Pastor John Kerr
Theme: “A Funeral Procession”
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
There is no question here—we have a celebration. There’s excitement in the swelling crowd. Some took off their cloaks and put them on the road. Others cut branches in the field and spread them on the road. It was a way to pay homage to the one riding on the donkey. “Who is this person,” some asked. “Oh, he’s the prophet from Nazareth some 80 miles north of here in the hill country.” Jesus and his followers were in the midst of a crowd and there was excitement and celebration in the air.
It seems that whenever people went to Jerusalem there was great expectation. “Maybe something will happen this year.” For some people this trip was an annual event. For those who lived far away, they planned to go to Jerusalem at least once before they died.
There was great expectation among the people. “Maybe we’ll throw out the Roman occupation troops this year.” “Maybe they’ll just leave.” “Maybe our taxes will be lowered.” “Maybe something will be done about the unemployment.” Maybe…..Maybe….this will be the year. Amid that anticipation Jesus comes riding down the road on a donkey in a parade.
Today is Palm Sunday—a happy time of year. Had we been able to worship together today, the church would be decorated with palms and the waving of palm branches to take home with you. There would be a celebratory mood in church.
But is it a parade? Is it time for a band, balloons and banners? Do you celebrate what hasn’t happened yet, or what you hope will happen? Or do you celebrate what has happened and is a sure thing?
The people are hoping for a messiah. Is he the messiah? Some hope he is. “He’ll give us relief. We’re for him.”
Do you celebrate what you hope will happen or is it premature? This past week we had some sunshine, blue skies and 40-50 degrees and some said, “Maybe winter and worst are behind us.” Others said, “Yeah, but there is a lot of time for snow and sickness and we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic with the coronavirus flying around.” Maybe the celebration is premature.
Or maybe the crowd with Jesus was not a parade but a funeral procession. A funeral procession? Sure. Maybe his followers didn’t know it but Jesus did. He had told them, “We’re going to Jerusalem and I’ll be arrested and mistreated and executed.” But they didn’t get it.
Can we really celebrate if this is a funeral procession and Jesus is moving quickly to his death? Is this Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Is this a parade or a funeral procession?
Maybe it’s neither. Perhaps its’ a rally at the capital, a march to the capital, a march to the political, economic and religious center of power. Here we have these followers of Jesus from up north, walked all the way here, all excited with Jesus, a prophet and teacher, marching on the capital and not sure what all the issues are. Could we call it a protest march and not a parade or funeral procession? Why not? The political situation was horrendous. A few rich people controlled everybody’s life. A military governor appointed by Rome ran the land. Army occupation soldiers from another country who didn’t speak the language could force you to carry their armor and you had to do it.
How did the people react to this oppression? Some said, “If you can’t beat them, join them and make the most of it.” Others said, “No, I’ll fight them. They have no right to be here. I’m willing to give my life to free this land.” That was the stance of Lutheran pastor and professor Dietrich Bonheoffer who was a leading spokesperson for a resistance movement against the Nazis during World War Two. He was linked with an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler, arrested, imprisoned and hanged. His body was never found.
Still others in Jesus ‘ day reacted to oppression by saying, “No, we are religious people and we don’t like it when our rabbis get involved in things like this and get people all stirred up. We read our Bibles, say our prayers, go to worship and mind our own business and don’t cause any trouble.” A few said, “The time is ripe and God is about to swoop in and bowl over the enemies of God’s people. So, let’s withdraw to the desert and wait for God to act.”
Does any of that sound familiar? It’s the way people respond to intolerable, unjust situations—don’t act, do something—leave it to God—or let’s get out of here!
Into all of this come Jesus. “Who is he?” “Oh, he’s the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” “What’s he going to do? Does he belong to one of these groups or will he ask us to retreat and wait for God?”
From the viewpoint of some, it was a parade. It was something to celebrate. Jesus might do something. This may be the moment.
People can celebrate when there is little to celebrate. I hear laughter at funerals and at the grave. People can celebrate when this is nothing to celebrate. I’ve been to home as bare as dirt and there are flowers on the table, flowers in the window boxes and flowers on either side the the front steps. We refuse to be reduced to dirt.
For some Jesus’ procession was a parade, for some it was a funeral procession. Maybe it was a protest march, but for us it’s an occasion for celebrating and singing and hoping.
If you put people in a cave for a period of time, they’ll find a reason to paint a picture with berry juice on the wall. Put people in a pile of sticks and they’ll carve one into a flute and sing and dance. Put them in chains and they will drag those chains to a familiar cadence and begin to hum and make music. We are never so poor, never so down and out that we never have something to celebrate.
Have you noticed on TV when a fire burns a home to the ground, ashes are smoldering, the family is standing out front and here comes a reporter who asks, “How are you doing?” “Well, at least we got out alive. We’re grateful the children were in school and not here.” We grab on to anything, a little fragment to hold on to and give thanks and celebrate.
In a few days Jesus, the center of this parade, will be dead. But there will be an occasion to celebrate, because God gives life to the dead. If we don’t celebrate that, then, as Jesus said, “The very stones of the ground will shout out and declare that God gives life to the dead.”
Today is Palm Sunday, and we know what lies ahead, and that’s worth celebrating?