St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 20, 2016
The Sunday of the Passion – Palm Sunday
Following the Crowd or Following Jesus
I love that today’s service is a little complicated and confusing. I love it because it helps us to really get, really experience, that Palm Sunday is the most disorienting day of the church year.
Today is the start of a disorienting, confusing, even upsetting week that we call “holy” – a week when we remember terrible, heartbreaking events:
On Thursday, we’ll remember, retell, and reenact the story of the Last Supper when Jesus said goodbye to his disciples, giving them the bread and wine to remember him by, getting down on his hands and knees and washing the feet of his disciples, teaching them in a way more powerful than words that this is how much he loves us and commanding us to love each other just as much.
Then, at the end of the week, on the Friday we call “good,” we’ll once again walk the streets of Jersey City, visiting places of pain and death, remembering the pain and death of Jesus long ago and the suffering Jesus continues to endure in and through our neighbors killed, injured, and frightened.
And on Saturday we’ll find ourselves in that weird, uncomfortable in-between time, between the death of Good Friday and the new life of Easter.
Holy Saturday is like an eclipse when we can only see the outline of light that’s about to once and for all conquer the darkness.
But, today is Palm Sunday, the most disorienting day.
The day began with so much promise, welcoming the king into his capital city with waving palms and shouts of joy.
But the mood has quickly soured and we’ve ended up at the cross with the king hanging abandoned, humiliated, and quite dead.
The most disorienting day - so disorienting that the Church can’t even settle on one name. It’s Palm Sunday and it’s also the Sunday of the Passion.
The most disorienting day.
Lately, I’ve been reading a biography of one of my heroes: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Maybe some of you know that name or know something about him.
He was a German pastor and theologian who was born into a well-to-do family in 1906, meaning his childhood was marked by the First World War and he grew into adulthood just before the rise of the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer was brilliant and exceptionally well-educated, recognized at a young age as one of the most brightest theologians in Germany, a land that had produced and took pride in so many great religious thinkers.
At the same time, thanks to his family’s wealth, Bonhoeffer was pampered and, frankly, kind of spoiled, insulated from the profound suffering of many of his countrymen in the years after the Great War and then at the start of the Great Depression.
He seems to not have been paying much attention when Hitler and his Nazi thugs cleverly took advantage of people’s fears and bitterness, offering simplistic and horrible messages of hatred, including, of course most especially the brutal scapegoating of the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s problems.
It’s a story that I’m sure is at least somewhat familiar to many of us.
This history is certainly very familiar to me. I’ve studied it and I’ve taught it.
But, reading this biography of Bonhoeffer, I’m struck by how fast it all happened. It happened so fast that lots of people, including Bonhoeffer and other intellectuals and other Christian leaders, were caught off guard, disoriented.
Hitler mutated so quickly - mutated from someone ridiculed by the elites as a buffoon who they could easily manipulate and control into the absolute leader who just a few days after gaining power began moving brutally against those he hated.
So disorienting and so terrifying.
I’m also struck by the crowds.
Seemingly overnight, suddenly there were huge crowds at the Nazi rallies listening to mindless speeches and saluting their hateful leader with their right arms outstretched.
Tragically, most of the supposedly Christian leaders of Germany, both Protestant and Catholic, fell into line and followed right along with the crowds. They put on their red Nazi armbands and oriented themselves toward Hitler, saluting their leader, joining the huge crowds that would follow Hitler along the death road to genocide, war, and national suicide.
Most Christian leaders followed the crowd, but not quite all.
Although he was stunned and disoriented that these hateful developments could be happening in Germany, the land of poets and philosophers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer along with a handful of other Christian leaders followed Jesus. They resisted Nazi rule, risked their lives by refusing to follow the crowds.
Each year on Palm Sunday – the Sunday of the Passion - we remember the fast-moving developments in Jerusalem two thousand years ago – and we remember the crowds.
There’s a crowd of people greeting Jesus as he entered the capital city, but they seem to have the wrong idea. They think that Jesus is going to be a mighty warrior like his ancestor David, a warrior-king who will defeat the Roman occupiers and restore the independence of Israel.
The crowd greets Jesus with waving palms and shouts of joy but at least some of them must have had second thoughts and doubts almost immediately when they saw their new king riding not a noble horse like any self-respecting monarch but a lowly colt, a visual that was not likely to inspire or excite the crowd.
Events then move quickly and soon enough there’s another crowd, probably a much larger crowd - and I bet it included at least a few of the same people who had been waving palms and shouting joyfully just a few hours earlier.
This crowd rejects Jesus with the repeated shouts of “Crucify him!”
It doesn’t take much imagination to see their faces, right?
We can see their faces twisted and screwed into rage, rage fed by disappointment, fear and despair, rage fed by the leaders, rage that feels so good at the time but always leads down the road to death.
It’s ironic, but on Palm Sunday, on this most disorienting day, we see the choice so clearly.
Do we follow the crowd?
Or, do we follow Jesus?
If we follow Jesus then we share the bread and wine with each other and with all those hungry people out there.
If we follow Jesus then we follow his example of loving service, getting on our hands and knees and washing each other’s feet.
If we follow Jesus then we reject the hate and the ugliness of the crowd, even when, especially when, it’s going to cost us.
If we follow Jesus then we follow him to the Cross, follow him to all the many places of violence, pain, and loss.
And, if we follow Jesus it will cost us everything – and it will gain us everything because this is a journey on the road to Easter, the road to new life.
Unlike almost everybody else, Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted Hitler and the Nazis right to the end.
Not surprisingly, he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp where he was executed near the end of the war.
In a letter from prison he wrote, “The Cross is not the terrible end of a pious happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Wherever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.”
My brothers and sisters, today we begin the disorienting journey of Holy Week.
Let’s not follow the crowd.
Let’s follow Jesus.
Let’s follow Jesus to death on the cross.
Let’s follow Jesus to the new life of Easter.