Palm/Passion Sunday A

Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 27:11-54 (shorter reading of the Passion)

Dear Partner in Preaching,

As you well know, Palm/Passion Sunday is one of the more cluttered and confusing liturgical days of the church year. When most of us were growing up, it was simply Palm Sunday, and the invitation to march around the sanctuary with palms in hand made it probably my favorite Sunday of the year as a kid. Sometime in the 80s or 90s – earlier, no doubt, in Roman Catholic circles where most of the important liturgical renewal began, but it took longer to seep into the liturgically middle-of-the-road Lutheran congregations in which I grew up – it was changed to Palm/Passion Sunday. I have heard from many parishioners and colleagues their sense that this move has, among other things, minimized the joy and festive character of Palm Sunday and created a rather emotionally gut-wrenching shift from joy to betrayal and grief, all in the space of sixty minutes.

As with most changes, there’s often a solid rationale behind it, and in this case there are actually two. The first and more “popular” (in the “urban rumor” sense) reason offered – although I’m pretty sure I heard this in seminary, too – is that the shift to Palm/Passion Sunday was a response to the decline in attendance of Holy Week services. If folks were skipping Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, they would move from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the hosannas of Easter and miss the cross entirely – hence, a portion of the Passion story was now to be read on Palm Sunday.

The more liturgically substantive reason offered is that Lent was initially not imagined simply a build-up to Good Friday but rather a season of preparation to follow Jesus as a disciple. For this reason, the various readings of the Sundays in Lent include stories of Jesus revealing who he is to a variety of characters – this year including Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man who received his sight, and Lazarus and his sisters – with an emphasis on the variety of responses those characters have to him. The reading depicting Jesus’ triumphal entry is meant as the capstone to those readings, inviting us also to shout our Hosannas to the one we have come to know so well and are now prepared to follow. At the same time, this sixth Sunday of Lent functions like a hinge and so also turns us toward Holy Week, and therefore we read a portion of the Passion story. Hence, Palm/Passion Sunday designates the two liturgical functions this single day is pressed into service to perform.

My suggestion this year is not to lament or even try to cover over this confusion, but rather to take advantage of it. Why? Because it was an incredibly confusing and emotionally wrenching week in the lives of the disciples. Further, it has been a rather confusing and at times emotionally wrenching season for our nation and world. Why not, then, allow this day to reflect some of that?

Toward that end, we might recall for our folks that Jesus’ triumphal entry wasn’t a first-century version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a meant as a statement. Matthew is clear: Jesus rode into town as a returning king. Moreover, the crowds greeted him as such. The hosannas the people cry have both religious and political overtones. They greet him as the Lord’s Messiah and expect him to overthrow the Romans. And the Romans take note. This helps to explain why, in fact, he was crucified. It wasn’t just an accident. It wasn’t because he simply offended the religious authorities of the day. It was because he proclaimed another kingdom – the kingdom of God – and called people to give their allegiance to this kingdom first. He was, in other words, a threat. And even the briefest of readings from the Passion narrative reminds us of the consequences of Jesus challenge to the powers that be.

The tragedy of the day is that the people are half right. He did come as God’s Messiah. But they misunderstood what that meant – not “regime change” by violence, but rather the love of God poured out upon the world in a way that dissolved all the things we use to differentiate ourselves from others and the formation of a single humanity that knows itself – and all those around them! – as God’s beloved people.

The other tragedy of the day is that the religious and political authorities are also half right. Jesus was a threat. For that matter, he still is. He threatens our penchant to define ourselves over and against others. He threatens the way in which we seek to establish our future by hording wealth and power. He threatens our habit of drawing lines and making rules about who is acceptable and who is not. He threatens all of these things and more. But they are so wrong in thinking that they can eliminate this threat by violence. Jesus’ resurrection – which in Matthew is accompanied by the shaking of the very foundations of the earth – affirms that God’s love is stronger than hate and God’s life is stronger than death. And eventually all will yield to the mercy and majesty of God.

If we venture down this path, Dear Partner, we might find in this day an opportunity to let folks know that Jesus enters fully into the confusion and chaos of our days as fully as he did the tumult in his own. Moreover, he continues to threaten our reliance on anything – our wealth, position, political identity, good works, relationships or, for that matter, our limitations or life tragedies – anything other than God’s mercy. What’s hard about this message is that we all have come at times to seek our identity and secure our future on things other than God. The blessing of this message is that none of these other things are up to the job. No matter what we trust in, we will be disappointed, as only God’s Word can declare us as not just acceptable but as blessed and beloved. Jesus’ journey to the cross shows us just how far he was willing to go to demonstrate to us God’s unconditional love and acceptance. And once you hear that message of grace, mercy, and love, then whether you name it Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday, or just the Sixth Sunday in Lent, there is suddenly good reason to shout our hosanna with all the joy and hope we can muster.

Blessings on, and gratitude for, your proclamation this Sunday, Dear Partner. Your words and ministry both matter and make a difference.

Yours in Christ,