Alone In the Crowd

Palm Sunday! The crowds. The cheers. The Spectacle. The Disciples. The donkey, borrowed though it was. And Jesus. Jesus there in the middle of it all. What’s he doing, while all the rest are caught up in the moment? Not one Gospel says Jesus says a word, once the “parade” is really under way. (He does pause on the brow of the hill, before plunging in. He wonders if the crowds will understand his meaning. He tells us they will not.) But he never addresses the crowd. (How difficult, such a silence!) There’s not even any indication he gives one of those royal waves, like modern-day monarchs or rock stars whizzing by. What’s he doing, feeling, thinking, praying? We are left, simply to imagine. ‘Not so with the crowd. We know exactly what they’re doing. Right? ‘Turns out: not exactly! I’ve read this story a couple hundred times. But somehow I’ve missed these fascinating words of Matthew (21: 8). “Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road; others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” ‘Hear that? Most of the crowd…spread their garments. Others… but not everybody… cut branches. I never noticed this before. Not everybody was “into” Jesus. Not everyone was swept along with the tumultuous tide. Not even Jesus! Come with me today. More important, come with Jesus. Come see those “alone in the crowd” on Palm Sunday.

Whatever else you take away today, take this. The story on the inside is ever more important than the story on the outside. Most of the crowd got happy. Psalms, praises, garments in the road. What about the rest of them? And what about Jesus? We know some objected. Jesus offended them. His acts: too bold (healing on Sabbath), his teaching to liberal (what do you mean forgive 70 x 7), his claims too high (see me, see our Father in Heaven). Few of us would object on these grounds. But one still rings right. “Jesus, I object because you get carried away. And us too.” ‘Truth is, lots of us feel alone in the crowd when we see others in a frenzy. We’d rather hang on to a little of our funk. If emotional worship, burning desire to give a witness, giving freely aren’t your thing, you can understand standing off from the Palm Sunday crowd. Some just stood there, doubting. Is that you? “Failure to commit” ain’t merely modern, it’s time-honored. Alone in the crowd. That’s us. Some couldn’t run. To Jesus. Anywhere. It was challenge enough just to move at all. They could watch and see the others in their joy and yearning. But ‘too caught up in their own dramas to join this new one. Broken spirits, dreams, families, hearts. Shattered health; not well, but ill-being, their way. Have you ever been surrounded by joy, but felt it everybody else’s, not yours? Then you know about Palm Sunday, alone in the crowd. Some always see foreboding in every “enthusiasm’, especially of faith. If you can see the gray lining on every silver cloud, then “hosanna” gets stuck in your throat. And when others cast their garments, you’re likely to keep your shirt on, too.

The story on the inside is ever more important than the story on the outside. What’s going on in Jesus, do tell? Who could search so deep a heart? But we can see some things. Courage. Clarity. Claim. The Master does not ride unmoved through the crowd. He sees, even more deeply than they, the pent up yearning to be saved, in this sorry world, and for the next. But he sees more. He knows there are those who want to harm him. He rides into the city anyway. Courage. He knows that hosannas can be quickly converted to cries of, “Crucify, crucify.” Courage. Jesus is swept along, but not caught up in our parade today. Christ is clear… in his calling. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” Christ is clear… in his claim. ‘Who he is today, why he’s here. He plans to dramatize his chosen-ness: his curious, compelling Kingship. Ride a donkey, not a steed, like a king who comes to declare peace, not war (between heaven and earth.) His picture: Zech.9:9. Let the people announce your reign for you, as in ancient days. Palms and cloaks along the way. II Kgs.9:13, I Macc.13:51. Jesus rides into Jerusalem saddled between two psalms. 118. “This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech thee, O Lord!… Give us success! Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord!” (23-26) And the other psalm? 31. “Yea, I hear the whispering of many… as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord… You are my God. My times are in your hand; deliver me… Let thy face shine on thy servant….” (13-16) Ahh, the story within!

