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  • Writer's pictureRev. Drew Stockstill

Palm Sunday

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples and 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. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

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

Then 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.

For all the activity of Palm Sunday, much of it happens around Jesus. There is good bit of action happening and Jesus is at the center of it. He was like the light from an exploding star: all around him there is action, so much action, so much light you can confuse the action for its source. We see the light, but not the star.

From the beginning of the gospel story, a road has spread out from Jesus. He’s been on a journey and he invites followers to join him on his way. Unlike the Israelites who wandered the wilderness, lost and afraid for 40 years before entering into the promised land, Jesus’ path, while not necessarily straight, did steadily move forward. You knew, following Jesus, you were headed somewhere, even if those first disciples didn’t really understand where.

Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, but he stopped out in the suburbs, in Bethany. From there he directed the action of the disciples. He told them to go, to enter, find, untie, bring, say, all this about a baby donkey. So they went, found, untied, told, were allowed, took, brought, threw spread, spread some more, cut, went, and shouted. All this activity of the disciples.

That’s often how Holy Week feels – full of activity: ordering the palms, organizing the parade for Palm Sunday, getting the bulletins ready for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, checking on the Easter Flowers, dying easter eggs and arranging an Easter egg hunt, changing the paraments in the sanctuary, replacing the candles, refilling the oil, preparing the ham. Such busy disciples and all our activity stemming from Jesus, who remains more or less hidden from our view. Church, we are like the light of a star, still burning brightly thousands of years after the death of a star.

But this year, like last year, and like so much these days, it’s different. There are no palms this Palm Sunday, no parade. There will be no incarnational meal this Maundy Thursday. Things are slower, quieter, less active. And that’s OK. As it turns out with all that activity buzzing around Jesus, we can miss how very still and quiet Jesus himself is in this particular story.

Palm Sunday is often called the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. And, boy does the church love triumph. Palm Sunday often feels like a prelude to Easter – kind of teaser. “If you like what you see this week, come back next week.” It’s like Easter but with a parade.

Giotto, 1266?-1337, Padua, Italy

While all four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Mark’s is the least triumphant. In fact, it’s downright subdued. For all the action that buzzes around Jesus, Mark remembers the day as being less of a ruckus. In Matthew, the crowd shouts, “Behold your King.” Mark does not call him King. Mark does not call him Son of David; Matthew does. Luke says, Jesus got into an argument with some Pharisees as he came into town. Mark doesn’t mention if the Pharisees took notice; says it was pretty uneventful. Luke says Jesus cried as he entered the city. Mark says, “No, he seemed fine to me.” Maybe some allergies? John says the crowd cut down beautiful, lush palm fronds. Mark says, they just grabbed some tree branches out of the field. Matthew said when Jesus entered the Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil asking “Who is this?” John goes further, he said some “The whole world had gone after him!” The whole city? The whole world? Mark says, “Oh come on guys, it was just a few folks in front of him and behind.” The church loves some triumph but Mark lowers the temperature.

Many years from now, someone may be asked, “How did your church celebrate Palm Sunday?” Will they describe sitting at home watching a Palm Sunday service on their computer? No, they’ll describe the parade down the center aisle at church, and the Hosannas, and the fellowship hour food. But Mark would remind them of the pandemic Palm Sundays.

Fans at NCAA tournament game. Charles Res Arbogast, AP.

Mark was the first of the gospel writers to tell the story of Jesus and everyone after him was not satisfied with how scaled down, how quiet and relatively uneventful Mark remembered the first Palm Sunday. Mark’s version is important, not only because it’s a fitting tone for us in a year where we’ve lowered our expectations on all things from holidays to March Madness. Mark draws our attention to the great contrast that is to come, that is the contrast between what people thought of Jesus and what he came to mean. Mark doesn’t have the same concerns as the other gospel writers. Mark doesn’t need huge crowds, emotion, a royal reception, and all the drama and conflict. Mark understands the power of Jesus’ simple story.

