A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Palm Sunday ~ Matthew 21:1-11, Psalm 118
We have finally arrived at the end of Lent. Lent and Holy Week are a bit of a roller coaster ride – low-ish for a few weeks, high and celebrating today, back to even lower lows on Thursday and Friday, and then the highest of highs on Sunday. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, we’re just arriving – pilgrims coming to the holy city to celebrate our holiest season. We’ve symbolically joined the procession that has arrived at the gate.
In your mind’s eye, picture a gate. What are you seeing? A hinged fence-like door that separates a front yard from a fenced-in back yard? Or are you picturing being at an airport and standing before the passageway that leads to boarding your flight? Or are you visualizing a turnstile-type gate at a stadium, or at a subway station? Or maybe you’re a big skier and you’re seeing those markers spread out down the mountain that the racers have to swoosh around?
Now, which one of those is biblical? None of them are. Biblical gates are at the entranceway to a town. But they didn’t have draw bridges or even big heavy swinging doors on them necessarily. They were actually quite large areas, some of them – with chambers and gathering spaces. A gate in a town found in the bible would function in three ways: an entrance, the market place, and their court of law where the elders would gather to hear disputes from people and decide conflicts. A gate is much more than just an entranceway – it’s a movement into the heart of the town.
Or, maybe that concept can be applied to a metaphorical gate?
Like in Psalm 118:19-20 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it (or ‘in’ it).
Let’s turn to the Jesus story, carrying both meanings – the physical entry and the metaphorical entry, both at once. On one level Jesus is just another Jewish pilgrim making the trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Passover at the Temple. This is the biggest festival in the Jewish faith, and the city was always overflowing, teeming with pilgrims. But Jesus doesn’t just arrive like any other tourist. He makes something of an entrance.
And what an entrance it is! Some even call it street theatre. Jesus and his gang borrowed heavily from their own faith tradition and carefully selected various elements to make their statement.
They didn’t just accidently ride a donkey into town – they went and found one expressly for a purpose – drawing from Zechariah 9:9, and the imagery of a humble king. They didn’t wave around tree branches or palms (interestingly, only John’s gospel mentions palms!) – they didn’t do that because they were looking for a breeze, or because no one had invented streamers and confetti yet – it was to trigger connections with Jewish theology – namely Psalm 118:27 Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. And they didn’t yell out “Hosanna” or “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” because it sounded cool – they did it because, again, they were echoing Psalm 118:25-26.
It was religious and scriptural theatre – designed for an audience – intended to make a point. What audience and what point? – those are debatable. But before I debate them I want to connect back to the location of this little show. It’s at the gate, not at the temple, or the palace, or the theatre. It’s at the gate – a place that represents journey, defence, daily life, commerce, gathering, and judgment. Once you enter through the gate you’re in the heart of it all – literally, and spiritually.
Ok, let’s debate! There’s not much debate about whether or not this little piece of street theatre actually happened. All four gospels mention it, and they pretty much agree on the basics. That doesn’t make it historical, necessarily, but it does make it a core story of the Christian movement. So the debate is about who the audience was, and what the point was.
The classic view is that this procession was meant to be Jesus fulfilling the expectations of the coming Messiah who would arrive humbly riding on a donkey even though he was a king, and the Israelites would all sing “Hosanna” and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” and it would mark the beginning of the reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel. In this interpretation the audience is the Jewish pilgrims arriving for Passover who can now join in the celebration of the new Messiah.
Another interpretation I like – and yes, I’ve shared this before – notes that the governor (that’s Pilate) actually didn’t live in the city proper, but he came to take residence during the high festivals every year. In doing so the Romans were sure to make a huge processional deal out of it, marching in legions of armed soldiers in full battle regalia. It was an awesome show of military force, and it visually reminded anyone who might be thinking about an uprising that ‘the man’ had power, and wasn’t afraid to use it.
Now, Jerusalem being the huge city that it was had more than one gate. This second interpretation says that at the East Gate is Jesus the rebel, who subversively stages a protest parade to contrast the imperial procession entering Jerusalem at the same time at the West Gate, at the opposite end of the city. Two parades at two gates – and Jesus’ parade is a giant raspberry in the face of the Romans’ attempt to intimidate.
