Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.

When my family and I lived in Washington, DC, we would often drive to worship on Sunday morning by going from our home in Chevy Chase, through Rock Creek Park, and down 16th Street, which some people called, “The Avenue of Churches.”  On that four-mile trip we would pass 32 houses of worship.  I know because my children used to count them, and sometimes ask why we couldn’t visit one of those other, closer, houses, like the Buddhist Temple with all its colorful flags.  Ignoring their requests, I once sent out a lighthearted invitation to our sister churches along 16th Street that read like this:

Dear Sisters (and brothers, too, I suppose.  We try to be inclusive):

I would like to invite you to join the willing and able members of First Baptist Church for a Palm Sunday Procession from Meridian Hill Park to our respective churches on Sunday, March 20, 2005.  We’ve done this alone for the last couple of years, but think it would be much more fun (and meaningful, and ecumenical) if you would join us.

We gather at the park at 9:45 and begin processing downhill at precisely 10:00 a.m.  We carry palm branches and wave them as we sing, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (song sheets provided).  We also visit with each other, enjoy the beauty of the day, and the interested stares of people passing by.  Clergy are invited to wear robes and stoles (purple for the season) and whatever other impressive vestments they rarely get to show off in public.

Our custom is to arrive at the door of our church a little before the 11:00 worship service, bang on the door loudly, and shout (in unison) the following line from Psalm 118:  “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord!”  We then process into the church, up the side stairs, along the balcony aisle, down the back stairs, and into the church again, accompanied by organ, brass, and timpani, and waving palm branches like mad the whole time.  It’s fun, but feel free to do it your way when you get to your church.  I hope you will join us.


Jim Somerville, Pastor

That year I went to church early, parked my car, put on my robe and stole, picked up a huge sheaf of palm branches, and started walking up the street to Meridian Hill Park, a distance of just under a mile.  Somewhere along the way a taxi pulled up beside me, stopped, and the driver jumped out and said, “Excuse me, Father.  May I have a palm branch?  I pulled one out of the sheaf, gave it to him, and said, “Bless you my child.”  And then I went on up the hill.

No one from any of the other churches joined us that day.  I had sent the invitation too late; they all had other plans.  But still, it was a fun Palm Sunday tradition, and when I came to Richmond I tried to start it here.  On Palm Sunday, 2009, some of the fun-loving members of First Baptist Church joined me as we walked from the Robinson Street parking lot to the front of the church and up the steps.  We waited until the prelude was over, until it was time for the opening hymn, and then I banged on the door with my fist and we all shouted together, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through then and give thanks to the Lord!”  And then I stepped back so that Wally Hudgins, our head usher, could open the door.  Only he didn’t do it.

The door didn’t open.

We stood there in silence for a few seconds and then I stepped up and banged on the door again, and we shouted louder, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord!”  And then I stepped back, and again, nothing happened.  I turned to the crowd and said, “Maybe we’re not being loud enough.  Let’s try it one more time!”  And then I banged on the door till my hand hurt while we all shouted together, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord!”  And this time the doors swung open, and we were all able to enter in.  Turns out Wally Hudgins, our head usher, just loves a little drama.

But can I tell you how it felt to be outside those big, heavy doors on the front of our church, banging my fist against them, begging to be let inside to worship the Lord, and being denied entry?  It didn’t feel good.  It made me think about all those other people around the world and through the centuries who have stood on the wrong side of a closed door, begging for entry.  In today’s reading from Luke 19, Jesus is presented as one of those people.  It doesn’t seem that way at first.  He comes up the long and winding road from Jericho with a great crowd of followers.  He sends his disciples to fetch a donkey from a nearby village.  They bring it back, throw their cloaks on it, set Jesus on it, and then Luke writes:

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

But then listen to this: Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  And there it is: resistance.  Everything is moving forward, the crowd is ushering Jesus, the obvious Messiah, into the capital city, but then, suddenly, “Order your disciples to stop.”  It’s a reminder that behind every gate there is a gate-keeper: someone who decides whether you should come in or stay out.  The followers of Jesus want him to come into the city and claim his rightful inheritance; the Pharisees want him to stay out.

And they aren’t the only ones.

It’s not only the religious authorities, but also the political authorities who want to stop Jesus.  Because it was the Festival of the Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s deliverance from slavery, and in that sense it was a kind of Independence Day—a Jewish Fourth of July—complete with the first-century equivalent of fireworks, and parades, and backyard barbecues.  It was a big, noisy, exuberant celebration of freedom except that these people weren’t exactly free.  Israel had been ruled by Rome for some seventy years.  Roman soldiers occupied the city of Jerusalem and patrolled its streets.  The Roman flag flew over the capitol.  Nevertheless, tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of faithful Jews would stream into Jerusalem for this annual celebration, packed inside its city walls “like gunpowder in a Fourth of July firecracker.  All they needed was someone to light the fuse.”[i]

That’s why Pontius Pilate always came up for the festival from his headquarters on the Mediterranean coast, and that’s why he always came up with a full battalion of soldiers: he wanted to intimidate the people through a show of military strength.  He wanted them to see that he meant business.  Here’s the way Nancy Rockwell describes it: “Awesome stallions. Clanging hooves against the paving stones.  Gleaming metal lances.  Swords, dirks, helmets.  Polished leather armor, saddles, boots.  Drums.  Pilate was marching his men because the Jewish Feast Days were beginning, and that stirred a restlessness in the people. He was sending a message: any trouble would be crushed.  The Pax Romana, Caesar’s peace, would be enforced.”[ii]

Behind every gate there is a gatekeeper, and in the City of Jerusalem, in the time of Jesus, it wasn’t only the religious authorities, it was also the political authorities.  You can bet your last denarius that the Roman guards were watching this Palm Sunday procession coming down the Mount of Olives and across the Kidron Valley, listening to the crowd shouting, “Hosanna to the King!” as they tightened their grips on their spears and thought to themselves, “What is this?  We already have a king.  His name is Caesar.  And this is beginning to look like an insurrection.”

