Open the Gates of Righteousness – Sermon for Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  Indeed, as Paul declared, this “is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  Therefore, “open the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.”

We love parades, especially parades that celebrate a hero’s return or a championship team. Today is Palm Sunday, which we mark with a parade of palms.  The children and choir enter the sanctuary waving palm branches, even as we sing to Jesus, declaring him to be “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.”

Palm Sunday is a day of celebration, even if this triumphant entry leads to tragedy before triumph returns. Good Friday will come soon enough, but in the meantime, let us celebrate the presence of God in our midst.

During this Lenten season we have been attending to words from the Old Testament. We began with a reminder that our spiritual ancestor is a wandering Aramean. This image of the wanderer has been with us ever since, even when we entered the Land of Promise with Joshua. We heard how God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. We heard how God called Moses from the desert to go and deliver Israel out of the hands of Pharaoh. We made our way to the Land of Promise, crossing the river, but then we discovered that this time of settling in the land gave way to exile in Babylon. No matter where our spiritual ancestors wandered, God was with them. Yes, God is always at work laying down new pathways so that we might make our way forward.
On Palm Sunday we remember how Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. The crowds welcomed him with shouts of praise. This was a festal procession with branches being laid down before him. The people gave thanks because they felt quite sure that their salvation had come.
The 118th Psalm helps define Palm Sunday. It speaks of the procession to the altar, to the Temple of God, where the people give thanks to God because God’s steadfast love endures forever.
 As we attend to this Psalm, we hear a voice cry out to those who control the gate to the Temple. This voice demands that the gates of righteousness be opened, so that the righteous might enter. Who are the righteous? They are the pilgrims. They are the ones who come to worship God in God’s holy Temple. They are the ones whom God delivered from Egypt and from Babylon. But we too can be counted among the righteous. We enter the gates to the Temple with Jesus, for he is the righteous one who comes in the name of the Lord. As we enter the gates of righteousness, we heap praises upon Jesus, declaring him to be blessed.
While Holy Week begins with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, we know that this isn’t the end of the story. Jesus doesn’t just enter the city gates and take up residence in the royal palace. He doesn’t take over the Temple and make it his own. Jesus faces a difficult road that includes suffering and death. By this Jesus understands human suffering and death. But along with this reality, there is also the promise of redemption. There is salvation in his train. Death will come, but life will emerge victorious. Therefore, we can give thanks to God and rejoice and be glad in this day.
I was having a conversation with some colleagues the other day about the present and future of the church. These aren’t easy times for churches. Everyone seems to be experiencing declining numbers, which leads us to ask – what about the future? This conversation came up because we’re reading Ruth Fletcher’s book Thrive. Ruth is the Regional Minister for Montana, and she does consulting with churches who want to grow and engage in mission. So that’s where the discussion came from. We were talking about what the church has to offer people who have largely tuned us out. It’s true that people are looking for community, but there are lots of friendly places to gather besides the church. You can even find it on-line. Simply being nice isn’t enough. So what do we have to offer the world?
Well, as much as we should do good things for other people, and as much as we try to support each other, ultimately what we have to offer is our vision of God. What we have is this message about the “steadfast love of God” that “endures forever!” That means that standing at the very center of our existence as a community is our worship of God.
This Psalm has long been connected to Palm Sunday. That’s because the words of acclamation shouted out to Jesus, as he entered the city, can be found here. Yes, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” This Psalm, which celebrates God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt, invites us to give thanks because God’s “steadfast love endures forever!”
 This is good news. We come to worship a God who loves us steadfastly. There’s a reason why scripture often speaks of God’s relationship with humanity in parental terms. That’s because, at least in the ideal, a parent’s love is unconditional. I know parents who will do everything they can to love their children, even at great cost to themselves. That doesn’t mean that everything and anything goes. It simply means that no matter what, God, like a parent, will be there. This is again a reminder of God’s covenant relationship with us. And that in turn leads to worship.
What attracts us to church is different for each person. We might come, or think we come, because we like the people. We might come because of the music. We might come because, well, we’ve always come here. But ultimately what binds us all together is our worship of God. While different pieces of the liturgy or worship service may connect with us in different ways, we are linked together by our common confession of Jesus. So whether it’s the music or the communion that draws you in, ultimately it is God’s love that inhabits our praises and draws us close to God. It is this love of God that makes us righteous so that we might enter the gates of righteousness.
As Holy Week begins, it’s good to remember that before we get to the resurrection, we must first spend some time at the Table with Jesus. Then we must go to the cross and bear witness to our human desire to reject the stone that will become the chief cornerstone. Finally, after we bear witness to the death of one who expresses God’s steadfast love even when we reject it, we get to celebrate God’s act of liberation from death. Yes, next Sunday we will celebrate resurrection. For that reason we can shout out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Indeed, we can declare that “this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”