Palm Sunday

Here are the elements of our Palm Sunday Worship Service – April 5, 2020


LEADER: Palm Sunday occurs whenever we serve an unpopular yet noble cause, pursuing the ideals of compassion and justice.

PEOPLE: Palm Sunday occurs wherever we uplift the fallen, comfort the brokenhearted, strengthen and encourage the weak and hopeless.

LEADER: Palm Sunday occurs whenever we work for peace, summoning the courage to persist in the face of abuse to establish more equitable relationships in the world.

PEOPLE: Palm Sunday occurs wherever we make a sacrifice in the service of love for our neighbors, recognizing them in every culture, race and nation.

 ALL: Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the sacred one!


READING – The Poet Thinks About the Donkey by Mary Oliver

Bob’s Reflection

Mark 11:1-10,15-17  When they were approaching Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of his disciples saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it back. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, just say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back right promptly.”’ They went and found a colt in the street tied near a door. As they were untying it, a group of bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, taking that colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and the bystanders allowed them to take it. They brought the colt to Jesus, covered it with their cloaks, and he sat upon it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others waved leafy branches they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead as well as those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Soon they came to Jerusalem and Jesus went to the temple. He began to drive out those who were selling animals for sacrificial offerings and he overturned the tables of the money-changers. He would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple, saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?  But you have made it a den of thieves!

Reflection – If someone asked me to explain Jesus starting from scratch, I’d begin with Palm Sunday and the Cleansing of the Temple.  All you need to make up your mind about whether Jesus had anything to offer worth your attention can be understood in those two events.  I’m thinking of an “elevator speech” – that bare essentials version of something important you’d share in the time it takes to get – say – from the lobby to the top floor of a busy hotel.  If the person I’m telling about Jesus isn’t taken with what he was doing with the donkey parade and flipping the money changers’ tables, I don’t have anything to share likely to be as compelling and relevant.  If the person asking were intrigued by how Jesus confronted Pontius Pilate and the Temple market, I’d probably talk next about his habits of befriending outcasts, then about his teachings on generosity and humility.  The last things I’d come to – if I came to them at all – would be miracle stories like walking on water, calming the storm, and the resurrection.  At our point in history it’s hard not to let the magical aspects of those stories distract us so we miss the point and think of Jesus as if he were part of a fairy tale.  If I wanted to offer the most compelling version I could of Jesus’ accomplishments and legacy in short order, the things that still incline me to try and take him seriously, Palm Sunday and the Temple Cleansing would be my “go-to” episodes.

Over the years I’ve talked a lot about historical research from Jesus Seminar scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.  The gist is that Palm Sunday was probably Jesus’ orchestrated parody of Pontius Pilate. Every year at Passover a legion of soldiers came to Jerusalem with an intimidating show of force to prevent a rebellion.  While Pilate lead the procession on a mighty war horse, Jesus came into town on a humble donkey.  Pilate would have been met with intimidated silence, while Jesus – a man of the people – was met with adulation.  It was meant to draw an unmistakable contrast between their visions of leadership – oppressive intimidation verses collaboration and community; a society organized for the benefit of the 1% verses a society organized for the benefit of all. As for his cleansing the Temple, Jesus was confronting opportunistic greed that had perverted Jewish spirituality.  Vendors were turning worship into a commercial enterprise making a profit converting money from Roman to Jewish denominations.  The scene Jesus caused was probably dramatic, and probably what got him executed.  In that tense atmosphere with the Romans on high alert for any sign of trouble, he was likely crucified right away.  No trial would have been required and soldiers were certain to have been under orders to make a fast example of anyone who risked inciting a riot.

There’s an iconic thought from one of the early Star Trek movies (and developed further in sequels) in which Mr. Spock points out, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one).”  This aligns with the values on which Jesus built his ministry and reputation. To understand the essence of Jesus we have to look past aspects of the stories written to deify him decades after his death and understand the passion for social justice that inspired such admiration in the first place.  The point of the cloaks and palm branches and adulation wasn’t worship for its own sake, it was appreciation for Jesus standing up to power maintained for its own sake and advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society. Here in our own time when we hear campaign speeches and watch activism on behalf of those oppressed by corporate greed or partisan voter suppression, we’re hearing echoes of Palm Sunday. If you want to understand what Jesus was about, what he meant to convey by riding into Jerusalem on that donkey, that’s the essence of it.

