“The parade is not the source of our salvation. It is what comes after the parade that makes all the difference. It is Jesus, washing feet and breaking bread with his friends. It is the exhaustion and uncertainty of praying in the garden of Gethsemane. It is Jesus’ willingness to walk in the footsteps of human beings, even unto death.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, April 2, 2023 at Trinity on the Green
Palm Sunday, Year A: Matthew 21:1-11 | Isaiah 50:4-9a | Philippians 2:5-11 | Matthew 27:11-54 | Psalm 31:9-16
May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Four weeks ago today was one of the most beloved, and for some, one of the most dreaded events in the city of New Haven: the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. People line the streets downtown wearing their brightest green. There is questionable consumption of alcohol. There is over an hour of consecutive parade – a procession of people who are proud to be Irish, and many more people who are just there for the fun of it.
We at Trinity know the parade mainly through the struggles of parking. Streets start closing as early as 11am. People rush out of the service to return to their homes. We cancel evening services. And, during a year like this last one, a small group of steadfast volunteers stay behind in the thick of the chaos to hand out sandwiches during a very modified version of our weekly Chapel on the Green ministry.
That is how I found myself standing outside the side door of the church, offering sandwiches and rocks painted with inspirational words to a group of familiar people – and some festive strangers – on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day. When the parade started we had to pause setting up, because the noise was so loud. Drums were beating, people were marching, high schoolers wearing sashes and prom dresses were waving from the the top of slow driving vehicles – and for a while, all we could do was watch.
I found myself standing next to a woman in a work uniform, contemplating how on earth she was going to get home via public transportation. But in the meantime, she stood and watched with me. “What did St. Patrick actually do?” She asked. This, of course, is the kind of question that I dread. The kind of question that people assume the person in a clergy collar should know the answer to, right off the bat. I mumbled something about getting the snakes out of Ireland (a story I know more from elementary school than from Seminary), and then rambled on about how it’s a holiday that’s really more about Irish heritage, in some ways, than the man himself.
The woman seemed satisfied so we turned back to parade, watching a fleet of bagpipers pass by. Suddenly, she spoke again. She said, “I kind of wish they would have a parade for someone really important; you know, like Jesus.” This is another one of those comments that felt particularly pointed towards me, as the person wearing the collar in the general vicinity. But she did have a point. Together we wondered how a parade for Jesus might be different. I suggested that maybe Easter would be a good time for such a parade – it is the time that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after all. But we both agreed that the streets don’t shut down for Jesus on Easter, so it wasn’t quite the same. We sighed collectively, and turned back to the street where, in the course of the next hour, we watched bicyclists on Victorian Penny farthings, high school bands, and even a fleet of Star Wars storm troopers, accompanied by a Wookie.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade for this year is now over a month in the past. And yet – it wasn’t until this week, in preparing this sermon, that I realized that I had it all wrong. Easter isn’t the day on which we celebrate a parade for Jesus. Today is the day when we have that parade – on Palm Sunday – as we remember and even recreate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What a small, but important difference that makes – that the parade isn’t the pinnacle of Holy Week, but rather the beginning of a sequence of events that rests at the center of our faith.
The parade at the beginning of Holy Week is triumphant; it’s hopeful. It’s an opportunity for people to show their desire to follow Jesus in a public and collective way. It is an affirmation of a different kind of authority – because Jesus does not enter the city in a chariot or in palanquin, but rather on the back of a donkey. And yet the parade does not fix conflicts between friends and family members. It does not remove the oppression of the Roman Empire. It does not heal the sick. And even more importantly, it does not heal the brokenness in our souls when we feel out of sync and weighed down by the world – when we feel vulnerable to the brokenness that we Christians call sin.
In other words: the parade is not the source of our salvation. It is what comes after the parade that makes all the difference. It is Jesus, washing feet and breaking bread with his friends. It is the exhaustion and uncertainty of praying in the garden of Gethsemane. It is Jesus’ willingness to walk in the footsteps of human beings, even unto death. It is the cross and the tomb. It is the quiet resurrection a few days later, when at first only Mary is present to witness the miracle that is still changing our lives, even today.
There is no parade on Easter morning. We, with the benefit of hindsight, will celebrate that day loudly within the walls of our church next week – with hymns and brass and bells, and we will do some degree of processing around our sanctuary. And yet, in the original story, there is no parade on Easter Sunday. The parade is a beginning, not the end of the story.
As I was thinking about the procession on Palm Sunday as a kind of parade, I began to think about other moments in our lives that might fall into this category as well. I thought about the Run for Refugees that takes place in New Haven every February, an event organized by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) to raise money to help support and resettle immigrants. I thought about the New Haven Climate Movement, which organizes marches in the city, especially among youth, to advocate for cleaner energy infrastructure in our city. I thought about May and June 2020, when hundreds of people gathered on the New Haven Green in the middle of the pandemic, to express outrage and grief at the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, hundreds of miles away in Minnesota – a tragic event that brought to light how racism still lives in and around us.
Each of these are examples of times when people decided to come together and move together – to express a common value or concern. While the reasons for these gatherings might not be cause for celebration, there is a kind of wonder in these experiences of collective action – of solidarity. I imagine that followers of Jesus must have felt that too, as they laid down cloaks and branches to softly pave the way for Jesus’ triumphal entry. They must have felt that amazing energy: the exhilaration of being a part of something bigger than yourself.
And yet when the parade is over, the real work begins.
When the Run for Refugees is over, we have to look at how we treat people in our everyday lives – how we value the experiences of people who may look, speak, eat, and live differently than we do. When the climate march is over, we have to consider how our everyday choices can perpetuate an attitude of waste or conservation. When the protest is over, we have to do the slow and hard work of examining our racial biases, undoing racism from the inside out.
I know that for many of us at Trinity, the work I just described is not merely a matter of integrity. It is a matter of faith. It is a matter of following Jesus in our own time, to the best of our ability. It is about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is about choosing resurrection life over the ways of sin and death.
In some ways, the parade is the easy part. It’s easy to get swept up in the emotions – the joy, the anger, the hope. It feels good to be walking with other people; to feel that strength in numbers. The harder part is what comes after the parade. The harder part is living out our beliefs when no one is watching; when no one is cheering you on; when no one is standing beside you to back you up.
This is true in our Gospel stories as well. It must have felt wonderful to walk the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus, shouting “Hosanna!” – and what a shock to go from that to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. That is when the hard work begins. The work of deciding whether to follow Jesus to the cross, or to deny him like Peter does so famously.
Sometimes it feels like a cruel trick that Holy Week begins with a parade. But I think we need this moment. We need this experience of collective affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” to carry with us into the future when things get hard. We need to remember what it felt like to stand in the sunshine, side by side, and affirm our faith at the top of our lungs. We need to remember the yearning that led us to follow Jesus in the first place.
When you think back to our procession into the church this morning, what emotions did you feel? Did you feel joy, hope, comfort, courage? Carry these feelings with you for the rest of Holy Week. Hold onto them for those days when faith feels overwhelming, or uncertain, or lonely. Let these emotions be fuel for the hard work of following Jesus in big and small ways, every day of your life. And remember this: Jesus is Lord, with or without a parade. Amen.