Reading Palms Reading Palms Reading Palms Reading Palms

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“Reading Palms”
Rev. Stephen Milton
March 24th, 2024, Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, a day when we re-enact Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Christ has been preaching and healing for about three years and has avoided Jerusalem. He knows that his message will bring him into conflict with the temple authorities. But now he is ready to enter the city, and he does not sneak in quietly. 

He tells his disciples to go into the city and look for a very specific mode of travel – a donkey’s colt. He seems to know where they will find one. It may seem like a strange choice, after all, colts are young, and not used to having riders. But Jesus knows what he is doing. He knows that on the other side of town, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is riding into the city, with a contingent of soldiers. They are coming in armed to the teeth. They are here to ensure that no riots or insurrections break out among the Jews during Passover, a time when the city has been filled with Jews from all over the Middle East. The Romans are making a grand gesture, and Christ does, too, by choosing a donkey’s colt as his ride.

Jesus is engaging in an act of political and religious symbolism. In the prophecy of Zechariah, it predicts that God’s champion, the Prince of Peace, will arrive on a donkey’s colt, to bring peace to the people of Israel. Christ is inviting this comparison in his choice of this colt. And the people appear to get the reference. As he enters the city they sing to him, Hosanna, which means “save us.” They call him the blessed one, the son of David. These are all terms for the messiah.

But the messiah they are expecting is the one described in Zechariah. He is called the Prince of Peace, but he does it through warfare.  Before he comes into the city in triumph, the Messiah and God have waged war on Israel’s enemies:

But the Lord will take away Tyre’s possessions
    and destroy her power on the sea,
    and she will be consumed by fire.
5 Ashkelon will see it and fear;
    Gaza will writhe in agony,
    and Ekron too, for her hope will wither.
   Gaza will lose her king
    and Ashkelon will be deserted.  (Zechariah 9:4-5)

The Messiah in this passage is a warrior, drenched in the blood of his enemies. Christ wants the people of Jerusalem to think of this warrior who is called the Prince of Peace, that’s why he chooses a donkey’s colt. But what Jesus knows, and the crowd does not, is that Jesus will not do anything warlike in the week ahead. He will not plot an insurrection; he will not raise an army against the Romans. He expects to end up dead on a cross, in what will seem like a crushing defeat.

It will only be later, after he has been resurrected, that his disciples will realize that when he entered Jerusalem, he was declaring that peace will no longer come as it used to. Peace will no longer be bought in blood. Instead, Jesus is ushering in a new era of peace, one that will be won through love and passive resistance to violence. A totally different path than what they were expecting. By riding in on that colt, Jesus is saying the future is open ended, it cannot be predicted anymore by prophecy. God has something else in mind, and it will not be what you expect. 

We are living at a time when there is battle over what the future will look like. Conservative leaders keep telling us that the current path will lead to disaster. In the US, conservatives keep telling us the murderous immigrants are flooding over the border, crime is out of control. The Republican presidential nominee promises to close the borders, and set up detention camps for the homeless, immigrants and refugees. He claims that the solution is to go back to the way things were, when America was great, and controlled by white men. This appeal to the past can be heard by autocrats in other nations, too. Putin dreams of restoring the Soviet Union. The Taliban in Afghanistan dream of the Middle Ages. China wants Taiwan back. In Iran, the leaders dream of a past Persian empire. [1] All over the world, the past is the guide to the future, a past which is oversimplified, inaccurate, and deeply unjust.

There are all sorts of things wrong with this kind of politics. Too much has changed to bring the past back, and many of us wouldn’t want it anyway. When Canada was created in 1867, 

these people were in charge. The Fathers of Confederation. All white, all males. They imagined a Canada which would basically be a huge Britain, filled with Anglo Saxon immigrants, with a bit of France in Quebec. 

In 1867, women couldn’t vote in federal elections, neither could Status Indians. The fathers of Confederation liked it that way, and openly hoped that Indigenous people would just assimilate into white culture, and their lands would revert back to the federal government. By 1900, the federal government blocked Black people from emigrating here. Canada was to be ruled by white men, for white people.

