Giving Up Popularity: Sermon by Laura, 4.13.14 Palm-Passion A

Scriptures: Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew 27:15-25

Some weeks ago, Lucas came home from kindergarten visibly frustrated. On his bus ride, a girl who is usually one of his friends had allied herself with another kid, and they were singing, loudly and repeatedly, the popular song “Let it Go.” Have you heard this song? It’s the Oscar-winning “power anthem” from the Disney movie Frozen; the character Elsa sings it as she’s “letting go” of conforming to the repressive expectations of others, and releasing her powers to create an ice castle. In a sense, Elsa “gives up popularity” as she claims her identity.

But Lucas had never heard this song, because Keith and I limit his “screen” time and are often ourselves unaware of pop culture. So, as his friends sang a song they knew and he didn’t, they seemed to be enjoying the power of popularity, and he felt like the odd one out. So he started singing one of his favorite songs back at them:

“There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John,
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, I am one and you!
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, we His work must do!”

I tell this story with Lucas’ permission, because it illustrates some dynamics of “popularity.” Lucas and his peers are kindergartners, but already they have entered the serious challenges of a social world in which, moment to moment, shifting power dynamics sort people into the categories of “in” or “out.”

Hearing his story took me straight back to my school years. They are so often a crucible of popularity issues, as rapidly developing youth are beset by the questions of identity and belonging. As a pastor’s kid myself, I regularly felt like the “odd one out,” engaged in activities unchurched peers didn’t understand.

Remembering that loneliness as Lucas told his story, I felt torn. Maybe I should expose Lucas to more popular culture to make it easier for him to fit in with other kids? Or maybe I ought to simply marvel at my 6-year-old, who had the courage to sing a song identifying him, over and against popular culture, as belonging with a particular company of people, the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Because the truth is, discipleship of Jesus the Christ will probably not increase Lucas’ “cool” quotient among his peers as he grows. It means spending time doing things which are less and less a part of America’s popular culture. Frankly, just showing up at Sunday morning worship these days marks all of us here out as “odd.”

And on Palm Sunday, church people engage in especially strange behavior. Think about it. At the beginning of worship, we picked up palm fronds—we in La Grande, Oregon, a long way from where palms grow!—and we marched around singing “the king of glory comes, the nation rejoices.” It’s a once-a-year celebration, in which we put ourselves in the places of people whose symbolic action had extraordinary meaning in an ancient culture far removed from ours in time and space.

But I think the first Palm Sunday was an even odder happening that ours today. We call it Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, and it’s often been portrayed as a spontaneous event in which the whole city drops gives Jesus a royal welcome, in which he is popularly recognized as Messiah. I think we get this picture from Luke’s gospel, where Jesus says that if the people were silent, the stones would shout.

But Matthew’s narrative omits that piece, and I think the recognition of Jesus is less clear. There seem to be two groups present, the “crowd” and “the city.” One commentator notes, “The crowds function as a character in Matthew, as disciples en masse.”[1] It may be that this crowd includes folks who began gathering around Jesus at the beginning of his ministry; who listened to his Sermon on the Mount, and who were amazed at his authority to heal and cast out demons.

These are people who are primed and ready, to recognize Jesus as the “Son of David,” Matthew’s key words for the popular messianic expectations. The way Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of Passover week is absolutely deliberate. He is not dragged there passively, and he could have chosen to enter on foot, like any other pilgrim.

Instead, what he does is less a spontaneous parade and more a carefully planned “street theater,” designed to send a specific message and provoke a certain response. He begins the procession from the Mount of Olives, the location the Messiah was traditionally expected to appear. He chooses to ride a donkey and colt prearranged at a nearby village; such a steed sends a particular message about the kind of power Jesus as Messiah claims—it’s not a warhorse.

