God Is In Every Detail
I have always loved Palm Sunday. Some of my earliest memories are in the church kitchen with my grandmother making palm crosses, with the great bunches of stripped palms sitting in pots of water all around. Palm Sunday was usually the first day in extreme Northern New York that my mother would let me wear my black patent leather Mary Janes, and the little white gloves with a pearl button at the wrist, instead of my snow boots, winter coat and mittens. To tell you the truth, it was usually still way too cold in Watertown to wear these special things before June or so, but I was always too eager to care that I was freezing. Palm Sunday was a celebration — with palm-waving glory, laud, and honor after the more sober time of Lent.
Granted, that’s a child’s view. But how many of you have memories of Palm Sunday as a little lift in the mood after 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness? If you do, it makes perfect scriptural and liturgical sense. Remember our liturgy of the palms at the beginning of the service. The whole passage from Mark’s gospel is about celebration — a detailed description of the preparation for a big parade, with four whole lines devoted to what people shouted along the parade route:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
There’s only one line in the whole reading that is not about getting ready and then dancing it out the whole way down the Mount of Olives.
Sunday of the Passion
But on Palm Sunday, we also read the Passion, ending with Jesus’ crucifixion on Golgotha. It’s searingly, wrenchingly painful and deeply unjust — the governmentally approved torture and execution of an innocent man whom we come to understand is God incarnate. The Passion narrative reading overwhelms us with horror — fear, pity, maybe anger too — if fear doesn’t get the best of us.
All Saints’, our old church in downtown Atlanta, is home to a large congregation that includes intown dwellers and people from all over the metro area, as well as some of Atlanta’s considerable homeless population. I remember one Palm Sunday in the late 1980s when a homeless woman in the congregation was overcome with emotion at Jesus’ death on the cross in the darkened church. She cried out, shrieking and weeping at the end of the dramatic reading of the Passion, as one of the clergy helped her to the narthex where she was comforted by the usher team. Yes, she probably had a mental illness. But her response was also completely appropriate to the abject horror of the crucifixion.
Palm Sunday Parade
So why do we think of Palm Sunday as a celebration? And why does our Palm Sunday liturgy remind us that it’s all about the parade and hosannas, and then break our hearts with the crucifixion? Maybe we’re like the disciples and the crowd in Bethany and Bethphage — all caught up in the busy-ness of getting ready for the parade: finding the right donkey, cutting leafy branches to wave along the way, and warming up for our hosannas. There’s another reason why our Palm Sunday worship includes both ends of Jesus’ experience. Palm Sunday sets the stage for Holy Week, previewing the events as they’ll unfold, letting us share the disciples’ experience of hope and excitement, followed by conflict, fear, betrayal, injustice, and violence that ends in the darkness of the tomb.
ALL of that is part of Palm Sunday. In fact, Palm Sunday may be the container we need to hold all that messy preparation, anticipation, joy, fear, horror, and sorrow together in one moment, so that it doesn’t all spill out early before we’ve had time to process the whole story in real emotional time. I think we can find our place in the story more easily this year of pandemic — and understand a little better why we need work, celebration, fear, and grief all together on this day.
In our first Sunday together — in person, in the church — after a whole year, we’re ready for a parade! I would have had a whole team of donkeys in the procession today — plus a camel — if only we could have figured out a way to keep their face masks on! And if you’ve been around Emmanuel for the past several weeks, you know the endless mundane detail of making this Palm Sunday happen. And that’s what God’s work looks like. That’s what it means to be a disciple. Everything’s at stake — we can tell that by Jesus’ crucifixion. He was willing to die for his absolute integrity.
And the kingdom of God is worth every parade and hosanna we can muster, even though serving as Jesus’ advance team is hard and unglamorous work. Homiletics professor Tom Long writes of the delicious irony of the disciples’ work as they get ready for very public and glorious day of Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem with joyous hosannas. They find themselves engaged in a completely unromantic form of ministry, mucking around a stable looking like a bunch of horse thieves, trying to convince an untrained donkey colt to walk down a steep, winding, narrow road of slippery white limestone — while people wave leafy branches in front of its face, yelling hosanna and throwing coats. For this they left their fishing nets?
But this is what it takes to prepare the way of the Lord. It’s not all — or even mostly — glory, but preparing the Lord’s way is everything that matters about life itself. There is no detail too small or mundane in advancing God’s loving purpose, and it’s all wholly holy. Here, now, always, as T.S Eliot wrote — A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything).
God is in every detail, and there is plenty to do so that each of us has a part in the miracle. Palm Sunday teaches us that by holding joy, pain, sorrow, injustice, power, and courage together in one space, and reminding us that it’s always time for celebration. And that means preparing the Lord’s way while reasoning with grumpy donkeys. Amen