Palm Sunday wonderings

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Over the course of this evening’s liturgy, we will read three portions of the Gospel according to Matthew. We opened with the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey and heralded as a “son of David.” We then heard Matthew’s very simple version of the last supper narrative, along with Jesus’ warnings that all of his followers—even the stubbornly loyal Peter—would become deserters that very night. At the close of this evening’s liturgy, we will hear of Jesus’ agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, ending just as his captors arrive to haul him away to what will pass as a trial before the high priest Caiaphas and his council. And when later in the week we gather for our Good Friday liturgy, we’ll read the Passion Gospel, bearing witness as the crowds call for his execution.

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From being blessed in the name of the Lord and heralded as “Son of David” to being publically executed in so short a time; how is that even possible?

The novelist Reynolds Price once suggested that in considering the life and person of Jesus, our own imaginations—and specifically our imaginative story-telling—can be “A Serious Way of Wondering;” a way in which the Spirit can take us deeper into the gospel. In that vein, I offer to you three imagined voices.

Imagine first a Roman soldier, who had been near the gates of the city when Jesus entered. Now with other members of his unit, he begins to speak.

There might be a little trouble brewing, lads. That Nazarene wonder-worker we’ve been hearing rumours about arrived in the city today. Riding on a donkey, he was, but you’d think he was on Caesar’s own horse for all the racket his followers were making. Tossing their cloaks on the road in front of him, tearing down branches and waving them like flags. Shouting out slogans in their rude tongue. Word from the north had been that he had a band of only twelve men, but I’d say it was at least fifty of his own people, women and children among them. Add the usual locals looking to throw in with just about anything, and it was a bit of a crowd. And I don’t like it.

I had a good look at him, and he didn’t seem much of a threat. But sometimes they’re the ones you have to worry about, you know? Heard word that a centurion up in Capernaum claims this Nazarene healed his slave boy… I mean I know that if you spend too much time up in those places you can start to lose your sense of things, but what a thing for a centurion to go looking for help from the likes of him? And then to tell people about it? He needs to be sent home for a rest, I’d say.

No, the more I think about it the less I like it. These damned Jews don’t know how good they’ve got it with us here keeping the peace. I think I’ll find the captain and let him know. He’ll pass the word along to them that need to know. But keep your eyes open, lads. I tell you, this one is trouble.

Now imagine a hastily assembled gathering of the Great Sanhedrin that same day. Seated in their meeting hall in the Jerusalem temple, one of the priests rises to address them.

Gentlemen, you know why we are here. Jesus the Nazarene, about whom we have been warned, has made his presence all too known in our holy city. If today’s events in the temple are any indication, he may be even more of a problem than we had feared. Striding into the outer court, chasing out the sacrificial beasts and knocking over the currency exchange tables, all the while claiming for himself the authority of the prophet Jeremiah—“you are making my house a den of robbers”—the presumption of the man. It verges on blasphemy.

Worse, as he was approaching the city gates, his people were heralding him as a “Son of David”, blessing him in the Lord’s most holy name, and shouting for him to “save us.” To look to one such as him and shout “hosanna?” They’re being swept up in their enthusiasm, and you can be sure that the Zealots will soon be fired up, wanting to pull their swords out from where they’ve got them hidden. Don’t they know the fragility of our arrangement with the Romans? As surely as God inspired Moses to lead our people out of slavery in Egypt; as surely as God carried us back from exile in Babylon to rebuild this city; as surely as God empowered our Maccabean ancestors to throw off the Greeks who had desecrated our holy temple; if we are faithful, God will free us from the Romans. In God’s time, not ours… why can’t they see this?

We need to catch him at his own game, and publically discredit him before too many people fall for his lies. Find him in the market place when there are plenty of people around, and press him with questions to expose him for what he is; a blasphemous traitor.

And gentlemen, there may well be a loyalist among his group. There may be one of them as appalled by his desecration of the temple and as troubled by those foolhardy hosannas as any of us. There must be at least one of them who will be true to the faith inherited from our forebears. Of course, they are mostly peasants in that group of his, and a bit of silver coin might be useful in reminding one of them of his deeper loyalty. I see concerned expressions on some of your faces? Spare me your scruples. You know the violence of Pilate, and what he’s capable of doing to our people if he thinks there is any chance of an uprising. Isn’t it better that we do all we can to stop this one man than to have the whole nation destroyed?

And now imagine Gethsemane, where a cluster of tired men lies sleeping in the darkness. One of them stirs; it is the disciple Thaddaeus.

Look at them all, sleeping like babies. I guess I must have dozed off for a bit myself… We shouldn’t even be here. It’s not safe to be out so late; not after the stir the rabbi has caused these past days. He needed to say his prayers, he said, but why out here? Be better to have just stayed in that room he found for to share our Passover meal. The strangest Passover meal I’ve ever had, I’d have to say. Telling us that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, and that whenever we shared the meal we were to remember him. Remember him… as if he was going away. Or worse, going to die.

He’s been talking so much about death these past months. It wasn’t like that in the early days, and so when he started talking about dying I thought it was like one of his parables. He said it to get us thinking. He said “death” but meant something else. But now I’m afraid it’s not like a parable; not at all.

And what was that strange conversation with Judas? Him saying one thing, and Judas looking for all the world like a guilty boy caught doing something he shouldn’t be. Then just like that, Judas is gone. Probably gone to hide for the night, and then be on the road home first thing in the morning. And then there we all were, bravely pledging him our loyalty, and him just telling us that even Peter’s words were no good. I wish he’d hurry up with his praying.

Ah, here he comes; finally done.

By God’s mercy, what’s that? Torches! Soldiers? No, no temple police… and they’ve caught poor Judas…

And Jesus said, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

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