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The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9.9-10)
Those words come from the prophet Zechariah, written roughly 20 years after the Judean exiles started returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonian army. It is from this prophecy that the author of Luke’s gospel tells us about Jesus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. The vision you heard in the prophecy — a king, humble and riding on a donkey, breaking the tools of war (chariots, war horses, bows), commanding peace to the nations, and with a reign of peace that extends to the end of the earth — this is an important reference to how the early Christian community thought of Jesus. This nonviolent, peaceful realm is an important vision of who Jesus was and what he came to do. It is entirely congruent with his proclamation of a new liberating reign. It just didn’t happen the way most people in Judea thought it was going to happen.
We know the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem before Passover and being welcomed with cloaks thrown down on his way and with palm fronds waving (at least according to Mark and Matthew). Basically, Jesus is getting a royal welcome, but mounted on a donkey and not on a war horse, like those ridden by Roman troops streaming into Jerusalem to quell any potential unrest during the Passover pilgrimage into the city at the same time.
Do you see and hear the irony of it all? This is meant to be a king, but he isn’t clothed in royal regalia. He isn’t powerful in the sense that Caesar, Pilate, and Herod are powerful. He is propertyless. He is a pacifist. He upsets the conventions of the religious authorities of his day. And he certainly isn’t what the people of Judea expected from a messiah. They wanted a military leader who would come in and kick Rome back to Italy and out of the Judean homeland. And instead, they got a prophet who healed people, lived in poverty, and talked about God’s reign of shalom, rather than a workaday Mediterranean empire bent on taking other peoples’ land.
We have the advantage of knowing how the story unfolds. We Christians have been telling this story for nearly 2,000 years. But the people in occupied Jerusalem and the first followers of this Mediterranean peasant, Jesus, had no idea how things were going to work out or what lay in store in the next week. We know that Jesus would be welcomed like a king on Palm Sunday, overturn the tables in the Temple, eat a Passover meal with his disciples, experience betrayal, arrest, a sham trial, flogging, and meet the ignominious end of torture on the cross.
This is an insane week that rolls from triumph to tragedy and then back to the triumph of Easter. It’s not just a roller coaster, it’s an out-of-control ride on the Crazy Train. (In 25 years of preaching that is my first reference to an Ozzy Osbourne song…and it’s probably my last reference as well.)
Personally, I don’t really like being in the midst of emotional drama. Both of my sons were in theater growing up, and I told them to keep the drama on the stage and not at home. But this last week of Jesus’ life is insanely dramatic. And if you just come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter you only get to experience the high points, and it must seem as if everything is rosy for Jesus. We skip right from the triumphal entry to the empty tomb…it’s all the good news with none of the shadow of death and desertion. It’s what happens between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday that makes is all real, but none of us likes to face tragedy, do we? Perhaps we’d rather not have to deal with the messy feelings of Judas’s kiss or Jesus being relentlessly beaten or nailed us in the most humiliating public torture Rome could invent.
What is lurking in the shadows of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday? Is it our own fear of death? Is it feeling the depths of despair for Jesus, whom we love and follow?
All of us know the story, we know what happens. But what if we choose to avert our eyes and look the other way? What if we just can’t take the tragedy this year, after two of the most bizarre and draining years in our lives? It’s understandable.
One of the ways we learn how to deal with tragedy in our own lives is by experiencing it partially during Holy Week. Life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. At some point, people may have thought we were wonderful and then turned their backs on us when the going gets tough. We may have had the experience of sitting around a dinner table with dear friends and family and then later having one of them betray us. We may have had to make choices that involve self-sacrifice, when we willingly put the good of others before our own self-interest. And we, all of us, are going to reach the end of our lives. As one of our members said to me, years ago, “None of us makes it out alive.” Death is a reality that all of us will experience. This is all very tough stuff to deal with, isn’t it?
Because of his own experiences of tragedy, Jesus shares some incredible lessons us during Holy Week for how we live our own lives. But you don’t get the lessons if you gloss over the shadows of Holy Week, skipping from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Having gone through it completely, Jesus provides the model for how we deal with the great disappointments and tragedies of our lives.
Mother Theresa had a poem pasted on the wall of her orphanage in Calcutta, and I wonder how Jesus would have heard it after Palm Sunday and how we might hear it today: “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
You and I are living through difficult times. Pandemic, economic uncertainty, war in Ukraine, systemic racism, dismantling white privilege, the prospect of climate-change devastation. It can be too much to take in, especially if we have the TV news on in the background all the time. (I can’t even listen to NPR in the background anymore.) There are some things we can do beyond quieting the 24-hour news cycle. We can do even more unplugging. Read the news on your own time at your own pace, so that if it gets too overwhelming you can slow down or come back to it later. We have choices about how much TV and online time we spend. We can limit OUR screen time as well as our children’s!
