The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you pray with me? O God, today, as you call us on a new processional journey, I ask that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts will be good, pleasing, and humble in your sight. Amen.
Thinking back on my childhood, growing-up at an evangelical church across town, I don’t remember a distinction between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. If anything, perhaps if I think hard enough, Palm Sunday was when the adults filled the Easter Eggs, and it was Easter when we got to eat all the candy!
In any event, Palm Sunday was a lead-into Easter. It was a joyous parade, a jubilant celebration that all has already been accomplished for us in Christ. Palm Sunday always reminded me of the Greeley Stampede or the CSU Homecoming Parade. The idea was this: “There is no more work for us to do theologically but to welcome the victor, the hero, the triumphant one into our hearts.” Then we can sit back, enjoy life, get rich, and sing songs of praise for the rest of our days. Sound familiar?
Our Scripture passage today is known by many names and is observed by many customs—most of which reinforce this parade-like feeling. It isn’t just the Evangelical Church, but also many in the Mainline Church (and culture itself) that reinforce this notion that Christianity is a fait accompli—a done deal. This is especially true with how we experience Palm Sunday. Lament, ongoing journey, and care for the other… not really included.
The most well-known of these traditions is the joyous waving of palm fronds in churches around the world and the most common Biblical title for this passage, assigned to it by more recent editors is, “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” Triumphal means an event carried out to celebrate a great victory or achievement. Typically, triumph means a parade.
The neoclassical L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris is the center of L’Axe historique is at the center Paris and of French national pride. It is a triumphant gate, replicated and re-imagined by many states around the world, including Mexico and North Korea, as a symbol of war victory and military pride. It represents a colonial urge to control and conquer. In France, of course, it is also a symbol of pride in the national soccer team, “Les Bleus,” but that is another sermon! “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” typically is interpreted as a victory parade, an eternal win, and achievement. Fait accompli.
Now, understanding this Psalm Sunday story as a victory parade isn’t at all outside of a superficial reading of the passage. In fact, the authorship of the Gospel of Luke wants a triumphal parade to be your first impression. One scholar writes, “[Luke 19] incorporates phrases from Palm 118, [‘Blessed is the king, who comes in the name of the Lord,’] This scene depicts a royal entry, naming Jesus as king, a title that will be used in the charges against Jesus before Pilate in Luke 23:2.”
On the surface, we have a great royal victory parade, the deed is done, all is accomplished, and it’s time to break out the Easter Ham (with or without pineapple), but we know there is more to the story. The Gospel of Luke is showing us that Jesus, even as he walks literally/ knowingly towards his death, is inverting the norm of the king, of what is royal, or what victory means. Luke is arguably the most literarily sophisticated of the Gospels and is also the one most rooted in Social Justice and community need.
Here are three important ways that this is not a normal triumphant parade (like what we imagine with Charles de Gaulle after WWII):
The Gospel writers are intentionally offering a paradox. We act like this is the final scene in a fairy tale where Jesus enters the gates of the city and then lives happily ever after. In reality, it is anything but a Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty story once inside the gates. Especially with how we handle Palm Sunday, we absolve ourselves from further work. We have symbolically arrived at the gates. We abruptly stop the story at the gates of the city and declare: Happily, Ever After! How we handle Palm Sunday dictates how we handle and perceive our whole Christian lives. By saying that this is the victory parade, we miss that it isn’t a parade to be watched but a procession which we are called to join.
This isn’t a parade at all, as it turns out, but it is a procession of life and transformation.
Tom Long was a professor at Emory when I was a student, and he wrote an amazing book on the Christian Funeral called, Accompany Them with Singing. In it he writes, “The key marks of a Christian funeral: simplicity, majesty, and the gathering of people…For Christians, Jesus is not the founder of some new religion or separate sect, but rather a revelation of what it means to live a fully human life, a life that truly embodies the image of God. To follow Jesus, then, is to walk the royal road intended for all humanity…One of the earliest descriptions of the Christian movement was ‘people of the way.’ For Christians, baptism is the starting point of this Way, a journey along a road Jesus himself traveled. Christians travel this road in faith, not knowing where it will lead and sometimes seeing only one step ahead. But they keep putting one foot in front of the other, traveling in faith to the end…”
Friends, the word parade, as we often imagine the triumph of Palm Sunday, comes from an etymology meaning “a showing” or a “spectacle.” It means something to be observed and witnessed from the outside. It is neutral, it is passive, and it doesn’t call us to real lives of grace for each other.
