If you looked at your calendar this morning, it probably said today is Palm Sunday. It is. Big liturgical day, is Palm Sunday. It marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion. In the strains of “Hosanna!”, one hears the echoes of “Crucify!”
In the best-known version of the story, the people litter Jesus’ path with palm fronds as a way to mark their adoration. In our Christian faith, we love tactile symbols like that. Palm fronds! We hand them out on Palm Sunday. We make crosses out of them. The really industrious among us burn the palms and create ashes for the following year’s Ash Wednesday. Oh, we do love a symbol we can touch!
I’m going to make a confession here. I like symbolism as much as the next person, but as a worship leader, I’ve never known what to do with the palms. People pick one up on the way into worship. Then we wave the slender fronds during the first hymn…or maybe we process forward and drop the fronds in front of the chancel area then go back to our seats…and wonder what in the world THAT was all about.
As the years have progressed, I’ve come to feel a little guilty for even offering palm fronds. It’s like, “Here! Let’s be awkward together for a moment!” I was looking for a youtube video of the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” to send to the Dance Circle for today. I saw one from the National Cathedral. I thought, Great! The National Cathedral! I watched it. In that clip, I saw just what I’ve been doing to congregants for decades. People limply waving their palm fronds, looking around to make sure other people were doing it, too. Awkward.
Today’s good news is that we have no palm fronds! Woohoo! Hosanna! Whatever! The version of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem we get today comes from the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, there are no palms. I love Luke. In Luke, instead of palms, the people throw down their cloaks for the donkey on which Jesus is riding to walk.
It begins when Jesus and his disciples approach Bethany–at the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is just a couple miles from Jerusalem. It’s on a rise that quickly descends into a valley, then back up again into the entrance to the city. From atop the Mount of Olives, the whole city of Jerusalem is visible.
So, there on the brow of the hill near Bethany, I imagine Jesus gazing into the city, perhaps wondering what would happen there…perhaps knowing what was going to happen there… And he sends two of his disciples into the city to procure a “colt that has never been ridden.” They do.
They bring it back to Jesus there on the brow of the hill overlooking Jerusalem. And here’s where the first cloak appears. Before setting Jesus on the donkey, the disciples throw a cloak over the donkey’s back.
Then the procession begins. Jesus–the one whom some wanted to coronate king–riding down the long hill into the valley, then back up again into the city.
The image–even in that day–would have been striking. Kings rode horses, not donkeys. Here was Jesus, playing the role of a king…and, at the same time, seemingly, poking fun at it.
Or was he? A key part of his teaching from the beginning had been the kingdom or realm of God. All the parables, all the gestures, all the eating with people he wasn’t supposed to eat with and healing all the people the religious authorities didn’t want healed…all of it was a way to show a different kind of realm, a different kind of kingdom…indeed, not a kingdom at all, but a kindom. Not a kingdom defined by hierarchy, but a kindom defined by equality, community.
What better way to embody everything he’d been teaching than to play the role of a king of this new realm he’d been inviting people to imagine? A king? Riding on a donkey? Sitting on a borrowed cloak?
The people respond….by lifting up loud praises to their king…and throwing the cloaks off their backs, their protection from hot sun during the day and chill breezes at night, they throw one of their most prized possessions down on the ground to ease the donkey’s journey, to pave the way for the king of their choosing.
For a long time, I thought those people were just caught up in some kind of mob mentality, that none of them had a mind of their own, they were just doing what everyone around them was doing. Then–in my suspicious-of-everything phase–I imagined the religious authorities, threatened by Jesus’ popularity, themselves stirring the people up to call Jesus King of the Jews so that the civil authorities could execute him as a traitor. Maybe.
What I wonder now, though, is if the people spreading their cloaks that day knew precisely what they were doing. If they’d listened to Jesus teach about God’s love, about how God chooses to dwell with the least of these, about how everyone is welcome to the table, about how humility is the coin of God’s realm.
Now, I wonder if the people knew exactly what Jesus was doing–proposing that they start a revolution, create a new kindom where everyone has what they need, where there are no people on the margins because all are equally loved and welcomed. I wonder if, when the people saw their beloved teacher on a donkey that day, sitting on a borrowed cloak, I wonder if everything clicked for them. I wonder in that moment if they got that the realm of which Jesus had been speaking was actually possible. Right here. Right now. And—and this was key—that they were the means by which it was going to happen.
As I’ve sat with it, that’s really the only thing that makes sense. Palm fronds? Easily picked up, easily discarded. One’s cloak? That’s giving something vital, something you really need. Giving one’s cloak–means giving oneself, all of oneself, to the movement, to this new vision of how to live our lives. The new realm Jesus represents requires all of us. And because the people saw that and understood that, that’s exactly what they gave.
On a trip to Israel in 2006, the group I was with walked the road from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem. We stood, gazing into the city, then set out. As we descended into the valley, a fellow traveler settled his gait to mine and we walked in silence for a bit. Then he started speaking.
My new friend was a Catholic priest. He told me he was gay. He wanted to come out and was thinking about leaving the Catholic church. He wanted to know more about the UCC.
Once we reached the bottom of the valley, then ascended into the city, we went our separate ways.
I was struck by the conversation. Still am. Walking the road down Jesus had traveled, our feet traversing ground that might well have held the cloaks of the faithful so long ago…And my friend throwing down his own cloak, this vital part of who he was, the cloak behind which he’d been hiding. My friend was saying that he wanted to follow Jesus with all of who he was, now, not just the tiny fraction of himself he had, to that point, been allowing the world to see.
Are you hiding behind a cloak today? Is there some part of you you’re holding back from the work of establishing God’s realm on earth, of acting the world into wellbeing? Are you ready to give all of yourself to the movement, to the revolution?
What I’m trying to say is, Are you ready to throw your cloak down?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2019