160320 – Practicing Palms

Yr A ~ Palm Sunday ~ Luke 19:28-40

Do you like political theatre? If you do then you must be loving the American presidential primaries. Yes, at times it’s very disturbing and frightening, at least for me, but it’s incredible theatre and spectacle. Some candidates especially have a real flare for it. It’s not like political theatre is a new creation though. It’s always been part of the process.Palm-jesus-silhouette-enter

And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that what Jesus and his disciples are doing as they parade into Jerusalem for Passover is political theatre. There are crowds, cheering, a passionate exchange of ideas, and the entire act itself is making a big statement. I guarantee you Jesus’ version of it will make you feel better than any of the stuff we’re seeing down south these days!

To begin, did anyone notice that in Luke’s version of Palm Sunday there are a couple of things missing? – like palms! If we only had Luke’s version we’d have to call this story something else. Maybe Cloak Sunday, or Parade Sunday. Because in Luke’s version the people laid cloaks before Jesus but didn’t wave branches of palms.
Maybe the detail doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s enough to acknowledge that somehow Jesus’ arrival at the city of Jerusalem for Passover that year created quite a stir.

Other details vary depending on which gospel you read this story in. For Luke’s version, other than there being no palms the really interesting thing is the crowd. I want to say two things about this crowd – one of which might shift how you read the whole story!

Verse 37 says: As [Jesus] 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 seen.

Did you catch that? Who is making up this crowd?
It says “the whole multitude of disciples!”
A multitude of disciples!
Not just 12, not just a bunch, but a multitude.

I think our typical view of the story is that the crowd was made up of a throng of curious onlookers who heard a commotion and came to see what the fuss was about. But Luke suggests it was a multitude of disciples accompanying Jesus.

Does that change the way you see the story?
How about this? – If you were a Roman soldier or a Pharisee and you saw a random crowd gather you might worry a bit – but if you saw a multitude of disciples descending on the city raising a ruckus I’m pretty certain your guard would be up and you’d be ready for action.

Here’s a question for you.
If Jesus were to appear today and start parading toward a city to make some kind of point would you be a curious onlooker? Would you be part of the parade laying down your cloak, singing songs of praise to God, and marching toward the powers that be? I wonder.

Ok, now we get to the really juicy stuff! Listen carefully to verse 39:
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

Did you catch that? Where does Luke suggest the Pharisees were?
In the crowd!
Not standing apart and looking down judgingly but in the midst of the crowd – the crowd of disciples!
The suggestion here is that Jesus had some Pharisees as his disciples! Wow!

The story works perfectly well either way – whether the Pharisees were apart from the crowd or within it. What changes is the tone. If those Pharisees were disciples in the crowd then when they say “Teacher, order your disciples to stop” it isn’t an authoritative command from on high – it’s a heartfelt plea from within. The tone changes from angry judgment to friendly concern. Who better than Pharisees to understand that such a rowdy display was likely to seriously ruffle the feathers of the authorities.

However you interpret that one thing is certain. As Jesus entered Jerusalem he encountered opposition – maybe from without, maybe from within, but nonetheless, opposition. How did he respond?

The answer Jesus gives is so great. Verse 40:
He answered, “I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.”

When you run into opposition, how will you respond? – because if you are a person who practices following the Way of Jesus you will most definitely run into opposition!

You’ll get opposition from the powerful for whom Jesus’ Way lays bare their greed and lack of ethics.
You’ll get opposition from society who looks at us strangely as mistaken or quaint.
You’ll get opposition from friends and family members who think you follow some stereotypical version of Christianity like they see on TV but they won’t give you the chance to have a dialogue about what you really believe (or you won’t try for fear of upsetting people).
And you’ll even get opposition from within yourself as our humanness intrudes and we wonder if maybe all those other people are right and we’re crazy.
(We’re not, by the way. Just sayin’.)

So when opposition comes in all those various forms think about what Jesus said in verse 40 here.
He answered, “I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.”

You might be able to see Jesus clearly, to perceive God’s Presence and be in wonderful harmony with it, practicing every day and enjoying the abundant life being present provides. But the sad, harsh reality is that as you’re doing this and living this way you are going to encounter the Pharisees and powers and principalities of the world and they will stop you cold in your tracks and insist that you’re wrong, stupid, and wasting your time. They apparently can’t sense Presence so they cannot comprehend what you’re experiencing and your attitude frankly frightens them because you seem to be accessing a peace and power they cannot fathom so they fight you.