On the other hand, what this story is really about is the word procession. A procession means “a moving forward” always and forever. We are called to be people of the way, walking with Christ into, not cheap grace, but deeply lived lives of Christian experience and hope for each other. Christianity is a processional moving forward—one foot in front of the other.
Christianity isn’t meant to be a triumphant spectacle, but it is meant to be lived in motion… a moving forward together.
We are lulled into thinking that we have an easy theological and ethical “out” here. We imagine that Jesus has done all the work already. Isn’t it time to open the Easter Eggs and eat all the peeps yet? All we need to do is accept the victor of war over evil into our lives and all is accomplished, right? Consciously or unconsciously, Evangelical or Mainline Progressive, that is what happens when we think of Palm Sunday as a victory parade. We miss that it is only the start of the journey and we are all called to the donkey, to the road, to the way.
This isn’t a parade at all, as it turns out, but it is a procession of life.
“For Christians, baptism is the starting point of this Way, a journey along a road Jesus himself traveled. Christians travel this road in faith, not knowing where it will lead and sometimes seeing only one step ahead. But they keep putting one foot in front of the other, traveling in faith to the end…”
I took last Sunday through Tuesday as vacation days to go on what I consider an annual Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to meet with Congress about housing affordability funding and policy. I always start by taking a moment to sit and pray on my own somewhere on the National Mall. This year, with the Cherry Blossoms and bright blue skies, I found myself inspired by democracy and what is possible in our country if we work together. In our National Mall, even today, the feeling isn’t of triumph over others, but it is a feeling of what is possible if we walk together. As a country, despite current rhetoric inside the buildings in D.C., the symbols we have chosen for our National Mall and capitol aren’t symbols and arcs of triumph over others, even our WWII memorial, but signs of togetherness and hope. We are not about triumph over but democracy with others.
I went into the meetings with a sense of confidence in my place in the Christian procession of justice, of diversity, of equity, and inclusion that Jesus starts with this procession story today. This isn’t easy, solo, selfish grace, but it is a grace to be shared through living lived on the path and way of transformation.
We are called to put the one step in front of the other way of Christ, to the path of hope, to the procession of transformation.
We are called into the procession of Christ to find shelter for those without housing.
We are called into the procession of Christ to help create new homes for those who are priced out of the market.
We are called into the procession of Christ to support those who believe themselves to not be living lives of worth or value.
We are called into the procession of Christ to stand-up for services that enable mental healthcare.
We are called into the procession of Christ to work for compassion and safety for the refugee.
We are called into the procession not the parade of Christ to seek peace in our world.
We are called into the procession of Christ to stop conversion therapies wherever it is still taking place.
We are called into the procession of Christ to fund scientific research and cures for diseases.
We are called into the procession of Christ to build affordable housing.
We are called into the procession of Christ, not as observers, but as activists for the ways of God in this world.
Procession isn’t a run. It is one step in front of the other, working for change, living in hope, experiencing grace. We may never see the results of our work, but we are in a long line, and we know that Jesus leads onward. Never stop walking and trying and remembering this calling.
Palm Sunday isn’t a parade. It is a farcical flipping over of our universe and a reminder of our calling to again become People of the Way. Come, friends, it is time to rejoin the procession of transformation. There is no time to lose.
 Marion Lloyd Soards, “Luke,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 134NT.
 Tomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), xii-xiii.
 Tomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), xii-xiii.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Poem Response to Sermon 4/14/19
by Anne Thompson
with palm-waving "Hosannas"
through Arc de Triomphe.
A great victory!
Cloaks of peasants on the ground
outside city walls.
A farcical scene
on a working animal --
filled with irony.
The language of "King!"
seals the fate of coming death --
A Funeral March
Join the procession!
We should not be here to watch,
People of the Way!
This is not parade,
not a spectacle to see --
but moving forward.
Called to the donkey --
not knowing where it will lead --
with hope for justice.
Working for this change,
one foot before the other
Procession of love
Journeys of love and justice
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
22 April 2018
For as long as I can remember, this has been my favorite post-resurrection story. It presents the unfolding of faith as a journey of seeing the holy in our midst, which is the way it happens for most of us. I love the way Jesus walks alongside the two people without disclosing his true identity…just biding his time, interpreting scripture, continuing along the road to the village where the two people were heading. And then Jesus keeps on walking, but the two travelers call him back and ask him to stay with them since the day was reaching its end.
