Thoughts, Prayers, and Palms: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

So once again it is Holy Week in the church. Once again we have come to the last days of Lent, and we stand on the verge of the holiest time of the entire church year. And today is Palm Sunday, the start of a week that will include the beautiful intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and finally, the joy of Easter morning.

And this day, is so odd when you look at it from the outside. On the Sunday before Easter Christians go to church and they get palm leaves that have been shipped in from out of state, and they wave them in the air and shout “Hosanna” and if this is your first time in church on Palm Sunday, the whole thing must just look bizarre.

Canon 70D 1101That’s fair. This is one of those church traditions that requires some explanation. And so, we go back to the Scriptures, back to the original story of Jesus and the palms. Jesus and his disciples had been ministering in the countryside, in the smaller towns and villages, for awhile now. And people have started to talk about this Jesus guy, and how he teaches, and how he heals, and how something is special about him.

But now, they are heading to the big city: Jerusalem. Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead of him and asks then to bring back a colt. And Jesus rides on this colt, through the streets of Jerusalem, and the people who have heard about him, they run out into the streets and they spread their coats out in front of him. And they take palm leaves, and they put them on the road too.

Palm leaves were symbols of victory and triumph, and so the fact the people wanted to lay them in front of Jesus means that they knew something was special about him. Because life in Jerusalem at that time, especially if you were just an ordinary Jewish person, and not a Roman citizen, was not good. You were oppressed. You were treated as lesser-than. You were despondent.

But then, here comes this guy, one that everyone has been talking about, one that brings a hope you have never known. And you wonder if maybe he’s the one. Maybe he is the king, for the messiah, or the savior that you’ve heard about your whole life long. Maybe he is coming to make everything better.

And so, you take these symbols of victory, these palms, and you line his path into the seat of power, this Jerusalem, this Washington or New York or what have you, and as he rides into town, you shout out your hope. Hosanna! Hosanna! And what you are literally shouting is this: “Save us. Help us. Rescue us.”

We tell this story now and sometimes we think this was a parade of some sort, but if it was, it was different than any we’ve seen. It was not a celebration so much as it was a statement, and a call for change. It was the people going out into the streets and saying “change is coming….change has to be coming….and maybe it’s this guy.” It was the crowd saying, “this is our new hope.”

I was thinking about that yesterday on the streets of Portsmouth. This year Lent began with a horrendous tragedy. On Ash Wednesday we learned that a gunman had killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. That night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we prayed for the victims, and we prayed for a world where children did not have to be afraid anymore.

And, I confess, as I prayed, I was feeling incredibly cynical. Losing 13 people in Columbine, Colorado hadn’t changed anything. 26 first graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut hadn’t changed anything. 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hadn’t changed anything. 58 in Las Vegas? Nothing. This wouldn’t be any different either.

But, these kids at Parkland? These kids proved me wrong. Because these kids? They’re not sitting idly by. They’re not shutting up. They’re refusing to be seen and not heard. And it’s amazing.

One of these young people, a survivor of the shooting named David Hogg, was describing the role that he and his friends were now playing. And, to paraphrase, he talked about how country was broken. Because it has to be if we allow children to be gunned down in schools. And he said that we adults don’t know how to use our democracy.

And then he said it was like when your parents couldn’t figure out how to use their iphone…and you try to tell them how to do it. You coach them through it and say “now do this”. But finally, they’re not actually fixing the problem and so finally you just say, “Give me the….phone and let me handle it.”

29512296_1864634403589149_4241526480576250524_nThat’s what’s happening. They’re handling it. And so yesterday, around this country, students let us out into our houses and into the streets. News reports indicate that yesterday’s march in DC may have been the largest of all time. And across the country, smaller marches took place everywhere. In fact over in Portsmouth, Market Square was so packed that I couldn’t even make my way from the back of the crowd to the front where the contingent from our church had landed. That was okay, because blocking my way was a crowd of high school students, packed in too tightly for us to move.

It was awesome. These kids are awesome. And they are rightfully getting a lot of credit for what they are doing. They are heroes.

But, they aren’t the ones to save us. Nor should they be. Because we failed the kids, and they had to do this for us. But, as David Hogg said, “I shouldn’t have to! I’m 17.”

He shouldn’t have to. No kid should have to. They should be planning their prom and thinking about college. This work of keeping the world safe for them? That should be the work of adults. The kids shouldn’t be saving us. The kids shouldn’t even be having to yell to us “save us”. The kids should be kids.

