Palm Sunday/3.28.21

Call to Worship

Let us enter the city with God today and sing hosannas to our Savior.

Let us turn our backs on the powers that grasp and control, and open our hearts to the Son of God riding on a donkey.

Surrounded by outcasts and prostitutes, the blind and the leper, let us follow the one who brought freedom and peace, and walk in solidarity with the abandoned and oppressed.

Let us shout for joy at Christ’s coming and join his disciples, welcoming the broken, healing the sick, dining with outcasts.

Let us touch and see as God draws near, riding in triumph towards the cross.

Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!

Opening Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, whose greatest moments of triumph happen on the back of a donkey’s foal and nailed to a bloody cross, we gather to prepare the way for you in our lives and in our world.

There are so many people and things that call for our allegiance; so many kings seeking to rule over us.  But you ride into our experience as another kind of king—a serving, humble, and challenging king who calls us not to slavery, but community.

There are so many things that seek our energy and resources; so many kingdoms seeking our souls for their own glory.  But you ride into our experience heralding another kind of kingdom—a kingdom where the least are the greatest, where the meek inherit the earth, and where children are the best example of citizenship; a kingdom which seeks to bring life, not drain it.

There are so many things that draw our attention; so many realities that seek our faith and assent.  But you ride into our experience revealing another kind of reality—a reality where death does not have the last word, a reality where pride, selfishness and evil are defeated by love and self-giving, a reality which does not parade itself for all to see, but fills every moment, every situation and everything with life, while waiting for us to discover it.

 And so, we cry, from our hearts—Hosanna!  Save now!

Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)

1When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.  As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Message/Not Far from the Madding Crowd

Some years ago, noted American historian Gene Smith wrote a book entitled When the Cheering Stopped.  Within its pages, Smith tells the story of President Woodrow Wilson and the events leading up to and immediately following World War One.  When the war ended November 11, 1918, Wilson was considered an international hero.  There was a great spirit of optimism abroad.  Many people believed that the “War to End All Wars” had done just that—that everlasting peace would follow, and that democracy would break out across the globe.

On his first visit to Paris after the war, Wilson was greeted by cheering mobs.  He was more popular than some of France’s own heroes.  The same thing happened when Wilson visited in England and Italy.  When a Red Cross worker in a hospital in Vienna, Austria told some of the children she was working with that there would be no Christmas presents that year because of the war, they didn’t believe her.  The children said that President Wilson was coming, and they knew that everything would be all right.

But we all know that crowds are often fickle.  The cheering lasted about a year.  Then it gradually trickled out.  It turned out that political leaders in Europe were more concerned with their own agendas than they were about a lasting peace.  Back at home, Woodrow Wilson ran into opposition in the United States Senate and failed to ratify the United States’ participation in the League of Nations—his very own idea to which many other countries had made a commitment.  It was utterly embarrassing for Wilson.  Under the stress and strain of it all, the President’s health began to fail.  And so it was that Woodrow Wilson, someone who barely a year or two earlier had been heralded as the new world Messiah, came to the end of his days a broken and defeated man.

When we take the time to consider it, the story of Jesus’ Passion shares a similar note.  When Jesus emerged on the public scene, he was an overnight sensation.  He would even try to go off to be alone for prayer and reflection only to be followed by the crowds or find them already awaiting him at his destination.  Masses of people lined the streets, pressing in upon him as he passed through village after village.  Great crowds came to hear him preach.  A wave of religious expectation swept the country.  As we heard this morning, leafy palm branches were spread before him accompanied by shouts of Hosanna from those gathered at the gate as he made his way into the city of Jerusalem for the Passover.  The word “Hosanna” literally means “save now,” so in effect, their cries of “Hosanna,” were an urgent plea: “Save us now, Jesus!” 

But the cheering didn’t last.  In the days that followed, the tide of public opinion quickly turned against Jesus.  People still came to see him, but the air of excitement was missing, and the crowds were not as large as they had been.  His critics began to attack him more openly.  That was something new.  Earlier they had been afraid to speak out for fear of the crowds, but they began to perceive that the tide of public was turning against him and so their rhetoric began to take on traction, gaining speed like the proverbial snowball down a hill.  Before it was all over, the swelling tidal wave of disappointment and disdain brought Jesus to his knees under the weight of a cross.

Holy Week is a tale of two crowds: those who gathered to watch and celebrate the arrival of Jesus, waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks on the road as Jesus rode through the gate into the city; and a fierce, unruly, mob, screaming at the top of its lungs, “Crucify, crucify him!”  I find it both puzzling and disturbing that these scenes are less than a week a part.  How can one group welcome, and honor, and glorify, and just a few days later, curse, spit, and scream at the same person?   

In a world without the Internet and instant forms of communication that we take for granted, word-of-mouth was the marketing method of choice in classical antiquity.  One can just imagine the rumor mill in the highly charged atmosphere of Jerusalem at that moment.  First century Jewish historian Josephus estimated that, during the festival of the Passover, the population of the city of Jerusalem would swell to over two-million people, making it, at least temporarily, one of the largest cities of the world.  As one of the great feasts, Jewish pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean basin would make their way to Jerusalem to worship in the temple and remember their hard-won freedom from Egyptian bondage.  It was a powerful connection to Israel’s past, merging the political and religious life of the people together.  It was during the Passover celebration that they would remember the stories of their nation’s beginnings and God’s liberating acts—the confrontation between Moses with the Pharoah, a leader who was considered a god by the Egyptians; all the accompanying plagues, especially the last one in which the angel of death took the lives of the first-born Egyptian sons and “passed over” the houses of faithful Hebrews who had marked their doorposts with the blood of the sacrificial lambs; and of course, their miraculous escape across the Red Sea on dry land with the Egyptian chariots in hot, yet futile, pursuit.  Now under the control of the mighty Roman Empire, over which ruled the Roman Emperor who also claimed to be a god, the religious festival of Passover carried significant political undertones.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg reminds us that at the same time Jesus was coming into the city from one direction on Palm Sunday, a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city.  The Roman governor of Judea, whose primary residence was in the city of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, rode to Jerusalem to be present in the city in case there were riots during this politically charged festival.  With him came a cohort of soldiers to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.  Two different processions occurred that day.  One featured an itinerant preacher and healer, riding humbly on a donkey completely unarmed, surrounded and celebrated by children and those who society had marginalized, the homeless, the poor, the sick.  And the other parade centered around the regional representative of Roman power, mounted on a mighty white steed, the intense near eastern sun gleaming off the tips of the spears of ranks of soldiers in full battle gear.  One representing the power of God revealed in humility and vulnerability, the other representing human authority gained through violence and the might of arms.  Two worlds, two kingdoms were preparing for a cataclysmic collision.

So, what happened in just a handful of days to turn the crowds against Jesus?  Why the sudden about face?  Some people, perhaps even some of those who had initially welcomed Jesus at the city gates, had been looking for a different kind of Messiah, hoping that God had sent this Jesus to overthrow the Roman yoke, just as God had released their ancestors from Egyptian bondage.  Their hopes were dashed as Jesus was betrayed by one of his own followers and then arrested and then mocked and ridiculed in public.  What kind of king sent by the Almighty would allow himself to be apprehended and tortured?  He’s a fake!  He’s a coward!  Let the Romans do what they want to with him, he’s not worth the time or the trouble.  Some king this is…

If we follow the biblical story, one of the first things Jesus does after entering the city on Palm Sunday is to cast out the moneychangers from the temple.  Therefore, the religious authorities considered Jesus a threat to their power and their corrupt methods of extracting money from the masses through the sacrificial system they controlled in the temple.  This guy could ruin this for all of us.  We’ve got to protect our gravy train.  Let’s get rid of him.  Still others, who had found safety as well as financial gain from aligning themselves more closely with Roman authority, looked at Jesus as a traitor to the greater empire from which they benefitted.  But regardless of motivation, the result was an angry mob.  The mood within the group—angry to the point of being near riotous as it gathered in haste in the heat of the moment—left little room for discussion.  It seemed to speak with one voice even if it represented several.  It became a mob.

