Rev. Danielle K Bartz April 2, 2023
Matthew 21:1-11 “Seeking: Where Are You Headed?”
Imagine this scene. At the gate to Jerusalem enters Pilate with all the typical trappings of power of the time. Riding on a war horse, with banners waving and trumpets sounding. Roman soldiers flocking him in columns with weapons, armor, and helmets. It would be a grand sight, no matter the crowd’s opinion of the Imperial rule they were stuck under.
Then, at a gate on the other side of the city, enters Jesus. Likely dusty and dirty from his weeks of travel. He did not ride in on a large war horse, but rather a nursing donkey, with her little colt trotting alongside her. Not flocked by columns of soldiers to protect him from whatever powers strived to destroy him, instead, he enters with a rag-tag group of disciples, equally dirty and dusty. It would not have been a grand sight. Likely, people would not have even noticed a band of travelers coming to the city with the droves of people there to celebrate Passover.
But, Jesus had amassed a following of people. People who were eager to hear the Good News he was sharing. The Good News that the power of a few over that of others is not of God. No, Jesus brought the message that God’s favor rests with the poor, the outcast, those whose lives in the margin of society were deemed to be below notice except for their ability to be held down to lift up the rich and powerful. And, along with his message of God’s grace and love, he brought with him the stories of miracles and healings. Of feeding thousands and raising the dead. Of restoring sight to the blind, and making the lame walk again. And, despite his questionable behavior along the way, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, touching the lepers and the unclean, people chose to mark his entry into Jerusalem as that of a king. An entrance that riveled Pilate’s.
Those two entries into the holy city stand in stark contrast to one another. One brought with him the evidence of earthly, human, time-limited power. Pilate brought with him the power to maintain the status quo – using fear and intimidation, bribery and execution, money and authority – all of that to keep people right where they were. As second class, as less than, as subjects of the Roman Empire, unequal and unworthy of more than derision and ridicule.
Entering in direct opposition to that, comes Jesus. Who brings with him the power that rested simply and solely in God’s all-inclusive, uncompromising love and grace. Jesus brought with him not a message of the status quo but rather the message that what is shall not always be.
And at that moment, the people rejoiced. They treated him like a king – the long-promised king of the Jews. The king who they thought would rule, perhaps even with the sword. The king who would take back the power from the Roman Empire, using whatever means necessary. They had chosen to only selectively listen to what Jesus taught, choosing not to pay attention to his teachings about turning swords into plow shares, that as God’s chosen son he was not the earthly king of the Jews, but instead the hands, feet, and voice of God.
But, none of that mattered. He had made it to Jerusalem. And now, everyone thought, things would be different. But Jesus knew the truth. He knew that his message of peace would unnerve people, even the people who needed to hear it the most. He knew that the powers of human fear and hatred were incredibly powerful. He knew what waited for him on the other side of those gates. He had been teaching it all along. Over and over again he reminded his followers that he would not always be with them, he told them, over and over again, that his time with them was short, so they needed to pay attention. Jesus knew what waited for him on the other side of those gates, but he went through them anyway.
He knew the power of Pilate and the Roman Empire, that their system of oppression was the only thing the people understood. Jesus knew that, when faced with the ultimate decision to put trust in God, or to put their trust in wealth and earthly authority, most people would choose what they knew. People would choose the status quo. But he went through the gates anyway.
Jesus knew that the fears of the people, even his most devout followers, would turn their devotion into betrayal and persecution. He knew that his message of God’s love for all of Creation, even those who looked and thought and acted differently, made people too uncomfortable. They wanted God’s favor, but had such a limited understanding of that favor that they worried if it was shared by everyone, there would not be enough. Jesus knew the fears he was trying to change were powerful, but he went through the gates anyway.
Jesus knew what waited for him in Jerusalem. He knew how quickly people could and would turn on him. He understood their doubts, he had been speaking to them all along. He knew his message was so contrary to the way the world functioned that people would doubt it was possible so much that they would decide to hate the message, and the one who brought it. Jesus knew what waited for him, but he went through the gates anyway.
Why? Because it was finished yet. His message wasn’t finished. His ministry wasn’t finished. His purpose wasn’t finished. He preached an upending of Empire and the coming of God’s Kingdom. But those words meant nothing if he did not preach them in the midst of that power. He had been bringing this message directly to the poor. Directly to the people who had been trampled on and left behind. But, now he needed to bring that message to the people who established that power, who used it for their own direct benefit. He was bringing his message of peace and justice directly to those who needed to hear it the most, and who had the most to lose. And when he didn’t act like the people wanted him too, act like the authority they had grown to understand, taking from one to give to the other, their cries of Hosanna turned to cries for crucifixion. But he went through the gates anyway.
We all approach gates, moments, decisions. We all approach a time when we must decide to speak up and reach out. To speak of justice in the face of persecution, to speak love in the face of hate, to stand for God, no matter the consequences. And these gates in our lives, these moments of choice – they come all the time. Because we are faced with persecution, discrimination, hate, fear, prejudice, and empire – every day. And, sometimes, we know, that when we speak up and carry our message of love and grace to the face of power, the crowds will turn. Even if they are originally cheering us on, if we continue to be uncompromising in our message, our message of God’s Kingdom here amongst us, we know sometimes their cheers will turn and they will seek to silence that message which upends everything. But, we are to go through the gates anyway.
On this Palm Sunday, let us the consider the gates we must go through. Let us consider the ones we are still standing on the threshold of, fearful of what might lie on the other side. Let us consider our own gates to what is next and, just as the greatest teacher of our faith did, trust that God will always say yes, even when the world says no. Amen.
Loving God, today we join with many millions of other Christians worldwide to sing the praises of Jesus as he enters Jerusalem in a triumphant processional. We echo the hosannas of his first followers, we proclaim him as king, we hail him as our redeemer. We are grateful for his presence in the world, and it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, we pray that as we enter this Holy Week we will remain open the entirety of the story that lies ahead. We pray for the joy of this day to linger. We pray for the bravery to withstand the trials that are to come. We pray for your presence as we experience grief for a world that silences the voices of hope. And we pray, that this week closes and the next begins, that we will once again find the joy of what it means to be Easter people.
God, even as we pray for ourselves, we lift to you the prayers we have for those who are entering this week with heavy burdens. In these moments of silence, we open our hearts and spirits to you, trusting that you hear and respond to our deepest prayers…
We pray, O God, that for all of us Holy Week may be above all else holy, and that Easter again may really be Easter. We ask it in the name of him who comes to the holy city as peaceful guide and leader, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Now as Jesus taught, we join together in prayer, saying, Our Father….