“Marching” (4/2/23 Palm Sunday Reflection on Matthew 21:1-11+) #pittsfield #sermon #berkshires

(I’ve been preaching without a manuscript the last few Sundays, so haven’t had anything to publish here. I’ll share the sermon and other writings here as I have something available!)

Less than 20 years ago, I was part of an interfaith group of religious leaders working to support hotel room cleaners in Chicago. We’d heard the stories of how hotel workers were pushed to clean more rooms than could reasonably be cleaned safely and quickly. At that point, the number of life-altering injuries they suffered to their backs, arms, shoulders, and necks rivaled those suffered in heavy industry. Their pay was low, and workers were frequently pressured into taking additional shifts and then not being paid the overtime they had coming their way. Sometimes, the workers were told they were paid based on cleaning a certain number of rooms, not the hours they worked. A cleaner could be told they had to clean 15 or more rooms in a shift and, if they didn’t get their rooms done, they would have to come in early or stay late with no pay.

They tried to organize, but management was intentionally hiring those who spoke English as a second language to make organizing more complicated and so that they could play different ethnic groups against each other. In many cases, their health benefits, if they had any, included being sent to a company doctor who would downplay their injuries and send people back to work before they fully healed. The threat of retaliatory firing for speaking up or asking for more sick time off was always present, as was, in some cases, the suggestion that management could somehow get workers who were refugees deported back to their home countries. At the very least, the hours or pay of those who spoke up would frequently get cut. It was atrocious.

Those in the religious community had workers and hotel management attend the churches we served, and we were asked to do something by unionized workers. After several fruitless meetings with the management of different hotels and executives in hotel chains brought few concessions, we decided to go in a different direction. There was a hotel association meeting about once a month where hotel management would come together and discuss challenges and opportunities in their industry. We decided to help them add our concerns about hotel workers to their agenda.

Once we discovered which hotel they were meeting in, the workers planned a picket line around the building. Next, those of us who were religious leaders organized ourselves so that we entered through several entrances and, once inside, put on our religious vestments such as robes, stoles, prayer shawls, kippah, etc. Then, we gathered in the lobby in front of the room where hotel management gathered. At this point, hotel security started to gather, too. 

One of our numbers loudly read a statement in what I would call an extraordinary preacher voice. Then we all unrolled long copies of scrolls with the signatures of religious leaders throughout Chicago who supported our statement. The statement included a commitment to encourage all those we interacted with only to hold events and stay at those hotels where hotel workers were treated fairly. Due to this action and several others by hotel workers and their supporters, I’m happy to say that the campaign for better treatment and a union contract renewal that we expected to take about a year was done in three months. The hotel workers won.

So, why am I telling you this?

Jesus had been working with the marginalized in his region for years. He’d heard about how people had been ostracized and mistreated by the religious and political leaders of the day. People were sick, hungry, and dying in the street because of how religious and political authorities treated people. Jesus healed a lot of people. Jesus fed a lot of people. Jesus had spoken up and even directly debated with the religious leaders, but still, people were mistreated.

Jesus decided to step things up a bit. One of the ways that some of the corrupt religious leaders made money was through a complicated financial scheme at the temple. We’re used to many different churches in an area, as reflected by our morning blessings of the palms. However, in Jesus’ day, there was one central synagogue where everyone came to fulfill their religious obligations. One had to make particular offerings ranging from financial to animal offerings. 

But there was a catch. The temple had its own financial system, and to make an offering or purchase one of the animals for sacrifice, you had to use the temple’s money. Several money changers took advantage of this system outside the temple by charging exorbitant fees to exchange the money everyone else used in everyday life outside the temple for the special temple money. Some scholars think it is likely that it was part of this system for the religious and political leaders to officially or unofficially get a cut from these fees and make money from the offerings.

If you want to change any oppressive system, one of the best ways to get the attention of those in power is through their wallets. So, Jesus got organized and pulled together a protest march. He’d already pulled together the 12 disciples to help and sent them out to fulfill some specific tasks. 

It was customary for those returning from military conquests to ride back into town on the largest war horse they could find to the cheers of the citizens. Jesus’ sent his disciples to retrieve a donkey he could ride into town. The contrast would have been clear to everyone, but what it might have meant needs to be clarified. Some scholars believe that Jesus riding in on a donkey instead of a war horse would have been an indication of the humility of Jesus; that this was to indicate that Jesus was going to be in contrast to the more militaristic Messiah that many were expecting. 

