NRSV MATTHEW 21:1-11
21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
It’s Palm Sunday, just like every other year. The Sunday before Easter, the start of Holy Week; the procession, whether we re-enact it or not; the palms, whether we shake them or not. We don’t get palms here like we used to for a variety of reasons, but it is still Palm Sunday, just like it is every year at this time.
It’s Palm Sunday, unlike every other year. There will be no parades, no waving of palm branches, no hearkening back in memory to when so and so was here with us to celebrate this day. No one to irritate with our palms. No one to join us in singing out our Hosannas. No one meeting for worship in the Sanctuary at all since … well, we cannot remember. It may be Palm Sunday, but not like any other year.
By now we are getting tired of it. Of the self-isolation. Of being stuck in our houses. Of one day being pretty much the same as the others. Of hearing over and over again about how bad this coronavirus is and how much worse it is going to get.
We are tired of hearing about it even as we know that we need the reminder. We may know we need it because too many people haven’t begun to put the practices suggested by the CDC or the World Health Organization into practice. We hear over and over again about gatherings at the beach, parties, people meeting as if nothing has changed, that life is business as usual.
But life is not business as usual, and it won’t be for some time. And those who think it is, that they can flaunt the rules and just carry on like always, stand the danger not just of making themselves sick but of being the carriers of the virus to those they love.
But maybe we are tired of hearing that, too. We know it’s bad but we are getting tired of hearing that this is all we can do, to just stay put, to stay in our homes, to stay away from worship. Maybe our lives need a little jolt. Maybe we need something that will remind us that being made different is still possible for us in our quarantines.
So welcome to Palm Sunday.
It’s a day that marks a parade, of course. But not like any parade. It’s people being welcomed into Jerusalem, the Holy city, for the great religious festival of Passover. Pilgrims were often greeted with palms and great celebrations for finishing the long trek to the city. In those days before jet planes and tour groups and highways, making this pilgrimage was no easy thing. The tired pilgrims could use a celebration.
But of course this was no ordinary pilgrim. Those who are wondering who this person is that is stirring up all this fuss are answered with, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth, in Galilee.” That’s it. No spectacular announcement. Just another prophet, from the boondocks up north.
But by the time he penned these words Matthew and his community knew something else. This was the one who was the fulfillment of their Messianic expectations. You can tell that by reading Matthew’s citations of Isaiah and Zechariah all lumped together. Matthew does that, you know; over and over again. Always going back to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament we call them. He goes back there because he is writing on behalf of a group of Christians who are steeped in that tradition. He goes there because he wants them and others who are not so sure about this Jesus of Nazareth to know that this was not just another guy who lived and who worshipped and who met a bad end. Jesus was the fulfillment of their dreams and hopes, and Matthew goes looking in his Bible for the texts that demonstrate that.
For Matthew, for us, something different was happening that day. It is not found in the rather peculiar description of Jesus riding two animals. That can be easily explained – in the Hebrew there was a pattern of using two terms to describe the same animal. Matthew, writing centuries after those words were originally penned, kept the description in there, which many of us think is the rather awkward picture of Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt. For the original writers there was one animal, and there was repetition to emphasize that the person riding was no ordinary human being.
The one riding in was no less than a king. But kings in those days usually rode into towns in conquest, on a horse, usually with a sword unsheathed to make sure everyone knew who was in power, who was in control. But Jesus doesn’t ride in power. Jesus comes riding in humility, on a donkey. Jesus does not ride into Jerusalem in triumph; he rides in humility.
For the people then and for the people now, we would rather Jesus ride in triumph. Come on, Jesus, ride in and throw out those Roman occupiers that oppress us, the original audience might have said. For us in our time, there is a whole list of oppressors we want Jesus to overthrow. Come on Jesus, ride into our lives and get rid of this virus, over throw its power so that we can get out of our houses and back into our sanctuaries, so we can get back to work and make money, and shore up the economy.
I’m not knocking the need for us to get back to life as normal and be productive. These days my retirement plans are taking as big a hit as anyone else’s. But that is not what Jesus is riding into Jerusalem for. He is not riding in to put everything back the way it was. He is riding in to transform things, to transform people. He is riding in to completely turn things around. Nothing will be the same once Jesus rides into Jerusalem this way.
By the end of this week, everyone will know that. That’s why this day has another name – Passion Sunday. In some places the long story of Jesus’ passion is read instead of this story. We usually do that on Maundy Thursday, with the Tenebrae service. We’re working on how to mark that even in these days of social distancing, but here in these words there is something else.
It says that when Jesus came into Jerusalem, “…the whole city was in turmoil…” The Greek word used here is the one used for earthquakes; for shattering, breaking apart, the movement of the earth in ways that change everything – usually not for the better.
When the passion story is read, and the crucifixion of Jesus is told once again in Matthew, we will hear that the earth shock, rocks were split, graves were opened, and those of the past paraded through the city. The curtain of the temple was torn in two as that happened, an event whose importance might escape us. But the curtain was the dividing line between people and God. Only the most holy of priests could go beyond the curtain. But that dividing line, that curtain, was now torn in two. The dividing line between God and people is torn apart, broken down … by the love of God coming to be crucified in the world. Things will never be the same.
Jesus comes riding into the holy city, he comes riding in on an animal that symbolized peace and humility; and he comes as the people shout and sing, “Hosanna!” It’s a word that in its original Hebrew means, “save us,” but here it is said and sung as a statement of praise. And yet I wonder if the original meaning of that word might not be more on our lips these days. Save us, O God. Save us, Lord Jesus. Save us, Holy Spirit. Save us, protect us, help us, O Lord. How many times have we said that over the last month and a half?
It is Palm Sunday like every other year, and yet not like any other year. Because this time around there is no parade or procession or even palms; but there is Jesus. He comes riding, and not unlike he did that day long ago. He comes riding into our lives this Palm Sunday not with an inoculation against the virus, not with a return to life as normal. His coming into the Jerusalems of our lives is anything but normal. He comes riding in to defeat the powers of death, the powers of oppression, even, yes, the powers of a virus. But Jesus does it his way. He does it on a symbol of peace and humility. He comes riding into our lives not to get rid of our pain, but to join us in the midst of it. To be with us in our quarantines, in our loneliness, in our misery. Jesus comes to be one with us in the middle of the toughest times of our lives, and in his presence we find a peace would never have found otherwise. In a piece written this last week Father Richard Rohr reflected: “My life is not about me. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger ministry. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it.”
In the chaos of our lives and of our times, in the uncertain future of a Holy Week that leads to the cross, Jesus come riding in to be one with us in our chaos, in our isolation. But he comes bringing a peace that Jan Richardson wrote about when she penned:
To all that is chaotic
let there come silence.
Let there be
of the clamoring,
of the voices that
have laid their claim
that have made their
home in you,
that go with you
even to the
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
or feel the grace
that fashioned you.
Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm. Amen.