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Only One Participant…, Palm Sunday (B) – 1997

March 23, 1997

Only one participant in the Gospel accompanied Jesus through all the length of his days. This character was present at Bethlehem and during all of the events of Holy Week right up to and after the Crucifixion. We are speaking of The Crowd. This gathering of the poor, the rich, the ragtag, the sophisticated, the men and the women, old and young, reaches one of its most powerful and memorable moments in the great events of this day. Our collective imagination and racial memory can take us there and then.

We were certainly at Bethlehem. We had come from villages and towns, cities and farms from around the countryside answering the summons of Roman overlords. We filled the streets of Bethlehem as well as the inns. Our noise drowned out the routine sounds of the place and our appetite emptied the stalls of the vendors in the market. We paid our taxes and went home. Or, we heard the song of the angels and visited a stable.

We were there at Jerusalem for the festivals of the Passover. We were there twelve years after Bethlehem when the boy Jesus became separated from his parents by remaining behind in the temple. We heard the calls of Mary and Joseph as they searched and felt their tugs on our sleeves as they asked, “have you seen our son?” They found him in the temple and disappeared again into the rest of us on the road back to Nazareth.

We were at the banks of the Jordan with John the Baptizer. Jesus the man came among us and entered the water of the river. We saw the opening of the heavens over his head and heard the voice of the thunder. Some of us followed him to the edge of the desert and watched as he disappeared into the wilderness. We were there when the paralytic was lowered through the roof to be healed, when Zacheus had to climb the trees to see over our heads, when 5000 of us were hungry on the hillside.

And we were there today as the Christ entered Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. The road was dusty and cloaks and palm branches were placed where the donkey could step and the dust would not be raised. We were deep in number at the side of the road and the noise was great. We thought he was our King.

This has been giving a twentieth century voice to the faceless people who wander in and out of the story of Jesus. It isn’t difficult as the concept of “crowd” is a familiar one to all of us. Being in one can be distasteful and dangerous. Even an event of great joy and celebration becomes tedious when one tries to leave along with thousands of other people heading in the same direction. The press of people waving their palms must have been astounding on the narrow streets of old Jerusalem. Perhaps watchers were leaning from the windows of buildings. Perhaps some were running ahead of the little procession to collect friends or family members. Perhaps the sound traveled ahead so that those in the vicinity of the temple looked to discover the cause of the shouting.

It has been said that every Jewish person has a part in the Exodus event, that something of this magnitude echoes through the ages gathering in participants as the memory moves through time. It has also been said that all Christians are present at the foot of the cross, redeemed in a single moment of sacrifice. The collecting of the crowd in Jerusalem as Jesus rides in on the back of a donkey is another of those cosmic moments. We all stand in that throng. We are all part of that metaphor for we are part of creation as it greets the creator.

Jesus, gentle man, compassionate, the embodiment of unconditional love and acceptance sometimes had to get away. The Spirit drove him into the desert after the Baptism of John. Could that not be another way of saying that he needed time and silence and loneliness in order to think and sort things out? The press of people sometimes seemed to be keeping him from God the father making occasional “retreats” neccessary. We know “retreat” as a separating from the world in order to be closer to God. This entrance into Jerusalem will begin the greatest separation of all as Jesus, hanging on the cross, cries out his feeling of abandonment by his Father.

What does it say to us, this story of great exaltation and great sorrow. Beginning with the commandeering of the donkey it says that Jesus WILL be recognized as a person who is for whatever reason, astounding. The disciples simply go to collect the beast. Why? Because the Lord needs it. That is all that it took. The donkey was taken without any distress on the part of its owner. Everyone, it seems, knew who it was that rode on a saddle made of cloaks.

They were soon joined on this road from Bethany which passed the Mount of Olives. People left their fields and their shops and homes. They shouted for the Son of David – he who would reestablish the Kingdom of David and who came in the name of the Lord. But, was this the only hope to which they were clinging? Was this the only aspect of Jesus to which they were responding? He was also teacher and healer. He was one who had spoken with authority. Whatever the reason, this became known as a Triumphal Entry. Triumphant because he was known – known by the crowd.

What is it about Christ on a donkey’s back which speaks to people of interstates and four wheel drive? Perhaps it is the simplicity. Perhaps it is the humility. The only luxury, after all, was the cloaks on the road to keep down the dust. What would we have asked from our participation in the event? Perhaps, healing. Perhaps, blessing. Perhaps, just being there. Even as part of a crowd there must have been something about him which made one feel as though one were the only person in his presence. The connection must have been made — at least with the pure in heart, in an instant, in a glance.

