Readings are here.
The streets are packed with people coming to the city for the Holy Days. The Roman legions are everywhere- nervous young soldiers sent to reinforce the regulars in the notoriously difficult place. Probably they are wondering about the Jews and their commitment to one God. Wondering why they can't just worship like everyone else - giving worship to the emperor, making offering to the gods of Rome? You can't even see their God - in fact they have a rule about not making images of their God even have to have the Roman money changed to use it for their offerings to this God
The religious leaders are nervous - this is the time of year when every sect comes to the city. Some come just to worship but some come with trouble on their minds. The Essenes are okay - usually just spend time out in the desert in their caves but those Zealots - plotting the overthrow of Rome - bringing trouble to all of us. The religious leaders try to make everyone keep a low profile - don't attract the attention of Rome. Survival of the people is uppermost in their minds.
Into this roiling mass of humanity - a man comes riding into Jerusalem - on a donkey no less, embodying the prophecy in Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Soldiers and religious leaders thinking -- Just what is not needed - someone claiming to be the king - and the crowds - going beserk - throwing down their outer covering - their cloaks - standing half naked in just their coats - shouting Hosanna! Cutting branches to place on the road. A mob - so easily influenced - moods that can swing from joy to anger to violence in a moment.
But maybe this is the one? Could it be? The king who will free us? Where is his army? All our hopes of Messiah - the one to give us back our lives - could it be?
So many expectations placed on the man on the donkey.
This is where we leave our first Gospel today. At the end of our service we will read Matthew's version of the Passion - the death of Jesus. As we read it you will be asked to read the parts where Jesus speaks to remind all of us that we are the body of Christ in the world today. But we are also all the others in the story. So often in our history - Christians have used the words of this Gospel to accuse Jews of terrible things - to excuse violence against Jewish people. But remember that Matthew is writing to Jews, he is a Jew, Jesus was a Jew -- it was written in a time of division among people who were all the same - like family -brothers and sisters in the faith. Each side had a different view of the meaning of Jesus, was he the Messiah of prophecy or not? There was a controversy and the Roman state killed Jesus. Crucifixion was the way the Roman Empire carried out executions. The Jews did not have this power. Matthew is writing to warn the early Christians of how easily they can become the same as their enemies - taking up violence instead of following the non-violent ways of Christ. The church is the Jews in Matthew's Gospel - the warnings are to the leaders of the early organizations of Christians.
We are also the ones in the crowd - the ones who easily turn from adulation to calling for crucifixion. We know this from our own experience of putting someone up on a pedestal - a politician or other leader - only to relish their fall from on high. We are Pilate - washing our hands of the issues of the day - not recognizing whey we have played a part in whatever goes on by not speaking up, by walking away from things we can change. We are the disciples (we pray not Judas) who fell asleep or denied Christ - when no one knows that we are Christians - even by our actions if not our words. We are Simon of Cyrene - doing the right thing - hefting the cross and carrying it for another. Whenever we help another - go the extra mile to make sure someone has what they need for a better life. And we are the faithful women and friends who did follow all the way to the cross. Who stand and watch and wait - those who stand vigil against oppression and violence, who serve in the community and around the world to save others from death - who minister to those in prison, the stranger - the immigrant, those who are hungry and without shelter -- all who risk their own well being to be present for others so those can also have the abundant life that God promises.
As we read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service and you go out in silence -- meditate on the various people you hear speaking in the Gospel. And remember that we are the Body of Christ - as you speak his words in the reading- think about how it must have been for him - and how does what he says and does continue in us today.
Let us pray in the words of this prayer found in A New Zealand Prayer Book:
Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
the people waved palms
with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
we may still walk beside you even to a cross.
And may the cross carry you through whatever pain and suffering assails you.
May you go forward with courage in the faith of Christ,
May Christ the crucified convince you that God loves you and has forgiven you,
May you find in the cross a sure ground for faith
and a firm support for hope.
And a thought from John Stendahl on Facebook - for pondering:
But it surprises me, indeed amazes me, that I hardly ever hear any comment on the profound irony of this image. The blood is of course not only guilt but atonement, the blood Moses throws upon the people, the blood of the lamb, the blood that strangely cleanses rather than only stains. How could Matthew have written that phrase without hearing that resonance, and how can we read the words without hearing it?
Image from Romare Bearden