Worship | Palm Sunday | April 10



The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

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Sermon | Parades and parables of peace | Palm Sunday 
Text: Luke 19:28-42
Speaker: Joel Miller

We all have places we return to each year.  These are the places that remind us who we are.  Or at least give us a chance to reflect on who we’ve been and who we are becoming.  I’m likely in the minority of people my age whose parents still live in the house where I was born and raised.  Going back to Mom and Dad’s, or to the farm, or 1471 – the county road address I memorized at a young age – Going back there, even if for a brief stop, is always full of memory and meaning.  A family cabin, or a camp, or a beloved destination spot can become a spiritual home that we return to, a place we can come back to ourselves.  A place of return could also be the soil in one’s own backyard, or front flower bed.  Putting hands in the dirt right about this time of year can be a return to the earth’s regenerative powers, a reminder that those powers also flow through us.

Even if not a literal place, we find other forms of return to call us back to ourselves.  A favorite book.  A friendship we keep alive across distance.  Perhaps this very service, Palm Sunday, or Easter next week, serves this purpose for you.  A similar point of reference each year, but a little different, because you are different, and so is this world that shows very little interest in staying the same.

This is what’s going on within the Palm Sunday story itself.  Jesus and his companions have been making their way back to Jerusalem and now they’re arriving in the city.  And not just them.  This is the beginning of the annual Passover.  What began more than a millennia before as a remembrance feast in homes had transformed into a pilgrimage festival.  Those who were able – physically, financially – would make the return back to Jerusalem to commemorate the first Passover. 

They were remembering their Hebrew ancestors who have been enslaved in Egypt.  And they were remembering the mighty acts of their God who had brought Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire to their knees through signs and wonders, plagues and pestilence.  They were celebrating liberation.  Liberation from oppression, liberation into a peoplehood with commands to live justly, to love neighbor and the sojourner among them, to keep Sabbath, liberation to bow before nothing but the Eternal One who could not be reduced to any image or likeness, yet who was present in every image, every face.   

When Jesus rides that colt down the Mount of Olives from Bethany into the eastern part Jerusalem, this is what he is riding towards.  When the people shout “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven,” they are joining generations before them who would recite this same pilgrimage psalm as they neared the city.  As Jesus says, those ancient stones on that mount had heard this so many times that even they know the words and would cry out if the people were to keep silent.

This is a story of return, a well worn path, an annual reminder to the descendants of those Hebrews of who they were and how they had been called to live in this world. 

But Luke wants his audience to be forewarned.  More than any other gospel, Luke sets the stage for what we call Holy Week by reminding his listeners that all this is taking place against a back drop of pervasive violence.  And we hear it today amidst pervasive violence. 

Today’s reading began by saying “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.”  It’s Luke’s way of tying together a previous event with the next, the triumphal entry.  What Jesus had said, just before, was a parable. 

It’s a parable Matthew also gives, but in a different context and with a completely different meaning.  In Matthew Jesus tells of a man who went away on a journey and entrusts three of his household slaves with large sums of money.  When he returns he rewards the slaves who have used these riches to make more riches, and punishes the one who buried the wealth in the ground.  The standard interpretation is that we must each use the gifts we’ve been given to multiply goodness in the world.  Hiding it away is a loss to everyone, including ourselves, including the master, who is God. 

There’s a great truth in that and it does seem to be how Matthew intends this parable to be understood.

But not in Luke.  Luke begins this parable right after Jesus has befriended Zacchaeus.  So now we’re backing up even more.  There’s the triumphal entry parade, preceded by this parable, which was preceded by Jesus meeting up with Zacchaeus in Jericho which they were passing through on their way to Jerusalem. 

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, meaning he worked for Rome.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  Likes to hang out in kids story books these days.  As a chief tax collector he had others working under him.  They would collect from the people and Zacchaeus would collect from them and Rome would collect from Zacchaeus, each one harassing the one below them to collect more so they could scrape off the extra for themselves.  It was a system rife with corruption and profiteering off the poor.  It was why tax collectors were considered a special kind of scum in the mind of the average peasant.  But Zacchaeus has an encounter with Jesus that changes his life.  Rather than using his position of power to gain more wealth for himself and his Roman masters, he decides to pay reparation to those from whom he has stolen.  He pledges to return these funds to the defrauded poor, by a factor of four.  Jesus calls this response “salvation” for Zacchaeus.  “Today salvation has come to this house.” 

