Sunday, April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 & Luke 19:28-40

Were you there? Were you there for the final game at Tiger Stadium on September 27, 1999? What was it like experiencing all of that history coming to end? What was going on in your head when Robert Fick collected the final hit in the stadium’s history, a roof-top grand slam, the 11,111th home run hit in the park’s history? Did you catch it on TV? Were you there?

Were you there? Were you at your cousin’s birthday party? The whole family had gathered to celebrate him turning one. They put a cake on the tray of his high chair, and he started crying so loudly you worried the neighbors would call the police. He was so upset that he buried his face in the cake, which caused your crazy great uncle to laugh so hard that his toupee fell off of his head onto the cake itself. Does a smile come across your face and laughter fill your heart every time you think of that crazy family time?

Were you there? is also a question that we share as a nation. Where were you when the space shuttle Challenger carrying a full crew that included the first teacher in space, Christine Macauliffe, exploded a few minutes into flight? I was in Mrs. Hertel’s fourth grade classroom. We had completed a whole unit on NASA and were excitedly watching the launch when tragedy struck. It was a terrible introduction to reality TV.

Where were you on September 11, 2001, when those planes struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania? I was just starting my program at Bowling Green. I had driven from Ann Arbor to my class. Having arrived a little early, I stopped in the library’s computer lab to check the Yankees’ score, when The New York Times’ headline came up about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I initially thought it was just a small plane, but when I went to class, the TV was tuned to the live coverage. We had already passed on learning anything, when a second plane screamed into the picture and changed our world. I remember those hours later that day, walking around Ann Arbor with Jess wondering what kind of world we were living in. Where were you? Were you there?

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. It’s a Sunday of celebration, where even in our reserved Presbyterian fashion we parade around and wave palms to recall Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem. This week will move along, and we will soon face these heart-wrenching questions: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there? It’s a question that connects us to the historical event and our own experiences, thoughts, and emotions, and it’s a question worth asking when we use holy imagination to enter these stories of Holy Week. So on this Palm Sunday, I’d like to help us use our imagination to experience our texts, as though you and I were there. We’ll begin with Psalm 118, which paints a picture of the conquering hero returning home to the glad celebration of a people who no longer live under threat.

The psalm begins with praise: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” It’s a victory chant, giving God glory for deliverance. The conquering hero leads his troops back to Jerusalem, bearing the scars of battle but overjoyed with winning and providing safety for the people back home. Were you there when the army returned? What did it feel like to see them first appear on the ridge of the Mount of Olives? Were you there when the conquering hero told his stories of bravery? “All nations surrounded me,” he said, “but in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” How our hearts swelled when we heard of God’s provision and protection! “They surrounded me on every side. The surrounded me like bees. They almost beat me, but the Lord became my strength and salvation. We won because of God’s care!” Were you there when our hero returned home?

The city was shut up, all its gates closed to keep us safe inside. The streets had been eerily quiet as we waited for deliverance. Were you there when the drums sounded, and we heard our hero call out, “Open to me the gates of righteousness! Let us in. Welcome us home. Make a wide path to the Temple, so that we may give God thanks for our salvation!” Were you there, lining the streets, preparing the way? The quiet of the city quickly became filled with calls of celebration. We were safe! We had won! Were you there? Were you among those who created the makeshift parade out of nothing? Were you shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar”? Were you there? This is a victory parade. It is a psalm of deliverance, of a people gladdened because the war was over. The relief and the joy are palpable.

We want to treat Palm Sunday that way, but it’s really not. Particularly in Luke’s description of this event, there are glimmers of hope, but also this pit-in-the-stomach sense of foreboding around it all. This is no victory parade. Luke has no palm branches. There are no children shouting there glad hosannas. The way Luke describes things, I wonder how big the crowds actually were for this. Here comes the king, who will be crucified in a matter of days. Here comes the hero, not on a mighty horse, but on a colt, bringing a peace that is far different than the peace enforced by Rome’s military might. Here comes Jesus, moved to tears at the sight of Jerusalem. But before we get to the procession, let’s go back a bit to see how we got here.