This is a key moment when the story turns: a moment of profound hospitality. What if the two travelers had not insisted that Jesus join them for the night? They might never have realized who he was or that he had been raised from death. In this country, we don’t have the same depth of understanding when it comes to hospitality that other cultures do, including the middle eastern culture in which Jesus lived. It wasn’t just a matter of being friendly or kind, but rather hospitality could have been a matter of survival. We just don’t get it – that kind of hospitality. Years ago when I was in South Korea as part of a UCC delegation, people went out of their way to ensure that we were comfortable and well-fed, offering me their beds, inviting me to a literal feast in a traditional home, and tuning in to where I was as a guest. For most Americans, hospitality is an afterthought.
Imagine yourself as a guest coming to Plymouth during our evening service. The sky is darkening, you pull into the parking lot and see lights on in the building…you go in and no one is there to greet you at the door, so you find your way inside and scope out the sanctuary. How could we do a better job as hosts? One way would be to have people greeting at the doors as we do each Sunday morning.
Now imagine yourself as a first-time visitor at Plymouth at one of our two morning services. Someone greeted you on the way in, and you enjoyed worship, but navigating the coffee hour can be intimidating, so you head over to the desk that says, “Welcome and Information,” but there isn’t anyone there. And you hope someone has noticed your blue coffee mug, but folks seem too busy talking with people they already know. My friends, I know we mean to offer better hospitality, and we can.
I would be grateful if one of you would step up and do these fairly simple ministries, and if you are interested, please be in touch with Jake and the Congregational Life Board. I believe that we genuinely mean to offer an extravagant welcome to people when they visit at Plymouth, and even though we will deliver a nice loaf of Great Harvest bread to your home if you visit and leave your address in the red friendship pad, we still have a lot to learn about how to make our guests feel truly welcome. Our welcome, no matter how we warm we intend it to be, seems less than extravagant, especially when compared to the hospitality Cleopas and his fellow traveller show Jesus. “They urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.’” How can we emulate that kind of open welcome as Christ’s family?
It strikes me as odd that Jesus, the guest at the table, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Clearly, he switched roles and has become the host at the table. And his actions are recounted by Jake, Jane Anne, and me every time we celebrate communion: we take bread, bless it, break it, and give it. And it is in that moment of profound hospitality, in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes are opened and Jesus is made known to them. They have share a long, dusty journey together, and sharing the meal is the catalyst that enables them to experience the risen Christ.
Besides hospitality, eating is an important social phenomenon as well. In strictly hierarchical societies, people of different social classes don’t mix. You see it on Downton Abbey when those who eat upstairs would never eat with those downstairs. But think about where Jesus would be eating: Jesus, who defied the norms of purity by eating with sinners and tax collectors. This table — Christ’s table — is a representation of how the kingdom of God is meant to be for us: a table where there is no distinction because of class, gender, race, orientation, wealth, education, or ethnicity. It is a representation of God’s anti-imperial realm, where all of God’s children are welcome and no one is turned away.
The Emmaus story, the event at which Christ is made known to those who offer hospitality to a stranger, is a seminal event. We encounter the risen Christ in enacting profound hospitality. We encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. We encounter the risen Christ in overturning the broken norms and assumptions of our consumer-driven, economics-obsessed culture.
Many of you will remember one of our visiting scholars, John Dominic Crossan, and many of you have read his work, including his latest called Resurrecting Easter, which Mark Lee is leading as one of our current adult ed. offerings.
Many years ago, I was reading his provocative book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and there was a wonderfully pithy sentence about this morning’s scripture in it that I have long remembered: “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.” In other words, this story may never have occurred in the way that Luke describes. And for some of us, that invalidates the larger truth of the story, which is tragic.
Does there have to be a village called Emmaus for the story to be true? Do there need to be two disciples, one named Cleopas, for the story to be true? Does Jesus need to walk with them, explain scripture to them, and eat with them for the story to be true. No. What makes the story true is that we ourselves can experience it. We encounter the risen Christ when we act compassionately, when we extend an extravagant welcome, when we break down barriers between people, when we remember the presence of Christ living within us and among us when we come to Christ’s table for communion. How can you and I make Emmaus happen here at Plymouth in our worship, in our fellowship, and in our welcome? “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”
I hope that for each of us, we have those moments when we have an encounter with the risen Christ, who continues to be with us. He is with us in the struggle for justice and peace, with us as we wrestle with scripture, with us in moments of deep hospitality, with us in the breaking of the bread.
“Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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