And so, how do we let them be? How do we let them be not just when it comes to this particular kind of destruction, but to all the ways our culture of death and pain reaches them all to young? How do we proclaim another way to them? How do we proclaim another way to us?

I think it starts with this. I think it starts with us holding our palms up, and shouting out to God that ancient word: Hosanna! “Save us…rescue us…help us.”

Because here’s the thing. I know that right now it is very popular to dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. And, I get why. After a tragedy too often we hear talking heads sending “thoughts and prayers” to those who were impacted without doing anything else. Those thoughts and prayers help nothing.

But, “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap sometimes. Because if we want to change the world, it’s going to take thoughts and prayers. But the trick is that it’s going to take the kind of thoughts and prayers that require something of us. A thought with no followthrough is just half a thought. A prayer that things would change without any intention to help make them change isn’t a prayer at all.

Thoughts and prayers are not the problem. Meaning what we think, meaning what we pray, that is.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited once again to choose what, and who, we believe will rescue us. And we are invited to lay down our palms, our symbols of victory, in front of him. And when we have put down our signs of readiness, when we have lined the road with them, then we will show him the path that we have made for him into our hearts, and into our towns, and into our world.

Our palms are our invitation to Christ to come into our hearts, and use us to be a part of the healing of the world. They are our signs that our faith will be put in a savior who taught a Gospel of love and peace, change and non-violence, and who asked us to follow. They are symbols of readiness to be people of true thoughts, true prayers, and true actions.

And so, once again, I raise my palm, and I say “hosanna”. Rescue us, Jesus. Save us. Help us. And know, Jesus, know that this time we are ready to work alongside of you.


Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be found here, or as a podcast on iTunes here.

Back in Advent, when we were getting ready for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we read the story of John the Baptist. You might remember John. He lived out in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore the camelhair clothing. He was sort of this eccentric character who told everyone to “prepare the way of the Lord” and get ready for the birth of a new king.

The song we sang during the children’s time in December reminded us of that. I won’t sing it, but remember how it went? “Prepare the way of the Lord, prepare the way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”

That was the beginning of Jesus’ life. The faithful telling us to get ready for Jesus, and to get things ready for Jesus.

Fast forward to today, the start of Holy Week, the most important time in the Christian year. And while John the Baptist is gone by this point in the Gospel story, he words ring back and ring true: “prepare the way of the Lord”. Get ready, because he is coming.

All those years ago, as Jesus was starting what would be his last week of life, he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem, the holy city. And the people heard he was coming, and so they went out and they lined the road. And as Jesus entered on a donkey they threw down what they had in front of him, including palm leaves like the ones you have today.

pexels-photo-207239.jpegNow, up here in New England, we don’t have palm branches all around us. We have to order them in, and the Fed Ex guy brings them to us neatly packed in a cardboard box. This always cracks me up because I grew up in Florida and we had palm leaves everywhere. When you did yard work you had to get rid of these things, and they are big and bulky. You couldn’t give them away.

I had no idea we could have sold them to y’all in northern churches.

But that tells you a little about what was happening in Jerusalem. These were not wealthy people and they didn’t have much. But they knew there was something about Jesus and they wanted to welcome him. And so they used what was readily available, and free; things like these palm leaves, and they spread them out on his path.

Had Jesus come to New Hampshire, we wouldn’t have been welcoming him with palm leaves. This time of year maybe we’d throw out road salt instead, thawing the ice on the road in front of him. Maybe we’d wave empty branches. Or maybe we’d throw our Red Sox hats and bring him Dunkin coffee.

Who knows? The point is, they were doing what they could with what they had. And that wasn’t a lot. Because back then, in Jerusalem, the Jewish people were not in a good place. The Roman empire was occupying Jerusalem and oppressing the people. And many of the religious leaders, like religious leaders in every faith, were not a whole lot better. They would exploit others and work in their own best interests, and not that of the people.

And so when word about Jesus started to spread, when it became clear that there might be something about him that was different, they began to hope. Maybe this was the one that Scripture called the “Messiah”. Maybe he would be the one to break the stranglehold that Rome had on Jerusalem. Maybe he would purify a Temple that had become a house for money changers. Maybe he would bring change.

That’s why they lined the streets and cheered as he rode into town. And that’s why they shouted “hosanna!” which literally means “save us”. “Save us, Jesus, because we need help.”

Last year the Rev. Quinn Caldwell, a friend of mine who also writes for the UCC’s Daily Devotionals, wrote a piece for Palm Sunday about a custom I’d never heard of before. In Latin America there is a tradition of preparing “alfombras” for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Alfombra literally means “carpet”, and these are elaborate carpets, of a sort, that are created in the streets. People use materials like sand and sawdust and flowers, and they work for days making the beautiful, intricate displays. Some are as much as a mile long.