Maybe that’s why the Pharisees told Jesus to order his disciples to stop.  They weren’t always his enemies, you know, not in this Gospel.  In Luke 13 it is “some Pharisees” who come to Jesus and say to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you!”  And here in Luke 19 they might be saying, “If your disciples keep it up, with all this talk about you being a king, it’s not only Herod who will want to kill you, but Caesar, too!”  Jesus knows that.  He has known it since the last time the Pharisees tried to warn him.  “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” he told them.  And then he raised his voice and cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Luke 13:34-35).  Well, now that time has come, and when the Pharisees tell Jesus to make his disciples stop he says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

There is a certain inevitability to what is happening and Jesus knows it.  He hasn’t come to Jerusalem to sit on the throne of his ancestor David; he has come to Jerusalem to die.  The city that should have welcomed him as their king will ultimately despise him, reject him, and lead him out to the place of his execution.  The gates will be shut behind him forever.  But it didn’t have to be that way then, and it doesn’t have to be that way now.

Back during the worst part of Covid, when we weren’t able to gather in this building for worship, I once found myself standing outside after dark, looking up at that stained glass window that is lit up from behind.  It’s an illustration of Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”  So, there was Jesus, knocking on an unopened door, just as I had on that Palm Sunday back in 2009.  I thought, “Look at that: not even Jesus can get inside the church.”

I was joking, but like a lot of jokes there was some truth to it.  If you look closely at that window you will see that the door Jesus is knocking on doesn’t have a knob on the outside.  He has to wait for someone to open the door from the inside.  And here’s the truth: we are—each of us—the gatekeeper of our own heart.  Jesus can stand out there and knock forever, but until we open the door from the inside, he can’t come in.  Words matter, and the one word you could utter today that would make all the difference is the word enter.  “Enter, Jesus.  Come inside.  I am ready at last to welcome you.”

Now imagine that the roles were reversed, that you were the one knocking, hoping that Jesus would let you in.  He would, wouldn’t he?  Wouldn’t the friend of sinners and tax collectors drag you into the entry hall and hug you around the neck?  Is there anyone he would leave standing on the doorstep?  Probably not, and yet the same is not always true of his church.

When I was living in North Carolina I used to visit a Catholic monastery every once in a while for a 24-hour retreat.  The first time I went the guest master showed me to my monk’s “cell” and I was relieved to find a comfortable bed, a sturdy desk, and a big chair in the corner with a good reading light.  I was picturing something a little more austere.  He invited me to eat with the monks in the refectory, which I did, and where I found that the women who cooked for them seem to think of it as a divine calling—the food was delicious!  I envied the monks for their comfortable robes, cinched up with a rope belt that could be easily loosened after a big meal.  I was also invited to sit with the brothers in the chancel for the many worship services they observed throughout the day but the evening service was special.  That’s when the doors of the church were opened to the public and communion was served.

The guest master invited me to attend that service as well but made a point of showing me the statement taped to one corner of my desk.  I can’t remember every word, but I do remember that it said the participation of non-Catholic Christians in Holy Communion would suggest a unity which, “sadly, does not exist.”  In other words, as a Baptist, I could come to the service, but I could not take communion.  And as a guest in someone else’s tradition I was fine with that until the service itself, when I was sitting in that beautiful sanctuary watching people get out of their pews and go forward to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I sat there, thinking, “What?  Did Jesus not die for me?!  Would Jesus turn me away from his table?”  I was getting angrier and angrier when suddenly I realized what was happening: I was learning what it felt like to be excluded.  It dawned on me that this was what so many of the world’s citizens must experience every day—people who are denied opportunities because of their color, their gender, their ethnicity, their orientation, their annual income, or their level of education.  As a straight, white American male who was reasonably affluent and fairly well educated I had hardly ever experienced that feeling.  The world’s buffet table was open to me, but that night, in that candlelit Catholic church, the communion table was closed.

Rather than pretending to be Catholic, or demanding my right to be served, I decided to bottle up my rage and preserve it so that, for the rest of my life, I could remember what it felt like to be excluded, and feel compassion for those people who—through the centuries—have been told that they have no place at the Lord’s table, or even in his church.  I’m sure Jesus himself feels that compassion—he who couldn’t even get into his own church during the worst part of Covid, and who on that Palm Sunday years ago stood outside the gates of Jerusalem with a crowd of his followers shouting, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord!”

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Jim Somerville, “Behold Your King,” a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on April 1, 2012.

[ii] Nancy Rockwell, A Bite in the Apple, April 5, 2014.