Triumph and Turmoil

A Palm Sunday sermon from Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California.

April 2, 2023

Matthew 21:1-17

Introduction to Worship

Good morning and welcome to worship at Calvary Presbyterian Church. We are glad you are here, both in person and online. It is a good day to be together in prayer and worship, because the news was rough again this week. 

In the first 93 days of 2023, there have been 133 mass shooting events in this country. More students at school, this week at a Presbyterian Church school in Nashville. And the son of a friend of mine was killed in gun violence last week in Texas. There is so much gun violence it is hard to keep up, and it is easy to look away in an attempt to protect our hearts from the pain.  

We will be addressing these events in the service today, both emotionally and intellectually. 

We are here to worship, not to just talk about current events. But as reformed flavored Christians, we believe that we interpret current events through the lens of our faith. 20th century theologian Karl Barth said we were to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, interpreting the news through scripture. 

He also said:

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” — Karl Barth

And so we will pray today. With grief for lives lost. With confession for our complicity in a broken system. With hope God will surround us and give us the courage to build a better world that better reflects the love of God.  

I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath in, breathing in God’s love. Breathe out God’s love for the world. 

And let us pray, using the words of Thich N’hat Hanh: 

Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.
Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.
Let us be aware of the source of being, common to us all and to all living things.
Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let us fill our hearts with our own compassion – towards ourselves and towards all living beings.
Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other.
With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.



I don’t often think in terms of theater. I don’t read a Bible story and wonder how I would stage it.

Would the characters enter from stage left or right?

Where are the spotlights?

Those aren’t usually my questions.

Unless I’m reading the Palm Sunday texts.

This is a text begging to be staged.

Donkeys and colts are brought in from over there.

The crowd lining the path throws palms and their cloaks down this aisle. Jesus somehow climbs on both the colt and the donkey and starts down the parade route, like a rodeo cowboy. 

Image found here.

I see the crowd moving ahead of the action, shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!”, sort of like Paul Revere warning Boston that the British are coming.

We’re told the city is in turmoil, trying to figure out for whom this parade is being staged. They were used to pomp and circumstance in the Roman territories. Every time a new governor moved into town, there would be another procession through town so people could sing all glory, laud, and honor to the latest representative of Caesar.

But this parade is different. Jesus isn’t at the head of a military procession. He’s not riding the white steed that any self-respecting ruler would have. Donkeys signified the ruler was coming in peace, not leading a military.

Matthew, to fulfill the prophecy from Zechariah, has Jesus on both a donkey and a colt. Scholars believe Matthew had a translation issue from the Hebrew to the Greek, putting Jesus on two animals at the same time.

Regardless, neither of those animals is kingly. The stage manager of this first procession must have been shaking their head—wrong, wrong, wrong! This is all wrong! A donkey?  What?

This is absurd!

Yes, it is. We shouldn’t lose sight of the absurdity of this scene.

But again, and again, Jesus subverts our attempts to hold him to a script.

“Yes, I know you want me to be impressive and stately. But I am a donkey riding sort of Messiah, people.  Do you even know me? Is there anything about me that reminds you of a Roman governor?”

Okay, fine, Jesus. Have it your way.

Perhaps before we get to Easter, we need the reminder that Jesus doesn’t fit well in our dreams of worldly glory, military laud, and political honor. 

When we offer glory, laud, and honor to Jesus,
it is the glory to the one who comes in peace,
the laud to the one who seeks power through weakness,
and the honor to the one who serves in humility.

The triumphal procession of Jesus of Nazareth is in stark relief to what the crowd would have been expecting.

Yet the crowd seems to respond.

They throw their cloaks down on the ground, in addition to the palms we wave every year. In a culture where people didn’t have closets full of clothes, throwing your one cloak on the dusty ground required something of you.

These cloak throwers seemed to instinctively understand that following Jesus requires you to set aside your personal gain and comfort for the common welfare, providing a respite from the dust and dirt for the relief of the strangers standing next to you on the parade route.

The crowd also yells out “Hosanna!” For us, today, it sounds like praise and a celebratory word. But it actually means, “save us”. The crowd sees Jesus riding into town with two animals and at the top of their voices, asks for salvation.


We know that later in the week, they won’t see him as clearly.  Once the religious leaders start warning about insurrection, fear, and politics, the crowd will call for his death.

Today, though, when he is publicly on display as the prince of foolish and absurd peace, they see him clearly. In this case, the absurd pageantry and staging force the people to break through their preconceptions of what the Messiah will be, and allows them to cry out for Salvation. Hosanna! Save us!

This clarity comes with a price.

The city is in turmoil.

This isn’t just grumbling at the water cooler. The word “seismic” comes from the same Greek word translated as turmoil. Turmoil. Upheaval. Earthquake.

Jesus enters the gates of the city and is almost immediately at the Temple square. And while Jesus might be the King of Peace riding on a donkey, he is not the King of leaving injustice alone for the sake of false peace.

As soon as he gets down from the donkey and its colt, he starts turning over tables.

Imagine Jesus walking into congress. You could imagine that some of the leaders might have been looking forward to a photo op. Wouldn’t it be great to have a picture of you shaking hands with Jesus? It would look great in your office!