They do this because during Holy Week processions take place through the streets, and often Jesus is depicted. And so, like the people who threw palms in his path, and like John the Baptist said, they are preparing the way for the Lord. They are putting something beautiful and soft in front of him as he travels on to his hardest days. And with every grain of sand laid, every flower put in place, they are saying “hosanna”…”save us”.

Today we wave our palms, and we say the same thing too. But we don’t do this just as a reenactment. This isn’t just something that happened two thousands years ago. This is real life, and this is about the salvation that we need too.

The situation is different for us. The Roman government is gone and we don’t have money changers in the Temple, because now there is no Temple. But if we look around, we might find that there’s plenty that might look familiar to the people who lined the roads.

Because even two thousand years later, we human beings still look for salvation in the wrong places. We yell “save us” and there are plenty of people and things who are ready to tell you they can do it. But in the end, no politician will save you. Nothing you buy will save you. No drink or drug will save you. No new job or big promotion will save you. That’s not how salvation works.

Instead, salvation looks like this. It looks like Jesus riding into Jerusalem, not down a red carpet, and not pulled in the finest coach with a team of horses, but over palm leaves and on the back of a donkey. And, to put it in modern terms, it doesn’t come by the sword, with Jesus on top of an armored tank division, taking the government by force, but rather by this man who was ready to face down the forces of death unarmed.

Jesus really doesn’t look much like a man who could save the people. In the end he can’t even save himself. And yet, it is in his dying that the stage is set for his greatest triumph. It is in his resurrection that we are given new life.

The work of salvation that was started all those centuries ago still goes on because Jesus didn’t suddenly change everything as expected. He was much more subversive, and much more powerful, than that. And because of that we get to be a part of it too.

And so, like generations before us, we prepare the way for what Christ is doing now. We build our own alfombras for him to travel over, creating beauty and meaning as a pathway to a better way. We shout “hosanna”, “save us”, by our very actions.

We stuff our Heifer boxes and send them off, and we prepare the way. We take care of our earth and all of God’s creation, and we prepare the way. We take care of the sick and suffering, and we prepare the way. And we gather here week after week, worshipping God and loving one another, and we prepare the way.

As I told you earlier, after worship ends we are going to stay in the sanctuary in order to take a quick all-church photo. I know it’s tempting to get down to coffee hour or get out the door to start your Sunday, so I promise this won’t take long. But please, stay. Choose to be in the photo.

The picture we are about to take is one of a community that has gathered together not because we are the same, but because we love Christ the same…and so we love the world in the same way too. This is our own alfombra, beautiful because each of us is a piece of the mosaic. And it is our own “hosanna”, our own call to Christ to use us in his saving work.

We all are called to prepare the way. And we all need the reminder that we are not alone in that.

Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2016

Palm Sunday is, at first glance, a strange tradition. Once a year you come through the doors of the church and the usher hands you not just a bulletin, but a palm frond. If you didn’t know about it in advance, you’d probably think it was pretty odd.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

All these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem.

Along with the palms, though, there is something else we do on Palm Sunday that we don’t do through the year. We shout this odd word, “Hosanna”. It’s the same word that the crowds shouted to Jesus as he entered the city. Hosanna has come to be understood as a sort of joyful cheer, like maybe you’d hear at a sports event or political rally. A sort of “hurray” or “huzzah”.

But, it’s important to note that this word we hear today, hosanna, wasn’t exactly one of celebration. It meant something more dire to the people who lined Jesus route. Hosanna comes from the Psalms, something the people of Jerusalem would have known well, and it doesn’t mean “yay” or “isn’t this great”. It means, literally, “save us”.

Those people who lined the route to the city and welcomed Jesus in, lining his route with palms, they were calling out to him, shouting, “Jesus, save us…we need help.”

There was plenty to need saving from for the people who lined the route. They lived under an oppressive Roman empire, one in which their safety and rights were constantly under threat. For some who shouted “hosanna”, they believed that maybe Jesus had come to end all of that. It’s one reason why the Roman officials were so scared of him. They thought he would bring political upheaval. And so they yelled “hosanna”…save us.

For others that day, Jesus represented another kind of hope. They had something going on in their own lives and they thought maybe Jesus would help them. They were sick, or destitute, or maybe just hopeless. And so they too yelled their “hosannas”…save us.

That’s what happened in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. But, what would happen if Jesus came down Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire today? What would we be doing if he rode up the center of town on a donkey and stopped there at the bandstand. What would we be shouting out?

