On Sunday we will celebrate what is often called Palm Sunday, the day we wave palm branches and celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. I loved Palm Sunday when I was younger because we used real palm branches – the ones with one long stem down the middle and lots of fronds coming out the sides. They were great to wave. They actually made the air move when you waved them.
Unfortunately, these days those palms are really expensive. So now we still use real palms, but they’re the long, thin kind with just one green frond – not so much fun to wave, but they can be folded and tied into great crosses.
I suppose it’s a trade off – cool dried palm crosses instead of enthusiastic live palm waving. An appropriate trade off I guess, since I’m supposed to be a dignified United Methodist pastor and all my enthusiastic palm-waving has tended to make some of the people in my congregations over the years a bit nervous.
I still love Palm Sunday, but now it’s because it reminds me of the choices that lie at the heart of faith. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth: a week filled with choices.
It can make us uncomfortable to focus on this last week. It’s easier (and more fun) to jump right from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that would be to rush through the very part of the story the Gospels take the slowest. One-third of the entire Gospel of John is devoted to the events of this one week. That ought to give us a clue as to how important it is.
The last week of Jesus’ life was a week of choices. The day Jesus entered Jerusalem, each person in the crowd had a choice. To wave or not to wave, that was the question. Do I wave my palm branch enthusiastically? Do I let everyone around me know I’m with this Jesus guy? Or do I stand in the background, checking things out, waiting to see what happens next?
With each passing day of that crucial week, the religious leaders’ choices became more and more distinct. Do we entertain the possibility that Jesus may be right? That God’s kingdom might really be at hand? Do we take the idea seriously that the way he lived and taught during the three years we’ve watched him – touching the untouchable, loving the unlovable, reaching out to the poor and the outcast, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, empowering the powerless – might actually be the embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth? Do we risk losing our own power by aligning ourselves with this man who has the audacity to claim to be the Messiah?
By Thursday, the disciples all had choices too. Do we stick with Jesus or sell him out? Do we fall asleep while Jesus goes through the agony of knowing he’s about to die, or do we pray in solidarity with him? When he’s arrested, do we follow him anyway or do we cut and run? Do we publicly claim our allegiance to the one who’s standing trial, or do we deny him three times around a courtyard fire?
The Jesus way is all about choices. To wave or not to wave. To follow closely or at a distance. To claim allegiance to the One whose kingdom Jesus proclaimed, or to claim allegiance to the kingdoms of this world.
The heart of Jesus’ message is that God’s kingdom is at hand; it’s a present tense reality. But the choice to align ourselves with that kingdom is never the result of coercion, manipulation or force. It’s a choice. Our God is a God who created in order to be in relationship, who searches and seeks and reaches for us in order to be in a relationship of love and wholeness – a relationship that can only come through our own choice.
Sometimes the weight of that choice can paralyze us. We think we need all the answers before we can make it. But I don’t know if any of us has a strong enough grasp on anything as deep as faith to avoid questions, doubts, or misunderstandings. But that’s the beauty of the Jesus way. We don’t have to have it all figured out. We don’t have to get our acts together first before we’re able to align ourselves with God’s kingdom.
Jesus told Zacchaeus to come down from the tree for dinner before Zacchaeus ever had the good idea to give half of what he had to the poor and give back any tax money he’d unfairly kept for himself. Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman before she had all her questions answered, before she truly understood what the coming of the Messiah was all about.
I love Palm Sunday because it helps me see that even the deepest spiritual life begins with the choice to take a first step. To begin the journey. To explore. To follow as best we know how at any given point.
I love Palm Sunday because it reminds me that the Jesus way is about choosing again and again, how we’re going to follow. Sometimes that means continuing on the path laid out by our previous choices; sometimes that means changing directions – waking up rather than sleeping, sticking with it rather than bolting, claiming faith rather than remaining silent.
This Sunday will begin a week of choices: to wave or not to wave. So what say you?