Palm Sunday: Where does the road lead?

The road you find yourself on, where does it lead? This morning we find ourselves in the midst of a wild parade. I know that some of you had a hard time getting into church because of a different parade. We’re not the only ones out on the street this morning, it turns out. Outside our church, making their way in loops around UCity and Clayton are a group of runners raising money for people living and working with Down Syndrome. I do apologize if you encountered chaos driving and parking at church. But in some ways, it is perfectly fitting to have a ruckus outside on Palm Sunday, especially a ruckus for such a cause.

Palm Sunday is the last leg of a journey. In Luke’s Gospel, way back in chapter 9, the text tells us “Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.” But even before Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, he was on the journey. The Gospel this morning centers on a strange back and forth between Jesus and some disciples. He tells them to boost a donkey, to borrow it, without asking. Some commentators have said that Jesus is essentially telling the disciples, “hey, go steal a car for me.” But I would argue it’s not quite that. You didn’t ride on donkeys to go on a journey. This is more like Jesus saying, “hey, go borrow a ride-on lawn mower.” There is an element of the absurd. But there’s also an element of connection. Luke’s Gospel includes the story of Jesus’ mother riding on a donkey. The two incidents are connected. The drama that began at Christmas, with God choosing to dwell among us, finishes in Holy Week as Jesus takes these final steps. The road was long that led to the Holy City. This morning, we find ourselves with Jesus, looking out over the end of the road.

The Mount of Olives has a million dollar view. It’s true today, and it was true in the time of Jesus. Standing at the top of the Mount of Olives, you look out over the ancient city of Jerusalem. Jesus, standing there on the mountain, could see the rest of the road ahead. Today, as you look across the Kidron Valley, you see the whole of the ancient city. The bright Gold and Blue of the dome of the rock is in the front of the field of view. In Jesus’ day, in roughly the same spot, the temple would have been gleaming. Smoke billowing toward heaven. Behind the temple and to the right loomed the towers of the Roman Antonia fortress, that housed the Roman army, and where Jesus would be questioned by Pilate, the governor of Palestine. Less than a mile beyond the temple, and to the left rising on Mt. Zion was Herod’s palace, and beyond the palace was the wall. Jesus looked down from the Mount Olives on the rest of the road, the road that would take him beyond that wall to die.

Jesus knew where the road led. He’s been on this path for at least ten chapters, according to Luke. He’s preached about justice. He’s talked about the coming of God’s Kingdom. He’s challenged the religious and civil authorities. Jesus and his disciples are a danger. They are a threat. They question the status quo. He knows where the road is headed, and Jesus takes the road.

Jesus knew he was going to die, so he refused to live in a way that would have been inauthentic. All along the road in Luke’s Gospel, people warn Jesus: “Watch out for the Pharisees. They’re plotting to kill you. Hide. Be quiet. Don’t heal people today.” Jesus keeps his face turned toward Jerusalem. He keeps his pace on the road. He keeps preaching. He keeps teaching. He keeps healing.

There may be a temptation to compare Jesus to modern day leaders. While the work of Christianity is, to quote the mystics, work of imitatio Cristi, imitating Jesus, following his lead. To cast today just in the language of modern politics would be to miss the theological drama of the story. Yes, Jesus and his followers are involved in a protest, but the consequences are bigger than just their modern day politics. Holy Week is about God choosing to be with us, all the way to the end.

The week ahead is a big week in the life of the Church, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. This week we will mark the last moments of Jesus’ life. At the end of our service today, we will read the Passion Gospel. On Maundy Thursday, we will gather to remember the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples, and all are invited, if they choose to wash someone’s feet, to have their feet washed. We will remember Christ’s call to servant leadership. Wear some sensible shoes. We’ll share a simple meal that night.

On Good Friday at noon and at 7pm, we will walk with Jesus the last steps of the road. We’ll meditate with the cross, and lament the suffering in our world. The road this week is a painful road. We remember the final moments in the life of Jesus. We remember ways in which our world has suffered, is suffering. Holy Week reminds us that in life we face loss. We all face death. Our road is a difficult road.

But Jesus, looking down from the mountain chooses the road anyway. When the Pharisees tell him to get the crowd to quiet down, he says “impossible.” “If these [women and men] were silent the [very] stones would shout out.” Today is a day of celebration. Palm Sunday is a joyous day, because this day tells us that God is with us. If we remain silent, God’s own creation would proclaim the good news: “God is with us. Hosanna!” Jesus chooses the difficult road to be with us. God is present to us in the darkest places, in the midst of the greatest losses. When all seems to be going wrong, Jesus walks that road with us.

The long road finishes at the tomb and Holy Week finishes in that darkness. Late on Saturday night, some of us will gather here in the Church for the Great Vigil of Easter. We’ll stand outside and kindle a fire. We’ll carry the Easter flame into the church and read lessons by candlelight. This year, one of our members is going to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, as the light is breaking through the darkness. If you’ve never been to a Vigil, I encourage you to participate. The ancient moment when dark turns to light, and we shout Alleluia for the first time in Easter. when we exclaim that light has overcome darkness, life has overcome death, Jesus is Risen: there is no moment more beautiful and more mysteriously joyful in the Christian life. If you need additional incentive, the festivities aren’t just about worship. After the Vigil we will pop corks on champagne bottles and sparkling cider. You’re invited to bring your favorite chocolate or other treat to share. Ellis is making a mousse that looks just heavenly. We’ll celebrate the Easter Vigil with style, and with chocolate.

A priest I knew in college used to say: “Your Easter joy will be in direct proportion to the time you invest in Holy Week.” Over the years, I have found his words to be true. Looking down from that mountain, we can see the road ahead isn’t an easy road. But, if we are honest, neither is the journey of life an easy road. This morning, Jesus chooses to take the final steps on his journey. Knowing what lies ahead of him, he rides that colt down the mount of Olives and in through the gates of Jerusalem. So shall we join creation and shout Hosanna? Shall we follow Jesus along this road?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Palm Sunday: Where does the road lead?

  1. Thank you for this. I especially appreciate “Your Easter joy will be in direct proportion to the time you invest in Holy Week.” That has been my experience, too.

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