(Psalm 13: 1-6, Matthew 21: 1-11)
I love Palm Sunday. Love it. I love the sheer joy of the day – everyone’s in a good mood, the hymns are upbeat, all in a major key. There is nothing like singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” at the top of your lungs on a day like this. Easter is just around the corner. Spring is starting to spring. Things are looking up! I love Palm Sunday.
I do not like Palm Sunday. It feels a little disingenuous, if I’m honest. We have the benefit of hindsight, and what we see with that hindsight is a crowd of people who literally roll out the red carpet for Jesus as he enters the city of Jerusalem, laying down their palm branches and laying down their cloaks – and just five days later are in the crowd shouting for Jesus to be executed. Five days. It takes longer for milk to go bad than it took those people to turn on Jesus. It’s kind of messed up, really. I do not like Palm Sunday.
I love Palm Sunday, if for no other reason than the palm procession. And I especially love the way we do it here – most every other church I’m aware of relegates palm procession duty to the kids, making it more a “kid activity” and a performance for the grown-ups in the pews. I love the fact that here at Trinity it’s not just a kid thing. It is everyone, processing down the center aisle on this glorious day. I am all for that. I love Palm Sunday.
I do not like Palm Sunday. Especially this year. I mean, the weight of what happened in Nashville this past week continues to linger, like all mass shootings do, all 130 of them in 2023 as of today, April 2 – which, just to note, is only the 92nd day of the year. It is madness, it must stop; and yet when? When? We come into this place and we put on our bravest of faces, but it still lingers under the surface and it makes the celebration ring hollow. I do not like Palm Sunday.
I love Palm Sunday. Let me tell you something that happened four days ago. 60-some of our precious preschoolers were sitting right there, each with a paper palm branch just like this one, except they had decorated theirs with things they wanted to praise Jesus for. They sat in those pews as Jodi and I recounted the Palm Sunday story; and every time they heard the words “palm branches,” those kids waved their paper palms up and down, side to side, super slow and super fast, all the while singing “Allelu, allelu, allelu, allelujah – praise ye the Lord! They were so glad to be part of the celebration. I love Palm Sunday.
I do not like Palm Sunday. I saw it in the eyes of those teachers, the heaviness of what happened in Nashville weighing on them, as it does with every school teacher every time it happens. It’s not fair to them, these amazing people whose job is simply to love their children as Jesus loves them.
And then I can’t help but wonder – as these kids grow up and go out into the world, will that world love them the way Jesus loves them; which is to say, love them exactly as they are? Currently there are over 400 bills making their way through 45 state legislatures designed in some way to restrict the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals; and not surprisingly the suicide rate among transgender youth in this country is significantly higher than other populations.
So while I know that we’re supposed to sing hosanna in the highest on a day like this, if I’m really honest about it, there’s a part of me that does not feel much like singing hosanna right now. I do not like Palm Sunday.
It’s complicated, isn’t it? How do we deal with the tension, the inherent disconnect of this day – the disconnect we find in the passage itself; the disconnect we find in our own lives? How do we rectify the discord of it all in a way that gives us something to hang our hat on?
It’s interesting – the story of Palm Sunday is one of only a handful that appear in all four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And like stories that are mentioned in more than one gospel, there are common threads among all four – Jesus entering Jerusalem, riding on a colt, the crowd singing praises. But there are parts of the story that are unique to that storyteller. And here in Matthew, after recounting all of the pomp and circumstance of the celebration, we find at the end a curious little detail, almost an afterthought; one that you, like me, have perhaps missed all along:
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, Matthew tells us, the whole city was in turmoil.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.
Now here’s the thing – we don’t know the reason for the turmoil. It doesn’t say. We don’t know if the turmoil was because Jesus entered the city; his very presence riling up the masses and getting things agitated. Although it seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? Jesus was known for pushing the envelope simply because of who he was – someone who healed the sick and fed thousands, someone who didn’t kowtow to the religious leaders of the day, someone who taught and preached that we should do crazy things like loving our enemies and forgiving someone seventy times seven.
So I guess it’s possible that the whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil because Jesus was there. But the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure that’s what’s going on here. I’m actually inclined to think that the whole city was in turmoil because that’s just what happens – because cities are full of people, and people are experts at creating turmoil. Because turmoil is part of the fabric of our very lives.
The word for “turmoil” here is a strong word in the Greek – it literally means “shaking” or “trembling.” In other words, this is no simple disruption here. This isn’t just a headache or a low-grade fever or that aggravation you get when a tiny little pebble finds its way inside your shoe.
