Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Party is Over
Palm Sunday, a sermon for Palm Sunday
Preached April 10, 2022, at the 930am worship
All this Lent, we’ve been learning lessons about Happy from the beatitudes, and from Jesus’ stories in Luke as he moved toward Jerusalem. Today, he arrives in Jerusalem. It’s a strange arrival.
Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Luke 19:28-48
28 After Jesus had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”
35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had been seeing, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Rabbi, tell your disciples to stop.” 40 Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you all, even y’all had only recognized on this day the things that make for shalom! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said,
“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”
47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.
Sermon Party’s Over
For those of you who grew up in church, what was Palm Sunday? What was it like for you, and what were the symbols and songs, the vibe and feel of that day? And if you didn’t grow up in church, had you ever heard of Palm Sunday before? Do you remember the first time you heard about it, or what you thought about a special Sunday called Palm Sunday?
Let’s take 90 seconds, turn to one another and share our memories, or lack thereof, about Palm Sunday. Ready? Go!
Okay, for those of you who did grow up with Palm Sunday, what was it like, what did you expect from it?
And for those of you who didn’t grow up in church, what do you remember thinking or feeling about your first Palm Sunday?
Thanks, everyone for playing along there.
For those of you who grew up in church, I wonder how far back you’d have to go to find that feeling before you knew church and weren’t yet expecting it to be a certain way, back when churchy things surprised you or confused you, and made you wonder why. You might have to go back to being a child who finally got to stay in big church. Maybe there was some special camp or conference moment where suddenly the odd feelings of certain prayers, songs, liturgies, or symbols finally became more real for you, and you remember an odd feeling of smiling and crying at the same time. Or maybe, it was much later, like during COVID, when the old habits and rituals were pulled away from you and you missed them and finally felt their importance to you. At some point, I imagine, certain symbols, traditions, rituals became more and more important, and maybe, now, if we DIDN’T do ashes, Lent, and palms, that would feel strange to you.
For me, I did NOT grow up in church. When I really started attending church, in late college and after Jill and I were married, I didn’t know the scriptures very well, or all the little churchy things, like seasons of Advent or Lent, or the prayers and creeds, the doxology or the Gloria Patri, or any of the hymns.
When I was 17, I applied to one college for a vocal performance scholarship, and at the interview, they asked me to sing from memory the bass line of any hymn. I couldn’t. So he invited me to sing the melody of any hymn. I didn’t know any. So he opened a hymnal and I sight-read a few bass lines. I was accepted but went to engineering school instead.
When I graduated from college, Jill and I were married and started attending church together in Montgomery Alabama. I didn’t even know when to stand up or sit. Because I didn’t grow up in church, everything in church was equal to me, in that all of it was new. All of it felt weird to me, all the symbols, words, colors, and songs were equally new and strange. None of it had any extra special power or significance to me, and all of it had the potential to impress me. As a newbie, I couldn’t be disappointed if something was left out or changed. I didn’t know any better. I could only be surprised.
Even now, as a pastor, I try to remember that feeling. See, more and more of the world is going in the opposite direction than me. From 1990 to 2002, I became more and more invested in the church. In 2002, I gave up my career and went to seminary.
Gallup has been surveying Americans across a wide age group, from 18 to 83, about their formal religious identity since 2002. In 2002, about 18% of 25-year-olds reported their religious identity as “none”. Not N-U-N nun, but N-O-N-E none. In that same year, people in their mid-50s reported about 8% none, and people in their mid-70s reported about 5% none. Fast forward to 2019 and those numbers have changed. In 2019, mid-20s more than doubled to 38% none, no formal religious affiliation, mid-50s also doubled up to 17%, and mid-70s also doubled up to 10% none, no formal religious affiliation.
