Prophetic Palms

In Sermons Kyndall by Covenant Baptist


A Sermon for Covenant
Prophetic Palms

Matthew 21:1-11
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
April 13, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)

Generally speaking, we don’t do much crystal-ball gazing around here, but every year in the Christian tradition, we read palms. This is Palm Sunday, and we believe these branches have something to teach us. Every year we read these palms to learn their lessons.

We believe they have something to tell us about who Jesus is. We believe they have something to predict: both about the tragedy that is to follow and also about the new life and the new kingdom to come. We believe these are the branches that are not just branches but the choir that sings Hosanna. We believe these branches signify something important about the people who wave them, that they are the ones who see a Truth the rest of the world still misses.

Palm Sunday always feel to me like an absurdity, like nonsense. How can it be that this spontaneous, explosive, street celebration is the event that precedes Holy Week? How can this be the thing that leads to Golgotha? It is always a question in my mind, “Is this Hosanna-crying crew the same crowd that in a few short days will yell, ‘Crucify him!” with equal fervor? Or is it two different groups?”

I can’t be sure, but all we know is that for this moment in time, they get it, and they are unreserved in their proclamation. Granted, he may not meet end up being king in exactly the way they anticipate, but for now they see as clearly as they can see, and in response they cry, “Hosanna!”

I think what matters here is that the street people know what’s up and the religious folks do not. When Jesus arrives, the city is in turmoil, saying “Who is this?” and a little while later we will find the religious authorities all flustered, asking him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” but the crowd says with confidence, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee!” Somehow, they know him.

In another text in Matthew, Jesus says one day some will say to him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you? When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? Lord, when was it that we saw you?” And the point is that he was there, but they did not see. And scarily, people will be divided into two: those who see and those who cannot see.

In this text, the crowd sees, but others see only a criminal threat to be crucified. The truth about Jesus is in the people, the riff-raff, the common folk, and that is just a little too surprising for the religious ones to accept. Considering the fact that in this day and time, you and I are the religious ones, I think this text is asking us to put our ears to the streets and listen. What are the people crying that we are liable to try and shut down?

I think about this in terms of my own recent adventures participating in slam poetry, which is a rather rowdy and rambunctious form of what you might call street poetry for the common folk, and while it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, for me, I see gold there. Sure the volume is often cranked all the way to angry and you may have to sift through some excess cursing and incomplete thoughts and the occasional bad rhyme, but beyond all that are these nuggets of wisdom that cause you to marvel at the tenacity of the human soul and the passion of the human heart. It is amazing the truth you can hear from tongue-loose youth.

So when the crowds cry, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” I hear street poetry that alarms the tight-laced clergy. I hear prophets-in-mass that no one expected. I hear a movement being birthed—they know who Jesus is—but those with power want to abort that passion before it can thrive. I hear the world coming undone in the mouths of children and the wave of a branch. I see people lining the road with eyes aglow and hearts alive.

Turns out people in the street have something worth saying. They can see what we cannot. Will we listen to their voices?

It’s risky business to walk down the street with your ears open and your eyes wide awake. You might bump into Jesus there, and then (oh my!) he might ask if you’ll follow him.

Speaking of streets, just as much as anybody here, I hate the fact that the precious trees beside our church were torn down last week; that now, from our windows, you can see the road where before you only saw a wall of oak and cedar. I’m not ready to find any good in the death of those trees. But I can only guess that the fact that we can see the street is probably meant to mess up our rhythm and force us to find God in a whole new way. We mustn’t sink down into the religious type that only sees God on our terms in our own place. God is everywhere, everywhere, and everywhere that we go, God is sure to go too. As Cynthia once told the children, everywhere your feet go, your hands go too, and that is how God is. Everywhere you go, Grace follows.

The truth is that I sometimes do find more of God on a playground than I do in a church. So which is it? Is the sacred out there or is the sacred in here?

It’s both.

I used to think I lived inside this big fence that God had built for my safety, and my job was to stay inside, with him. But once I climbed the fence, I found God was also on the other side of the fence. I found God was not so much a geographical location on a map that I better not stray from; rather God was the gravity that held onto me wherever, wherever I went, and the more places I went, the more I understood God’s bigness.

I find I am the type who lives with one foot in the institutional church and one foot out, and maybe this is just my own preference talking, but I can’t help but wonder if that is how is supposed to be. We pilgrimage out into the world and discover God there; then we journey back home and find God waiting for us here. We labyrinth-weave our way out and then in, never truly disconnected from the center. We search and we return. We voyage out and explore the world. We pull back into the harbor and rest. We fight the tradition. We embrace the tradition. Push. Pull. Push. Pull. This does not mean we are flaky. This means we are in relationship to it.

I so deeply sympathize with the people who leave the church that I sometimes want to join them and say goodbye to this messy thing we call the body of Christ, but something always draws me back. Sometimes it is God who draws me back. Sometimes is this plot of land. Sometimes it is your faces. Sometimes it is because the theology of the incarnation is so compelling I have to keep asking it my questions. Sometimes it is because I remember that I’ve been at this faith long enough that I wear Scripture the way some people wear tattoos—couldn’t scrub those words off me if I wanted to. They are on me like skin, so inked into my vocabulary that they shape my daily thoughts. Sometimes I come back just because I think long-term commitment is worth the risk.

This is faith for me: I am tugged out. I am tugged back in. Sometimes this feels like tug-of-war, and I am the rope. Sometimes this feels like being alive. The more I let myself ride the ebb and flow tidal wave, the more I think back-and-forth is a necessary way to live.

My point is: You’ve got to get out on the streets to see who Jesus is. You’ve got to stand with people who scream and wave branches and carelessly throw their cloaks on the street for borrowed donkeys. You’ve got to sit there and marvel at things that are weird and unexpected and nothing like anything you’ve ever heard before. You’ve got to let your jaw drop open and with it your heart unclenching as well.

If we stay put in our pews, we witness very little miracle. If we run around throwing spice in graveyards, we might stumble into resurrection. I recently heard Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and the founder of Thistle Farms and the Magdalene House, say to a crowd of church-goers, “I’m tired of playing church, ya’ll.” Her innovative approach to helping women transition from prostitution and trafficking into the workforce is being recognized all over the nation for its effectiveness, and according to her, the resurrection she encounters working with these women is real enough to make you believe in God again. Here is a gal with one foot in and one foot out; or maybe it is more accurate to say she takes the church with her when she enters the world, or maybe it is better to say she brings the Jesus she finds in those struggling women’s eyes back into the church. Either way, she causes a collision between street and sacred, and this is exactly as it should be.

If Palm Sunday teaches us anything it is that Jesus is King out on the streets, right in the places where it makes religious authorities feel uptight, where it feels too out-of-control, and under-informed and impossible to contain. God is there, lurking in every face and every silent stone, a symphony of grace just waiting for someone to pause and listen.

May the palms this Sunday wave us on out the door and into the world of God’s own design. May they point us to the people who know what Jesus looks like; may they point us to the Love that is Jesus. May we read the message of the palms, catch the infection of their enthusiasm, hit the streets and join their song. Amen.