter repented of his failings and joined his community to change the world.
Isn’t that what should happen when we worship together—we pray, repent, we bless one another, and we go out in the world to proclaim, bless and serve?
With my heart alone, there is little I can do. Add your heart to mine—what more can our two hearts do? Joining all our hearts in love, we ask God for grace enough to open prison doors, letting the oppressed go free.
In our worship today, we give thanks and sing Hosanna, but then we keep walking into Holy Week, a story that is so painful that it is easy to look away and skip ahead to Easter Sunday.
Friends, I ask you to be brave this week. Gather with others and walk all the way to the cross with Jesus. Joining your hearts together, may you listen, give thanks, confess, pray, and break bread. And as we encounter the resurrected Jesus—who sets us free—may we find the strength to lift our voices together to speak out against all wrong, to tear down each dividing wall, and to let the oppressed go free into a new life of resurrection. That, my friends, is how we walk the Way of Love with the King of Peace.
1. 2018. “The Way of Love: Worship.” The Episcopal Church. 2018. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love/practice/worship.
2. 2018. “Music That Makes Community.” Music That Makes Community. 2018. https://www.musicthatmakescommunity.org/.
4. Levine, Amy-Jill. 2018. Entering the Passion of Jesus [Large Print] (p. 23). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition. Page 23.
5. Dr. Moore. August 2009. Liturgy: Christian Worship Notes. Duke Divinity School.
6. Thomas, Debie. 2018. “Parade or Protest?” Journey with Jesus. March 18, 2018. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1708-parade-or-protest.
7. Luke 19:37.
8. Luke 19:40.
9. Levine, 32.
10. Levine, 35.
11. Levine, 34.
12. Levine, 133.
13. Luke 22: 62.