1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately. " 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5"Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowdspread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
About a month ago our session elders began to have a conversation along the lines of “what if”. What if this pandemic is still going on when Holy Week arrives? “What if” we can’t be together? “What if” we can’t have communion? And now these “What ifs” have been confirmed: we will not be able to physically be together for the most spiritually significant week of our church year. I knew I would feel a good bit of disappointment over this, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would miss not being with you all on this Sunday, Palm Sunday, in particular.
What you may not be aware of, even if you are a lifelong member of First Presbyterian in Auburn, is that every Palm Sunday before that opening processional, behind the scenes in the narthex it is chaos. This is because every Palm Sunday, like many churches, it is our tradition to line up all the children from the small to the tall and (at the last possible moment) hand them a palm branch - the handoff comes with instructions that sound a lot like: Keep your palm to yourself! Do NOT hit your neighbor with your palm! Hold your palm behind your back. It’s a moment that every year I both love and dread.
Jabbing and slapping and giggling and threatening happens in a quick fury until, after what seems like an eternity to the adults, the organ sounds, the doors swing open, and all the congregation (hopefully) sees is these angelic little children in an orderly line making their way to the chancel, waving their palms and shouting, “Hosanna!”
So when I realized that there would be no palms this year, my first instinct was to find a way for us to virtually recreate it, which many churches are doing this year. Have kids make their palm branches at home, video tape them shouting “Hosanna”, splice the recordings into one and make ourselves a procession and I nearly almost started in on that project until I went back and I did a close reading of today’s text in Matthew’s gospel and I noticed something I never had before: there are no palms in this Palm Sunday text.
If you have your bible handy you can go back and read for yourself - Matthew 21:1-11. There are no palms. While a large crowd cuts branches from trees and lays them in the road, there is never a single mention of palms being waved in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
So what I wonder, this year, is if instead of letting our disappointment get the better of us — the very real grief we are experiencing over traditions that have to be set aside — is if maybe we are being called to lay our expectations aside so the Holy Spirit can help us see and hear things in these Holy Week stories we have never noticed before.
The crowds that gathered on the first Palm Sunday knew a whole lot about shifting expectations. Their entire lives and for generations before them they’d be waiting on a king. “Hosanna” in Hebrew translates something along the lines of “Save us!” or “Rescue us!” and they had some ideas about what the one with the power to “save them” from the clenches of the Roman Empire would look like.
The one with the power to “Hosanna!” would have to be a king like none other - commanding, powerful, wealthy, strong, perhaps he would ride in on a stallion crowned with gold and jewels. He would confront his enemies and not take no for an answer. This is who could save them - this is who could be their messiah. Who else could be able to “Hosanna”, “rescue us” from such powerful forces?
But as we know, from the moment Jesus entered this world as a vulnerable infant, son of a carpenter and a young woman named Mary, born in a stable and raised among everyday people — expectations surrounding the “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” were being turned on their heads. And what they would soon find out is that even their expectations of “Hosanna!” - “save us” would have to be laid down.
The procession of Jesus into Jerusalem is a reflection of what this Holy Week is all about: not our earthly expectations but the reality of a savior who has always gone about his work in unexpected ways. And on that first Palm Sunday the crowds had two choices before them: they could have looked at that carpenter’s son riding on a donkey: no riches, no weapons, not even any palms and said, “That’s not a king!”
In their disappointment, they could have turned and walked away from him.
Or they could choose to be open to what Jesus was doing right in front them. And even though the scene playing out was unprecedented and perhaps even scary, for some - their eyes and their hearts were able to take in the power of God’s presence in their midst. And their response became, “"Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The one who has come to save us is here.
The king, as the prophet Zechariah had said he would, entered on a donkey.
The king, as Paul would later write in his letter to the Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5).
The king was selfless, patient, and present with the people in their distress.
Each week that this pandemic continues the list of expectations we are having to set aside grows longer. Graduation ceremonies. Wedding celebrations, even funeral gatherings, anniversary plans, birthday parties, travels we’ve been looking forward to for ages. And in many instances the relinquishing of expectations isn’t just disappointment it is true, deep grief. And the same may be true for you of this Holy Week - the worship that anchors us in these final steps toward the empty tomb will not look the same this year. No palms. No communion. No Baird Hall brunch or egg hunt. No hugs or handshakes or even fist bumps.
And it’s OK for us to sit in that grief for awhile - because it is real.
This year, the call of, “Hosanna!” is coming out as less of a joyful shout and instead a lot closer to the Psalmist’s cry, its original tone of: “Save us!”, “Rescue us, O Lord!”
Still, let me offer this - not to shortchange that grief but to help us find a way forward through it. Even though we are not together this year to wave palms together: Jesus hears our “Hosannas”.
And this year his procession might not be down the center aisle of the church, but instead it’s through the halls of intensive care units and emergency rooms. Jesus is processing alongside grocery and sanitation workers. He is sitting beside anyone isolated and grieving right now. He’s processing with every graduate not getting walk and every teacher who did not get to say goodbye. Jesus is processing in every single act of service and generosity.
So this year we can still join the Palm Sunday procession. And what that looks like is instead of thinking, “It’s just not Palm Sunday without palms.” We join the procession by lifting prayers of “Hosanna” - “rescue us” - on behalf of those who are suffering. The ones whose lives and livelihoods are not sustainable in these conditions. The ones who faithfully show up to work each day to provide basic necessities like healthcare and food for all of us. Joining the procession looks like letting our neighbors know they’re not alone.
Joining this Palm Sunday procession doesn’t mean we have to deny our grief over what we hoped would be. But my guess is that if we can find it within ourselves lay down some expectations we will quickly discover how our servant Lord is moving among us in ways we’ve never noticed before. And when we do, we might just find ourselves overcome with the same wonder and awe that first Palm Sunday crowd experienced when they cried out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!”
May it be so. Amen.