Then Luke writes this: “As the crowds were listening to this, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because they thought that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.”  That’s why Jesus tells this parable.  Because they’d see what happened with Zacchaeus, and they thought Divine power was about to be unleashed.

Like Matthew’s version of the parable, there’s a man who goes away on a long journey and leaves his slaves with wealth which he commands them to multiply.  Kind of like what Zacchaeus’s job description had been.  You’re in charge now.  Make me some money.  In this version, the master who goes away is going to get himself appointed king, even though a delegation will try to convince the powers that they don’t want him king.  Which is pretty much what had happened with Herod the Great’s son Archaleus.  One of the reasons people didn’t want Archaleus to be king over them was because Archaleus had ordered his entire army to enter the temple during the Passover celebration and slaughter the people who were close to rioting against him.  The first century historian Josephus put the death toll at 3000.  Archaleus then called for the cancelation of the Passover that year.  This had happened right around the time Jesus was born and it would have loomed large in the memory of Judeans, especially around Passover time.  As in life, so in the parable.  This person is appointed king and comes back to see how his slaves did with his money.  He rewards those who earned him more, but to the one who didn’t do anything with it he takes it away and gives it to the slave who earned him the most.  The parable ends with the words of this newly appointed king: “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”  Luke continues: “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” 

Unfortunately, very unfortunately, commentators have mostly failed to recognize this parable as a critique of violence.  Instead, it has been assumed that Jesus must be that king, wanting us to use our spiritual and material wealth to make more of it –  with the added motivation of being sent to hell if we don’t.  But it sure looks like Jesus is describing the very world from which Zacchaeus has just been saved.  It’s the very thing followers of Jesus must reject if they are to actually experience something we might call the kingdom of God. 

And as a way of further demonstrating that Jesus is nothing like the king in that parable, he mounts a peaceful colt, surrounded by palm branches, cloaks on the road, and shouts of hosanna, in a bit of street theater as Roman officials once again brace themselves for an influx of pilgrims during this Passover festival.  This festival that celebrates liberation from the very kind of violence that Rome has been afflicting on the people. 

When the Pharisees tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop this raucous, there’s a decent chance, once again, they’re trying to protect Jesus from what they know Rome is capable of.  But Jesus has already, consciously, crossed the line.  Even if these Pharisees have good intentions, now is not the time for silence.  Now is not the time to blend in.  “If these were silent,” Jesus says, “the stones would shout out.”

And even this is a reference to violence.  It’s a quote from the prophet Habakkuk who had railed against those who had, in his day, in his words, “plundered many nations,” who had “built towns by bloodshed,” who “heap up what is not your own.”  Habakkuk said that if this wealth stolen from the people would be stored away in well-fortified houses, that “the very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.”  Even if all the people keep silent about injustice, perhaps for fear for their lives, God has the stones.  They see.  They remember.  They will cry out. 

Jesus says it’s time to join the stones.  It’s time to not be silent.  It’s time to make a move like Zacchaeus.  It’s time to pay back the poor.  It’s time to stop working for the master who keeps scraping everything off the top.  It’s time for salvation to come to this house.  It’s time to ride this pony straight into the belly of the beast, overturn some tables, come what may.

Luke’s is the only gospel where Jesus pauses as he comes near the city, and weeps.  Jesus mourns that the city has not learned “the things that make for peace.”  Jesus grieves the violence of the past, and the violence that awaits. 

Jesus and his people are making the great return.  The return that reminds them who they are.  Like, who they really are.  Not what Rome tells them they are.  Not the falsehoods about inferiority they have let slip into their consciousness.  Not the hatred that sometimes boils within them. 

They are liberated people.  They are liberated people.  No longer bound by the master who has imposed himself on them.  And even if things don’t look that way politically, in the moment, they are still free people.  There is a core of humanity and love and neighborliness and being in awe and wonder as part of this grand creation that no empire, no Pharaoh or Caesar, can take from them.

We are making the great return.  We live in a violent culture.  In a violent world.  We see this especially on display with Russian atrocities against Ukraine, but we need not look far to encounter violence, including violence within us.

And so we return to the place that reminds us who we are.  Wherever that place might be.  For now, it’s right here.  We return collectively and we make the decision that only we can make about ourselves to do this with intention and purpose. 

Once again, we join the processional with Jesus out in front.  We are joyful, fearful, cautious, emboldened, uncertain – all these.  And the stones join the chorus.  Hosanna.  Blessed are the ones who walk in the path of the Christ.  Peace on earth below, and beauty and wonder in the skies above.