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Of Palm Branches and Laurel Wreaths

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Apr 17 2011


The story of Palm Sunday … the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the donkey, the branches, the coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, the shouting of “Hosanna!”—is featured in all four Gospels. It has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Making the cut in all four gospels is a big biblical deal.

Christmas didn’t make it into all four gospels. Two of the gospels make no mention of the pregnant Mary for whom there was no room in the inn … or the shepherds watching their flocks by night .or the angels, the star, the wise men, the babe in the manger … Christmas only makes the cut in two of the four gospels.

The Lord’s Prayer didn’t make it into all four gospels. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers … the prayer the church has recited over the course of more than two millennia—recited alike in Kenyan huts and European basilicas, recited by Catholic and Orthodox, by Protestant and Pentecostal ... isn’t in all four gospels … it only made the cut in two.

The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son appear in but one gospel.

The Beatitudes (Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor …) made it into only two gospels.

This story, this entry into Jerusalem, has pride of place in all four gospels.

Which makes me wonder if we’ve had something wrong all along. All along Christians have regarded Pentecost as the beginning of the church … the church’s birthday … the day the church was born in wind and fire. I’m not so sure.

I wonder if Palm Sunday is the church’s real birthday … the day the followers of Jesus grew up, found their voices, summoned their courage, took up their role as witnesses to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

Let’s set the scene: The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival is a lot like Boston at the time of the Marathon. The city swells with visitors from all over the world … is alive, abuzz, international, exciting. Every possible room is rented at a premium price. Grocers have stocked their shelves to capacity. Everyone is out of doors. The visitors and pilgrims are readily identifiable by their clothing and by their manners … by the extra bags hanging off their shoulders, and the way they saunter up and down the streets, looking and point.

Merchants sell their wares—exotic foods, trinkets, brightly colored cloth—on street corners and in public squares. Street performers gather knots of people who gape and laugh and applaud.

And, to keep the peace, Roman legions patrol the streets.

The atmosphere is festive, charged, abuzz, international, exciting. Expectation is in the air.

Until this day, this moment, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers … largely passive. They had traipsed after Jesus all over Palestine. They had listened to his sermons, absorbed his teachings and observed his miracles of healing.

When he argued with civil and religious officials, they watched, tense and riveted. When he defended a prostitute, they gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they glanced around them guardedly, to see who was listening.

Until this day, this moment, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers … largely passive … keen observers of his ways. But on Palm Sunday a shift occurs … a transformation begins.

As they enter into Jerusalem, the followers begin to take on the role of leaders. They walk on stage—on the world stage of a capital city during a great annual festival. For the first time since they have known Jesus, they take up their roles as players and protagonists in the kingdom of God.

The Roman legions patrol the streets—their steeds snorting, their armor gleaming, their swords flashing, their crests bearing Caesar’s proud image.

Against this display of power and authority, in defiance of that, the followers of Jesus stage a street drama announcing this: that their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong, not to Caesar, Emperor of Rome, but to Jesus, Prince of Peace … not to the Pax Romana … an uneasy peace achieved by force, but to Pax Christi, a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced … a peace which emanates from the heart of God … a peace that passes all understanding.

This is the day they shout in public that they belong to God and not to Caesar … which, in their case, is nothing less than an act of sedition.

For the past three years … From the day Jesus called them from their fishing nets until now … the commitment to follow Jesus has been personal … Today, this day, Palm Sunday, it becomes public and it becomes political.

Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels, Because this is the day the followers of Jesus become protagonists—actors and leaders—in the kingdom of God … this is the day the church is born … the church comes out of the closet …this is the day Jesus says to us, to you: it’s your turn …

It is your turn: show them what God looks like. Show them what love looks like. Show them what it looks like to love your enemies, if you can. Show them what it looks like to forgive those who trespass against you, if you can. Show them what it looks like in a world of violence to follow the Prince of Peace, if you can, and if you dare.

Go ahead and show them what God looks like, if you can and if you dare. It won’t be easy. It will be costly. It will cost you your life.

It was on Palm Sunday that the followers of Jesus began to understand just how costly and rigorous is the Christian. You train for it as an athlete trains for a race: rehearsing the virtues, practicing courage, training oneself in kindness and gentleness, in generosity and mercy.

To the victors—those who persevere in their training, those who conquer not others, but themselves (to these go, not the spoils of war … not wealth, not status, not fame) but God’s everlasting thanksgiving.

To the victors go the privilege of this: showing the world what God looks like.