a sermon for Palm Sunday [Year C]
In the summer of 2020 when the congregation’s construction project finally came to an end and all the inspections had been passed and we were finally able to use our new front doors and patio, I took one walk out the new front entrance on that first day and realized we might have made a terrible mistake. The river rocks in the landscaping out front looked fantastic on the blueprints and the designs, but once I saw them lying there I knew they would instantly become projectiles. In fact, I remember talking with our building manager Steve about it, and we thought that those rocks would be very tempting for small children to reach down and launch them through one of those windows.
What in the world had we been thinking? I called the architect it and he reminded me that in the meetings leading up to the project approval, we had all agreed that rock beds right there would, in the long run, be much neater and much, much easier to maintain and keep weed-free than regular mulch beds. Now that I saw them, thought, I was having second thoughts. Sure enough, a week or so later I watched as my own son, age 4, on his first visit to the new entrance, walked over, reached into the bed, pulled out a rock the perfect size of his hand and launched it into the grass before I could stop him. It will be a challenge, I think, to keep that from happening, because the rocks practically cry out to be thrown. They have no real voice, but they scream in tones grown-ups can’t hear.
Jesus talks about rocks that cry out on his way into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey—they would cry out in tones that many disciples wouldn’t be able to hear. His point is this: even if the parade had been carefully crafted to minimize impromptu outbursts of excitement—even if people had stayed home that Palm Sunday for fear of being caught on film and later targeted by the state police—even if people had for some reason decided to respectfully golf-clap like the crowds at the Masters instead of shouting—the rocks themselves would have come to life to cry out “Hosanna! God save us!”
This is not just a provocative image that Jesus uses, as if we are supposed to imagine rocks with little eyes and mouths. This was a statement that all of creation had been waiting for this moment. This was a declaration by Jesus that his arrival in Jerusalem was not just the conclusion to his own personal faith journey that began in the River Jordan, but the culmination of the hopes and fears of all the years of humankind. The whole universe awaits redemption. There is a new heaven and a new earth underway, and this moment, this arrival of a new king in Israel, is the moment it begins to reach a climax. The arrival of the one “who comes in the name of the Lord” is no small thing. Even Jesus can sense, before the palm branches wave and before the people pour out of the their homes to greet him, that his mission is going to have far-reaching ramifications.
Of course, the rocks that day do not need to cry out because the people do. They do come out of their homes and they do wave the branches. They do cry out for a king who at long last, they thought, would get something done. They see a ruler who would finally stand in the shoes of the great King David and bring them respect and honor among the nations. And they see a man who is ready to take on their oppressors, throw them out, and establish peace in the land. These are their hopes, and they pin them to the male on the donkey that day.
Do the rocks of today still cry out? By that I mean do you get the impression that the world still longs for things like peace and justice? I know that those who mark Palm Sunday as holy claim to want these things, but even if our voices were silent today, even if we were to find other things to do than worship, would others somewhere take our place? Or have people settled into a scary rhythm of war and hardship because that’s what they believe all life really holds? Have people lost hope in leaders? In the power of forgiveness and reconciliation? What about the cobblestoned streets of Bucha and Irpin? The rocky pathways of Kabul? The gleaming stone buildings of Washington, DC? Are they crying out?
What about you? Do you find yourself crying out for anything these days? What kinds of hopes and dreams do you pin on God? What expectations do you have of your relationship with God and with the things God promises? Is there some way all of the these things become centered and focused on the man who comes riding into Jerusalem. How can he be an answer to these prayers and hopes?
Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who tells us that the multitude of disciples on that day as he rode in began to rejoice and praise God for the mighty works that they had seen. The other gospel writers record the shouts of the crowds, but here in Luke we are told that his disciples—those who had been in ministry with him over the past few years—are thinking about the great works they had witnessed. They know a leader who has reached out to heal the suffering. They have worked with a teacher who has emphasized the least and the lowly in his lessons. They have eaten with a deeply religious man who has still shared his table with tax collectors and sinners. And they have watched in awe as he took fish and a few loaves and fed thousands of people. I wonder what those disciples think Jesus is here in Jerusalem to do. What particular dreams and hopes have they focused on him as he rides in? Will they feel let down as the week unfolds and it seems he does no miracles like these at all?
Hearing the events of Palm Sunday this year makes me think of how we tend to adore leaders, and place them on pedestals. And it makes me think about how all too often our expectations of leaders don’t line up with what they actually end up delivering. Jesus is no exception to this, as it turns out. He doesn’t hold anything close to his vest, and he doesn’t try send mixed messages about his agenda, and yet he still ends up ruining most people’s dreams of him. We know this because by the end of the week the crowds are eager to free an insurrectionist named Barrabas (and look past Barrabas’ crimes) rather than follow Jesus into the love of God’s kingdom. So if you cry out for a leader today, if you pin your hope on a savior on this Palm Sunday, which leader is it for?
Over the past several months one of the most popular and successful local non-profit organizations, Shalom Farms, has been very carefully searching for a new Executive Director. This Executive Director will lead Shalom Farms in its mission, which is to provide free farm-grown produce to alleviate food insecurity and address food justice issues in the greater Richmond area. As it happens, when it began out in Goochland County in 2009, the Epiphany Youth Group was one of the first volunteer groups to work there, and we’ve continued that relationship to today. In 2021 they produced over 700,000 servings of food.
One of Epiphany’s members, Johanna Gattuso, is the current chair of the Board. She shared with me that the Board made the conscious decision in their search that one of the criteria of the new Executive Director was that at some point in their life they needed to have experienced food insecurity. They still received over 100 resumes for the position. Some of the letters that accompanied these applications spoke movingly of what it was like to grow up going to bed hungry,or foraging in fields for greens, or having to watch their parents eat nothing for dinner so that they, as kids, would. The idea, of course, is that the new leader of Shalom Farms would lead from a position of solidarity and familiarity with the organization’s mission. Anna Ibrahim was hired and began her tenure as the Executive Director this month. Hailing from farmers who toiled on the prairies of the Midwest and the valleys of the Levant, Ms Ibrahim looks forward to continuing Shalom Farm’s ministry with renewed energy.
In our search for that leader who can rescue us from our brokenness, who can release us from our captivity to sin and selfishness, who can free us to a life of forgiveness, perhaps we should cry out for one who has walked that road. If we seek mercy, perhaps we should cry out for one who is willing to be broken, one who has a track record in eating with the sinner, in seeking out the lost and lowly. In our hope for one who can conquer death, why don’t we look for one who will die himself? For a leader has been given to us, and that is his mission: to love us as we are, to free us with forgiveness, to heal us with humility.
Back in 2020, as the construction was being completed, and the doors were open to receive people who couldn’t come because of the pandemic, a family in our congregation with young children decided to paint rocks with Easter messages as a faith formation activity at home. They didn’t just cover these rocks with color. They inscribed little messages on them—things like “Happy Easter!” and “He is Risen!”—and then they came by and placed them along our sidewalk with the hope someone might see them. Two years later and some of them are still here, lying around underfoot, like petrified Easter eggs, still just waiting to be seen now that the people are returning. I leave work each day, and, if I’m lucky, my eyes will fall upon one, crying out, saying He is Risen. reminding me that if I don’t learn to shout Hosanna!—“Hosanna, My leader, my savior has come—has come and loves me to the end!” well, then a rock will take my place.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.