Look Up, Show Up, Speak Up

We all understand the historical and theological significance of Palm Sunday. A prophecy had declared that a king would come to the people of Israel, humbly carried by a donkey and a colt. Jesus fulfills the prophecy by entering Jerusalem in just this way to the cheers of the crowd. Once inside the city, he strides into the temple and turns over the tables of the moneychangers and the merchants selling sacrificial doves. 

These events fuel the escalating tensions between Jesus and the temple authorities and firm up their resolve to deal with the troublemaker from Nazareth. In this sense, Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end, the opening scene in the penultimate act of the unfolding drama that draws us toward Good Friday. 

Holy Week starts here and we find ourselves looking toward its culmination in the two days next weekend that are so central to our faith: 

the day on which Love was crucified and the world went dark; 

and the day on which Love rose again and the world was astonished.

As a result of this forward pull, we may not give Palm Sunday its due. We may reduce it to a useful reminder that Easter is closer than we thought. Or, if we engage with it more seriously, we may focus on what Palm Sunday meant to the people gathered around Jesus then, missing the opportunity to consider what it might mean to us now

So, I ask: What does the story of Palm Sunday have to say to us—about who we are and how we should live?Do the events of that day convey any lessons? Is there anything we can learn by looking closely at these events, being careful not to look past them?

I want to suggest that Palm Sunday provides us with a critical insight into what a life of faith looks like. It offers a human “job description” of sorts. And it tells us that we have three central responsibilities in our time on earth: look up; show up; and speak up.

Let’s start with look up.

Put yourself in the position of a member of the crowd that materialized to celebrate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. I think we can safely assume that—like the rest of us—those people had other stuff to do. They could go to the market, clean the house, count their money, pay their taxes—in other words take care of the business of everyday life. 

They could even choose—like we sometimes do—to spend their time less productively, complaining about a family member who had slighted them, gossiping about a neighbor, plotting revenge for some perceived offense, and so on. 

In other words, those people could have chosen to spend the day looking down. They could have fully occupied themselves with looking down into the ministerial chores of existence; down into their own egos and interests; down into the smallest and crustiest chambers of their hearts.

We, too, can choose to look down. Indeed, I fear that the temptations to do so have multiplied exponentially over the millennia. A plethora of forces now combine to draw our attention in that direction. A culture of selfishness, celebrity, and TikTok attention spans seems intent on miring us in trash and trivia. 

We spend much more time looking at screens—television screens, computer screens, cell phone screens—than we do looking into the eyes of other human beings. We are so overwhelmed with things we do not need to know that we have no capacity left for the things that we do. 

We have become masters of the impermanent and ultimately irrelevant, denizens of a society where it seems likely that for every person who can name any of the disciples there are fifty people who can name all of the Kardashians. T.S. Eliot offered this haunting prophecy: “And the wind shall say, these were a decent, godless people, their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls.”

Contrast this with the people in the crowd that gathered on Palm Sunday. These were people who had chosen to look up. They were watching for signs of the divine presence in their lives. They were waiting in hope and expectation. They understood that we cannot find anything that matters without looking for it and that we cannot look for anything that matters if we are looking down. 

This is not to say that the people in the crowd were perfect—or even better than us. To the contrary, I think that part of the power of the message here comes from the fact that we know this is not true. After all, in the week to come this crowd around Jerusalem would prove themselves inconstant, fickle, and prone to distraction and confusion—just like we are. They stood by while bad things happened and turned their backs on Love—just like we do. 

But the message of this day—thisday—is that each of us, every last one of us, has the capacity to choose to look up instead. And, if we will do so, we have our best chance, maybe our only chance, of seeing what we have been looking for. 

Of course, the people in the crowd did not just look up—they showed up.

They dropped what they were doing and came to watch and to participate and to cheer. The gospels are full of signal moments like this, when some go and others stay behind. Consider, for example, the moment when Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him and they immediately put down their nets and do so—everyone except Zebedee, who takes a pass so he can work on the boats and mend the nets.

I feel badly for poor old Zebedee—famous only for choosing the daily and mundane over the eternal and transformational. And, unfortunately, I see a lot of myself in him. So, it is without judgment that I say that perhaps I should start every morning drinking from a coffee cup emblazoned with the simple motto: “Today, try not to be Zebedee.”

With respect to this business of showing up I think the Palm Sunday story tells us something very important. It says that the people who gathered threw things in Jesus’s path. Some were fortunate enough to have a cloak to spare, so they spread those before Him. 

But those who were less fortunate cut palms from the surrounding trees and placed those in his way. In short, the story tells us that everyone could take part; everyone could join the celebration; everyone was allowed in.  Everyone could show up.

We need to practice showing up often because there is some art to it. We need to practice the faith it requires—in others, in ourselves, in something greater than ourselves. Showing up is the ongoing experiment in which we bring our hands and somehow—perhaps even out of palm leaves—God gives us tools. 

In the coming week, we will be reminded of a fundamental truth about the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus. In the end, he was not crucified for what he did. He was crucified for what he said. It may be that in the history of the world no one has ever spoken such powerful and challenging words—words that have the potential to inspire us, to change us, to save us and resurrect us from the darkness and death that would otherwise consume us.

Those people who showed up two thousand years ago had a lesson for us here, too—a lesson about speaking up. 

They did not have grand and eloquent speeches to give, parables to share, poetry to recite. But they did bring a word—“Hosanna”—that speaks volumes. Its roots lie in a plea for deliverance: “please save us.” But it came to be used as an expression of great joy and celebration, in some ways like we presently think of the word “Hallelujah.”

Shouting that word in that context was risky business. By doing so, those in the crowd aligned themselves against the existing order. They connected themselves to a man who threatened to bring down every structural authority and source of oppression around him.

Elie Wiesel said: “ We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere … Whenever men and women are persecuted … that place must—at that moment—become the center of [our] universe.”

I do not pretend to know much. But I do know this. I know that evil has a muscular co-conspirator in silence. And on that day, two thousand years ago, the people did not remain silent. 

Neither can we.

And, so, it comes down to this.

Palm Sunday has a lesson for us: 

Look up; show up; and speak up. 

Palm Sunday has a question for us: 

What else does God require but that?

And Palm Sunday has an answer for us:


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