Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-44
Good morning. Can I get a Hosanna? Can I get another Hosanna? All right! You’re not the frozen chosen today!
When I was a kid, there was a really popular series of books called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Do any of you remember these? Each book had a different setting or theme, like the Old West, or a spy story, or a science fiction story. The first chapter set up the basic premise of the story, but then the book offered you a choice.
For example, if the book was a detective story, at the end of the first chapter you might, say, get a phone call from a mysterious woman who wants to meet you. Then you have a choice. If you decide to meet with her, you’re directed to turn to page 53. But if you decide to keep working the case you already have, then you turn to page 68. The story changes with every decision you make. These books were really popular in the late 70s and early 80s. I loved them.
Palm Sunday presents a choose-your-own-adventure opportunity for us pastors. I get to decide whether we hear the liturgy of the palms—the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—or whether we hear the liturgy of the passion. That is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
I chose the liturgy of the palms because it’s shorter. And it’s all happy and yay-Jesus-y! And, yes. Yay, Jesus! That’s great. But there’s more going on than a simple celebration of the savior. Jesus doesn’t have much choice in this part of his adventure. His entry into Jerusalem is the culmination of his earthly ministry. There’s no turning back to page 1 and making different choices.
The scene of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey would have been similar to a military parade. The people who witnessed Jesus riding into the city and the first generations of people to hear this story, all of them would be familiar with the scene. Jesus rode into Jerusalem the same way an emperor or a great military hero would have entered a city. But Jesus rode in on a donkey. A Roman general or emperor would have ridden a warhorse. Jesus hadn’t conquered any territories or won any battles—not at that point. The victory comes later in the story and it’s not the victory that the adoring crowds expect Jesus to bring.
Perhaps they should have asked why Jesus rode in on a donkey. Perhaps they were so sure that Jesus would drive the Romans out and change their present reality that they never thought to ask. They should have. The image of Jesus on a donkey is absurd. It’s the opposite of what people expected.
Think of a victory parade after a Super Bowl. Now for me, this is a pretty easy image to conjure, as a Steelers fan—these parades are well known in Pittsburgh. It probably won’t happen again in New York for a long, long time, so let’s imagine the victory parade in Philadelphia a couple years ago.
There are the Eagles, riding down Broad Street, sitting in convertibles for everyone to see. And there’s Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ quarterback, at the front of the parade. Only he’s not riding in a convertible. He’s riding a tricycle, or a scooter. And he’s wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey. That would be ridiculous. It’d be laughable, like he was mocking the very idea of a victory parade. That’s what Jesus was doing.
He was mocking the earthly glory of the Roman empire. And he was confounding the people’s idea of a Messiah.
The Pharisees get what Jesus is doing—kind of. They know something’s up. But they don’t want the Roman authorities to come down on them. So, they tell Jesus to knock it off; they tell him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
But Jesus knows it can’t be stopped. Jesus knows there’s no other way, but to force the confrontation with Rome. He replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
These disciples are not just the twelve disciples who have been following Jesus the whole time; they are all the people in the crowds shouting, Hosanna! They are so eager for a military leader, a warrior-king, another King David, that they can’t see the symbolism of Jesus riding on a donkey. They are projecting their notions of glory and salvation onto Jesus, rather than following Jesus in the way of peace and humility.
What about us? Where are we in this story? We want happy stories and Palm Sunday is one of our favorites. We love to have the choir process down the aisles, singing, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor!” We love watching the little kids waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” And most of us remember a time when there were soooooo many little kids in the church.
I know I want to be with those crowds who shout, “Hosanna!” I imagine that most of you would be right there beside me. But are we willing to walk with Jesus for the rest of the week? Are we willing to watch Jesus get arrested and put on trial? Are we willing to watch as Jesus is tortured, mocked, humiliated, and eventually, crucified, knowing that we are powerless to change any of it? Are we willing to stand with Jesus at Calvary, knowing that we can’t rescue him? Are we willing to be with Jesus in all of these uncomfortable spaces, or do we just choose the parts of the adventure that make us feel good? Hosanna! Hosanna.
When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was an amazing trip and we got to see a lot of the “holy sites,” the places where, according to tradition, events that are depicted in the Bible took place. The phrase, “according to tradition,” is very important. It’s the reason why I put air quotes around the words, “holy sites.”
In the year 313, the emperor Constantine the Great recognized Christianity and ended the official persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Several years later, Constantine would make Christianity the official state religion. In the years 326-328, he sent his mother, Helena—St. Helena in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions—on a pilgrimage to Palestine to find holy relics. This is when the traditional locations for most of those “holy sites” were established, some three hundred years after the crucifixion and resurrection. That’s what “according to tradition” really means. Those traditions are not authoritative.
In Jerusalem, there is a site that’s purported to be the location of Lazarus’ tomb. There are also a couple of places outside of Jerusalem that claim to be Lazarus’ tomb, too. Of course, you have to pay admission to see the tomb and there’s always a gift shop just outside the entrance.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, you can walk the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus took to Calvary. You can pay a guide to take you to all the various locations that are mentioned in the passion story. If you want to feel Christ-like, you can rent a cross to carry on the journey. The crosses were about four feet tall, they were made from light plywood, and they might have weighed ten pounds or so. For fifty bucks, you could carry that cross the whole way. And, as always, the tour ended in a gift shop.
I’m not trying to give you a massive dose of cynicism or deter you from visiting the Holy Land. I merely want to offer some perspective to the story of Palm Sunday. We love the spectacle of this day and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it. It’s an important part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. We have the choice of being religious tourists, spending our time, energy, and money to remain in the glory of Palm Sunday. Or we can choose to follow Jesus into all the uncomfortable places. Which adventure will you choose? Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to follow Jesus and be the church. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 I borrowed this description from the Rev. Bruce Merritt, a Methodist pastor who served in a neighboring congregation in Belle Vernon, PA.