The reality is that if Jesus came to town today, he probably wouldn’t be riding a donkey. I’m not sure what he would drive, but maybe a plain old Ford or Chevy, Honda or Toyota, as common and unexciting today as a donkey would have been back then, would bring him up Front Street.

And you and I would probably not be waving palms either. They’re not exactly native to our region. Maybe we’d be out there with pine boughs, or the branches of trees that haven’t quite bloomed yet. We would use whatever was handy. Some years we’d probably be waving snow shovels about now.


Palm Sunday at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

It would look a lot different from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But what wouldn’t be different is this: we’d still have reason to shout “hosanna”.

The reality is that probably almost all of us have something from which we want saving. Maybe we are sick. Maybe we are feeling hopeless. Maybe we are wandering and feeling alone. Maybe we are uncertain. Maybe we are worried for our community, or our country. Whatever it is, we know we can’t fix it alone.

But, at the same time, as much as those who lined the streets in Jerusalem, we believe that maybe someone can. And so we cry out to Jesus, to God incarnate who has come to our very town, “hosanna”. “Save us”.

Hosanna is the word in which both humility and hope collide. It is simultaneously a confession that we can not fix it ourselves, and that we believe that God can. Hosanna is one of the best statements of faith that we can make.

It’s also a statement that flips everything on its head. And that’s because when we call out to Jesus to save us, we might know expect the way he will do it.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the people prepared the road for him. They laid out palms and their own clothing so that he could walk into town. They were trying to prepare a procession for a conquering king who would save them from the hard lives they knew. They were probably expecting a regal king riding in on a sturdy horse with his entourage.

Instead, they got this guy on a donkey.

Today it would be a little like waiting for a liberating army to arrive in a tank and instead seeing someone roll up the street in a jeep. It wouldn’t exactly be confidence-inspiring.

And yet, Jesus did hear the calls of the crowd to save them. And he did. The next week in Jerusalem would turn everything on its head. That’s what we will be celebrating next Sunday when we gather back here for Easter.

But none of it went down the way that the people lining that street expected. And none of it happened immediately. Even when they found the empty tomb on Easter morning, the work was not done. In fact, even 2,000 years later, you and I are still responding to the calls that Jesus heard that day. You and I are still working as Christ’s disciples to change this world.

And that’s really what the life of faith is like in some ways. It’s acknowledging the cries of a broken world, and it’s responding to them as Christ’s own disciples.

When the people on the street cried out “hosanna” that day, the Pharisees and the religious officials told Jesus to make them stop. But he refused. He told them, “even if they were silent, the stones themselves would cry out”.

That’s true. Even if we don’t shout our “hosannas”, the world already knows what is not right. Even if we don’t cry out in humility or hope, others will. Those same cries for justice, for liberation, for life that were raised from that crowd 2,000 years ago are being echoed today, all around us. The hope comes in the fact that they have not gone silent and underground. They are still being shouted today.

And so, how do we line the streets? And what do we wave to welcome Jesus into our town, and into our hearts? What can we use to welcome him? And how can we work with him to respond to a world full of “hosannas”.

That’s the question we ask ourselves every day as the church. How do we bring hope to a world where there is often pain? And how do we shout our own hosannas until they can never be silenced?

I can’t tell you exactly how that will happen, but I can tell you that we will be in good company. Today our crowd grows a little bigger. Today we welcome fifteen new members to this church. That’s fifteen more people who will stand with us and shout “hosanna”. And fifteen more who will hear the hosannas of the world and respond.

Sometimes “hosanna” is all you can say. Today I give thanks that we can say it, and hear it, together. And, palms raised, that we are ready to welcome Jesus to our town. Amen?

In the Crowd: A Homily for Palm Sunday, 2015

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The first time I ever heard about Palm Sunday, I was confused. I’ve talked before about how I didn’t really grow up in the church, so I went to my first Palm Sunday service during my senior year of high school.

You might remember that I grew up mostly in Florida. And we had palm trees everywhere. We had a bunch all around our yard, and we would climb them the way kids in other places climbed oak trees. At Christmas some people even put their Christmas lights up on them. And when it was time to clean up the yard, we had to cut those branches down all the time. And I remember there being so many that we would fill up trash bag after trash bag and then haul them to the curb for the trash truck.

So, to be honest, growing up I thought Palm Sunday must be some sort of local Florida celebration like a Blueberry or Apple Festival, and I had no idea why we were celebrating it in church.