So Jesus tells them about the stones crying out. Jesus says, “Fight all you like but you’ll never silence us because what we’re connected to is so real we know ourselves to be utterly interconnected with everything and everyone – even nature, even you who would oppress us. Even the rocks and stones will bear witness to the Presence of God and cry out in praise!”

But don’t think that will convince them. I don’t think anyone has ever been argued into the kingdom. They can only be invited. They can only be enticed and attracted by what they witness. So when the opposition comes, and it will – instead of doing what comes instinctually – fighting back or turtling – try this: be inspired by this special Sunday and wave your “palms.”
Don’t close your fist, open your hand. Practice palms!

I want you to hold that image. I’m going to come back to it in a minute. First I want to summarize where we’ve been.

palms-bro.lawrenceThroughout Lent we’ve been drawing on the teaching of Brother Lawrence– a 17th century monk who became known for being constantly in communion with the Presence of God, famously even as he did mundane chores like cleaning pots and pans in the kitchen.

We’ve looked at themes in Brother Lawrence’s writing each week. We talked about surrender and openness, about being intentional and prayerful by doing the work of “spreading manure” and cultivating our faith, about expressing adoration and extravagant love for God, and about persevering when the journey gets a little tougher.

I think we can see all those things in today’s reading and in the journey of faith that brought both Jesus and the disciples to the gates of the city.

Jesus surrendered to what he perceived to be God’s calling on his life, he constantly worked at his spirituality – often by “going off on his own to pray.”
He shows his adoration for God by referring to God as Abba which is like saying “Dad” rather than our usual more formal “Father.”
And he faced constant opposition throughout his teaching time and now in a physical way in the events we mark in Holy Week, and he persevered.
So Jesus embodied and modelled Lawrence’s themes. (Guess where Lawrence got them from?!)

How about the disciples? Certainly there is surrendering as they risk being associated with this rabble rouser – plus the stories of the disciples who when Jesus called them left everything behind and followed.
The disciples showed intentionality by travelling with Jesus and learning from him day after day.
They express adoration in sometimes confused and curious ways but they are certainly offering their whole lives to him and his gospel. Praying with him. Singing hymns with him.

And now, at the gates of Jerusalem, things are going to get a whole lot tougher for the disciples and they will need to dig deep and show perseverance to remain his followers.

So, does the multitude of disciples include us? I hope so!
Are we surrendering our vice-grip control of our lives and open to Jesus’ Way?
Are we working hard at spreading manure and creating the conditions for the Spirit to grow us ever deeper?
Are we finding ways to express extravagant love for God and Jesus through worship and prayer?
Are we striving to persevere in our journey, even when it takes us to hard places, like this week?
I really think we are.

And I think this idea of surrender, intentionality, adoration, and perseverance can be symbolized in the powerful image of practicing palms. We have some experience with this as I invite you each week to hold your palms open during our benediction.

As we practice that, and extend that practice, I hope you can see that in this gesture is surrender, and being intentional, and adoration, and perseverance.
It’s a physical expression of our spirit and our worship.
It’s like the stones crying out.
In a simple gesture, a gentle, vulnerable expression of faith, we are showing those forces that might oppose us what we’re all about.

We’re all about surrender.
We’re all about intentionality.
We’re all about adoration.
We’re all about perseverance.

And like Jesus, and like that multitude of disciples, we stand at the gates of opposition and hard times and instead of fighting, or arguing, or throwing stones we let the stones cry out with us. We open our palms as a powerful and dramatic expression of our faith.

It is a beautiful, and holy, and wondrous thing to do. But don’t kid yourselves. We’re at the gate of Holy Week.
The journey ahead is not kind or easy. We know where this week leads.
Thursday things start to go off the rails – Friday things get downright ugly and upsetting.

And knowing that makes practicing our palms even more important. When we’re most tempted to change our palm to a fist, that’s the time it’s most important for us to practice our palms.

May your journey through Holy Week be marked by surrender, intention, adoration, and perseverance.
And may your palms wave in faith.