Matthew 21: 1-11
These are palms we ordered for Palm Sunday. I do not know exactly where they come from, but it would have been nice to begin my sermon by making a connection between them, the Middle East and Jesus. Unfortunately, the news somehow moved us in another direction. This week we have learnt the name of a small Middle East town in Syria: Khan Shaykhun. After a chemical attack last Tuesday, more than a hundred civilians, men, women and children, have died and many more needed urgent medical treatments. Almost every government in the world has condemned this event that goes against all international treaties. An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council had been called to address the issue. Thursday night, the United States launched 59 Tomahawk missiles which also 10 civilians. If I had to guess, I would say that in approximately 2 weeks… we will barely remember this ever happened. We will have moved on to something else. The reason being the way our news cycles are organized. A news cycle is how the media are reporting on some event, followed by the media reporting on public and other reactions to the earlier reports. Traditionally this cycle lasts 24 hours. After this mark, newer and fresher news are needed to feed the beast. However, with the rise of cable and satellite news channels, blogs and social media, our attention span and memory seem to have considerably shortened. Can you remember what were the headlines only 3 weeks ago… or the topic or my sermon? I don’t. Honestly, I had to check.
This tendency to rapidly hop to the next news, object, trend or event is probably as old as humankind. For example, this morning we read from the Gospel according to Matthew the story of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, fully knowing that the crowds who cheered him changed their mind and their allegiance only a few days later. Like many before us, we still struggle to understand the reasoning under this tragic sequence of events. How is it possible?, we wonder. Then it comes to us. The crowd was made up of human beings, people like you and me; people who are ambivalent; people who are fickle; people who love one day and we move on the next one. Just look at the Ottawa Senators, for example. They had a very good season. The fans learnt to appreciate coach Guy Boucher who brought structure to the game. They were touched by Craig Anderson’s story who kept playing while his wife was fighting cancer. They evidently love Erik Karlsson who is maybe the best defencemen of the league. In a few days, the playoffs will begin and all of the fans will be behind their team. However, I can assure you that if the Senators lose 4 in a row, people will call talk radio and ask to trade half of the team and fire the other half. This is not just hockey. The same can be said about politicians, pop idols or anyone else. Crowds only want to cheer for the winning side.
Jesus probably knew all of this very well. Following a successful ministry in Galilee he decided to bring his message to Jerusalem and in order to have a huge impact, he selected the busy time of the festival of Passover to enter into the city with his disciples. At that time, Passover was really a big event. Historians and archeologists estimate that the city quadruple its population during that week. Just try to imagine everyone living in the city of Toronto coming at the same time to visit us in Ottawa, and you would not even to reach the same proportion of growth. Obviously, to be noticed Jesus needed what we would call today a good publicity stunt, something that would attract the attention in this chaos. He decided to dig into Zechariah’s prophecies and to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, to be more precise, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Jesus’ little public relation set up really worked. The crowd who was hungry for a messianic figure noticed him right away and went totally berserk. In the original Greek version, the author of the Gospel uses the word for earthquake to describe the turmoil he created. The people present that day understood all the symbols and gave Jesus a royal welcome. Some spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from the trees and placed them on Jesus’ path. In less time it takes to tell, he became Jerusalem’s main attraction. It was the place to be… even if many had no clue who Jesus was. Who is he?, they inquired. Who cares? He looks like a real hero. We will listen to him. We will believe him. We will follow him.
More than all his sermons, debates or miracles, this single moment made Jesus very dangerous for the establishment of his time. For the elite in power, there is nothing scarier than people becoming excited, reclaiming hope and organizing themselves. This is how revolutions start. This is how a mass movement can sweep everything in its path. The priests, scribes and elders of the people understood they needed to change the narrative and speed up this news cycle. They had to find ways to lead the crowd to forget about him and move on to something else. They needed to create the impression that, when arrested and trailed, people wondered, “Who is he again? Oh wait, Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Well, he must not be such a good Messiah after all. Let’s wait for the next one.”
Somehow those in power in Jerusalem succeeded. We all know the tragic end of this story. If you don’t, once again there is a service here on Thursday at 7:00 pm and another one at Glen Cairn on Friday at 10 o’clock. However, we still remember and celebrate this event today because it teaches us a thing or two about courage and faithfulness. Jesus and his followers possessed no formal authority to change their world. There were just a bunch of nobodies from nowhere. And yet, neighbours and friends, strangers and distant travellers, men and women marched into the city gate with Jesus filled with a desire to build a new world in which all the humiliations, hardships and exclusionary practices that have so long defined their existence would disappear. History is filled with many more stories of common folk who have recognized that they were able to accomplish more together than they could alone. People who organized themselves. People who signed petitions. People who marched in the streets. Of course, it never been easy. Those in power, those who benefitted from the status quo, those who had something to lose opposed and attacked them. It took a great deal of courage, determination and conviction for these individuals to proclaim publicly that peace is possible in a time of war, justice can overcome systematic racism or dignity is a right for all without exception. Today we might not remember the names of those movers and shakers, the protests they organized or the sacrifices they made. Still, they got things moving. They brought change. They succeeded despite the odds. We might have forgot what they have done, but we surely can enjoy the fruits of their labour.
When we wonder what could Jesus possibly have done in approximately one week that so disappointed his supporters that they turned on him, we have to come to the conclusion that the answer is absolutely nothing. He did all the right things. With his disciples, he marched, raised issues and challenges the authorities. It is us, the crowd, the people who got distracted and moved on to the next event or breaking news. Maybe it is in our human nature to easily forget. This is why we are called to remain faithful to our beliefs and convictions. This is why we need symbols like these palms to remain focus on what is really important for us and our world. Amen.