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Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019 – Luke 19:28-40
For nine years, I served as the pastor of a United Methodist congregation in a small town that had a proud tradition known as the annual Fourth of July parade. Organized by the volunteer fire department, the parade welcomed anyone who wished to be a part, including fire trucks and ambulances with sirens blaring, tractors, simple floats made from flat-bed trailers pulled behind pickups, different community organizations marching while carrying signs indicating who they were, including churches advertising vacation bible schools, and the local chapter of the Lion’s Club in their yellow polos with the brooms they sold to raise money, sweeping the road and spinning their brooms in a carefully choreographed manner.
Of course, as though it were an unwritten rule, each group in the parade threw buckets of individually wrapped candy towards the crowds who lined the sidewalks along the roughly two-mile route, candy quickly grabbed and devoured by the local children before it melted on the hot asphalt. As adults have throughout history, we teach our children three cardinal rules: do not run into the street, do not eat things that have fallen on the ground, and do not take candy from strangers. Yet for one glorious day each year, children were permitted, if not encouraged, to do all three at the same time.
It was wonderful.
As we who believe prepare for the annual celebratory parade that is Palm Sunday, it behooves us to look back at where we have been so far in the timeline of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We have followed Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and to Nazareth. We have followed Jesus to the Jordan River, and we have witnessed his baptism. As his public ministry began, we followed him into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation by the devil. We followed him along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and watched him begin calling disciples, starting with the fishermen.
We follow him up the mountain and hear his teaching, his Sermon on the Mount. We follow him as he heals the sick, casts out demons, and cavorts with sinners. We follow him as the crowds increase. We follow him as he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the religious authorities. We follow him to the top of the Mount of Transfiguration and see him transformed before our eyes, watching him stand there alongside Moses and Elijah, as we hear the booming voice of God command us to listen to Jesus, God’s son, the beloved.
And today, we throw our cloaks upon a donkey and upon the road. and we shout “Hosanna!” We join in the parade as Passover approaches and Jerusalem fills with crowds of people, caught up in jubilation and hope. Yet we join in the parade because the truth of the matter is, we do not understand where the parade is ultimately going to end, for if we did, we likely never would have followed it at all. We would have hung back, watching as Jesus departs, disappearing into the crowd, his parade lost in a sea of fronds.
The Gospel of Luke is my favorite book in the New Testament for two major reasons. First, it is the gospel most concerned with Jesus’ relationship with outcasts. Second, it is the most polished of the four gospels, which comes in part from the possibility that it was composed last (Luke opens his gospel by saying he intends to write an orderly account of the life of Jesus). Third, it is the most detailed of the four gospels. Luke is the gospel who gives us the extended birth narrative of Jesus, replete with angels and shepherds and the kind of detail that even tells us the type of cloth the infant Lord was wrapped in, telling us the only story we have from Jesus’ youth when he was twelve and lost by his parents in Jerusalem.
It is for this reason that I have always been fascinated by this morning’s text. I love using descriptive language in my writing, and if I were an eyewitness to Palm Sunday, if I were Saint Luke, I would have included the time of day, the temperature, the weather, just how large the multitude was, what people were wearing, and everything that Jesus said.
However, this is not what Luke does. He tells us where the parade begins. He tells us what the multitudes cried out, and he tells us about the cloaks being laid out for Jesus. Yet, he invests seven of the thirteen verses of this morning’s text on telling us the story of how the colt he rides into Jerusalem is found. In so doing, he makes one of the strangest, most counter-intuitive claims about God: that our God needs something.
Luke tells us that Jesus, still at the Mount of Olives, sends two disciples ahead of him to a village on the road and instructs them to take the unridden colt they find there and bring it to him. If they are asked why they are untying the colt, they are simply to reply, “The Lord needs it.”
And this is exactly what happens.
If the story of Palm Sunday was told with only Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the adulation of the crowds, it would still be Palm Sunday. Jesus would still parade into the holy city to die for the sins of the world, and we would still celebrate it today. And yet, Luke still invests half of this story telling us from where Jesus’ ride comes. Furthermore, it almost seems counterintuitive, if not blasphemous to suggest that ours is a God who needs anything, but there you have it. Jesus tells his disciples to go ahead of him tell anyone who asks what they are doing that the Lord has needs.
Much is made of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. What we often hear is how the people cheered him for all the wrong reasons, mistakenly believing that he was riding into the city to begin a political revolution, to overthrow the oppressive Roman force occupying Jerusalem. What we often hear is how Jesus enters the holy city to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, dying to pay the penalty for our sins, to defeat death forever, to demonstrate for an unbelieving world what God’s complete and unconditional love looks like, to fulfill the story of God saving work, begun in the Old Testament and perfectly fulfilled in Christ. Were that so, were it all about what Jesus does for the sake of what we have done, then we could simply stand there along the side of the dusty road, shouting “Hosanna,” and watching Jesus disappear into the city.