The movement of Jesus was a modest one, local, often quiet. Mark is concerned with what Jesus means far beyond the moment in time in which he lived. The other gospel writers make efforts to make Jesus matter more: he was more important in the eyes of the empire of Rome, more of a threat to the temple, a star guided foreign leaders to his cradle, an emperor tried to kill him before he was born. The way some tell the story of Jesus, he was always asked by the media for a comment, was on the talk shows, organizing protests, everyone wondered about his love life. The way Mark tells it, Jesus just showed up out of nowhere, a grown man seeking John’s baptism. Jesus is a blip on the empire’s radar, a nobody who gathers a few followers who think he’s pretty great and they’re happy when he makes it to Jerusalem, but when he gets there, nobody is waiting for him, nobody cares. He walks into the Temple, nobody notices, nobody says a thing. Jesus looks around, and then just heads back to Bethany because it was already late. Talk about anticlimactic.

The church loves triumph, and we always have. The story of Jesus is modest, local, quiet, but his impact is cosmic, universal, and eternal. The church has a long history of being uncomfortable with this reality. How can people be expected to understand the glory of God in Jesus Christ without huge expensive churches to inspire awe? How can people come to love and trust the power of grace and the peace of the love revealed in the Bible without flashy preachers and rock bands and light shows? How can people appreciate the beauty of the sacred without massive choirs and expensive sound systems? Certainly, those things can be enjoyable, and fruitful, but they are not necessary to the meaning and the power of the story of Jesus.

All this action spins around Jesus but at the heart of the story Jesus enters our world of scruff and stuff, of busyness, temples, empires, and mega churches, mega wealth and mega poverty, and he quietly looks around at everything and he leaves because it’s already late. But it’s not too late. And Jesus does not leave us forever.

Mark says the very next day Jesus returned to the city and he was hungry. Hungry for justice, for righteous, hungry for transformation. There was no crowd the next day. Jesus was, well, worked up. He cursed a fig tree on his way in, withering it to its roots. He marched back into the temple and while still, no one seemed to know him from Adam, they would by the time he was finished. He “began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changes, and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” And after that, the chief priests and scribes kept looking for a way to kill him, for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by him. And then Jesus got out of town again.

Christ driving the money changers from the temple; Michael Smither; 1972

This is the beginning of the story of the last week of Jesus’ life. The threat Jesus posed was a local one, the plot that is hatched to kill him not much more complex than one for a minor criminal who is an inconvenience to more powerful people and whose life is expendable, easily betrayed for a few bucks by someone close to him. But, as modest, and even somewhat common as this whole story is in Mark’s telling, this is precisely what makes its meaning so powerful. For how is it but in the hands of God, that one so simple, common, and knowable as Jesus would be the source of life and light for all people – the exploding star, known to us because of all the light that exploded out from his life? Mark tells the story of a man who could be easily overlooked and shows us our savior.

Artist's conception of SN2016aps, a supernova that was brighter and released more energy than any other ever observed by astronomers. (M. Weiss / Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

You could almost miss Jesus, and in fact most who lived around him did – just a guy that came into the temple one night a very long time ago, looked around and left. Then came back and turned the whole world upside down.

Beloved church, we are blessed that we too as a congregation are a story easy to miss --- a small congregation in a small city, simple in our actives of fellowship, study, and prayer. Our technology is basic, our music beautiful, intimate, personal, and in the hands of God, like the one whose name we bear, Christ, we are exploding star, my friends. Out from this community reaches light: buzzing activity of congregants calling and tending others; nurses and volunteers serving their neighbors with hearts and hands and voices; teaching civics, and offering a warm coat. Administering flu vaccines and the eucharist, washing the feet of neighbors and changing bandages. Those who seek justice in the halls of power, who would over turn the tables, set up tables outside on Thanksgiving to gather neighbors around peaceful meals. Ours is a story that is not flashy, but its light draws the partnership of friends both near and far who join the modest parade of those who buzz around Jesus. Beloved, we join Mark on a modest Palm Sunday. Jesus looked around the fancy temple and then came here. But stay tuned, for there is amazement on the horizon. Easter looms.

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