Palm Sunday
The Reverend Casey Rohleder, Priest Associate

Matthew 21:1-11

I have very fond memories of Palm Sunday as a child. Now, I must admit, poking my little brother with the palm frond during Mass was a part of what I took delight in.

As a kid, waving my palm in the air felt like I was part of something special, a victory march. We have almost made it through Lent! And, in one short week, my Easter basket would be filled with the chocolate I had given up for six loooong weeks. I’m not sure how much of my focus was on Jesus as a kid, with both the poking and the processing. The joy of the day was more about me.

But who doesn’t love a parade?

Today’s Gospel about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem makes me think a little about the energy of victory parades we see when a sports team wins a championship. People line the streets, wearing their team colors, jubilantly welcoming the team home as heroes. They have done it at last! They have reached the pinnacle of their sport! They conquered the enemy! Upon their glorious return, they are praised with speeches and keys to the city and the adoration of fans.

I am particularly reminded about my brother’s beloved Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series last fall after an intense seven-game series. And 108 long years! (I am a Cardinals fan, by the way). By some reports, well over 2.5 million people turned out in Chicago to celebrate the long-beleaguered Cubbies with a parade that lasted for eight miles. Two-and-a-half million people, in a city of 10 million in the greater metro area.

But, suspend your disbelief for a moment. What would happen if the Cubs would have paraded into Cleveland, the home of their World Series opponent? What would have happened if even tens of thousands of fans would have lined the streets to welcome them there, cheering them along and praising their victory? This is enemy territory! Home of the defeated team! Can you imagine the hostility, the anger about the blatant taunting of the losers?

While it may stretch your imagination just a bit, this analogy is not too far removed from what happened when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Stick with me.

The residents of Jerusalem were accustomed to welcoming powerful leaders with great pomp and circumstance. It followed a set formula. And so, Jesus carefully plans and carries out a grand entrance into Jerusalem with his disciples. Because it is a Jewish festival, a high holy day, as many as several hundred thousand people have descended into this town of 40,000. Faithful Jewish pilgrims have arrived from the surrounding countryside to make sacrifice in the temple.

These out-of-towners know Jesus. They know the signs he has performed and the message he proclaims. Perhaps they have seen and heard Jesus for themselves. They line the streets with their cloaks and wave their branches, recognizing Jesus’ authority and proclaiming him King. They cried, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna” was frequently invoked during Jewish festivals to give thanks to God for victory over all the nations. It was a common cheer, a rally cry of belief in God’s saving power. Here, however, they shout Hosanna to Jesus, whom they acknowledge as the Son of David, who was the greatest king in Jewish history.

Much like the words of today’s Psalm 118, the people lining the streets for Jesus might have shouted “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success.”

The symbols Jesus employs along the parade route say a great deal about who he is and what his Kingdom represents. The locals would have noticed the difference. He enters not on a warhorse or chariot, but on common beasts of burden. His victory is not the result of violence, domination, or privilege, but of inclusiveness, healing and peace. He is welcomed by the country folk, while ignored and rejected by the city’s political and religious elite.

What kind of King, what kind of parade is this?

Don’t kid yourself. Jesus’ parade is political. It is pointed. It boldly mocks the grand Roman processions that the residents of Jerusalem knew all too well. Not everyone is cheering. Jesus knows the religious and political leaders would not be. He KNOWS the chief priests and the elders were plotting against him. He has taken things too far with this royal entry into Jerusalem. He knows what lies ahead of him.

Jesus and the Kingdom he preached was a threat to the political and religious establishment, and frankly, Jesus still is a threat today. Jesus continues to threaten our reliance on anything or anyone other than God’s steadfast love, which the psalmist praises today.

We wave our palms and celebrate that Jesus Christ is our king. We sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” to mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish faith and Roman occupation. We, too, acknowledge that we seek to follow him and live in the Kingdom of love and reconciliation, the kingdom of forgiveness and mercy and hope that Jesus has brought into the world.

“Hosanna!” we cry, praising Jesus with all we have to offer. And we do so in the midst of a world hostile to whom and what our King represents. To the outside world, Jesus does not look like much of a victor.

Sometimes, we are less like the pilgrims along the roadside, and more like the city folk, skeptical about this prophet from Nazareth. Sometimes, we are more like the religious establishment and Roman government, threatened by Jesus message of love, redemption and justice.

Sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to admit, we choose power over weakness, status over humility, self over others. We let the things that preoccupy our time and our money reign in our minds, our hearts, and our actions. We live and act contrary to the ways of God’s Kingdom.

God’s Kingdom is built on the foundation of God’s steadfast love, which the psalmist sings “will last forever.” Particularly during this holiest of weeks, we see God’s steadfast love most clearly in the person and action of Jesus. We embody God’s Kingdom as we love God and love others. Sacrificially.

However, we join in this triumphal march on Palm Sunday, in all its glory, remembering and offering our allegiances to God’s kingdom, rather than to any of the empires that hold a grip on our world today. No offense to Cleveland or its ball club, but we are to be like Cubs fans along the parade route in Cleveland today, celebrating our hero in enemy territory, in a world who sees little need for a Savior.

The days to come this week are dark and brutal. The joy-filled Hosannas will give way to the words “Crucify him!” on Good Friday, piercing our hearts and convicting us once again of our own failures to Love as Jesus loves, to build up the Kingdom of God.

We must welcome the celebration of Palm Sunday as well as the defeat of Good Friday to experience, again, the joy of the empty tomb and the glorious light of Easter Morning.

When we catch a glimpse of the depth of God’s steadfast love for us, it should take our breath away. It SHOULD make our Hosannas ring.

So, wave your palms. Claim Jesus as your king, God’s kingdom as your own. Affirm your faith in a God whose steadfast love endures forever, a God of peace and reconciliation and wholeness. Commit to a deeper discipleship, to following Jesus anew. Along with the psalmist, tell the entire world that God’s steadfast love endures forever.