It has been said that Christians go to church on Palm Sunday because we love a parade. To some extent it’s true, isn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t love a parade, especially a church parade with the children we know and love meandering or marching purposefully among us, up and down the aisles, waving their palms, inspecting their palms, uh, tripping over their palms, maybe even misusing their palms. Well, whatever happens, we do, we love a parade!
Parades are festive! They are exciting, and unpredictable. They allow us to celebrate our heroes, laugh with the jesters among us, rally around our leaders, be dazzled by the artists among us. They help us feel good about the good that’s going on in our community and in our world, and help us forget the things going poorly, the struggles, the worries, the concerns in our lives. Parades, whether you are marching in the street or watching from the sidewalk, are events of importance, celebration, unity of spirit!
The parades I have attended since moving here have been the first parades I have seen in quite a long while. For each of these we played that game of chance where we tried to leave the house early enough to get a decent seat, but not SO early that we were sitting the freezing cold or bright sun (depending on the parade in question, of course) too long. We have done pretty well in all of our parade viewing attempts, but each time I forget how the line between marcher and spectator becomes blurred at a parade.
I have noticed at our local parades how as the crowd is waiting and the streets we line are still open, that, obviously, we spectators are all very careful about staying on the sidewalks, in our proper place along the route. However, as the parade gets closer, partly because of the crowding where we’re standing, and partly, I think, out of the mounting excitement, we start to inch out into the street. Whether we signed up to march or not, everyone loves a parade, and we all want to be just little bit closer to the action. Parades have this way of blurring the lines between spectator and participant in a way that makes us all feel like we’re part of the action.
Imagine being a part of the parade when Jesus entered Jerusalem the week of his death. Certainly the crowds that joined him in the parade didn’t know that was what would happen a few days later. How could they? Jesus had predicted his death before his ride on a colt, but those closest to him didn’t even believe him, certainly the folks who just happened to live along the parade route wouldn’t have believed him either, even if they had known what he had said. The crowds didn’t know exactly where he was going or what was about to happen to him, but, well, everyone loves a parade, and what they did know was what they had heard about this man.
As the murmurs made their way along the route, “This man heals. He throws the demons into pigs and sends them down hills. I heard he EVEN brought a girl back to life,” the excitement grew. As the stories passed from spectator to spectator their admiration blossomed. As the prestige of the one coming became more widely known the desire to be a part of his parade became overwhelming. Those who were watching joined the parade. They laid down their own clothes to make a path and keep the dry dust of the road under control. They ran to the fields and cut palms to lay before a man worthy of such a parade and honor. They joined in the fervor surrounding this Jesus, shouting together, chanting as one, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us!” The spectators became participants as they fell in step with Jesus, joining his parade, showing him honor, worshiping him even, as they walked down the road to Jerusalem.
Millenia later we try to reenact this scene, remember it with our minds and our bodies, but, let’s be honest, we don’t come that close. A friend of mine was musing this week about what it would take to get the adults in her congregation to join the Palm Sunday parade. I know of several churches where pastors, for the first time, were going to gather worshipers outside of the sanctuary before worship and let the whole congregation be a part of the parade. In some congregations this is already a tradition, but for many, it is not only foreign, but it would probably feel awkward, maybe even embarrassing or ridiculous.
I imagine if we tried it here some might make excuses. For one, the palms are for the children. Let’s just leave it at that. Let them have their fun, their day to march. We don’t need to take that away from them. Also, the symbols are sort of lost on us. Cutting down palm branches probably wouldn’t be our first instinct for trying to honor someone worthy of a spontaneous parade. Trying to get into that parade might feel forced, inauthentic, just plain weird. And finally, some of us just aren’t that demonstrative in our worship. I don’t mean that as a critique on way or another, just a statement of the situation. Some of us are just not palm wavers.