The other thing we can do is to rest in the knowledge that God isn’t going to let us fall into oblivion. Yes, there is tragedy in this world. Yes, there is war, devastation, hatred, and injustice. God is in the thick of it with us. Yes, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are real. And God stands with us on the side of compassion. God will be with us even as we die and even in life beyond death, whatever that looks like.
Nobody said life was going to be easy. It’s not. But God does promise to be there with us every step of the way. Under the palm branches and even up to the cross.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Mark 11.1-11; Matthew 21.1-11
Plymouth Congregational, United Church of Christ
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, 2saying to them, "Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.'" 4They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5Some people standing around said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"6They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9Those in front of him and those following were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!"11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 39636-39644). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
I begin today with a story about standing in line at the grocery store, a mundane, routine, probably recent, event for all of us. But no matter how routine grocery shopping may be, it has taken on palpable and deeply poignant resonances for us in the aftermath of the King Sooper shooting in Boulder this week. When I was the interim pastor at Community UCC in Boulder in 2013-2014, I lived part of the week at a parishioner’s house nearby that King Soopers and shopped at that store. Community UCC is just up Table Mesa Road from the King Sooper’s shopping center. As I share my brief grocery store story with you today, I am sensitive to where our minds may go with just the mention of grocery stores. And as I begin this sermon, my heart is breaking and praying for the people of Boulder, particularly those in the Table Mesa and Broadway neighborhood, for Community UCC, as well as for our country which urgently needs to change the use and role of guns in social structure.
Some of you may remember, as I do, the spring of 1999…all the dire predictions beginning to be made about the Millennium, what would happen on December 31 as we turned the time corner into a new century. I was still living in Connecticut that spring, anticipating the move to Colorado in July. I was a full-time Divinity school student and full-time mom. As I stood in line at the grocery store one day with a cart full of supplies for the week, a tabloid headline caught my eye. I make it a practice to avoid the tabloids, hoping in a ridiculously self-righteous way that if I don’t even acknowledge them in the grocery store line, I am contributing to the downfall and bankruptcy of the tabloid industry. You can see how well that has worked! But this one jumped out at me – “Millennium Predictions! - Jesus May Have Already Returned!”
“Yeah, right,” I thought, “I wonder who he is this time? How will we recognize him? Why has he come now?” Just then it was my turn to dump my groceries on the conveyer belt and I forgot my theological musings, paid for the groceries and headed off into my day. But I think of that “prediction” each year at Palm Sunday – “Jesus May Have Already Returned!” If he has, where is he present? How will we know him? What is he up to?
The Palm Sunday story tells us each year in the story of Jesus’ unusual entry into Jerusalem that he is coming! His reputation as teacher, healer, prophetic activist precedes him and as he enters the city gate riding on the colt or donkey, depending on which gospel account you are reading, he is proclaimed by his followers as prophet and king. Or perhaps, by some in the crowd, he is seen as a radical and dangerous fool.
Let’s picture the scene…The city of Jerusalem is swelling with tourists and visitors coming the Passover Festival. (Remember the crush of crowds before social distancing?) They are filling the market at the gate where the road from Bethany and the Mount of Olives comes into the city. Passover begins in three days…people are shopping and preparing…picture the grocery store on the day before Thanksgiving – or just before our recent snowstorm.
Suddenly down the road from Bethany marches this rag tag army of joy, a procession of people singing and shouting at the top of their lungs. It’s a joyful, non-violent protest scene! People are strewing palm branches and cloaks across the road in front of a guy riding on a colt, or a small horse, or maybe it’s a donkey – who can tell from this distance? They are shouting and singing…. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Blessings on the coming of the kingdom of our ancestor, King David! Blessings on the Son of David! Hosanna, Hosanna!” What is this all about?
