Hosannah! In the highest! It can be so much fun to take part in a Palm Sunday procession, even if it is not a tradition we grew up with. We get caught up in the excitement of imagining that we are part of the crowds greeting Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem. Singing hosanna and All glory laud and honor allow us to experience the triumph of his triumphant entry to the city, as people acclaimed him their King, the Savior and the Messiah. Jesus has proclaimed a new vision of the reign of God and the people welcome it.
After two full years of pandemic stress and turnarounds, economic and political crises, shut downs, pivots, and re-openings, a palm procession is refreshing, isn’t it? It has the feels of hope and joy, holiday church, promise. We have been seeking peace and some serenity and this may feel like an opening in the wall of stress that has been oppressing us.
And in a short while, after prayers and holy communion, for this last Sunday in Lent, the Passion Gospel of Luke will offer us another story of kingship, marred by violence, suffering, and terror. Years ago in another parish, a little girl came to me after the Passion was read and she said Did you hear what they did to Jesus? Yes, dear, I heard that. And her little lip trembled. It was wrong. It was not fair. Instead of a new kingdom, the old empire dispenses a cruel mockery of justice and silences the weak and poor. Those in power cling to it as the whole world seems to tremble with fear at the crime against Jesus. We know this terrible story too well, even in our time. We have our own story of autocratic despots, violence, and victims of the powerful and rich. We may find ourselves standing uncomfortably with the fickle crowd or the fearful friends, with the betrayer or the coward, abandoning Jesus when security is in jeopardy. There is no shortage of treachery on earth.
When we contrast the vision of Palm gospel with the narrative of the Passion gospel, the dissonance we feel is not resolved by finding someone to blame: Judas, the Temple authorities, the Romans. Does it matter? All sin falls short of the glory of God. The question for us is what shall we do about it. The resolution to our discomfort actually lies beyond the purely spiritual arena. It is predictable to recommend that we enter into the spiritual disciplines of our tradition, repent of sins, and seek forgiveness. We can pray and strengthen our connection with our God who loves us. Somehow, the shock of this story invites us to connect our souls with our daily life. The new kingdom of heaven which Jesus offers us begins now, and we have settled for whatever is cheap or easy. We accept corruption and poor leadership. We make short-sighted and selfish choices. We are quick to abandon a faith that requires us to care for the poor and the vulnerable. Our earthly life should reflect our spiritual life, and I fear that it might. Is the best we can do?
The difficult truth is that we all need to change, in order for the world to change. The good news is that this terrible story offers us an alternative so that we can find a way. We can follow Jesus. We have heard the words of the Apostle Paul in the Epistle: Christ did not regard equality of God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself… If we follow Jesus into the emptiness, we too will open our hands and our hearts, letting go the death-grip grasping that is so destructive, trusting that God can and will bring good out of what we cannot.
To find our new selves, we may need to let go of our old understandings. To find real life, we may need to let go of this life. To build a new community, we may need to let go of the familiar way of being together. We need to let go of the unholy triad of power, accumulation, and fame. This is not to say that we should not pursue good work, truth, and goodness. We need to imagine how we can follow Jesus in his journey of self-emptying and humility, which leads to true glorification and fulfillment. We need not seek praise; we seek God’s will. We need not seek success; we seek new life. Jesus shows us that we may fail, yet our journey is still possible; not because we can accomplish this through our own cleverness or determination, but because God creates life out of death and glory out of loss.
We might prefer to linger a bit longer with the triumph, to wave our palm branches and sing our praises. God has better things in mind. God wants to transform us into new people, building up the divine reign with all our hearts and souls and minds. God wants to glorify us with Jesus, as we let go of our selfishness and pride, so that we can love in the same life-giving way that Jesus loves us. This is the reason that we join Jesus in his journey through Holy Week. Let us ask ourselves what might there be to let go of, to accept, or allow to die, so that, in God’s time, we can to embrace grace, so we can rise again.