From Fans to Followers: Palm Sunday Sermon
On Palm Sunday, we remember the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and hailed as a king (Luke 19:28-40). Let’s try a little guided meditation. Imagine lining up with fellow peasants on the road Jesus took into Jerusalem. They, too, follow Jesus. Visualize these ordinary folks with worry lines etched into their foreheads from so many sleepless nights and hours sitting at the kitchen table, figuring out how to get by. Their calloused hands wave palm branches. “Hosanna!” they shout, “Save us–now!”
Everyone senses that the rotten old kingdom and its corrupt, oppressive ways are collapsing like a house of cards. A new king was rising. Palm Sunday was like inauguration day, with people rallying together, believing they are on the precipice of a better future.
An old man with a leathery, grief-worn face cracks a toothy grin and winks at you. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” he exclaims.
This is it. Finally, this is it. You can taste it. Energy surges through your weary bones. It’s all smiles from everyone, everywhere.
People that Jesus dirtied his hands to help.
Jesus is perched atop a humble donkey, just as the prophets foretold. Following him are folks who had close encounters of a personal kind, including those he dirtied his hands to help.
You see the woman caught in adultery who watched Jesus scatter the self-righteous crowd by drawing in the dirt with his index finger and saying: “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone. (John 8:1-11).”
Close behind Jesus is the man born blind, who now sees because Jesus spat in the dirt and rubbed mud on his eyes while proclaiming that making people suffer is not on God’s agenda. God’s mission is about deep healing–from the inside out.
Everywhere you turn, you see people motivated by a message of abundance, forgiveness, and peace.
An imperfect community brings potent alchemy.
But you can’t help but notice the crowd is mostly comprised of the despised–sinners and prostitutes, common laborers, and tax collectors, recovering lepers. It’s the precursor of the church–that potent alchemy of a community of imperfect people striving to become better people.
And there you are, right in the mix–where you belong despite all your faults and doubts, raising a palm in the hope that things can improve.
The donkey’s hooves clatter on the stones. The people’s voices rise in unison, Hosanna!
A new world is dawning.
Shut them up!
It’s Palm Sunday, but already, Good Friday has cast its shadow. A group of religious leaders commands Jesus to silence the crowd, to silence you.
“If these were silent,” Jesus says, “the stones would cry out.” That is, it’s too late; the movement has already been born–all creation groans for this better way.
Pilate’s Friday Mob
Now picture yourself on Friday mixed into another crowd—a different concoction of souls assembled before Pilate.
The house of cards had not entirely collapsed–yet.
We look around. Who is among us in this mob?
You see fiery-eyed zealots who crave an armed revolution led by someone who espouses violence and glorifies power. Their shouts to release Barabbas reveal their desire was not a revolution of hearts that results in a peaceful change. No, they want to replace the Roman system with their own, where they ruled over the Romans and everyone else. From the bottom of their blood-thirsty souls, they shout, “Release Barabbas!”
Sprinkled among the zealots, you see men adorned with multi-colored religious stoles, whipping the zealots into a frenzy. They want no part of a religion where sinners are welcome. They want to judge and divide people into good and bad categories. They want no part of Jesus’ vision where they lose their power and control over people because they are no longer the mediators of forgiveness. Jesus taught that forgiveness was granted to all who asked for it and should be extended from one person to another.
Standing near Pilate, you see the elites in their bedazzled silky robes. Like sleeping dogs in front of a fireplace, they are too cozy with the status quo to advocate any change. They whisper in Pilate’s ear to make a show of force.
And there you are as the shouts rise. “Free Barabbas. Crucify Jesus. Crucify him!”
Questions to ask yourself.
A fiery-eyed zealot glares at you–burning holes in your soul. “Why are you silent? Join our mob!”
You shuffle your sandals, raising a small cloud of dust as you contemplate.
- Do I really believe in change through non-violent resistance?
- Do I really believe that I play a role in making the world better by standing up for the people the mob despises?
- Am I a cozy dog sprawled out in front of the fireplace who is too comfortable to advocate change–even the change of my heart?
As you dither, the die is cast, and the mob prevails. A crossbeam is hoisted on Jesus’ shoulders. His knees buckle, and he is swept away to a lonely hill.
Lonely Souls on Calvary’s Hill
On the hill, there is no crowd. There are only a couple of other convicts, a few executioners, a few onlookers, Jesus’ mother, and a couple of other women. The disciples, who had all pledged never to abandon Jesus, fled at the first sign of trouble. On the hill, no chants are rising from the crowd. No hosannas. No, crucify him. It’s solemn; the only sounds are the hammering of nails, and the howls of pain as the man condemned by the state breathes his last.
But it’s only Friday. And as the old-time preachers say, “Sunday’s coming!”
Easter’s Invitation to Follow the Ways of Jesus
On Easter Sunday, God vindicates the ways of Jesus and issues a fresh invitation to join the movement to topple the house of cards. The first Christians didn’t call themselves Christians; they were known as “people of the way.” They believed that by following the teaching and example of Jesus, they could connect deeply with the mystery of God and change the world. They weren’t so concerned about what you believed about Jesus as they were about whether you would follow his way and make it your own.
The difference between being fans or followers of Jesus.
Being a follower, however, is challenging because we’d rather be mere fans of Jesus as if he were our favorite sports team, politician, or band. Or, perhaps someone we follow on social media pops up in the algorithm, and we say, “Yes. I agree with that.” But nothing more is required of us. “Like and follow for more,” they plead.
We go through a progression from curiosity to commitment and deeper commitment. The challenge is to keep progressing instead of getting stuck.
The temptation is to be fair-weather fans of Jesus, faithful as long as we are winning at life but ready to jump on the bandwagon of another approach when times get tough.
Or maybe we think our commitment is deeper, like a “die-hard fan” who remains loyal in hard times. We cheer for God’s goodness and hope that things will improve despite the world’s misery and our shortcomings. We wear the gear, such as the crosses and benign smiles. We attend the church rallies, sing the anthems, and believe we are “all in” with team Jesus.
But there’s a difference between a fan and a follower. Fans don’t get in the game; they watch. Followers are called to charge off the sidelines and get involved. Get some “skin in the game,” as they say.
Followers get into the action.
Jesus wasn’t really looking for fans; he was looking for followers. He wasn’t looking for cheerleaders; he was looking for people who would get their hands dirty doing the work of service and justice.
Just as “thoughts and prayers” alone are insufficient to keep our children from getting slaughtered in homeroom, Jesus was looking for people who go beyond praying, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” to do the small things in their power to make earth more heavenly. He was looking for people who would follow him in standing up to the powers and demanding fairness for all.
Being a fan of Jesus is to say, “I believe in Jesus.” Being a follower of Jesus entails putting that belief into action by serving others.
- To be a fan is to go to church for entertainment. Being a follower is to worship, seeking transformation.
- Being a follower of Jesus means weeping with him over the state of the world, the demonization of the poor, and the senseless violence and destruction of our environment.
- Being a follower is about bringing hope and a positive attitude to places where everyone else is negative. It is about educating yourself about what is going on. It’s about telling the truth, especially when it is hard. And being kind, especially when it is difficult.
Like and follow for more.
When we live our lives this way and follow the way of Jesus, we connect deeply with the divine, become better people, and make the world around us a better place. Like and follow Jesus for more peace, more joy, and more sense of purpose.
So take your place with the followers of Jesus and shout with praise. Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed are you. Amen.