In Jesus’ day it was traditional for pilgrims coming to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem to greet one another with words from Psalm 118, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But what is all the Hosanna about? And hailing this one as coming in the name of King David? That is dangerous talk…could be seen by the Romans, who are the conquering rulers of Israel and Judea, as seditious talk! Can you imagine the crowds’ whispers? “What are they saying? The coming kingdom of our ancestor David? This scruffy guy on the donkey? A Son of David? Yeah, right….” Some think he is the anointed One come to lead our people…” “Don’t let the Romans hear you say that! Who is this guy anyway?” “It’s the prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.” “Who?” “You know the prophet, the teacher, the healer, Jesus of Nazareth.” “Oh, Nazareth, right….nothing good ever came out of Nazareth!’ “But didn’t you hear? Last week in Jericho, he healed a blind man! I’ve heard he’s healed lepers and raised a man from the dead. And the stories he tells….well, you double over in laughter and then he hits you with the real punchline….about God’s love and forgiveness and inclusion of all people…women and children and blind men and cripples….I’m telling you, I think he could be the real deal!” “Oh, go on! He’s just another itinerant, radical rabbi…playing on the hopes of poor and ignorant people. You don’t really think he amounts to much do you?” “I don’t know….maybe…”
That’s the scene at the city gate, in the marketplace and the streets as Jesus returns to Jerusalem for Passover. Some are hailing him as the anointed one, a king in the line of David, sent to save the people. Some as a prophet, healer, teacher, man of God. Some as fool.
We don’t trust king figures hear in America. Kings are figureheads with no real power. Hopefully we have learned not to trust political figures that want to act like kings, obscuring justice in the process. And prophets? They are a bit sketchy as well, if we see them merely as fortune tellers predicting futures that are either too dire or too rosy. We have a bad habit of assassinating social justice prophets like Abe Lincoln, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. We may see them as wise in their moral vision, but are they foolish in their radical, risk-taking methods of proclamation? Wise fools? We won’t follow kings, we are iffy about prophets turning the tables on the status quo. We certainly don’t want to follow fools!
Starting with the earliest gospel writer, Mark, Jesus is seen as prophet and king and this is at the heart of the matter in the gospels for God’s good news of liberating love. To understand Jesus as king and prophet, is to understand how him as Anointed One, the Christ. In the 21st century, we like our leaders, our saviors, new and improved with ideas and solutions never heard before. The people of the first century who first heard the stories of Jesus liked their saviors old and unchanging because that is how you could tell a true savior from a false one. A true savior fulfilled the prophecies of old.
Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey because that is how the ancient kings, the ones anointed by God, like David, always rode into the Jerusalem. They came to bring God’s peace, not to bring the oppression of control and domination like the Romans who came riding on warhorses. And the crowds spread branches and cloaks because that is what you do for kings in the line of David, a king who was not raised in a palace and educated by the state…but raised instead with the poor, the regular people. Those who claim Jesus as king are tax collectors and blind beggars, lame men and cast-off women and children, lepers. He is a king and a prophet who tells stories about God’s realm being like mustard seeds and yeast. He hangs out with fishermen as some of his closest friends. When asked about his “state policy”, he say, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…Let the children come to me, for you must become like a child to truly enter the kingdom of God…Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is how Jesus has earned his acclamations as a king and social justice prophet.
Is Jesus a fool, as well? If so, he was a fool for love who told stories and turned tables that upended the status quo so that all would receive the love and justice of God. In the events of his last week, we see him open himself so fully to the power of God’s love that he walks straight into the face of pain, humiliation and death in order that the world, that we, might know that God is with those who suffer, who are oppressed and those who are dying. In speaking of Jesus, the apostle Paul reminds us that “God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and God’s weakness more powerful than our power.”
So, here we stand at the beginning of a fateful week. The tumult at the city gate is growing louder and stronger, spreading through the marketplace, public places of influence and power, to the temple itself. People in high positions are asking questions. “Who is this man?” Others are shouting praise. By the end of the week the voices will swell to a conflicting crescendo. Shouts of anger will triumph over shouts of joy. Prophets are rarely welcomed in the own neighborhoods. Many will decide this is not the savior king or prophet they thought they wanted and stand staring skeptically at a mocking headline on a cross that says, “The King of the Jews.” “Some king! He’s a fool! Can’t even save himself!” “Can’t or won’t,” we might ask ourselves.
Jesus returns again and again, each year in the stories Holy Week. His presence is palpable. And it is palpable in the world around us. In Asian Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter protests and vigils. At the southern border of our country where unaccompanied immigrant minors searching for new life are held in detention. In hospital rooms where people struggle to breathe, to live, and others struggle to care for them. And yes, in grocery stores and schools and movie theaters and places of everyday business where gun violence erupts and interrupts peaceful life. Wherever there is pain, suffering, oppression, death, Jesus returns to us again and again. Another question for us, “How will we receive him?”
Hosanna. Blessed is the One who comes in the name of God!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.