Susan pointed me toward a video clip that offers a sense of the occasion.  It was taken during an incident that happened a few days ago as the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt chanted the name of their commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier. Captain Crozier was relieved of command after advocating for the evacuation of his crew to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after it had been diagnosed in a number of his sailors.

My intention sharing that clip is not to comment on whether Captain Crozier should have been relieved of command.  I don’t know enough about the legalities of chain of command or the details of his actions.  What seems clear, though, is that he did advocate assertively for the well being of his sailors, using his judgement to put the needs of his crew above the needs of protocol for its own sake, knowing the risks of provoking powerful military institutions.  I think the sailors of the Theodore Roosevelt chanting his name in appreciation is the same genre occasion as what happened on Palm Sunday when Jesus confronted powerful interests in his own time advocating for the needs of the many.  It isn’t about worship, it’s about taking the side of the people when human values come up against a self-serving establishment.

It occurs to me that self-serving establishments never last.  They come to power in many ways either by lying, turning a society against itself stoking fears of imaginary enemies, sometimes by naked aggression, sometimes starting out legitimate and becoming corrupt over time.  While they’re in power they take what can be taken.  But they never seem to crush the human spirit.  The power of compassion always creeps up through the cracks and finds its voice, rallies to its prophets and teachers, inspires people to recognize each other as family, and organizes around a renewed appreciation for the common good.  Palm Sunday is what I see as cities salute their first responders, as neighbors check in on each other and offer whatever help they can think of.  And I’m reminded that Palm Sunday isn’t just a commemoration of the past, but a summons to practice our humanity every time we’re told to sacrifice the needs of the many for the sake of the establishment.  I’ll close with lyrics from the first verse of a hymn…

“O young and fearless prophet of ancient Galilee, your life is still a summons to serve humanity. To make out thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd, to stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.”

Pastoral Prayer (adapted a prayer by Rev. Deshna Charron Shine, ED)

Sacred Mystery – We find ourselves thrown into strange times, reminded suddenly of our need for basic commodities like conversation and mutual concern.  We are one with myriad generations of the human family throughout history who likewise lived through challenging times. Astronomers tell us we are made quite literally of stardust, products of extraordinary light pouring out into the universe. In each of us, your light manifests as a blend of light and love pouring out into the lives of those around us. Let your unfailing presence remind our generation that your light shines through a darkness that can never overcome it, and that it shines within each of us.

In this challenging moment let us radiate the joy, peace, and compassion of Christ. Let us be sources of strength and hope, resilience and resolve.  As we approach Easter, make us mindful that the power of your love can never be silenced or killed, the spirit of Jesus shone so brightly even the grave could not contain it.  Help us hone our words and actions more and more in Christ’s example of radical inclusion and deep reverence for the gift of all life and creation – for friends and strangers, allies and adversaries, for those we have named aloud and those we carry in the silence of our hearts.

Here us now as we say the words Jesus taught us (our debts)…

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Sharing the Bread and Cup
LEADER: After years of healing and teaching about the commonwealth of God, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the Holy City now occupied by the Roman Empire in collaboration with the Jewish elite.

PEOPLE: He arrived during the busiest time of year, when Jews from all over the world traveled there to observe Passover. There was tension in the air, as the Romans maintained order watching for anyone who dared step out of line. The response would be swift and brutal.

LEADER: Some of the people, inspired by Jesus’ message of compassion and justice, were moved to lay down their cloaks in tribute as he passed by – God’s humble servant with a powerful and subversive message of peace.

PEOPLE: All these years later, Jesus’ message remains just as powerful, just as subversive. And we are likewise called to challenge the oppressive politics of our time, embodying the message for which Jesus gave his life.

LEADER: Before he died, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He broke bread with them to symbolize his body broken for the sake of justice. He blessed a cup and shared it with them – a symbol of his blood shed in the cause of a compassionate revolution.

PEOPLE: As we take this bread and share this cup, may we be reminded of Jesus’ courage.  And may this simple meal strengthen us to follow in his footsteps, wherever they may lead.  AMEN.