I’m going to assume you already know the Palm Sunday story, because it’s a familiar story but more so because I just read it. This is one of those stories that’s probably too familiar. A couple of years ago I wrote a Palm Sunday sermon for class and we were using the text from Luke. Didn’t preach it anywhere, just researched and wrote it, wrote about the donkey and the palms and the hosannas, and I didn’t realize until we were discussing the text and sermons in class that in Luke’s story there aren’t any palms. Luke has the parade and the hosannas but no palms.
Today we have palms, literary palms, at least, imaginary palms, but Matthew’s story does have palms. You’ll remember that Jesus is standing outside of Jerusalem, he’s making his way from the countryside to the city, to the seat of power, and he stops outside of the city to plan the entrance. Jesus decides to ride a colt into town, but he needs to borrow one because Jesus doesn’t own anything. Jesus is famous by now, apparently, because he’s fairly confident that any given colt owner won’t mind him borrowing their colt. “If anyone gives you trouble as you’re walking off with a stranger’s colt just say Jesus needs it.” He gets the colt and starts processing. A crowd gathers, soon shouting Hosanna. Waving the palms and shouting Hosanna–that means, basically, Hoorah!–saying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
You may also know that the Palm Sunday parade is politically important. Some of the scholars think it was a sort of counter-parade, almost like a protest or an act of political theater–those are modern terms but maybe something similar. The Romans are processing on the one side of the city and Jesus and the peasants are on the other side. Two very different displays of political power and authority. The Romans with their war horse and spears and Jesus on a colt with the palm branches. Two parades, both political although obviously representing two very different politics. This palm parade, this political performance that Jesus are staging, it seems to be a reference to a passage in Zephaniah. None of us really know Zephaniah but people then would’ve known the imagery and so when they saw Jesus processing into town on a colt that would’ve carried a very particular meaning. Zephaniah spoke of a king, a messianic figure, someone who would show up and set everything right, secure the peace, put an end to oppression and violence. And Zephaniah says the king, if he’s righteous and victorious, he’ll show up riding a colt. That’s what Jesus seems to be claiming. God’s reign of righteousness is here; the battles already been won. But you may have known that bit of background already, as well.
I’d like to ask you, if you would, to please divert your attention. You already know the story and now you know a little bit about the history, and politics and symbolism, so forget about all of that. Notice the crowd. A crowd is always amorphous so its a little bit difficult to say much of anything about a crowd, except maybe you could talk about the sorts of things a crowd does in general. You don’t really know who’s in a crowd, either, so you have to guess. Some of our more imaginative religious minds like to speculate. Maybe some of the people Jesus talked with or healed earlier in the story are there–the woman at the well, the centurion and his daughter, maybe some of the multitude who saw the loaves and fishes miracle. And that’s a nice thought. It seems reasonable to speculate that way since there are crowds all along; Jesus can hardly get a moment to himself on account of the crowds and the hooplah. Crowds gather to hear the teaching. Crowds swarm around for a healing. And now a crowd is gathered with the Palms. Hosannah! It could very well be the same crowd from earlier. There’s at least some overlap, I would suppose.
And I’ve often about this Palm Sunday crowd. Where do they all go, where are they in a few days when Jesus is standing before Pilate, and when the crowd, the anonymous crowd known only by its collective actions, where are they when the crowd yells out “crucify him”? I would hate to think that it’s the same crowd. I find that thought really disheartening: the idea that the some of the same people would shout “Hosannah!” just days before they shouted “Crucify him!” But its possible. There may have been some individuals who were enthusiastic participants in both crowds. And the alternative isn’t much better, to be honest. The crowd might’ve had the same mentality as the disciples, most of whom scattered as soon as things started looking bleak in Jerusalem. Hosannah one day, they’re shouting Hosannah, then not a few days later hiding away in their homes, disposing of the palm branches, hoping no one thinks they were involved with any of the Palm Sunday Jesus business at all.
In some churches it is customary to keep the palms. In some churches the palms are collected after the service and stored away for most of the next year. And then when lent rolls around again, in 11 months or so, they take out the palms a few days before Ash Wednesday and they use the palms to make the ashes. I love the continuity of that. It’s like the church is saying that Christian faith is always the same, it always has the same substance. Christian faith is always in some way a Palm Sunday faith–even if we’re dealing with a somber time like Ash Wednesday instead of the joy and adulation and confidence in Jesus that goes with the palm parade. And we’re always trying to hold the opposites together that way. Trying, essentially, to be present with Jesus in the Palm Sunday crowd and the Pilate crowd, then sitting at the feet of the cross in the same way we wait at the tomb for the resurrection.
I confess that I don’t much understand the biblical crowds, but they make sense in a way. Jesus rides into town announcing God’s righteousness, saying the victory’s already been won and now we’re free, and then in a few days the Romans kill him and its back to business as usual. All of which seems like a spectacular failure.
But I have a feeling that crowds might have acted differently, might have been more steadfast and faithful to Jesus if they knew the end of the story. Passion week ends, not with the condemnation and crucifixion, but with the resurrection. Then not long after the resurrection there is another crowd gathered, at Pentecost, listening to the disciples who had seen the resurrected Christ and received the Holy Spirit. And we call that Pentecost crowd church, that crowd’s the beginning of the church, and now we’re part of the crowd, too. I think that’s a fine definition for the church. We’re the Palm Sunday Crowd and the Pentecost Crowd. And this time, since we know how the story ends, this time we’re trying to get passion week right, walking with Jesus through the power of the Spirit, at the palm parade and at the trial, at the cross and resurrection, carrying our palms the whole way.