28 After he had said this, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphagee and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
One winter day twelve years ago, I happened to be in Iowa City on the same day that a presidential candidate was holding a rally. A friend and I decided to go, not having been to a presidential rally before and not really knowing what to expect. It was an exciting atmosphere when we arrived, even though there were just a few people in the school gym and some scattered news crews setting up their cameras. We waited for several hours and regretted not having brought snacks. Over time many more people came. The room began to fill up. The music got louder, and we started to get the feeling that we were about to witness something historic. A U.S. Senator got on stage and spoke. 80s rocker Joan Jet performed. And by the time the candidate took the stage, with Van Halen’s “Right Now” blasting from the speakers, we were convinced that we were witnessing a revolution. Well, that may be overstating it. But the atmosphere was electric.
I imagine it was the same type of environment that led this same politician weeks later to famously scream into a microphone, effectively ending his candidacy.
It’s not uncommon for people to get carried away at rallies. We know that well. It’s for that reason that the ancient Romans were so suspicious of them. They distrusted crowds and gatherings of most kinds, especially when they themselves were not in control of them. For example, the emperor Trajan of the early 2nd Century warned in a letter about how dangerous it is for Roman authority when people are allowed to assemble. He said, “When people gather together for a common purpose — whatever name we may give them and whatever function we may assign them — they soon become political groups.”
There is power in gathering together with a crowd, and it can be dangerous. There are times, we have to acknowledge, when large rallies can lead people to act on the worst of what’s in us. Fear and hatred can be fed, turning an assembly into a violent mob. But it is also true that gathering with others can help us to affirm what’s best in us. In many circumstances, with others, we might gain a greater sense of our own power and a greater willingness to act on our truest values and convictions. We can be reminded of who we are and what’s most important. You and I have seen powerful marches for justice where large gatherings helped to change social policy and lead to liberation. Demonstrations, conferences, and yes, worship services, are opportunities to be nurtured and inspired for the way of peace, justice, and faith.
Yesterday I attended a pancake breakfast put on by one of our social justice partners in the neighborhood. The basement fellowship hall at Bethany Lutheran was packed with people—from babies to grandparents, various races and backgrounds, speaking English and Spanish. At one point their director tried to quiet the busy room for a special announcement. It wasn’t easy. She joked, “I’m not used to doing this. Usually I’m trying to get people to speak up and use their voices.” She understands that there are times for loud rallies. Perhaps she understands, like Jesus, that there are times when if the people are silent then even the stones will shout out.
In any case, when a crowd gathers, there’s a good chance that something big will happen. When a crowd gathers, there’s good reason to pay attention.
So when Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, I expect they absolutely wanted people to notice. They wanted to gather a crowd. Jesus knew the anxious Roman leaders would take notice, of course, including Pontius Pilate who had come to town specially to keep tabs on the Passover festival crowds. But maybe, most of all, Jesus wanted the authorities at the temple to stop and think—those priests and scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees. Israel at the time was in a difficult position. They were occupied by a powerful Roman empire they had no way of driving out, so their only practical option seemed to be cooperation, collusion with Rome in order to be allowed at least some freedoms. They tolerated corruption and systems that privileged the rich and took advantage of the poor. It was the way they could keep their identity and their religion alive.
But Jesus, for a few years now, had been teaching about a third way. He was pointing to a commonwealth of God that was not a replacement of empire but was instead all around them. It didn’t involve him or anyone else sitting on a throne. It didn’t depend even on a central temple in Jerusalem. It found its identity in faithfulness to God and in love for one another. This looked different. Maybe it looked more like a neighborhood getting together for a pancake breakfast. Maybe it looked like a worship service, this commonwealth of God. Maybe it looked like villagers throwing down their cloaks and waving branches in devotion to God and to the faithful way of peace that Jesus described.
That Palm Sunday procession, I believe, was an invitation for others to join in this third way. They could be their authentic selves, in relationship with God and others, no matter what they else they did or did not have to offer. And I think Jesus still—even especially—wanted those in power to be part of it, too.
As we prepare for our Holy Week remembrance, we know that this was not to be. Fears of the consequences kept them out of the procession, and they chose instead to be his enemies.
I don’t know if that surprised Jesus; I believe he was deeply disappointed. When the others in the crowd began to fall away, too, I believe he was grieved.
And yet Jesus rode on. He could have compromised his message by taking what was assumed to be the practical approach, but he rode on with faithfulness to God and consistent love for his neighbors. He could have fled and hid when things got dangerous for him personally, but he rode on with faithfulness to God and love for even his enemies. He could have picked up a sword and incited his remaining friends to attempt a violent replacement of power, but he rode on with an invitation to this third way of nonviolent love and forgiveness.
He was rejected and killed. But his way did not come to an end. In resurrection, his call to his followers did not change: remain faithful, continue to love one another, gather together. And where two or three or more are gathered, I will be with you.
Following this way of Jesus, even when it seems foolish or just too hard, is what I think faith is all about. Now somewhere along the line in church history, we started to get the impression that faith is only about intellectual assent to creeds and doctrine. But the faith of Jesus was not based in those things. It was simply about trust. It was trusting in God and trusting in God’s way of unconditional love.
So today we are right to wave our palm branches, in praise for the One who still surprises us with this way of love, and in gratitude that Christ gathers us around a table and renews our trust.