The Believeable and the Unbelievable

Matthew 21:33-46
David A. Davis
April 2, 2023
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In early January just a few months ago my wife Cathy and I were sitting poolside in a warm place somewhere with a view of the ocean. I find something restorative in long gazes out over the ocean. One morning I was lost in a book with my body and spirit somewhere between relaxation and exhaustion. I was reading one of my favorite authors; a very well-known one at that. This particular new book does not fall into the author’s typical genre. I will describe my experience of the book only in vague terms in case someone is reading it right now. This piece of fiction could easily have been lifted from real life and a few times I had to stop and think again about whether it may have been just with names and places changed. I had the paperback book in my hands and with nothing but free time for a few days, I was plowing through it at quite a pace. That’s because I was enjoying it. It was a feel-good story headed for what was going to be an uplifting if not tear-jerker, happy ending. I turned a page at the end of the chapter to read the first paragraph of the next one. Seconds later, much to Cathy’s surprise, I threw the book toward the pool and shouted something akin to “You have got to be kidding me!” The first sentence of the new chapter was this: “They found him dead in the bathroom at 6:30 the next morning.” Him being the protagonist of the feel-good, sure to be a happy ending tale. I told Cathy I was so mad at the author I might never read any of their work again. That was not how that calming, enjoyable, poolside read was supposed to end.

When our children entered the “go to the party at someone’s house the parents don’t know” stage of being teenagers, we tried to do all the things parents are supposed to do. Set the rules. Confirm adults will be at the party. Who’s driving, who’s picking up. One of the parts of the plan was a code word we gave to them. If they called and said the word, one of us would come immediately and pick them up no questions asked. This was before cell phones so if the party was going bad and you needed to leave, you would have to ask to borrow a phone and you wouldn’t want to risk embarrassment in front of your friends. Thus a code word. Our code word was “pickle.” If Hannah or Ben ever called and said, “Hey, I’m in a bit of a pickle” or “I think I ate a pickle, the kind I am allergic to” or “if you’re coming to the party could you bring some pickles”, I would have jumped in the car and been there in a heartbeat. Today your teenager would just text and say, “This is out of control, please come get me”.

Today as we near the conclusion of our Lenten series on the parables, the text for Palm Sunday selected by Corrie Berg is the parable of the wicked tenants. You will want to notice that the parable in Matthew’s gospel actually appears in the same chapter as Matthew’s Palm Sunday account; the reading that launched our processional palm parade. Jesus and that ride on the donkey down from the Mt. of Olives and then back up the steep hill to the city walls of Jerusalem. The parade comes with all those “hosanna shouts” and the branches and garments strewn on the path. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here in Matthew 21 when Jesus gets to the temple, he overturns tables and tells the money changers to get out. Then Jesus heals the blind and the lame as the tension among the chief priests and scribes continues to rise. The very next day he curses a fig tree in the city and offers some confounding teaching. Then he comes back to the temple again and has an even more heated exchange with the elders and the chief priests. They confront Jesus and pretty much say, “Who the heck do you think you are?” So he tells them this parable. He told them the one about a landowner who planted a vineyard. The landowner who tried to collect the harvest. The landowner who ultimately send two sent two sets of servants to collect his produce and the tenants beat, stone, and killed them. So the landowner his son to collect the produce figuring the wicked tenants would at least respect the son. No, the tenants seized the landowner’s son, took him out of the vineyard, and killed him because they wanted to get his inheritance.

It’s the day after the Triumphal Entry in Matthew, the day after that great “hosanna” party and there in the temple Jesus is going toe to toe with those who are determined to put an end to all this, put an end to him. There had to be some followers of Jesus in the temple that morning with a stunned look on their face. As Jesus was telling this parable of violence and death, there must have been those who just about then were starting to get it, put two and two together, figure it all out. A son who was sent now being put to death. You and I, we’re sort of expected to think that the crowd surrounding Jesus was full of fickle deniers and betrayers who shout “hosanna” one week and “crucify him” the next. But there had to be some, a few, someone, some follower of Jesus there on the edge of the crowd, just within earshot of the Teacher’s voice, someone who hears the one about the death of the son, someone who right then realizes this is going to end badly. Sure, Jesus told them over and over how this was going to end. But they never really understood it. They never got it. They didn’t want to understand it. Who could possibly have wanted to “get it.” The parade for the Messiah who would save turning into a death march. No way! There had to be someone who shouted to no one in particular and to God all that the same time: “It wasn’t supposed to end this way”. There had to be someone in the temple the morning after Palm Sunday who texted a family member, “Can you come get me, this is out of control”

It’s the Palm Sunday predicament of faith. The followers of Jesus, you and I, we know where this is headed. The Son is being hailed as a king today. But he is going to be sweating drops of blood soon. The Son is going to be betrayed, and tried, and beaten, and tortured, and killed. This parade is going bad. It’s far too easy to shout “Hosanna” today and “He is Risen” next week. But some time, some moment in between there comes this awful realization that it shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t go this way. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And yet today we still shout! Hosanna in the highest! Save us! We know where this parade is headed and we still have to shout to the Son of God! Save! Save! Save!
I was invited to coffee few weeks ago by a friend of mine at the Jewish Center of Princeton. Sitting at a table at Dunkin over at the Princeton Shopping Center he told me about a recent three-generation family trip to Israel a visit to a grandson who is studying there. I asked him about his favorite spots. He knew I had been to the region several times and he asked me about my favorite spots. I mentioned a few around the Sea of Galilee and then I told him the view from the Mt of Olives across the Kidron Valley to the Old City of Jerusalem was the most meaningful. He wanted to know more about why that was important to me. I think he was genuinely interested in my Christian perspective but he is also a therapist so maybe he was doing some work.