Other scholars believe this was more of a theatrical mockery of those who came in on the giant war horses. The whole procession intended to mock the over-the-top entry of military leaders who entered in this way to establish political power. We don’t know which was intended, but those along the route figured something out. They, possibly with the help of others organized for this protest, knew what to do. They made this entry into Jerusalem big and triumphant.

What came next was probably unexpected. If we were to have continued past today’s lectionary reading, we would have read this from Matthew 21:12-17:

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’

but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did and heard the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies

you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”

Jesus led a protest march to the temple and overturned the tables of those taking advantage and ripping off those who came to fulfill their religious duties. This action would have stopped all temple business for the day and meant a significant financial hit for those who benefited. Until this point, much of what Jesus was doing was probably annoying, but this act was the last straw for many. At this point, the mood among the leaders of Jerusalem changed from trying to challenge Jesus to wanting him dead.

Palm Sunday is almost meaningless if separated from the action at the temple. These weren’t separate actions. So, how did Palm Sunday become what Palm Sunday is? 

It’s almost as though those who originally put together the religious calendar we follow wanted to sentimentalize the march into Jerusalem to isolate it from the table-turning intentionally. It’s almost as though religious leaders in the Church wanted to emphasize a holy, meek, and mild Jesus so that people wouldn’t get all riled up by some radical community organizer Jesus. It’s almost as though those who were in power in rich Church-based structures didn’t want to see their power, authority, and financial stability threatened by movements that didn’t only serve the poor and marginalized but empowered them to challenge those with religious and political power. It’s almost as though those in power were trying to say that serving people is ethical and proper. However, providing a path to healing social, financial, and political woundedness through protest is somehow grandiose and lacks humility.

During Lent, we’ve been using Micah 6:8 as our theme:

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

We focused on what “doing justice” might mean during the first two weeks. Then, we discussed the idea that the Hebrew word for require, in this scripture, was more closely related to the meaning of our bodies requiring food and water to survive than some top-down command. Next, a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the idea that the Hebrew word translated as “love kindness” might be best translated as “doing acts of loving kindness.” Finally, last week, Becky preached about the idea of wisdom. This may seem like it steps out of the Micah 6:8 text, but it doesn’t. 

There has been a growing disagreement among biblical scholars about whether the word we read as “humbly” might be better translated as “wisely.” So, this would mean that this text should read “…walk wisely with God.” However, some scholars also suggest that this differentiation between “humbly” and “wisely” might be much smaller in Hebrew than in English. They suggest that, in Hebrew, it would be understood that any wise action was also humble and that humble action was also wise; that the meaning of these things was intertwined.

Within the fullness of a Palm Sunday that includes the tables overturned, all of Micah 6:8 is implemented. It is the culmination of all Jesus had been teaching and doing. By confronting those in power with a march and empowering those who had been disempowered, Jesus is doing justice. By acting out of the stories Jesus learned from those who were oppressed while providing direct services such as feeding and healing, Jesus was doing acts of loving-kindness. By surrounding himself with prayer and a community of accountability, Jesus acted wisely and humbly. Jesus didn’t model a full and faithful life as just one of these things but all of these things. Sometimes, it’s suggested that actions – such as direct service – which make everyone feel good – are OK for a church to do, but justice-related actions that make some people uncomfortable are somehow political and, therefore, forbidden. Or, sometimes, it’s suggested that actions of service such as feeding, housing, or healing people are inferior because they don’t confront systems that make people hungry, homeless, or sick.

The march Jesus invites us on is an invitation to do all these things collectively. Therefore, it is wise to recognize how these things work together, and it is humble to recognize that multiple approaches are needed.

In Greek, “Hosanna” means “Please save us.” On Palm Sunday, we’ve been taught to use this phrase as a term of adoration and praise, but it meant something very different at the time. It was a plea.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

To have our Hosanna answered, Jesus invites us to join him in the holy work of walking humbly and wisely, the holy work of doing acts of loving kindness, and the holy work of doing justice. Amen.


The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!

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