This is the powder keg waiting to explode. This is fear that has metastasized into outright rage. This is the pushback to the pushback when the powers-that-be do anything and everything to keep things exactly as they are. This is the trauma that comes from systems set in place which are designed solely to lift some up and keep others down. This is the collective cry of those who feel the cutting edge of the turmoil the most and scream out with the Psalmist, how long, O Lord, how long?
That is what Jesus entered into that day. Not peace, but turmoil. Not a throng of loyal followers, but a crowd who would turn on him in 120 hours. Not with leaders who would bend over backwards to support his vision of the kingdom of God on earth, but leaders who’d actively work to not just undermine his vision but eliminate him completely. Not a people who’d forever get it right, but a people who would almost always get it wrong.
Tell me, people of God, how in the world does one shout and sing “hosanna” in the midst of all that? Singing “hosanna” with all that’s going on can feel out of touch, even inappropriate; like another “thoughts and prayers” tweet. What business does anyone have singing “hosanna in the highest” when the world is on fire?
I’ll tell you what. Because the word “hosanna” does not mean what we think it means. It is not another word for Jesus or God. It is not a term for blind praise or adulation.
Beloved, the word “hosanna” means “save us.” That is what those people were shouting at the top of their lungs on Palm Sunday: a prayer, a plea.
Save us. Save us in the highest.
Save us from the turmoil.
Save us from all that is wrong in the world.
Save us from the corruption of power that upends the lives of so many.
Save us from another mass shooting, the scourge of violence we cannot seem to get rid of.
Save us from those who co-opt Jesus’ message of love for all and tack onto it caveats and conditions.
Save us from hate, from anger, from fear, from darkness, from the depths.
Save us from our very selves.
Jesus, save us.
Do you see it now? When we join the procession on Palm Sunday, we are not celebrating things as they are – we are in fact protesting for change. When we enter the city, we are not blind to the turmoil that is already there – we enter precisely because it is there. And when we sing “hosanna in the highest,” we are not praising God in some detached, callous way – we are in fact imploring Jesus, begging Jesus to save us.
We are offering our testimony – our faith practice for this week. What one author defines as “speaking truthfully about what we’ve experienced and seen, what God has done in our life, and offering it to the community for the benefit of all.” Speaking truthfully about what we’ve experienced and seen, what God has done in our life, and offering it to the community for the benefit of all. We tell our story. We speak truthfully, honestly, and in love.
That is testimony. In a nutshell, being real – real with ourselves, real with each other, and real with the greater world who so desperately wants to see those who claim to follow Jesus actually follow Jesus in what they say and in what they do.
The same Jesus who saw all of the turmoil in that city and entered it anyway, because that’s what Jesus does. He sees our mess, he sees our madness, he sees the raging storm. And he heads right into it for one and one reason only: because that is where we are. Right in the thick of the turmoil. Right in the midst of the madness and the mess. We are there; and because of that, so is Jesus.
The great temptation we face on Palm Sunday is the temptation to jump right to Easter, and the stone rolled away, and the guards shaken still, and the women running to tell the others the news that would change them and change the world forever. The temptation is to think we can bypass the turmoil because of what we know will happen but hasn’t happened yet. And that is why we need the next seven days and all they have to give us: joys and celebrations; highs and lows, hardship and trauma. It is complicated, and it is us.
So let me be clear: I do not like Palm Sunday. It is the fleeting calm before the inevitable storm, it is peace before the pain. It is the tease of goodness in the world before everything goes to hell in a handbasket and the turmoil engulfs us all over again.
And let me be clear: I love Palm Sunday. I love the parade, precisely because it’s a protest. I love waving palms in the air, up and down and side to side; even though some of the sharp edges might leave a little mark. I love the jubilation and the celebration, even though I know most of the folks joining in will soon flip sides, perhaps even me. But most of all, I love Palm Sunday because “Hosanna” is exactly the song for the moment, exactly the soundtrack we need in our lives right now.
Save us, God. Save our families, whom we love so much. Save our church, which despite all the changes and challenges it faces is still the body of Christ you’ve sent on a mission. Save our communities and our cities, which are lost in the turmoil. Save our nations and all nations, where the divides run deep. Save the world, because this world is worth saving.
Save us. I’m telling you, that is a song we could go on singing forever.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 https://www.aclu.org/legislative-attacks-on-lgbtq-rights, https://www.hrc.org/news/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescen
 Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, Dorothy C. Bass, ed.; pg. 90.