You could imagine that a few of them would want to pull him aside to talk with him, garnering his support for their budget proposal, or for some other piece of legislation.

But that day in the Temple, Jesus was having none of that. He starts upending tables of the money changers and dove sellers. Shekels are flying all over the place and bird cages are tumbling to the ground. The industry that was built up to profit on the backs of the poor has no place in God’s home.

As Victor mentioned last week, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have this story of the turning over of the tables at the end of Jesus’ ministry. John’s gospel has it at the beginning. 

And I think it is a good bookend story for Jesus, at both the beginning and the end of his ministry. Jesus may not have shown up as a king on a majestic steed with a big army, but that doesn’t mean he is a pushover. Jesus is never violent, but we shouldn’t mistake that for weakness. He cares a lot about the things that matter, and he’s not going to tolerate nonsense.

The city in turmoil.

As it should be.

We should never be comfortable and settled when injustice is going on around us.

If we don’t heed the cry of the prophets to care for the people God cares for, we should certainly expect Jesus to walk into the room and start throwing the furniture.

“Hosanna! Save us!,” we cry.

After he up-ends the visible signs of injustice, he gets to the work of healing. The blind and the lame come to him for healing while the children stand on the sidelines singing

“Hosanna! Save us!”

Holy Week is full of tensions.

The crowd that calls out for salvation is the same crowd that calls for crucifixion.

The King to whom we sing all glory, laud, and honor is not the emperor in Rome, but rather a carpenter from a backwater town in Galilee.

The celebration that starts the week—Hosanna! Hosanna!—will move to betrayal, arrest, and a mock trial.

The city is in turmoil, with some people shouting “hosanna!” and others asking “who is this?

And we, as the church in a world full of turmoil, are called to the midst of it all. There are still people asking “who is this?”, and they need to hear your answer to that question about Jesus.

There are still people calling out “Hosanna! Save me!” How can we, as the Body of Christ, respond to those cries for help?

As Joann noticed earlier in the Children’s Meditation, Jesus heard the children crying out for him to save them. Children are still crying out today. Every damn day in this country, for us to save them. 

Are we listening? 

Unhoused children. Refugee children. Children without access to healthcare. Children without access to clean drinking water. School children who have to practice active shooter drills while the adults in congress actively support the proliferation of guns on our streets, all in the name of freedom. 

I need Jesus to show up in the halls of congress, and rip some of those lapel pins of assault rifles off the collars of congressmen. I need Jesus to accuse them of making his father’s house into a den of robbers. I’ve got some tables for him to turn over. 

Last week, some people spoke about not being comfortable with angry Jesus. Not me. I’m here for it. 

As I was picturing that image of him in congress with great fondness, I realized that we are the body of Christ today. We are the people to metaphorically turn over the tables. As Victor said last week, we have to find a way to participate, in a big or a small way, to the work of repairing this world. The task is not ours to finish but neither is it ours to neglect.

I want us to value the lives of second graders more than we value the second amendment. 

I want background checks on all gun sales.

I want to require safe gun storage and gun locks. 

I want to limit who has access to assault rifles, and the ammunition for them. 

I want the gun industry to be held accountable, and not be immune from the consequences of their actions. A bill passed in 2005 “blocks legal responsibility for gun manufacturers that have failed to innovate and make guns safer, and for manufacturers, distributors, and dealers with irresponsible, reckless and negligent sales practices that contribute to the flood of illegal firearms in our communities.”

There are other solutions. And people of faith can disagree about the best solutions to the problem. 

The days are long past when we can disagree about whether or not there is a problem. There absolutely is a problem and we must act now. 

Hosanna, the children cry. Save us. 

Are we listening to their cries? What are we going to do about them?

Theologian Miroslav Volf says

“there is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve”. 

We are absolutely called to pray, and I hope that we are. But the children are still crying, “Hosanna. Save us.” So what are you going to do? 

We are entering Holy Week today, as Jesus enters Jerusalem while the people cry out for help. 

I invite you to mark the days of this week differently than your normal routine. The world is in turmoil. We need community. Please join us for worship on Thursday at 7 pm as we remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends, and on Friday at 7 pm as we remember his crucifixion and death. 

If you go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, you miss some important pieces of the story. 

I invite you to pray your way through the week with a heart open to see peace in the midst of the turmoil of the world and the turmoil of our lives.

When we gather again in a week for Easter, the strains of celebration will have returned. Hosanna will give way to Hallelujah. 

Friends, the city may be in turmoil, but the good news of Holy Week is our God is here to save us.  

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

There’s a Hosanna sticker on the cover of your bulletin. We invite you to take it with you and put it somewhere it will remind you to listen for the refrains of it in our world and in our hearts. This is Holy work for Holy Week. 

Closing prayer and benediction

O Holy God, make of us a receiving people.
Let us walk with your feet.
Let us touch with your hands.
Let your voice speak in and through us.
Let your wisdom be transformed into right action within us.
Let us carry forth your spirit into the world.
Let us be at one with You, O God.
And may each who feels as one with You,
know also that we are one with every other,
until all creation is unified in the light of love.
May you go in peace and in the light of God’s love. 

(Adapted from a prayer by Bebe Williams, July 10,1994)


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