Matthew notes that Jesus is also fulfilling Hebrew prophecy:  “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.” It is an action designed to display the continuities between Jesus and the whole of scripture. For those with eyes to see, Jesus clearly proclaims that he is not the odd one out but one who integrally fits in the story of God’s chosen people, one who fulfills the vast, cosmic unfolding of God’s saving grace in history.

It seems “the crowd” enthusiastically picks up on these signs. “Hosanna!” they shout, which means “Save us!” but which is also an exaltation of praise for a royal figure. But the other group present, “the city,” is stirred up at this odd scene, “in turmoil,” the text says, using a word that elsewhere in Matthew refers to the shaking of an earthquake. He may be popular among the rag-tag crowds, but the city does not know Jesus, and they ask, “Who is this?”

The tension which will build throughout of Holy Week starts here. This central question is asked over and over again, and decisions are made. We know how quickly Jesus’ popularity will fall; when given the chance to release him, the crowd, influenced by religious leaders who oppose Jesus, will reject him in favor of Barabbas, who the text says is “notorious,” reminding us how dubious a quality “popularity” can be.  Jesus will go, with nary a word in his own defense, to the cross.

Can you imagine the loneliness of riding through that cheering crowd, knowing that even his closest friends will betray and desert him when he’s arrested? I think we do know those feelings from our own journeys, so I think we can we appreciate his courage and faithfulness. He remains steadfast in the seductions of the crowd’s adulation.

Palm Sunday is like “the Temptation Part 2.” Jesus made one choice to give up popularity back when the devil tempted him with the splendor of worldly kingdoms. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him,” Jesus replied, and in the moment of entering Jerusalem, he chooses again. He chooses the passion of God over popularity.

Holy Week is known as Passion Week. The Passion of God is the Passion of Jesus. The word “passion” comes from the Latin, meaning “to suffer.”  The good news of Palm Sunday is the good news of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the good news of the entire story of God who creates in a desire for love, who repeatedly suffers the betrayal of the beloved, and who ultimately chooses to be “overcome by love” in order to bring us—God’s beloved ones—back into loving relationship.[2] Our God is a God of passionate love, a love which defies all the world’s wisdom and propriety, a God who suffers not because of out-of-control emotions, “but because true love inspires willing sacrifice.”[3]

In the entire course of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we see the One who was in the form of God emptying himself to walk this earth as a human being, choosing to face and absorb the hard realities of human violence, pride, and frailty. Jesus loves, forgives, and stays by our side, overcoming the power of fear, sin, and death, so that we may return to the true communion with the God who passionately longs for us. One author writes, “His passion is not sentimental, but fierce. It goes all the way.”[4]

In Jesus’ passion and compassion, his suffering for us and with us, we know that we are never alone. Any “lonesome valleys” we must walk, whether physical pain, separation from loved ones, the pain of leading in unpopular situations, we know that Jesus has already been there, and Jesus walks those roads at our side, giving us the comfort of companionship and the power to bear on through the pain.[5]

So if you felt odd waving your palm branches today, I invite you to welcome that oddity. It may not make you popular, but it puts you in the company of those who have chosen to center their lives, not in the fluctuating opinions and gossip of the crowds, but in the fierce and steadfast passion of God. We wave these palms today because we recognize Jesus as “the king of glory” and the Lord of our lives. Following him, seeking to walk in his ways, we are also called to receive God’s passion for us as we live in compassion for others. We give up popularity as we accept the invitation to an odd and holy life which imitates and participates in the passionate, life and death commitment of God in Jesus Christ. It is not an easy, but when you feel like the odd one out, remember that he chooses to be with you, passionately giving himself to be on this strange and winding journey with humanity. He will never forsake us.

May we trust and give ourselves over to the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[1] Audrey West, Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 21:1-11, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 153-155.

[2] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion, Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans, 2004, 18.

[3] Dean, Ibid, 21.

[4] Sara Miles, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110411JJ.shtml

[5] K.C. Ptomey, http://www.fpcnyc.org/media/sermons-pdf/2009/090405.pdf

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