Sermon for Palm Sunday comes from two passages, Psalm 118 and Luke 19:28-40. We begin our Holy Week Services on Monday at our church at 12:00 noon. There will be a short worship service followed by lunch.
Thank you and Help Me
Anne Lamott says that all the prayers in the world can be boiled down to two forms. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, Help me, help me” In Psalm 118, and in the Palm Sunday procession, we have them both.
Every year, the king of Judah would ride, from the direction of the Jordan River valley, into the city of Jerusalem, on an ass. The king would stop at various points along the way and recount his near death at the hands of enemies and how God had defeated them for him. When he arrived at the entrance to the Temple, he would say “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. And the chief priests and the royal court would respond “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” Together in the Temple they would all cry out to the Lord for help. “Hosanna!” they would say, “Save us!” Help me, help me, help me.
The whole thing was a special royal ceremony, meant to reaffirm that this was God’s chosen King and God’s chosen Kingdom. Psalm 118 was the liturgy for this procession. The story of the king’s near defeat and then God’s vindication. The stone that the builders rejected had become the cornerstone. The ceremony was celebration of thanksgiving for that God has rescued them from calamity and a plea that God would rescue them again. Thank you. Help me.
At the beginning of one particular Passover during the reign of Herod, a similar procession occurred. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass from the nearby town of Bethany. Only the chief priests and the royal court were not waiting to invite him in. The first Palm Sunday procession was probably a small procession, and not well recognized.
There is no one to recognize him because he does not come from traditional centers of power. Bethlehem and Nazareth weren’t exactly hubs of cultural activity. When the disciple Nathanael first hears of Jesus he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
There is no one to recognize him because the Gospel that he proclaims challenges the ones in power. Both the “might-makes-right” philosophy of the Romans and the elaborate self-justifications of the wealthy landowning classes are challenged by his teachings. Blessed are the meek. Turn the other cheek. Ye without sin cast the first stone. The last shall be first. His ideas are threatening to their careers and their bank accounts. They will not be there to join in the procession, because they have rejected his teachings. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Because the powerful refuse to recognize him, the disciples assume their role and welcome the king. They lay down their cloaks for him, and they wave the royal palms and shout hosanna to their God. The disciples aren’t very impressive people. They aren’t important: fishermen, low-wage laborers, and tax collectors. They aren’t very righteous: they violate the Sabbath, they touch lepers, they’re hardly ever clean. They aren’t very bright: they rarely understand what Jesus is saying.
There isn’t much special about them, except that when Jesus called, they went. And when the wealthy officials and royal courts don’t show up to welcome Jesus, they do. These crazy fools, silly enough to believe that a kingdom of mercy and righteousness could be real, these are the ones who proclaim his royal entrance. These are the ones who bid him enter the gates of righteousness. These are the ones who say, in spite of the way the world has treated them, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The stones that were rejected had become the chief cornerstone.
Some of the Pharisees who see this procession are angry. They are outraged that the disciples would enact the royal ceremony for Jesus, and welcome him into the city like God’s chosen king. They order Jesus to tell them to stop. But Jesus replies. “I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout.” If no one had come, God would have drawn praise out from the rock.
The Gospel that Jesus proclaims is a challenge to the powers and the principalities of this world, then and now. The powerful demand justice, and then write the laws to ensure they will never face it. Jesus says even the standard of justice is too harsh. Jesus proclaims mercy, and asks us to offer no punishment unless we are free of blame. The powers that be divide the world into categories and assign value based on them: cool or uncool, rich or poor, respectable or dishonorable, smart or dumb. You can only be blessed if you look right, act right, or come from the right family. But Jesus invited everyone to the table. The powers that be declare that everything is for sale, and if you have nothing to sell you are worthless. But Jesus proclaims that you are bought and paid for, at the highest price imaginable, more valuable than his own life.
We face the same choice the disciples had. What do you do when the world refuses to recognize the kingdom? When power and greed and violence reign, and there is no room for mercy, forgiveness, and love. It may seem that there is nothing that we can do. And perhaps it seemed that way for the disciples. But as silly, crazy, and foolish as it may have seemed, they got up and they followed him anyway. And when the time came for them to come to Jerusalem, they proclaimed the reign of Jesus as their ancestors had proclaimed the Messiah long ago.
They reminded themselves of God’s greatness, of all the things God has done for God’s people. They said thank you, to a God who is good. And they asked for God’s salvation again. They shouted Hosanna. They called for help, to a God who is our present help in times of need.
And we can do the same thing. We may not be important or powerful, but we have God who is. And our God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. We can proclaim the kingdom of God, even when our voices seem small and unheard. We can offer our gifts, even when our gifts seem worthless and vain. We can share our cloaks, even when our cloaks are tattered and worn. We can say thank you to a God who has gotten us this far. And we can ask for help, that God would carry us a little bit farther. Because we too are a little bit foolish. And a little bit crazy. And we too believe that the King has come to this world.
 Sanders, James. “The Conversion of Paul” Impact no 9 Fall 1982, p. 75.
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.