There’s Power in the Palm

Grace to you, and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Here we are on Palm Sunday, marking both the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. Here we turn our faces from the wilderness to the cross. Here Jesus enters the holy city as a king, only to leave as a criminal.

Now, if you were paying attention during the passion gospel, you may have noticed that in Mark’s version there are no palms explicitly – just leafy branches, weeds, any scraps of greenery that could be found. While some folks, even in this neighborhood, might be more likely to join us if we called it “Weed Sunday,” alas, the Church thought better, and “Palm Sunday” it is.

Many of you know my passions, and particularly how they have been shaped in the past several months while working on a second Master’s degree at Drew University. My primary field of study is Church and Society, and my thesis is looking at food justice in Trenton. So, of course, you can’t expect me to preach on a day with a plant in the title, and not geek out just a little bit about agriculture, botany, and other plant-related things.

So here you have it – everything you never knew you didn’t really need to know about palm trees, all in under three minutes.

All the plants we know as palm trees are from the family Arecaceae, and you might be surprised to know that there are almost 3,000 different species of them. Most botanists think these trees first evolved about 80 million years ago, and although they are technically classified as evergreens, palm trees aren’t really related to pine trees and hardly remind us of Christmas.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a certain variety of palm tree was notably popular for producing edible fruit – these trees are still around today and are known as the Mediterranean date palm. And, perhaps most common nowadays, of course, is the cocos nucifera, the type of palm tree which produces coconuts.

While for us they may be a sign of tropical weather, palms have been symbols of peace, victory, and fertility for thousands of years. But palms also had an important economic function. Some produce fruit, which is helpful in the hot climates where palm trees grow – and countless others have beneficial byproducts which are still useful today. You can find some form of palm tree in waxes, lotions, cosmetics, vinegar, medicine, brushes, mattresses, ropes, baskets, clothing, and although I’ve never tried it, there is such a thing as palm wine.

Enough eyes are currently glazed over to know that my three minutes are up, but here’s the point.  There’s power in the palm.

There’s so much power in the palm.

Bearing all that in mind – there’s a reason palms play such a prominent role in our worship service today, too. As Jesus triumphantly rode into the city, people grabbed leafy branches, weeds, extra garments, whatever they could find to cover the dusty road. And with palms in their palms, the crowd shouted, “Hosanna to the King of Kings.” Well, at least, that’s what they say at first.

There are some different palms we hear about in today’s passion gospel, too. Not in the leafy branches, nor in the hands of those who first shout “Hosanna” and then shout “Crucify.” No, we hear of Jesus’ own palms, pierced by the cold metal of sin and brokenness.

Notice that it’s not a fist closed in anger or judgement that’s nailed to the cross, but a palm – an open hand, freely offering to die for the sake of the world. Each individual sin, from working on the Sabbath to speeding down Route 1; each corporal sin, from turning away immigrants and refugees to worshiping guns; these are the painful spikes which are driven into Jesus’ palms.

And while his arms are outstretched, drawing all the world to himself, Jesus’ bloodied palms become an image of redemption. Those wounded palms become symbols of peace, victory, unity, and new life.

And let’s not forget, those wounds in Jesus’ palms are our own wounds. We are the guilty ones. Yet Jesus’ palms bear that burden for us. That which was perfect is broken, so that we who are broken might be made perfect.

There’s power in the palm.

Now there’s one last stop on this Palm train, and it’s perhaps the most obvious one. In a few minutes, with outstretched hands, you will approach the table of grace and forgiveness. This is the table where ordinary things become extraordinary; where cracked wheat and crushed grapes become something new, something powerful, something life-giving.

As you stand before this table, in the palm of your hands, you will cradle the very body of Christ, that body which was broken on the tree so that our bodies might be made whole. And as those simple, ordinary elements sit in the palm of our hands, we realize that we are the true body of Christ, that bread of heaven, sent out to feed the hungry, nurture the weak, and nourish the unwell.

Earlier I mentioned that palm trees are considered evergreens. This has nothing to do with their color, or the fact that they flower year-round. No, palm trees are evergreens because several individual leaves grow off of a single stem. And if there’s one thing I can get you to remember from my three-minute crash course in palm trees, that’s it. We’re all sort of like a palm.

So even when you feel unloved or alone, even when you feel like God isn’t listening, even when you open your mouth to say “Hosanna” and end up shouting “Crucify” – remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. One might say, we are connected like individual leaves on a single palm frond.

And friends, there’s power in that palm. Amen.

This sermon was preached March 25, 2018 at St Michael’s Episcopal Church in Trenton, NJ. To hear the audio, click here.

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