A Cheering, Chanting, Dizzy Crowd
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday, April 13, 2014
Matthew 21: 7-9 Philippians 2: 5-11
Some of our best theology is found not in textbooks or treatises but in our hymns. The passage I just read from Philippians was a hymn that circulated in the early church, a song that daringly paid homage to Jesus even to the point of imaging “every knee,” including the Roman Emperor’s, bowing down. Was this song whispered in the homes of Christ-followers? Was it ever sung boldly? What would happen if it were overheard?
Hymns are not merely “breaks” in the liturgy, nice music to break up the monotony of words during worship. No! Our hymns convey the diversity of God’s people, help us explore our deepest questions, doubts and fears, and invoke the mystery of the divine at the heart of creation. Our hymns reveal and interrogate; they prod and proclaim.
Do you want to know what the church is all about? Open the hymnal to number 409 and read “God is Here! As we your people meet to offer prayer and praise. Here are symbols to remind us of our lifelong need for grace.” Listen to the Earth itself speak in St. Francis’ hymn of creation, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” Consider what it means to live today as urban people in hymn 351, “All Who Love and Serve Your City” or simply cry out “Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, help me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” Take a hymn like “Joy to the World” that we are used to singing during Christmas, sing it out of season like we did on Epiphany, and discover that it is not really about Christmas at all but is vision of all creation redeemed and restored to Eden’s good purpose.
Our first hymn today, “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” is traditionally sung on Palm Sunday. It is all celebration, full of children’s voices and the triumph of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Here Jesus is the King of Israel, Royal David’s Son, come to his people, high exalted in shout and song as sweet hosannas ring!” It is translated from a much longer Latin poem composed in the ninth century by Theodulf of Orleans, the leading theologian in the court of Charlemagne. So we should not be surprised to find that Theodulf portrays Jesus as the divine model for the earthly king. Or perhaps we might say that Theodulf imagined Jesus through his experience of Charlemagne’s royal welcome and power. And this is the trickiness of Palm Sunday. For there is a short and slippery slope between proclaiming Jesus as king and glorifying any reining power. It is far too easy for us to get swept up in the excitement, the surge of the crowd, we cry “Hosanna!” We wave, our breasts swell with the victorious reign that Jesus will establish.
Indeed my wife Noelle once wrote that
Our Palm Sunday liturgy lures us into participation in order to condemn us. For it is our very “Hosannas!” that are truly our first words of betrayal of the Jesus we claim to love. When we sang and marched and blessed the palms, we were initiating ourselves into a divine reenactment, a remembrance of our own betrayal of Jesus. Our liturgy glorifies the grand mistake. Our shouts of hosanna, proclaim Jesus as the King that he is not. [Jesus is not Charlemagne. Jesus is not Caesar. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem as the conquering hero.] This Sunday is called both Palm and Passion Sunday to remind us of how deaf we are to the non-violent message of a humble leader who announces shalom, a just peace to the world. And we are reminded of how, when the Jesus of scripture fails to meet our criteria of what is rational, pragmatic, or fair, when he tells us to love our enemies, when he tells us that the one who would be greatest must be the slave of all, when he turns the other cheek, that our response is to turn away by either trivializing his call or by warping Jesus’ message into our own agenda.
I was struck speechless on Tuesday as I was preparing for worship today. I had set aside a new hymn, the one we will sing in a few moments called “A Cheering, Chanting Dizzy Crowd.” I like Tom Troeger’s hymns. I have used his texts for sermons on a number of occasions. The sermon I preached on his hymn “Silence Frenzied Unclean Spirit,” is one of the most popular posts my blog. On Tuesday when I read again the first line of the hymn I got no further than
The cheering, chanting, dizzy crowd it stripped the green trees bare,
And hailing Christ as king aloud, waved branches in the air.
You see, I had just finished watching the first episode of the new miniseries and climate change. Called, “Years of Living Dangerously,” it was produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger with an All-Star cast to explain what climate change means for human beings. Just prior to reading Tom’s hymn, I had flown over Indonesia with Harrison Ford to witness the stripping and the wholesale burning of old-growth forest, so the forest could be replaced by palm trees. Palm oil is one of the most in-demand products on the market today, found in everything from soaps and shampoos to foods.
With that image of devastation fresh in my mind, I zeroed in on the line
the cheering, chanting, dizzy crowd it stripped the green trees bare.
The destruction of excited crowds; the stripping of the trees for a moment of celebration. I could not help but think of the long theological tradition that focuses exclusively on people: that Jesus came to save human beings, not, as the Bible says, all creation.
For many generations our celebration of Palm Sunday has been a driving force for poor communities elsewhere in the world to rapidly strip bare their trees in order to supply our annual celebration here in the US. Typically workers, paid a pittance, are instructed to harvest as much as possible – not as much as is sustainable. After all, the product is only used on this one day – then churches throw them away (or burn them for ashes or bend them into crosses) – but there’s a once a year window to get millions of pounds of palms shipped from one part of the earth to another so we can wave them in worship. People’s poverty and the destruction of trees have for too long been the result of our mindless Palm Sunday celebrations. This is no way to welcome Jesus.
That’s why for the past few years our congregation has been purchasing eco-palms, harvested in sustainable, careful ways by people who are paid a fair wage. You can read more about these palms online. Does purchasing sustainable palms deal with the systemic problems of climate change or deforestation? No. But it is a step forward that helps communities preserve their trees and earn a decent wage for their families, while reminding us that what we do in our liturgy and in our lives has repercussions around the world.
This Palm Sunday is neither about despair nor about making everything better. That’s way too easy and neither are the gospel message. Palm/Passion Sunday is about being able to sit squarely within the broken relationships between people and between people and the planet, to begin to see how easily we too can be seduced into complicity – even in our liturgy – and to ask the hard questions of ourselves and of one another; questions like: if the crowds following Jesus got it wrong, how and when are we like the crowds? How might we use this opportunity to nourish a more complex faith, one that questions as much as it cheers; one that remembers not only our neighbors beside us, but our neighbors around the world; a faith that explores what it means that God came to redeem not only humanity but all of creation.
They laid their garments in the road and spread his path with palms
and vows of lasting love bestowed with royal hymns and psalms.
When day dimmed down to deepening dark the crowd began to fade
till only trampled leaves and bark were left from the parade.
As we enter into Holy Week, let us enter cognizant of how our betrayal begins with the call of Hosanna. Let us enter prepared to have our visions of who Jesus is and how God acts challenged so that they can be reborn. Let us enter as Jesus did, humbly, riding on a colt. Let us follow him to the Passover table. Let us try to pray in the garden. Let us have the courage to follow him to the cross, even if we be like the women who stood at a distance. This Holy Week, may we face our fear of going against the crowd, of our desire to be accepted by society, of our insatiable drive for security over peace. May we confront these hosanna-like claims that shut the true and living God out of our lives, so that God can speak to us anew. May our liturgical remembering transform our palms into crosses. May our liturgical remembering transform our lives until we can understand that we walk with Jesus to the cross, that we might experience his new life on Easter morning.
Lest we be fooled because our hearts have surged with passing praise,
Remind us, God, as this week starts where Christ has fixed his gaze.
Instead of palms, a winding sheet will have to be unrolled,
A carpet much more fit to greet the king a cross will hold.
 Years of Living Dangerously premiered on Showtime this Sunday and will run for nine weeks (Sunday evenings at 10:00). The first episode is available free on youtube. In conjunction with 350.org our congregation hosted a “watch-Party” in the sanctuary and invited our neighbors to watch this show with us and think about what it is calling us to do.