Palm Sunday. Remember this. What we lay down matters. What we pick up matters even more. We’ve said it with our setting (gesture, chancel “path”). We’ve said it to the children. Now we say it to each other. For this Holy Week to work for us, we’ll need to lay something down today. Those saints and seekers of old were willing to lose their shirts over Jesus! At least they were that one, bright, fine day. We read so easily, “They strew their cloaks in his path.” We forget too quickly. They only had one cloak! They virtually stripped to the waist at his coming, so unrestrained was their longing and their joy of a savior, even if they misunderstood him in this hour. They laid down their only protection from the heat of the day, the cool of the night. OK. They couldn’t take it to the cleaners, should the donkey do what donkeys do on it. Or the trampling feet of some portion of the 2.5 million (that’s right) Passover pilgrims and residents of the Holy City leave sandal prints behind. OK. They couldn’t be sure in a heap of fabric to get their own tunics or tatters back. OK. They were prepared to lay something down, to take up with Jesus. And you? Me? (As we’ve said/shown) No bathrobes and costumes to our altar today. Instead, the real favorites and honors of some of our own real friends here. All to show us that we will need to give something important (tangible, heart-felt, committed) of our selves, if we are to walk with Jesus this week. Not just into the City, but all the way to the cross. What of your soul are you willing to surrender to him? What of your substance, security, self-control? Palm’s easy. This isn’t.

What we lay down is important today. But we pick up… more! It’s not about getting back into your right shirt, but into your right mind and soul. It’s about picking up with Jesus through the teaching this week. ‘Getting straight what belongs to the state, and what belongs to God. ‘What sacrifice God wants in our worship, half or full-hearted. ‘What willingness we have to let Christ wash our feet… to serve us, to cleanse us of sin, not just the soil on our sandals. The real issue is: will we pick up and plow ahead, from a sin-nailed hillside, to a stone cold tomb. and then wait? Wait. Wait. ‘Til Sunday next, when the story of Jesus picks up again. Not everybody can, or will. Will you? If so, you may well find yourself feeling alone in the crowd with Jesus.

Oh, this… parade… can enthrall us. That’s good. But the passion saves us. That’s a miracle. Scripture records not a word from Jesus in the grand procession today. Amidst it all, alone in the crowd in understanding the full meaning of the moment. (Borrowing on Walter Wangerin Jr.’, Ragman and Other Cries of Faith), we can see Jesus answer-with-his-eyes and his heart set-on-the-crowd. He sees the sobbing woman with the shredded tissue at her eyes. Toy-less children, hungry stares at her feet, no partner by her side. Before the week is out, he resolves to relieve her of that exhausted scrap, and lay, instead, a fine linen napkin in her hand to catch her tears. The kind that might cover the soft face of One death could hold no more. A new napkin for an old rag. Along the Way, the Savior sees the face of the girl with pox marks no modern make-up could hide. Her scarf can’t hide the scars from the ailment, or all the rejection and pain of feeling left behind. He resolves before the week is out to lay a lovely yellow coverlet across her head, the kind that frames the face like a golden halo. And he says to himself, “I will call her by name. I will see her in the garden once my work is done.” Our Jesus on that donkey’s colt, spies the man who leans lifeless on the tree trunk of a royal palm. He sees the void in his tunic’s fit. This man will cut no palm today. He has but one arm. The Master sees his own seamless cloak, heaped in the shadow of a cruel cross, with soldiers casting lots for it, rather than divide it. He determines, “I will stretch out both my arms for him and make him whole…. And my cloak will fit him better than his own. It will fall unexpected on his shoulders, cast aside by a legionnaire who doesn’t know treasure when he has it in his hands.” Jesus spies the homeless pilgrim, beneath a dirty blanket, napping through the noon parade. And he knows. “I would have him have these saddle coverings to keep him warm. Shortly, I shall have no need of them.” New bedding from an old ride. Jesus says nothing, that first Palm Sunday. But he resolves to do everything. All of it. All the way to the cross, to make all things new. Even me. Even you.

Thank God for Jesus, here for all of us, alone in the crowd!

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