Because it is in our nature to want to be part of something bigger than ourselves; to make connections with a group or even larger society, we often surrender something of ourselves when we become part of one.  To say that I’m an American, or a Christian, or more specifically a United Methodist, isn’t to say that I stand foursquare with every value these groups represent, but rather that, I am identifying myself this way, allowing myself to be defined by my affiliations and allegiances.  Our core principles are intact, but like the grains of sand on the beach, each subtly different from the next, we become indistinguishable from the whole of which we are a part.  This is perhaps why the Passion of Jesus reads as if everyone wanted Jesus executed.  The crucifixion represented the lowest common denominator of solutions, the one solution that would assuage everyone’s fears, and as the shouts went up—those in the crowd who would have been satisfied with a less severe solution had little choice than to endorse what everyone else seemed to be calling for.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once pointed out that “a group is an inherently more arrogant, self-centered and ruthless entity than any of its component parts, and a mob only more so; either will do things that none of the individuals who comprise it would do on their own.”   For a group, morality becomes more fluid—mainly because feelings of guilt are diffused through the crowd.  In a crowd, we think, well, I can’t personally be held responsible because there are so many people here, and, well, everyone else seems to think we should do it, well then, let’s go.  Blame, we believe, can’t be laid directly at our doorstep so we don’t fully accept the consequences of our actions—hey, it’s the crowd, not me.  So those men and women—to a person—were responsible for inciting Jesus’ death, yet they didn’t feel that burden of responsibility.  When evening came, many of those folks returned home, played with their kids, ate their supper, and had a good night’s sleep, for individually they had done nothing wrong, nothing to be held accountable for.

It’s interesting that when one person kills another, he or she is committing a murder, but when a mob calls on the authorities to do their killing for them, they are keeping the peace.  In his classic book, The City of God, St. Augustine tells the story of a young pirate who has been captured by the forces of Alexander the Great and is brought before the king.  He writes: “The king asked the pirate how he dared to molest the seas.  The pirate replied with a free spirit, ‘How dare you molest the whole world?  But because I do it with a little ship, I am only called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called a conqueror.”

The late W. E. Sangster, preacher and leader of the Methodist Conference in England wrote in his book, They Met at Calvary:

“When the last war ended, I had a great longing to meet my old Christian friends in Germany.  For the most part, they belonged neither to the valiant group, which Hitler had found it necessary to put in prison, nor yet to those evil men who called themselves ‘German Christians’ and had become the willing tools of Nazi wickedness.  They belonged to the large central body of Christian people who had somehow been bypassed in Hitler’s rise to power.

At last, the time came, and we were face to face.  I asked my questions and they heard them with embarrassment.  Many of them told me that they had no idea there were such places as concentration camps.  No idea!  Others said that they had heard nothing of the extent and wickedness of Jewish persecution.  They had been aware of some minor anti-Semitism (which they half-regretted and half-excused), but of the wholesale slaughter of decent people on the grounds of their race, they knew nothing.  Then they added other things:

  • ‘It isn’t good for Christians to get mixed up in politics.’
  • ‘We had been partly persuaded that National Socialism was good for Germany.’
  • ‘We had only the newspapers really to go on, and we did not realize how much they were controlled.’

So, it was done.  The good people had been fooled—to their own awful cost, and to the awful cost of half the world.  Was the crowd responsible for the crime of Calvary?  Not, I think, in the way that some scholars have supposed.  Not with malice aforethought; not with a diabolically thought-out judgment given against Jesus.  Rather, they were guilty by inertia, guilty as we are guilty today—guilty of moral torpor, and of being so self-obsessed and comfort-loving that we will not stir ourselves and suffer for the truth.  On these counts the people were guilty then, and on those counts most of us are guilty now.”