And, you know, I think that’s OK. I think it’s OK that some of us in the body of Christ worship with arms in the air and eyes upturned, while others worship with hands folded and heads bowed. There has been a lot of ink spilled and words exchanged in this country and around the world about the right or better way to worship. Much drama has played out over whether this music or that is right or acceptable, this order or that better leads the people to praise, this style of communion or that honors the meaning of the sacrament. Drama has risen up about drama in worship, or the use of visual arts, or dance. We have heard it said that wherever two or three are gathered, Christ is there. Well, it also seems to work that wherever two or three are gathered, there are 3 or 4 opinions about what worship should look like.
A 19th century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, besides having one of the best last names EVER, wrote extensively about the drama of worship. One of my favorite writings of his, and really of anyone’s, about worship, really turned on its head my understanding of what worship is and should be. Kierkegaard wrote that worship is drama, and not because we tend to fight over what it looks like or feels like. Worship is a drama because there are actors or participants, an audience, and even stage hands or techies or directors. That doesn’t seem horribly earth-shaking, I know. Even the way we structure our building seems similar to the design of theaters and auditoriums. However the way Kierkegaard assigned these roles is entirely different from the way we traditionally organize our space.
According to Kierkegaard, the pastor and other worship leaders are NOT the actors in the play. They are not performing the script for the enjoyment of the congregation-audience. Instead, in the worship drama, God is the audience of one and those in the congregation are the actors. Pastors, preachers, lay readers, musicians, they are all the behind the scenes support, directing traffic in the wings of the stage, setting the tone by designing the set, adding the soundtrack from the pit, giving words to the actors when words are necessary, but again the ACTORS are in the congregation. The worshipers are the ones who join the parade.
This worship we show up for each Sunday, it’s about more than what I like, what I want to do, what entertains me or makes me feel good. This worship we come to participate in is about doing everything we can to bring glory and honor to God. It’s about gathering all our gifts and desires to please God and waving them before Jesus, laying them at his feet, showing him that we believe he is worthy of our time, our talents, and our treasure. This worship we embody is about using everything we have and everything we are as this body of Christ to love God and love others in God’s name. It’s not about any one of us; it’s about all of us praising God.
Worship is not about watching the show, being entertained, standing on the sidelines, waving our palms. Worship is about joining the parade and walking with Jesus. In this way worship isn’t even just about what happens in this place for one hour (on a USUAL Sunday) each week, or for 30 minutes on Wednesday night or for special services during the week. Worship is about aligning our praise and our lives with his not only when the crowd swells and the excitement mounds, but also when he GETS ANGRY at the injustice in the world, turning over the tables of those who cheat others, also when he KNEELS at the feet of his friends, washing the caked on mud and muck off of their tired, sore feet, also when he GIVES THANKS to God for bread that will be shared with one who will betray him.
In this way, worship isn’t just something we do on Sunday morning in this or any sanctuary. I will wholeheartedly make the case that it STARTS here where the community is gathered in the name of Christ to give praise and honor together, but it doesn’t end when those hands hit 10:30 (if you’re lucky). Worship extends from this place to go wherever we go, to do whatever we do. Worship is the drama we enact, it’s the story we tell with our lives that is pleasing and gives joy to God, the story of acting on behalf of others who are weak or oppressed, the story of humbly serving those whom we love and those whom we have never met, the story of forgiving even those who hurt us deeply. Worship is what we do, not what we attend or witness.
At one point this week I was looking through pictures of Palm Sunday worship in other churches on the internet. The title of an otherwise unremarkable picture jumped out at me. The amateur photographer had named it “Lay down your palms – Pick up the cup.” If we are REALLY going to worship Jesus, if we are REALLY going to join the parade to honor him and be blessed by him, it has to be more than just the words we say and the palms we wave, rejoicing at the happy seasons and celebrations. We have to be ready to put that stuff aside sometimes and worship him by taking up the cup that he takes. We can come rejoicing with the crowds on Palm Sunday, we can even celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the meal he shares with us today, but we must also be ready to walk with him into the somber and confusing upper room, the dark and confrontation garden, the painful and humiliating cross. Then we will have become more than just spectators. Then we will be worshiping God.