So, are we sending a message of religious and national fervour for the Jewish audience, or are we sending a message of a radical, revolutionary, renewal movement standing in stark contrast to the ‘power over’ way of the Romans? Or both at the same time? Or more still? Whichever way you look at it, this little bit of street theatre would have been undeniably provocative. If you saw it, you would’ve had to have taken notice and thought about it for a while – whether you were Jewish or Roman.
I’m actually going to offer you a third interpretation for this story in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit more about gates. In biblical times gates had all those multiple functions I mentioned earlier, but today gates are pretty much limited to defence – generally keeping people out and controlling who or what gets to enter in.
Do you know what a gated community is? – lovely neighbourhoods with picturesque homes and manicured landscaping, and often an armed guard keeping watch at the one and only access point? The whole gated neighbourhood is walled off and separated from the big, bad world out there.
It’s a reaction to the reality of the world, isn’t it? It feels like the world is getting nastier, and we have this innate desire and instinct to put up walls, and hide away in relative safety. It’s a way to keep ‘undesirables’ out, even if at the same time it closes us off from the richness and diversity of the world, to a degree. In your gated community everything is clean, and neat, and tidy. It’s something of a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ thing. I’m not mocking it at all. I totally understand it.
If we’re not careful – and I’m happy to say that here at Faith I think we are careful – but if we’re not careful our churches can become gated communities too – and that’s not good. Church-folk can feel like the big, bad world out there has just changed so much and is so unwieldy, and confusing, and threatening, so we retreat into our churches like an ostrich with its head in the sand, and we hide behind our gates – only our gates aren’t physical, they’re cultural. I’m proud to be part of a congregation that works really hard to not put up barriers and gates, and in fact, is all about breaking down barriers and gates to help people on their spiritual journey whoever they are – a church that is Public, Intentional, and Explicit about its Affirming status, for example. But at too many churches that I visit I get the feeling I’m encroaching on private property, and the armed guards are watching me. Their sign says “all are welcome” but their gates say “keep out.”
So, we have gated communities, gated churches, and, of course, gated people. I think all of us are gated people, to some extent. We do all sorts of things to keep other people at arms length – not letting anyone in past our defences – not showing any vulnerability – not setting ourselves up for getting hurt, or disappointed. It’s our self-defence mechanism. On the positive side it filters the bad things from tempting or hurting us – but on the negative side it mutes our experience of the richness of the abundant life that God offers to us.
And so, in addition to the theological interpretation of the palm parade, and the political interpretation, we now add a third way to look at it – a spiritual interpretation. I’d like us to see not just ‘Messiah Jesus’, or ‘Revolutionary Jesus’, but also ‘Spiritual Jesus’ who is seeking to enter or pass through the gated community that is your heart. Imagine Palm Sunday is going on, not at the ‘far away, long ago’ gates of Jerusalem, but at the ‘right here, right now’ gates of your gated heart.
How will you greet this strange but compelling procession? Will you wave palms? – Will you cheer and welcome him in? – Will you do it even though doing so may bring opposition from others who don’t understand his Way? – Will you trust in the grand vision that Jesus brings even if circumstance seems to be turning against you, and the way forward seems hard? Will you see him as a threat to your own grand procession honouring your own power? Will you dare to let down your guard and open the gates of your heart, and allow his Presence to begin (or continue) to transform you from the inside out? Will you sing ‘Hosanna’ and see him as somehow saving you from your closed-off-ness – your gated-ness?
Because if that triumphal entry into your heart isn’t happening, over and over again as you journey ever-deeper in faith, then it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus is the Messiah, or a revolutionary, or whatever. If it’s not happening for you, now, it doesn’t really matter what happened that day back then. The historical event doesn’t hold a candle to what’s happening right now, right in here, for each and every one of us.
And as we let Jesus enter in, we can enter in, singing with the psalmist with all our heart:
Psalm 118:28-29 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the LORD, for (God) is good, for (God’s) steadfast love endures forever.
And now we turn our faces toward Holy Week, toward the cross.
Maundy Thursday has the story of Jesus’ last supper, and his betrayal.
On Good Friday we’ll hear the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
On Saturday we sit in silence, waiting, wondering.
And on Easter morning we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.
Again, please, do not skip from today to next Sunday without at least reading the stories of Jesus’ betrayal, and crucifixion, and death.
Yes, they are unpleasant and hard stories.
But Easter just doesn’t make any sense if you don’t journey through Good Friday first.
If you can’t join us (or some other church) I pray that you will at least read them.
John 13, 18, and 19.