My friends, I could ask you right now the pointed question: Which crowd are you going to be a part of—the one that welcomed Jesus or the one who cried out for his death?  But that’s not really a good, honest, or fair question.  First, I don’t think any of us who profess the love of Christ would overtly choose the angry mob.  And second, life and faith often contain a great deal of ambiguity.  The decisions with which we are confronted are usually much more complex than simply choosing between “x” or “y.”  Akin to the Palm Sunday crowd, we would like to think that we would welcome Jesus, joining our voices with theirs in shouts of Hosanna.  But when push comes to shove, when life is hard, when we don’t think our prayers are being answered—much less heard—when God’s absence or silence seems overwhelming, our frustration gets the best of us.  When Jesus calls us to love people we don’t like very much.  When we decide that our judgment is more important than our compassion.  When our present prejudices and past moral failings are exposed in the mirror of the cross, we are confronted with the temptation to join the mob crying out for his crucifixion.

But perhaps the greater temptation is to not make a decision or take a stand at all, to simply allow inertia and apathy to help us anonymously blend in with an even larger crowd of those who choose to remain quiet and do nothing.  When we choose inaction over prophetic action, to stay hidden in the safety of the masses—Jesus continues to be crucified by the injustices that remain unconfronted.   So maybe a better question might be: How will you, as a follower of Christ, allow the passion of Jesus, the story of liberation that we remember over the course of this Holy Week, to engage you passionately in the pursuit of liberating others from systems of violence and hate and prejudice?  The crucified One is crying out to us through the voices of the victim, the impoverished, and the marginalized—how are we going to work with God to do something about it?

Pastoral Prayer

Lord Jesus, we pray that you would hear our prayers, and fix in our minds the same mind that is in you, that we might be vessels of your humility and grace.

Lord Jesus, you emptied yourself, exchanging the form of God for the form of a servant—we pray for the whole Church and all her people.  Form us into a Church that empties itself for others and for you.

Lord Jesus, you were born in human likeness, and found in human form—we pray for the whole human family, for all the nations of the earth, and for all who are enduring natural or human-initiated disaster.

Lord Jesus, after humbling yourself in becoming one of us, you humbled yourself even to the point of death—we pray for our nation and its leaders, we pray for our state, and for the Newport community, that your spirit of self-giving might be reflected in the decisions we make and the actions we take.  Bless us with the gift of your humility.

Lord Jesus your humility and your love for us was so broad and deep, it cost you your life.  We pray for those whom we love who have died, and as you were highly exalted, may they rest with you in glory.

In your exaltation, O Lord, you were given the name that is above every name—we pray in your name for those who are poor, those who are hungry, and those who are hurting in any way.  Give them your grace and challenge us to enter their pain that they may not be alone in their suffering as we offer what you have given us to help and heal them.

We also pray, in your name O Lord, for those who are sick—give them the gift of healing, strength, and life.

You were humbled at the beginning of your life, born into a common family and placed into a feeding trough for animals—and at the end, you died a violent death on an instrument of capital punishment.  It is to you, O Lord, that we humbly offer our prayers and praise to your glory.

We pray in the name of the Crucified and Risen One who gifted us with these words:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Moving into Holy Week…

Today we have cheered you on as our champion and hailed you as our hero. Forgive us tomorrow when our enthusiasm wanes.

Today we have entrusted you to rescue us from our pitiful circumstances. Forgive us on Tuesday when we decide we can take care of ourselves.

Today we have made you the centerpiece of our very existence. Forgive us on Wednesday when we forget to remember who you are.

Today we have called out to you loudly by name. Forgive us on Thursday when we pretend that we’ve never met you.

Today we have stared at you with the star struck eyes of fans and groupies. Forgive us on Friday when we avert our eyes because it’s too painful to see you on the cross.

Today we have expressed our unsuppressed hopefulness in the future you have in store for us. Forgive us on Saturday when we believe all is lost.

Today we have been boldly certain of the earthly ways you will redeem us. Restore us on Sunday when we are startled and awed by your rising.

Andrew of Crete (660-740 AD)

“Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet Jesus, not scattering olive branches or garments or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose.”