I told him it is an incredibly beautiful view from the Mount of Olives. The Garden of Gethsemane just down the hill. The view across the valley sort of allows you to ignore the four-lane highway that runs through so full of cars and tour buses. You look over at that old wall and the iconic skyline. After you get your bearings and someone points out the various domes and steeples and rooftops, after you take the pictures, you just linger there in silence. Time and history sort of collapse. And for those of us who follow Jesus, I said, this unsettling feeling comes. This gnawing at the spirit. A sort of soulful nausea. Because the view, there from the Mt. of Olives, it’s a Palm Sunday view. I told him the Palm Sunday story. You can see where the parade starts. You can trace it down the hill and up the other side. You can see the gate in the wall where the parade passed through. And you just know, you know what’s going to happen. How the parade goes bad. How it all ends in his death. I stopped and apologized for the preaching there at the Dunkin but my friend Lew, he was just smiling and listening.

That Psalm Sunday view, when you know how the parade ends, wow he so willingly empties himself, gives himself, sheds his blood. How God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son, Hosanna! Hosanna! The Palm Sunday shout. It is the Palm Sunday Predicament. That Palm Sunday view is so….so…….beautiful. The believable lust of humankind for vengeance, and wickedness, and violence, and greed ultimately overcome by the utterly unbelievable Savior’s dying love for the world. The parade that wasn’t supposed to end this way. With Christ on the Cross bathed in the very tears of God.

Often when you stand along a parade route, you find yourself straining to look back from when the parade is coming. And as it passed by you turn and soon find yourself leaning forward to see from where it is coming. Well, you can’t stand along this parade route very long without turning toward Jerusalem. While you are shouting Hosanna, you can’t help but find yourself shouting Hosanna with like Jesus, your face set for Jerusalem. When you know how it all is going to end the Palm Sunday shout is fraught with praise, lament, and gratitude. A shout in response to who Jesus is and all that Jesus gives. A shout that comes from deeper and deeper within the soul when you stand waist-deep in a world so full of sin and suffering. A shout through tears. A shout with a fist raised. A shout from your knees in prayers. Save! Save! Save!

Somewhere in Mississippi, somewhere in Arkansas, somewhere in Illinois, and after last night maybe somewhere not far amid a storm’s death and destruction someone is going to shout Hosanna this morning. Somewhere along a train track with a derailed train spewing chemicals in Ohio or in Minnesota, someone this morning is going to shout Hosanna. And yes, in Nashville TN, at churches all through the city and at Covenant Presbyterian Church where teachers and children were just the next people murdered by someone with a weapon made for nothing but war, the followers of Jesus are going to shout hosanna through tears there too. When I watched the children, the young people, and the families flood the statehouse in Nashville this week demanding change, demanding help from elected officials called to serve the common good rather than feed the obsession and idolatry of guns, I couldn’t help but think that at some level those young people, those children were shouting out “save us, save us”

Some of my earliest memories of church life are from singing in the choir as a very young child. Processing on Palm Sunday down the aisle in my little white choir surplus after the choir mother spit in her hand to try to calm down my cowlick. Of course, we were singing “All Glory Laud and Honor” making the “sweet hosannas ring.” Few things may be more important in a congregation’s life than creating those memories and giving our children the language and the song of faith for the life of discipleship. Giving them permission to shout in church now so they know they can shout to God later in their own life of faith hewn by all that the world surely brings. Because one day, someday, for our children, as for us, the shout becomes so much more than a sweet hosanna. A shout to Jesus that comes when you know how the parade ends. A shout from your gut and from the tips of your toes. Save! Save! Save! Save us and save your world. That same language of faith, that same song of faith, they help us to sing, and to shout, and to pray, and to live amid the uh so believable sin of the world that clings so close yet we can boldly proclaim and cling not to the world’s darkness but to his unbelievable dying love for you and for me and for the world.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save! Save! Save!

Many, many Palm Sundays ago, the staff and I decided to change up the liturgy on Palm Sunday just a bit. There had been a growing practice in the liturgical Presbyterian world in the 90s and early 2000s of turning Palm Sunday more toward Passion Sunday. A Sunday that looks to the cross of Christ and his suffering. Liturgically speaking, it means making the hard turn in a Palm Sunday service from the Triumphal Entry to the Cross. As we were planning worship that Sunday, we were aware that such a practice, such a shift had not really made it to the worship life here at Nassau. So yes, we had a palm parade and sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and after the welcome and the first lesson, the service started to turn toward the cross. The gospel lesson was from the passion. I preached on the cross. We moved through the rest of the service and the final move that was different was that I said the benediction before the final hymn. There was no postlude and the congregation was invited to leave in silence after we sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Outside on the front patio, one of the first people through the door was a professor long since retired and moved away who came up to me more than just a but irritated with me and the service of worship. The professor shook his palm at me like putting a finger in my chest and said “Don’t ever do that to me again”. And the professor, not joking in the slightest, walked away not very happily. I had only been here at Nassau a few years. I knew the professor from the seminary pretty well and I was sort of speechless as the professor walked away. Now, if it happened, today? Some 20 years later? This morning? Though the benediction is not before the final hymn and neither are we singing “when I survey the wondrous cross”. But today, my cranky old self, my own weather-worn, world-worn faith, I might just say before the professor had a chance to turn away, I might just say “You’re welcome”