But of course, that’s not what happened. Canada in the 21st century looks very different from what the fathers of Confederation imagined. They were racist and sexist men of their time. I suspect they would be horrified by Canada as it is now. Indigenous people didn’t fade away, they are enjoying a cultural renaissance, gaining more and more self government. They constitute the group with the fastest birthrate in the country*. Women can vote, and Black people have equal rights, on paper at least. We have same sex marriage, marijuana is legal, and there are women cabinet ministers. This is not the future the Fathers of Confederation expected or wanted.

The reason the future has turned out like this is that the people who were denied rights have fought to get them. Women fought for decades the get the vote. The Black civil rights movement in the United States and Canada fought for the end of segregation, official and unofficial. Indigenous people have used the courts to gain their rights. And in the process, life has become richer. Canadian literature is read all over the world, with many of our most famous writers being women and people of colour: 

Margaret Atwood,
Alice Munro, 
Lawrence Hill, 
Michael Ondaatje, 
Richard Wagamese. 

What would Canadian jazz be like
without Oscar Peterson? 
Or Canadian pop without Drake 
and the Weekend? 

Our art and culture have become world class precisely because the kinds of people the Fathers of Confederation thought should be silent have spoken up. 

People in power often lack imagination, but the future belongs to those who know that the future will not look like the past. Jesus knew this, too. On Palm Sunday, he took the script his people knew, its prophecies of a warrior Messiah, and he ripped it up. He rides in on that donkey, with no intention of going to war. He wants to show that the way forward for the Prince of Peace will not be won through violence, or the destroying of other cultures. Instead, during his ministry, he embraces difference. He goes out of his way to include everyone who has been excluded by Jewish society. He allows women to be among his followers, and his longest dialogue in all of the gospels is with a woman at a well. He talks to and heals people with leprosy. He dines with sinners. He touches the untouchable. And he heals the daughter of a pagan woman in Tyre, a city that prophecy said should be destroyed. 

A few days after his entry into Jerusalem on that colt, he asks the disciples to find a room in town for the Passover meal. He knows of a place. He tells the disciples to go into the city and look for a man who is carrying a jug of water. Follow him to his home, the master of the household will give us a room.

At that time, fetching water was women’s work. That’s why there was a woman at the well in Samaria. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Jacob met Rachel at a well, Moses met his future wife at a well, too. [2] Women get the water. So, when Jesus tells his disciples to find a man who is carrying water in Jerusalem, he is asking them to find a gender non-conforming man. Someone who will stand out. A man who has chosen to live as a woman, who may in fact identify as female. Jesus knows this person, and where they live. Jesus knows their partner will say yes if Jesus asks for the upper room for the last supper. Queer theologians see this passage as proof that Jesus knew some same sex couples and didn’t have a problem with them. [3] Jesus embraces diversity, even in gender expression.

But when you embrace diversity, and allow all kinds of people to thrive, the future becomes hard to predict. It becomes impossible to read a palm to see the future. This kind of future is based on more people enjoying greater freedom than they had in the past. Not just the freedom to be themselves. But also, the freedom to interact with others different from themselves. It is no coincidence that so many of our celebrated artists and authors are immigrants or people who have lived through an encounter between different cultures, races, genders, and sexualities. We get to see Canada through their immigrant experiences, a meeting of two cultures. It is that encounter between cultures that is so unpredictable. It is never a straight line from the past to the future.  Once you embrace freedom, the future is wide open.

When Christ entered Jerusalem riding prophecy’s warhorse, he was writing a new future. He had no intention of fulfilling that prophecy of violent conquest. He was re-writing the future and asking all of us to join him. To see that God wants every person of every kind to flourish, to be touched by God and be enlivened. Some people may find that scary, and that’s why we need to be reminded that we are living into God’s future. One where we are not called to re-enact the Bible, but to take the Love Jesus preached and practiced, and see where it will take us. We are invited to hold hands together to walk into a future that could be more just, more beautiful, and delightful than anything we have known so far. A future worth singing about and waving palms for.