18124_920677677984831_3958351675566877247_nI understand what Palm Sunday is all about now. I know it’s the entry into Holy Week. And, because there are no palm trees here in southern New England, every Lent we pay a company to send us a box of palm fronds. The same kind we had way too many of in my neighborhood growing up. That irony is not lost on me.

But palm leaves, they’re an essential part of this story today. Scripture tells us the Palm Sunday story in two places, John and Mark, both of which we read this morning. And in them we hear about how Jesus, who had been preaching and teaching all over the surrounding towns for the past few years, gaining followers and generating excitement, was finally walking onto the biggest stage of all, the one where he was set to become a legend in his own time: Jerusalem.

And the people there had heard that he was coming. They wanted to be a part of it and they went out to meet him. And they greeted him like this: they threw their cloaks in front of the colt he rode in on, and they took palms from the nearby trees. And as he rode in they waived them and they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Now, it may not sound like much to us today, those palms and those shouted “hosannas”, but back then they were greeting Jesus like he was a rock star. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Because the palm fronds they were waiving were more than just green leaves. At that time you waived palms as a symbol of victory or triumph. They were literally signs of hope, being held high for Jesus and all to see.

And those shouts of Hosanna literally meant “save us!” Because the people who were gathered by that road, they needed saving. They were being brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire on one hand, and held down by religious leaders who didn’t always want what was best for the people on the other. And the people who were there believed that Jesus had come to change all of that, maybe even by force. They didn’t know what was coming, but they knew it had to be better than what they had always known.

I talked about the crowd greeting Jesus like a modern-day rock star, and that has some resonance for me. About six months after my first Palm Sunday service I went to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera about the final week of Jesus’ life. And I was struck by something in particular. The performers who play “The Crowd” serve as a sort of chorus for the play. They are the ones who shout “Hosanna” during one of the first songs, yelling “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me? Sanna hosanna hey superstar.”

But by the end of the play those same actors, that same crowd, is shouting something different. When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead of killing him, the same crowd that shouted “save us” on Sunday is shouting back “crucify him…crucify him” on Friday.

I don’t think that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the scenes that way because he didn’t have enough actors to play two different crowds. I think he wrote them that way because he knew that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our fears get the better of us, our hopes seem misplaced, and our loyalties fail us.

It was about the time that I saw that concert that I realized that it wasn’t enough just to refrain from actively participating in injustice. I realized that in order to be truly faithful, we have to make a decision to not just stand by and watch it happen. Because when we are a part of a crowd, and we do not speak up, in so many ways we may as well be yelling “crucify him” with the people around us.

When we see a bully terrorize someone, and we do nothing, we are not siding with kindness. When we watch someone being harassed, and we don’t dare to speak up, we are not being allies to them. When we see injustice happening around us, but we think we have no power to change it, we are a part of the reason that injustice can thrive.

I don’t know exactly why the crowd turned against him that week, but I wonder if it isn’t because of the same reason all of us fail to speak out when we know we should: they got scared. The one they thought was there to save them, the one they greeted with palm leaves and scattered coats, seemed to be just another disappointment. He didn’t overthrow the Romans. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even say much. He just went to the cross without much to show for it. He didn’t save them

At least, that’s what they thought. But that’s a story for next Sunday. For now, though, I’ll just say this. He did not save them in a way that anyone expected. There were no weapons and no wars. But a victory was coming. One that deserved all the palm leaves in the world. But one that no one in the crowd that day could ever imagine.

So, for those of us 2,000 year later, in a place where our only palms are shipped in from another country, and in a time where with 20/20 hindsight we know how this story ends, how do we shout “hosanna”? And how do we welcome Jesus into our midst today?

Between you and me, while the palm leaves are nice to have, I don’t think Jesus much cares what we are waiving when we decide to welcome him. Here in New England we could do the same thing the people of Jerusalem did all that time back and just use what is handy. So we could use maple branches, or pine boughs. Or snow shovels, if you prefer. We could throw confetti or shoot off fireworks.

Or, we could do one better, and just open our hearts, and on this Palm Sunday, invite Jesus in. And we could say “hosanna”. “Save us”. From whatever it is we need to claim victory over in our lives, from whatever struggles we are facing. From whatever is keeping us as just one of the crowd, and from being a disciple. Hosanna, Lord. Save us.

Let’s start the welcome today. But let’s not end here. This week we will be journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, from today to Maundy Thursday, and from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. Step out of the crowd. Step into the hope of a victory that no one would ever believe. Join us. And together let us shout out a hope that will turn into a promise: Hosanna, Lord. Save us. Hosanna. Amen.

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.


Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.