Maybe We Should Call It Turmoil Sunday – A Palm Sunday Sermon On Matthew 21:1-11

We call this day Palm Sunday, and for obvious reasons, but I wonder if it would be more accurate to call it Turmoil Sunday. What do you think of that? Would you be excited about coming to church on Turmoil Sunday? 

Most days I feel like there’s already enough turmoil in my life and world without coming to church for more. Maybe you do too. Or maybe you come to church to escape the turmoil in your life and world. But what if Jesus and turmoil are a package deal, a twofer? After all, in today’s gospel (Matthew 21:1-11) Matthew says that “when [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.” 

We don’t often talk about Jesus as creating or bringing turmoil. I suspect that’s not the Jesus most of us want. It is, however, the one we get in today’s gospel, and maybe it’s exactly the one you and I and our world need today. 

I don’t want us to use the palms, donkey, and hosannas that characterize today as a distraction from or an avoidance of the turmoil Jesus brings. I don’t want them to be a sweet, sentimental, and soft opening to Holy Week. I want us to feel the hard opening of Holy Week. I want us to face and enter into the turmoil that opens Holy Week and ultimately our hearts. Here’s what I think that looks like. 

Jesus comes from the east riding a donkey down the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. His supporters go ahead of and behind him shouting hosannas and spreading their cloaks and tree branches on the road like a red carpet. 

Matthew uses words from the prophet Zechariah to describe Jesus as a king, “humble, and mounted on a donkey.” He is, however, a different kind of king. He will cut off the chariot, the war horse, and the battle bow. He is a king who commands peace to the nations. (Zechariah 9:9-10)

Historians and biblical scholars tell us that as Jesus was coming from the east Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea, would have been coming into Jerusalem from the west riding a war horse and leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. They’re wearing armor and helmets and carrying weapons. Hooves and feet are pounding the earth like a war drum.

It was a standard practice for the Roman governor and his troops to come to Jerusalem for major Jewish feasts like the passover. They’re not there out of respect for the religious practices of the Jews but as a show of force, to maintain the status quo of oppression, and to put down any uprising. 

Do you see the impending conflict? Can you feel the turmoil of this day? This is a day of confrontation and choices: a donkey or a war horse, palm branches or weapons, laying down one’s life for another or laying down another’s life for oneself. This is not just a historical event in Jerusalem. Today we are all Jerusalem. The conflict and turmoil are within us and our world. And Pilate is as real today as he was the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. 

We say that we want to follow the way of Jesus. We even began this morning’s liturgy by waving our palms and singing, “We will follow the way of Jesus Christ.” That way, however, is easier sung than done. 

If we really are going to follow the way of Jesus then we will have to confront the Pontius Pilate in our lives and the world today. Isn’t that really what Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem is about? He is shaking up our world, overturning the status quo, and “making all things new.” That’s the turmoil Jesus brings today. And it’s always in opposition to Pilate. 

Here’s one way to think about that turmoil. Jesus comes from the east, the direction of the rising sun and the dawn of a new day. He is the one who says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Pilate, however, comes from the west, the direction of the setting sun and the diminishing light. He is the one who washes his hands of Jesus. (Matthew 27:24) 

Turmoil Sunday is a clash and confrontation between east and west, light and darkness, life and death. Now don’t take those literally. They are metaphors about conditions in each of our lives. They describe our ways of being with and toward others and ourselves. 

Holy Week is an invitation into the turmoil by which we confront the Pilate in our lives and world. I wonder what that means and looks like for you today. What is it offering you and what is it asking of you? 

Where do you see Pilate in your life and world today? What is diminishing your light and stealing your life? What’s the Pilate you see diminishing the light of others and stealing their life? In what ways is the sun stetting on you or another? In what ways are you Pilate in someone else’s life? What are you washing your hands of instead of confronting? What’s the Pilate you need to confront today? 

I can’t answer those questions for you but I can tell you that I’m asking myself the same questions. They are our entry to Holy Week.

This is a week of accountability and choices. And the promise of this week is that with each confrontation of Pilate we will “have life, and have it abundantly” for ourselves, one another, and the world. 

All week long Jesus will challenge the Pilate in our life and world. And he will ask us to make a choice. Will we come to this week from the east or from the west? 

The historical information about the two processions is from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 2-5.

Image Credit: Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by Wilhelm Morgner, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


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