As a pastor swimming upstream against the flow of people away from church or religion, I have a choice to make. Every pastor has to make the same choice. One choice, keep church comfortable enough to stop the flow away from it. In other words, maintain the current membership. The other choice, change church enough to make it interesting, open, and relevant, so that new people, younger and older, who’ve come to think of church as hypocritical or irrelevant see a new side of church and risk saying yes again. That’s why I try to remember what it was like to experience religious community as a newbie. That’s why I try to spark that sense of interest, curiosity, questions, and wonder, to help make church as we know it more and more ready for the next new person that might risk saying yes to church, religion when so many others are saying no.
That’s really what Palm Sunday is about. Jesus loved his country, his people, and his religion. But there was something wrong with the government, the culture, and his religion. When he walked through the countryside, he saw so many with more than enough and too many with not near enough. The laws had been written to make that happen. Taxes were collected from the middle and lower classes to support the power of the wealthiest. Culture stratified people into groups and told each group where they were in the pecking order, who was above them and to be admired and emulated, and who was below them and therefore to be feared and despised. Religion had conformed, supporting the cultural difference between Jew and Greek, Jew and Samaritan, male and female, citizen or immigrant, olive skin, lighter skin, or darker skin, slave or free.
Jesus saw it all, the problems in government that ruled over his lands and people, in the cultural assumptions his people were accepting about one another, and in the halls of religion. This Lent, we’ve been reading texts from Transfiguration to Palm Sunday, from Luke 10 to today’s reading in Luke 19, as Jesus moved toward Jerusalem. In each one, he challenges government, culture, and religion.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the religious judgment of Samaria was undercut, and Samaritans were lifted up as a faithful example over any priest or scribe who would not help a stranger.
In sitting with Mary and Martha, Jesus challenged the cultural assumption of a person’s purpose in society as constant hard work and lifted up the spiritual practices of being still, rest, study, and relationships.
He taught the people a new way to pray, not the way religion had taught them, but a more humble and direct way, what we call the Lord’s prayer.
He challenged the government’s neglect of its citizens and insisted on care for the whole of a person, not just the mind or spirit, but the emotions and body.
He denounced all three in however we follow our rules and laws instead of doing what is good for the widows, orphans, and aliens... the oldest, the youngest, and the immigrants.
He denounced all three in our obsession with money, wealth, and having more. He insisted all resources are from God and are meant to be used for God’s people. He told multiple stories and parables about how wealthy people, common people, and servants are trusted with resources and are only rewarded when they use it to grow God’s community, not save it or hoard it away for their own, or themselves.
He spoke directly to government leaders, “Tell that fox he doesn’t have to come to me. I am coming to him.”
He challenged culture with the way they segregate themselves, and the way they put personal success over communal success. At the wedding banquet, the party was filled with folks from the street who were hungry and happy to celebrate. Those who thought of business or home or family as more important than God’s business, God’s home, God’s family found themselves uninvited, outside, lost.
That’s what Palm Sunday is about. Jesus is marching right into the seat of government and telling those leaders, to use the resources and power God has given you to do right by your people, to end poverty and sickness, to make peace not war, to raise up children, care for the elderly, and welcome the stranger.
Jesus is riding right into the cultural center of the world, as they knew it, and confronting the wealth gaps, the stereotypes, the othering of different or outsiders, to humble anyone who thinks too much of themselves and lift up anyone oppressed or excluded.
Then, he barges into religion and challenges the way it has sold out to government and culture, traditions and rituals just to keep itself afloat but without actually embodying the kingdom of God.
Here’s how I think of Palm Sunday now. Have you ever been to a party that went sideways? It started as fun, everyone there was having a good time. But not everyone is there. Some of the uninvited showup. Then, as the party goes on, tensions rise, someone is crying, harsh things are said, threats of violence. There is gossiping and cliques forming. Finally, someone gets loud, something gets broken, and the party is over.
That’s Palm Sunday. Jesus showed up at the party. He cried. He said some harsh words. People started taking sides. He walked into the temple and broke some things. But the party isn’t over. It's just different, bigger, wider. Those who like the private smaller party, with people in and out, benefits for us that others don’t get to enjoy, that party is over. But a new one is starting, and the new party is for everyone.
Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.