“I only want to know you, Lord.” That is a line from a Beatle’s song — one which is not necessarily Christian, but, does speak to our longing. We should want God — Jesus — as much as breath itself. That is the longing which places us in this crowd of brothers and sisters from so long ago. It is like the longing of a child missing a parent and who runs to the door when the step is heard. We long to touch even the garment. We look for ways to play a part, to serve, and we lay our garments on the road.

If we really could be supernaturally transported back to this day and hour we would not be able to join in the exaltation felt by those around us. We couldn’t. We know the rest of the story. The pathos here is almost palpable. Why should he die? Why would anyone want him to die? And, why would he come in recognized and cheered so that no one, especially those in authority, could overlook the uproar? Why don’t his twelve good friends find a hidden way out of the city and take him back to Bethany? He could go back to Bethany and be safe in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus! He could live to a ripe old age and stay here to love us! We cannot live without that love!

And, now, how are we challenged to new growth by the story of Palm Sunday? How are we convicted by this Gospel? The clues are there: we stand with the crowd as it has moved from Bethlehem and the Nativity to Jerusalem and Holy Week, we know who Jesus is – or, who we would like for him to be, we know how the story ends.

Some of us know our own family histories and a fortunate few can recite family stories from more than just a few generations in the past. Go back almost 2000 years and these people are our family as much as those in England, Germany, France, Japan, Nigeria, or wherever our roots happen to be. Our faith and our Baptism placed us in this history. That placement comes with price and responsibility. Jesus paid the price. The responsibility is ours. So, what are we called to do?

We are called to stand in solidarity with the thousands and millions of us. Our commonality is the searching, the seeking, the yearning for the sort of love and peace which Christ can give. That longing for union with a force greater than ourselves is part of the human condition. To recognize that in ourselves and in all people should result in a desire to help that union to happen. This would mean to eliminate forces which come between a person and God, forces such as war, hunger, disease, violence in all of its forms, illnesses of mind and body, and ignorance of the Gospel. These things need our attention. We are called by God and challenged by the Gospel to address each of those mighty separations. We especially need to share the story, most critically with the young, so that it may continue its march through the ages offering grace and salvation.

We are called to know who Jesus is and to acknowledge him as Lord. This finds expression in our worship, corporate and private. The Palm Sunday crowd changed its shouts of exaltation into, “give us Barabbas.” We are called to be steadfast. To say, “yes,” to Christ as Lord is to say, “no,” to much of what the world has to offer. To say, “yes,” to Christ is to be confronted daily by decisons and choices which we know should be made in a believing context. How we spend our money, use our time, raise our children, serve others, work for justice and mercy for all people, and approach our own deaths should beg the question, “what would Jesus have me do?” This can be threatening. It should be! It challenges things as seemingly simple as how we spend Sabbath mornings.

We do know how the story ends. This man on the back of the donkey is riding to his death. He knows that. He receives the cheers of the crowd, returns to Bethany for the night, and comes back into the city to cleanse the temple, an act of disappointment and frustration. Before the time of Crucifixion he will be betrayed by one disciple and denied by another. He will plead for company and support in the terrible night in the Garden of Gethsemane and find his supporters asleep. We anticipate with him the mortification, the beating, the carrying of the cross, the unimaginable pain and the death. Our temples may still be a source of divine frustration, we still deny, and we still fall asleep in the garden.

All of this is because of me, and you, and all of our brothers and sisters in that crowd and the crowd with which we now share the globe. All of us, sharing a sinful life with the promise of grace. All of us leading our little lives with peaks and valleys of sorrow and joy, peace and desperation where change is one of the constants.

Jesus is He Who is Always There. Jesus is always in the stable as a baby to be fussed over, gifted, and adored. Jesus is always the precocious child of twelve in the temple, the focus of a search. Jesus is forever being baptized by John to show us the way of righteousness. Jesus eternally heals the paralytic and summons Zaccheus out of the tree. Jesus feeds us still on the mountaintop with loaves and fishes. Jesus is forever on the back of the donkey acknowledging us, loving us, in the midst of us. Our sins keep Jesus forever on the cross. The forever of the ressurection is the hope on which our faith is based.

But, we’er not there yet. We haven’t arrived at the Garden Tomb on Easter morning. Holy Week looms ahead in all of its darkness and despair. Jesus had to do it and so do we. It should be a weighty task and one to which careful attention is paid. The cross and then the crown. We must find it within ourselves to remain beside the donkey and the man and be with him in the temple and the garden and on Golgotha. This is the Jesus whom we must face. The bleeding and bruised Good Shepherd who has carried all of his sheep on his shoulders since time began. We must not let him go on alone. Amen

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Christopher Sikkema


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