But this is not the whole story. It is not what Luke tells us happens. Each of us as a disciple has a part to play: “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. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
It is easy, is it not, to be a mere witness to Palm Sunday when our Lord is calling us to be a participant. And yet, ours is a generous God who shares the blessings of ministry with us. Jesus is generous, making room for us, for our gifts, for our participation in God’s liberation of the world from the dual powers of sin and death. In this morning’s text, Jesus demonstrates for us how there are places in God’s plan for the redemption of planet Earth for your gifts and for my gifts, and for the shared gifts of this unique, blessed place called Reveille.
On Friday, I spoke at Colonial Trail Elementary School in Short Pump for their annual Career Day. It is the second time I have done so in this school and the third time in five years that I have done so in the Henrico County Public Schools. Given that I cannot, for obvious reasons, tell them the really good stuff, I am amazed that I was ever invited back, and yet it happened.
So, I tell them as best as I can why I became a pastor, the educational requirements, and a snapshot of what the work is like. I talk to them about weddings and funerals, baptisms, and Reveille’s work in Honduras, Swansboro, the Bahamas, Florida, and with the homeless in Richmond. I tell them how, at its best, parish ministry is a job that rewards creativity, and how, in many ways, my job is to “help people help people.”
Take that, separation of church and state.
I wrap it up by speaking to them about vocation, about how the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “call,” and then I channel my best Frederick Buechner and explain to them how they also have a calling no matter what career they choose, and how they will find that calling at the intersection of their gifts and the world’s needs.
In the remaining time, I open the floor for questions, and as I did, a girl in one of the classes I spoke to asked me “Do you own the church?”
I assured her that, no, I do not own the church. I did my best to retell the story from Acts about how in the earliest days of the church, everyone shared everything, so in a way, everyone owns the church.
As it so often the case, it took twenty-six hours and fifteen minutes for me to think of a better answer.
What I wish I had said is that, no I do not own the church, but in many ways, the church owns me. The church is the place where I, as a young man who entered college to become an educator heard, in a way I cannot fully describe, my own calling to Christ’s unique community on earth, to use the gifts God has given to me in service to Christ by serving his people. The church is the place where my wife and I, as members of a college choir, found each other for the first time almost thirty years ago. The church is the place where I most honestly discovered who I am and whose I am. The church is the place where I found a love that will not let me go, a place where even on my worst days, when it takes the most courage to believe, I cannot seem to let go of either.
The church owns me because it is Christ’s body on earth, and as such, by belonging to the church, I am reminded that whoever I am, I belong to Christ, to God. The church owns me in a way that is not transactional, unconditionally loving me often in spite of myself, the exact same way in which God unconditionally loves, and owns each of you individually, and all of us collectively, giving meaning and purpose to the gifts God has given us, each of us, lay and clergy alike, for ministry.
We ignore this fact, this “priesthood of all believers,” this conviction that each of us is called by Christ at our peril. In her book The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor writes “Somewhere along the way we have misplaced the ancient vision of the church as a priestly people-set apart for ministry in baptism, confirmed and strengthened in worship, made manifest in service to the world. That vision is a foreign one to many church members, who have learned from colloquial usage that ‘minister’ means the ordained person in a congregation, while ‘lay person’ means someone who does not engage in full-time ministry. Professionally speaking that is fair enough; ordained people make their livings in ministry, and lay people do not.
“But speaking ecclesiastically, it is a disaster. Language like that turns clergy into purveyors of religion and lay people into consumers, who shop around for the church that offers them the best product.”
Yet Palm Sunday flies in the face of this notion, for Palm Sunday reminds us that Christ calls each of us, in ways large and small, into partnership with God in God’s redemptive, saving, life-giving work. The challenge, then, is for each of us to claim our calling to truly serve the one humble enough to trust us, humble enough to submit to us, humble enough to die for us.
One spring day, just before Passover, the Son of God, a humbly-dressed itinerant rabbi bouncing on a lowly colt coming from the east, from a place near Bethany and Bethphage, the place from which it was believed the long-awaited messiah would come, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah chapter nine. Earlier that week, from the west, with certainly much pomp and gaudy glory-horses, chariots, spears, and gleaming armor, a military parade had brought an unenthusiastic Pontius Pilate into the city for the sole purpose of tamping down any messianic fervor that may accompany the celebration of the Passover. Pilate had no affection for Jerusalem, spending the least possible time there that he could.
Jesus, on the other hand, in the verses just following this morning’s, weeps over Jerusalem, a city whose people, in just a few days will cry out for his blood, the blood by which the earthly powers of this realm are overthrown, and humankind is saved.
And this rabbi, this messiah, this savior has a task for us: “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.” A simple act of faithful obedience that helps the world know and worship the one who is its savior from the God who makes room for you and me to share in nothing less than the salvation of the world.
As we enter Holy Week, what simple act of faithful obedience is God asking of you, so that the world may worship its savior? How is God including you in this holy story of hope? What gift can we bring, what treasure, what token? What words can convey it, the joy of this day, this day of Hosannas and praise, in the name of the love that claims you, owns you, and will not ever let you go?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, “Vocation” in The Preaching Life, Kindle Edition.
(2) Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 1–5.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Vocation” in The Preaching Life, Kindle Edition.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 1–5.