Were you there in Jericho that day when crowds of people gathered to see Jesus? The crowds were huge. Word of Jesus’ teachings and healings had made its way to Jericho, and they wanted to see this Jesus for themselves. A tax-collector named Zacchaeus had heard the stories too. He had become fabulously wealthy in his work, but it had cost him greatly. People hated him. His money could buy him everything but a community. Yet he wanted to see Jesus, so he climbed a tree, where Jesus spied him. Were you there when Jesus called out to him, “Zacchaeus! I want to eat with you.” Were you surprised that Jesus would spend time with an outcast? Did you hear the news that Jesus changed his life that day and like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, he learned generosity and found himself restored to community?

As the crowds thinned in their disappointment that Jesus would lavish attention to the outcast, did you stay with him as he headed to Jerusalem? Were you part of the crowd that trekked the 18 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem. Did you brave the rugged terrain and the climate changes that happen when you ascend 3,400 vertical feet? Was the crowd large enough to scare away the bandits known to lie in wait on that road? Were you still there?

Were you there when they arrived on the east side of the Mount of Olives? Did you hear Jesus whisper instructions to two disciples who disappeared into the village only to come back with a colt? You didn’t know Jesus to be someone to take a ride in all the time you’d followed him around. Did you wonder what he was up to? But then you saw people smile when they thought they knew what Jesus was up to. With praise on their lips, they removed their cloaks to line the road, signifying how they were preparing the way for the Messiah – their coming king to enter the holy city of Jerusalem, the City of David. Did you join in the shouts, too? “Blessed in the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Had you heard the stories of Jesus’ birth – of how the angels sang songs of peace on earth? This is a strange way to bring peace to the world, this thinning parade that paled in comparison to the military parades Rome was holding at the same time to show their military might off to the Jews who were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Were you among the few who noticed?

Were you there as Jesus descended the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley, beholding the beautiful walled city of Jersalem, the Temple shining on the hilltop just to your right? Were you there when the coming king beheld the city and wept? “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace,” Jesus cried out. “But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Were you there when Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple at the hands of Rome? Were you still around when it happened a few decades later? Still Jesus went on ahead, wiping the tears from his eyes. He made his way to the Temple, and in holy anger, he drove out the moneychangers and the sellers? Surely your mind was swirling with what all of this could mean, and at that point in time you didn’t even know that Jesus would hang on a cross in just a few of days. Were you there? Sometimes, does it cause you to tremble?

In Luke’s description of these events, we experience a swirl of emotions. The crowds have praise on their lips, but surely they also had pain in their hearts. Praise on our lips. Pain in our hearts. I don’t think there’s a better description of Palm Sunday, the festive day at the climax of Lent. But I’m glad that’s the way it is, because it is true to life. It is real. How often do we come to worship with praise on our lips but pain in our hearts? We gather, knowing that God is here and that something inside of us changes in worship. Yet often we carry so much with us. We have pain in our hearts. We come ready to sing praise through the tears. We come to worship alone because our spouse died. We come to worship bearing the pain of a medical diagnosis or of a child who is struggling in school or with addiction. We come to worship with praise on our lips, but pained by the vicious outcomes of our fractured political times. We come back to worship after a time away because we have been hurt by someone we still see in these pews. Praise on our lips, but pain in our hearts.

But I’m glad we are here because the story of Jesus is a story that invites us to be real about our joy and our pain. It’s a story that continues on into this week, particularly as we set aside time for worship on Thursday and Friday. To feel the full freight of this week, to feel the full joy of Easter, we must gather this week with praise on our lips and pain in our hearts. I invite you to travel these days with Jesus and us. I invite you to use your holy imaginations to experience the depth of God’s love for you, a love that is expressed most fully in these days to come. Were you there? Will you be there?