a sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion [Year A]
It is the weekend of the Final Four of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments, two of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. This afternoon the Iowa Hawkeyes take on the LSU Tigers in Dallas, and out in NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, San Diego State will face off against UConn tomorrow evening for the men’s championship game. And for those who know much about the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, in particular, as soon as the winning team cuts down the nets and is handed the trophy, and after the last on-court interviews are given, footage will cut to a montage of clips from the entire tournament, going all the way back to the opening round games two weekends ago when there were still 64 teams.
It’s a stirring montage that features the highlights—the triumphs of that year’s underdogs and the crashing defeats of the favorites. It shows the dunks, the dribbles, the fouls, the tears and the smiles, the fade-away three-pointers that go in at the buzzer. And that montage, every year going back to 1987, is set to the same piece of music. That piece of music, written first on a bar napkin by a man named David Barrett is titled “One Shining Moment.” And it has become a standard feature of the whole March Madness ordeal. The tournament really isn’t over until it is played. The NCAA has figured this out and sought out special recordings of it. Jennifer Hudson did one. I think the current one is by Luther Vandross. It may be the cheesiest moment in sports, but every year people eat it up:
The ball is tipped
And there you are
You’re running for your life
You’re a shooting star
And all the years
No one knows
Just how hard you worked
But now it shows
In one shining moment, it’s all on the line
One shining moment, there frozen in time.
Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the roar of adoring crowds, can feel like we are watching his One Shining Moment. There he is, riding for his life, a shooting star. Like the song says, it’s all on the line—all the years of healing and teaching in Galilee and Judea all the years of learning the real heart of God’s law. Everything about his life and mission culminates with this procession toward the Temple and the halls of power. They don’t cut nets down, but they do cut palm branches down and wave them like crazy. What highlights will we witness, what scenes will we remember and hold onto?
Quite frankly, he’s an unlikely champion to most everyone around him. An underdog from some backwater town in the farther reaches of the empire, he rides to glory and fame on the back of a donkey. It’s a bit of a peculiar and controversial thing to ride on—a beast of burden instead of, say, a white stallion or a war horse with armor. According to some historians, there had been a long debate throughout Israel’s history about the use of horses in the military. There were those who wanted to add them but others said “Nay, Nay,” remembering that horses were what Pharaoh had once chased them with. They transformed a country’s army into something deliberately more offensive, rather than defensive. And so Jesus is clear that he will not be a king on that kind of offense.
Nevertheless, this is his One Shining Moment and people are expecting him to grab the trophy of power in a gesture of authority and control that will put all the nay-sayers in their place. This man is the king. This man is the ruler. This man is the Son of David and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
The issue here, of course, is that we know it doesn’t all go like that. One Shining Moment on Palm Sunday quickly turns into a series of tragically disastrous moments. The vision of victory that Jesus has in mind goes over like a lead balloon. The people expect a kingdom that will be marked by fighting with weapons. He comes to establish a righteousness through words and deeds of love. As a result, he clashes with the religious authorities and then the political authorities. People desert him pretty dramatically. And by the end of the week people will be so mad and disillusioned that I doubt they’ll even remember this bit about the donkey and the palm branches.
I bet we’ve all been thinking a good bit these past few days and weeks about visions of power and embarrassing moments and how we are prone to idolize leaders, particularly political ones. We view them so often through only one particular lens, lifting them up as saviors who can finally get a certain job done only to have them disappoint us time and time again. We wake up too late realizing leaders so often use techniques of manipulation and control, and that they tailor their messages simply in order to increase their grip on power.
And the problem isn’t only them, of course, and all the promises they have to try to keep to all the parties along the way. The problem is also us. We project onto our leaders our dreams and desires, and we hear only the things we want to hear. We get trapped inside of echo chambers of the left and the right that confirm the biases we already have. Maybe Palm Sunday is a big echo chamber, where everyone in the crowd is expecting what they want Jesus to be and refusing to listen to what he’s actually saying.
The version of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem and the events that follow that we will read today come mainly from Luke’s gospel. But in Matthew’s telling of Jesus entrance to Jerusalem, we hear that the whole city was in turmoil. It’s a bit of information that none of the other gospel writers include. The people are “stirred up,” which is another way to translate that Greek word Matthew uses. And I think, how timely! It occurs to me that our own country is in a bit stirred up at the moment, also in regard to one of its leaders. Turmoil happens when people’s dreams are dashed and their anxieties are raised. People get stirred up with worry and fear and anger, especially when pundits and powerbrokers have a vested interest in keeping people outraged.
But in Jesus’ case in Jerusalem, we should take notice of some things about his One Shining Moment even as it goes so far off the rails. Jesus never lashes out at anyone, verbally or physically. He never portrays himself as a victim even as he is led to slaughter. He never claims anything but the best about his opponents, and he never accuses them of weaponizing the government against him. He never cries out against Pontius Pilate even as he knows the justice seems mishandled. And he has no supporters that rally to his side—not a single one.
These events in Jerusalem, one after the other, look like failures of bravery and failures of decisiveness and failure of strategy. And yet they end up showing just how shining this moment really is and how golden and pure God’s grace in him is. Jesus never lets his anger or fear direct his actions. It is all love and compassion and forgiveness. Our sins will kill Jesus and yet he will never say one bad word against us.
What makes the events of this week truly holy is that however badly it goes for him means everything will go well for us. He will become, on the cross, the result of all of humanity’s brokenness. And God will shine the full force of his light and grace on us.
Interestingly enough, Matthew uses this word “stirred up” or “turmoil” only one other time in his telling of the story of Jesus. The first time is when Jesus comes into the city and people are stirred up by their expectations and anxiety. The second time is the moment he breathes his last breath. Matthew reports at that moment the whole earth shakes—it is stirred up, like in a earthquake—and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The curtain in the temple is what symbolically separated the holiest place, the place where God was said to dwell, from everything else. It created this arbitrary barrier between the sacred and the profane. With the death of his Son, it is now God who is creating the turmoil, removing that which separates us from his love.
Jesus’ death is an upset and we all become winners. God stirs up the whole universe, from bottom to top and side to side, bringing everyone together, making us all vessels of grace, instead of spite. No more curtains! No one is going to be left out anymore. God’s great reversal is coming so that God in his grace can enter each and every life…and each and every place…and each and every moment. On and on and on for the rest of all moments.
And not just the shining ones.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.