Palms, Ashes, & Shouting Stones (Palm Sunday 3/28/10)

Palms, Ashes, & Shouting Stones

Luke 19: 28-40

Palm Sunday can be a sad and lame spectacle these days.  If you’ve been in a Palm Sunday church service when palms are passed out and there is any sort of processional and everyone is supposed to act out our parts by waving the palms, then you know what I mean.  Or maybe you don’t.  Maybe you’ve been in some happenin’, raucous, hallelujah-shoutin’ churches and they have Palm Sunday right.

Alas, I have not experienced this yet.

I admit, it’s hard to wave your palm enthusiastically and walk into the sanctuary and look at your hymnal so you can sing and walk at the same time.  It takes some coordination.  But is that really an excuse for this sort of wet dishrag palm waving I’ve seen?  [demonstrate]

I admit that I am also a culprit.  I find it a bit embarrassing to enthusiastically wave a tree branch in church.  Or anywhere, really.  What are we doing this for?  Are we re-enacting?  Are we demonstrating the biblical text to make sure people get it?  Are we actually trying to praise God (as the disciples did in today’s story)?

If it’s that last one, then – at least in the churches I’ve been part of – we need some help.  [Emotionless deadpan voice:]  Whoopeee.  Jesus is here.  Wonder what he’ll do now.  Sure do love God.  See my branch?

What’s up with that?

Is it because we know the end of the story?   Palm Sunday begins a week of extreme reversals, stark contrasts.  We start the week with the disciples, at least, praising Jesus loudly in the streets and throwing down their cloaks in his path and by Friday we are ashamed, guilty, confused, and seemingly alone, with Jesus dead on a cross.  And Friday is still a long way from Easter morning.

I wonder if we are afraid to be as exuberant and praise-filled as the disciples because we know the story, because – while they are busy waving palm branches and shouting praise – we know they will be falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane Thursday night, unable to even wait up with Jesus while he prays.  Peter will repeatedly deny that he even knows Jesus.  Judas will come close enough to kiss Jesus and then turn his back on him and turn him over to the ones who will kill him.

Are we afraid that if we give ourselves over to praising God today, we’ll look stupid by Thursday night?  What’s the point of jiggling palm branches as if it’s all a celebration when we know where this ends?

The disciples have it all wrong.  They are looking for a king to match the image of king they and the community of Israel had been looking for for a very long time.  They are hoping for power and might and triumph – in the most obvious ways those things might be demonstrated.  And Jesus plays along – to a point.  He rides into Jerusalem, but he does it on a donkey.  He calls himself Lord and Master, but he lives out this role by stooping to wash the feet of his servants.  He proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near but then starts talking about the first being last.  He tells the disciples that he is going to the Father but by Friday he is dead.

The disciples have it all wrong.  They are not getting the king they were expecting.  The kingdom of God will not be widely recognized by the other kingdoms of the world.  It’s Palm Sunday and here they are waving tree branches and shouting praise to a humble, poor, carpenter’s son riding into town on a borrowed donkey.

Is this why we are so lame at celebrating on this day?  Are we trying to save face, and show that we know more than they did?

The disciples looked stupid all the time, fighting over who will sit at which side of Jesus and completely missing the point of most of his parables.  Maybe Palm Sunday was one more stupid day.  But what does Jesus do?  When the disciples are roaring with delight and praise and throwing down their coats on the road, to make a path for him on his donkey, does Jesus point out to them that they don’t really get it?  Does he show his power by letting them in on what’s about to happen Thursday and Friday?  Does he tell them that the king and the kingdom they long for are there in their midst – but not at all in the ways they anticipate?   No.  So what does Jesus do?

Looking at these silly disciples who have disappointed him so many times and who – even now, he knows – totally do not get what’s happening, Jesus praises them for their praise.  Hmm.

In recent years our churches have begun singing a song on Ash Wednesday called “Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes” (The Faith We Sing, p. 2138).  It’s traditional to take the palms from Palm Sunday and burn them the next winter for use as ashes on Ash Wednesday.  All our praise and celebration turning to ash.  All our praise as fleeting and insubstantial as fluffy ash that is scattered in the wind.  It’s a good hymn and I commend it to you to read again this week as we make this Holy Week journey towards Easter.

It seems that we are sometimes surprised by our sin, by how far away from God we can get in the course of a few months.  But I was just waving palms that Sunday in March and I really did put my heart into it! Then it’s a Wednesday in February and we are surprised again at where we end up and this mark on our foreheads.  Or it’s Thursday this week and an intimate meal turns into abandonment by evening’s end.

We know how the story ends.

But the thing is, the story doesn’t end on Friday this week.  If that was the end of the story, then I’d suggest we never even bother to pull out the palms today.  If that was the end of the story, there really wouldn’t be much reason for us to gather today, or any Sunday.

We know how the story ends and it’s with a Love so passionate and fierce that even death can not stop it.  The story ends – and begins – with a God so powerful, so gracious, so mysterious that even our wildest hopes for kings and kingdoms and the details and dreams of our own lives do not approach the Gift we receive.

We are living in the midst of a story that started a long time ago.  One chapter is the one we remember today, when a bunch of fools – disciples who got it wrong so many times – finally get it right somehow.  They manage to shout out praise to the right person at the right time.  And even though they are confused by Thursday and sorrowful by Friday, somehow that Sunday filled with palms, they have it right.

And Jesus praises them for this.  Jesus praises them for their praise.  And when the Pharisees complain and tell them to stop, Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19: 40).  If my people won’t sing out with praise, then all of creation will.

If even the dumb stones know how to praise Jesus, what’s wrong with us?

Are we afraid that if we give ourselves over to praising God today, we’ll look stupid by Thursday night?  We probably will.  But it’s part of the story and God is telling it in God’s own time.

This is a week where the plot thickens and there are twists and turns we can’t yet imagine.  In a similar time, in a similar week, Jesus loved some crazy disciples and praised them for their praise.  On that day, that was enough.  That was what was called for.  Even the stones knew it.

So what’s the matter with us?  Let’s pick up our branches and start shouting.

Thanks be to God!

© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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