Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 50:4-9a ++ Psalm 31:9-16 ++ Philippians 2:5-11 ++ Luke 19:28-40

Jerusalem – the City of God’s Peace. I’m not sure there has ever been a time when this holy city has been at peace, and certainly not on the day we now know as Palm Sunday but, in the time of Jesus, was the day pilgrims began to arrive in the city for Passover. There was much to be done to prepare for the festival, lodging to secure, sacrifices to acquire, and preparations for the Passover meal. Jerusalem swelled with people from all over: Alexandria and Athens, Babylon and Damascus, and every region of Israel. Think of St. Peter’s Square on Christmas Eve when Roman Catholics from around the world pack the square for a glimpse of the pope and to hear his Christmas message.

Except, this wasn’t just a church plaza, it was an entire city, and this wasn’t just a happy occasion. Passover marked the story of liberation for the Jewish people, a liberation still under threat. Palestine was occupied territory. The might of Rome had a firm grip on the people and institutions of this ancient land, and the hordes of people descending on the city caused tensions to rise. The roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, was a fierce and fearsome ruler. He may have wondered what gods he had offended to have been sent to this backwater of the empire, and he was not about to let things get out of control on his watch.

The Pharisees and religious leaders kept an uneasy balance between maintaining some autonomy to observe and follow their Jewish law and tradition while making assurances to Pilate and the Galilean governor, Herod Antipas, that the people would be obedient to Roman law. And Jesus worried them because he threatened to upset this delicate dance.

Remember that we are in Luke’s gospel, and in Luke’s telling of Jesus’s life, there is no mistaking on whose side Jesus stands:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’  (Luke 4:18-19)

And the people loved him for it. The poor, the blind, the lame, the nobodies, the outcasts. All of those unclean and untouchable types. And they are loving that he’s taunting the powers that be by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as they shout hosanna and wave palm fronds.

But for most of them, the Jesus they wanted – the one who would overthrow Rome  and bring about that year of the Lord’s favor – was not the one they got – the one who ended up nailed to a cross. And this festive, joyful crowd helped to put him there.

While the Palm Sunday and Holy Week scriptures are fraught with what could be interpreted as anti-Semitic statements and beliefs, in the context of the Jerusalem of the year 30 or even fifty years later when Luke was writing this account, they were all Jews. Every last one of them. The anti-Jewish comments were a family struggle, a sibling fight. And yes, it was ugly, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that the Jews carried out the killing of Jesus and not Rome, because if the Jews had killed Jesus, they would have stoned him. Only Rome could crucify someone.

The Jewish leadership was complicit because they knew they had to keep the peace or Rome would crack down, so they were afraid. They had Jesus arrested because they were afraid. And the followers who deserted him and the crowds who, on Good Friday, shout “crucify him,” are all disappointed because the messiah they expected is not the one they got.

Just as the Jesus we expect and hope for is often not the one we get. 

If we’re looking for a Jesus who confirms us in all of our self-centeredness and self-serving ways, that is not the Jesus we get.

If we’re looking for a Jesus who believes the same things we believe, that is not the Jesus we get.

If we’re looking for a Jesus who is going to look out for us and not those other people, whomever those other people happen to be, then that is not the Jesus we get.

No, the Jesus we get is one who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, as St. Paul puts it, and who gives himself up to save us from ourselves.

In the year 1865, Palm Sunday fell on April 9, and that’s the day when, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the long and bloody Civil War. All those who fought, brother against brother, family against family, I’m sure they all thought they had God on their side. But all that got them was 620,000 dead to bury. Freedom for enslaved people was surely what God desires, but for most of those fighting, freedom was one thing. Equality was quite another. The God they wanted may not have been the God they got.

As we walk this road to the cross in this Holy Week, maybe we can try to lay aside our expectations of who Jesus is, what Jesus is going to do for us, how Jesus is going to help us come out on top. Watch. Listen. Taste and see. How will Jesus reveal himself and God’s self to us thisyear, at this time, and in this place? 

ASEPSermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas