“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” This question is found in Psalm 137, a song of lament in time of exile. Psalm 137 is an answer to its own question. Because the practice of lament, including personal and communal prayer, song, and ritual, is how we raise our voices and spirits to God in times of trouble. When we find ourselves in difficult places of pain, struggle, disorientation, captivity, or disconnection, our spiritual tradition doesn’t encourage suppression, silence, or pretending. Instead, we are reminded that God receives our strong emotions, our cries of rage and grief, and offers grace and mercy to help us move through them to a place of relief and liberation. Throughout this series, we will explore the invitation, necessity, and power of lament along the path toward freedom and new life. The promise is nothing less than resurrection!
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday, “Learning to Sing the Blues” series.
Text: Mark 11:1-19
Oh, we do love a parade! We do love a rally! And even those who dislike crowds can be stirred to join the throng by the right cause or person as the draw! Give me something to wave, teach me the chant, “hey hey ho ho-sanna!” and let’s march! And when we gather for the annual Palm Sunday parade, we are traditionally given delightful images of children—in various states of confusion, disarray, or glee—being shepherded into sanctuaries with palms; and even in this virtual space, there’s a sense of playfulness and hope and anticipation as Jesus enters Jerusalem, as we ourselves enter Holy Week.
The original parade on this day, best we can tell, is what advocates call a public action. And our story begins by detailing preparation for the event, including securing Jesus’ ride and marking the parade route with cloaks and leafy branches. The chant was taken from an old favorite, the victory song we call Psalm 118: “Hosanna—Save us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The parade was carefully planned, the allusions to Zechariah’s prophecy of a new king riding a donkey, humbly bringing peace in a time of war were deliberate and provocative. Its route led to the temple, the power center of Israel’s religious and political life. And all this energy culminates with Jesus entering the temple and then…“when he had looked around at everything” he left. (?? Wah Wah…) And, according to the lectionary, the story for today ends right there.
But the so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem wasn’t just that day. The point of the palm Sunday public action wasn’t just to have a parade and “look around” as if on a fact finding mission. Though evidently what Jesus perceived in church policies and behavior, in congress and state legislatures and courts and precincts, triggered a nasty mood. Because on the way back to Jerusalem for day two of the action, Jesus takes out his frustration on an unsuspecting fig tree that had the audacity to not have figs available in the off season. Jesus returns to the temple and this time it’s about more than taking a look.
Jesus comes in hot to disrupt the system, overturn the status quo, dismantle tools of injustice, reveal how things are chatá, Hebrew for missing the mark. Jesus speaks words of scripture, runs people off who aid and abet an unjust system, and flips the money tables—all to challenge and reveal codified systems that benefit the few and marginalize and disenfranchise the many and the most vulnerable. (e.g. Mk 12:38-40) Jesus’ palm Sunday action was not a fact finding mission but a life-saving mission. And its procession route led him to reveal in no uncertain terms how religion was missing the mark, how politics was missing the mark, how economics was missing the mark. Because all of these things were failing to produce the fruits that sustain life for ALL in and out of season. And that is what they are supposed to do. No excuses. //
Our tendency in the American Church is generally to jump from Christmas to New Years Eve to Super Bowl to Palm Sunday to Easter (a few of those are not officially in the liturgical cycle, FYI). We jump from celebration to celebration, big day to big day. And it makes sense, of course. Life is hard—and we all need things to look forward to.
But here’s the thing: the things we look forward to can become nothing more than distractions and props for the status quo if we fail to attend to what happens in-between. For example, if we’re not careful, Christmas can become about how to pile more money on the tables of the rich while making the poor feel guilty that they can’t do more for their children—and this for a story about a child who came into the world to turn those tables (and more!) upside down and to bring relief to the poor. If we take a short cut on the Holy Week parade route we might be lulled into believing that Jesus wants no more than adulation one day and brightly colored hard-boiled eggs and bottomless mimosas the next. That kind of Jesus doesn’t challenge us or anyone. Isn’t that handy?
Our tendency to jump from celebration to celebration misses the lamentation. It glosses over, denies, tries to avoid the suffering. The palm procession didn’t end with adulation. It didn’t end with a triumphant Jesus dismantling injustice with one prophetic sign-act and public witness. If we jump off the route at that point, allowing our palm procession to take a different course, we can move the party to another venue, feeling good about how we showed up to support the big event, but really just leaving Jesus to go it alone.
Of course, Jesus knew that’s what would happen. He knew he was alone—or would be—he knew this even as, early on the parade route, the crowds hailed him as their hope. Jesus alone knew where the palm procession would end, knew what was coming, knew that the path to liberation is not through short cuts or distractions, party favors or pills. Jesus knew as he rode in on his donkey that he would travel the lonely road of prophets before and since—to speak truth for the sake of justice; to put himself in harm’s way to advocate for those denied place or provision in the community; to break unjust human laws in order to reveal the higher law of God’s love and compassion; to unveil the hypocrisy and cruelty of the status quo.
Where does your palm procession take you?
Today Jesus enters the gates of Jerusalem and invites us to follow his lead. Jesus shows us how to step into the pain, to stay on the route that leads to newness. Jesus can show us because Jesus knows what it’s like to feel alone and unseen in a crowd; Jesus knows what it’s like to be targeted and misunderstood; Jesus knows what it’s like to look around at the way things are in the world and feel grief and rage; Jesus knows what it’s like to grieve the death of a loved one; Jesus knows what it’s like to be given an impossible task, the weight of it, crushing; Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed and hurt by those closest to him, to be ignored and denied by those who once looked to him for guidance and care. Jesus knows what it’s like to experience physical pain; Jesus knows what it’s like to cry out to God asking for things to be different, railing against feeling abandoned. Jesus knows and so is with you in your lament. You need not be lonely there.
Will you accept Jesus’ invitation to bypass the detours and stay on route with him? Jesus’s Palm Sunday parade doesn’t end with shallow celebration or the emotional satisfaction of one table flipping action. Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade leads through deep, soul and universe-shaking lament. It leads all the way to Calvary. Some things end there at the cross. Life doesn’t. But that’s a story for another day. Promise.