A sermon preached at (an empty) Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on Palm Sunday
April 5, 2020
Mark 11:1-11, 14:3-9
Mark tells us the crowds quote Psalm 118 as Jesus enters Jerusalem—“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”.
This psalm is often sung at Passover, when the Hebrew people remember the formative events of the Exodus story. And the act of remembering the past is not just to remember the ‘good ol’ days’. We remember the past to create a new and better future. Remembering subverts the world of death and pain in which we often find ourselves by insisting that the God to whom we give our praise and thanks is not done with creation.
God has provided help for God’s people in the past. And God is the God whose steadfast love endures forever. So, we’re called to remember as an act of faith for a future in which God will deliver and save again.
So, when Mark’s audience heard the account of the entry into Jerusalem, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, they would have heard the connection to Psalm 118.
I don’t know about you, but I need that reminder right now. I need to remember the past to create a new and better future because the present is not what I wish it were. Job losses, uncertainty, a dangerous virus on the loose—we’re watching the future we thought we were creating go up in smoke, and we will need reminders that it is God’s steadfast love that endures forever.
This isn’t a usual Palm Sunday, and we’re entering into a very unusual Holy Week. And maybe it isn’t all bad. Maybe we are stripping away the layers of celebration we’ve added to the text, and can return more closely to the experience of the people who followed Jesus through the gates and into Jerusalem.
Because they were scared too. Rome had them in their grip.
They were uncertain about the future too. What kind of Messiah was Jesus going to be?
They were in need of reminders of the steadfast love of God when their own steadfastness was uncertain.
We’ve actually jumped back a few chapters in Mark’s gospel, compared to what we’ve heard in the past few weeks.
By quoting Psalm 118, Mark is making a claim about what how God is acting through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.” And Jesus will quote this psalm as well, in chapter 12—the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This entry into Jerusalem, this beginning of our most Holy Week, is bathed in the language of God’s saving, steadfast love that endures forever.
We know how the story will play out.
Unlike the crowds waving palm fronds, caught up in seeing Jesus through their preconceptions, we know that he entered the gates of the city to suffer. We know that Jesus entered the gates to die. We also know that the crowd is a fickle beast, and will turn to chants of ‘crucify him’ later in the week. We don’t know that it is the same people in both crowds, but we do recognize our capacity to be in both crowds. Hosanna! Save Us! And Crucify him!
And just as we are called to believe that God’s steadfast love endures forever, so are we called to believe that we are to follow Jesus through the gates of the city, and to journey with him to the cross. We enter with him into his radical claim that God is not yet done with this world.
We remember the past actions in order to re-member the future.
We claim the suffering and death of this world do not win.
We claim the powers and principalities of this world do not win.
We claim it is God’s love that endures forever, even beyond death on a cross.
So, we enter the gates of the city with Jesus.
We find concrete actions that show the world that their preconceptions are wrong.
We stand up for the downtrodden.
We have solidarity with the outcast.
We give our voice to those who have no voice.
We invite people to join us in love, rather than out of fear.
We care for our environment and our earth as if stewardship is different than domination.
We show the world we help ourselves by helping others.
We care for our community by staying away from our community.
The crowd that Mark describes was making a sacrificial claim. By cheering his triumphal entry from the Mount of Olives, by throwing branches and cloaks on the ground as they cheer “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our ancestor David!”, the crowd is being treasonous to the Roman Empire. They were making a claim for God’s rule over Caesar’s rule. “Long live the king (of David!)”.
The other passage we heard from Mark’s gospel also has sacrificial acts. Jesus is at the home of Simon the Leper. We don’t know much more about him than that, but for Jesus to eat at the home of a leper, even a leper Jesus had previously healed, was a counter-cultural act on Jesus’ part. Showing up to receive hospitality from someone excluded by much of society, is a claim that God won’t abide by our divisions and our exclusions.
And then the woman breaks open an expensive jar of ointment and pours it over Jesus’ head, in an act of extravagant love. We don’t know why she does what she does, because nobody asks her. They scolded her, we’re told. They judge her, they interpret her motives for her, but heaven forbid they ask her for her own reasons. Even Jesus makes a claim about it—that she is anointing his body before his burial.
The people who scold the woman—I’ve been thinking about them. They, too, are guests in the home of a former leper. We can presume some goodness in them, for being willing to accept hospitality from someone once considered unclean.
It is easy for any of us to judge the decisions that other people make, without being aware of our own behavior. “She could have given that money to the poor!”, they say. And Jesus responds with the reminder that any of us, at any time, can help the poor. Like, right now, even.
Implied in Jesus’ answer is that any of us, at any time, can be extravagant with our love toward others. And that the service that is remembered when ever the gospel is proclaimed is service to others that costs us something.
We may never have poured nard over someone’s head at a dinner party to let them know that we know they are going to die soon and we want to pre-anoint their body for burial, as she does.
But maybe the lesson of Palm Sunday is to be aware of the cost of our devotion, our generosity, our service to others. Whether we wave palm fronds in a parade to show our devotion to God rather than to the Emperor, or if we go to the home of a former leper in a radical acceptance of hospitality, or if we pour nard over Jesus’ own head—we make claims about our allegiance, our care for others, our extravagant connections to our loved ones.
This week, as we prepare for the celebration of Easter, let us ask God to help us live in confidence of God’s steadfast love that endures forever.
Let us spend time in the biblical text, preparing our hearts and minds for the good news of Easter that only arrives through the suffering of the cross.
Let us pray for the courage to be generous with our love and our allegiance.
We are on a journey we may wish we weren’t on. As we continue on the path, know that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest heaven.