Palms of Change
Because no change is killing our kids.
My sermon on April 2, 2023 at Bluegrass United Church of Christ in Lexington, Kentucky on the occasion of Palm Sunday.
The audio is available at kennybishop.com/podcast or on your favorite podcasting service.
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Matthew 21: 1-11 (NRSV)
When [Jesus and the disciples] had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?” The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Welcome to Holy Week. And welcome to Palm Sunday, the kickoff to the week that starts with an impromptu parade, includes a Jewish celebration, a traditional meal, a revealing accusation, an anguished prayer vigil, a heartbreaking betrayal, a nasty scuffle, a compassionate healing, a hasty trial, an unfortunate denial, a brutal execution, a quick burial, and finally an Easter resurrection.
A lot will happen this Holy Week.
Most scholars and historians say that the first Palm Sunday and the events of the week that followed happened about 1,990 years ago, in the year 30 or 33 CE.
Now that we’re somewhere around a couple of millennia away from the actual events, it seems to be sort of unspectacular, doesn’t it? We’ve gotten used to the story. The events of this week will likely come and go, and eventually, most of us won’t give it a lot of thought. Because it’s really just history to us now more than anything else. And we tend to get used to history.
We do that, don’t we? We tend to move on. The things that had our attention not long ago got crowded out by new things. New breaking news takes old breaking news off the air and off the front pages and off our news feeds. And before we know it, that thing that had captivated and gripped us and maybe even motivated some righteous anger within us had become yesterday’s concern.
This time last week, Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, and Hallie Scruggs, all 9 years old, were alive and doing and thinking about whatever kids their age do and think about. It’s likely they never gave the first thought to something as unthinkable as what would happen the very next day.
But Katherine Koonce had thought about it. She didn’t have a choice. As the administrator of Covenant School in Nashville, she was aware of how possible it was in today’s world that someone could make their way into the “safe” space she was trying to make for her students and staff and turn it into something horribly tragic.
That’s why Katherine had professionals come into the school at the beginning of the school year and train her staff on what to do when the most horrific thing that could ever happen in a school actually did.
Officials say it was that training that likely saved a lot of lives once the shooting began this past Monday. But Katherine didn’t live to hear about how heroic she was. She and school custodian Mike Hill and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, all around 60 or 61 years old were now dead - just like young Evelyn, William, and Hallie, victims of a school shooter.
Six innocent people and one tragically disturbed one died in a school in Nashville this past Monday because a gun - no - because three guns - two assault-style rifles and a handgun and what Nashville law enforcement called “significant ammunition” were legally bought by one person in the days leading up to that day, and without so much as a blink.
The very next day - the day after the Nashville shooting - two were killed and five were injured in another mass shooting west of Nashville in Memphis. The day after that a gunman killed one and injured three others just east of Nashville in a community just outside of Knoxville.
Just since last Sunday, besides the three I mentioned in Tennessee, mass shootings have happened in:
Little Rock, Arkansas,
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
West Hills, California
Since we started this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 22nd, 93 people have been killed in mass shootings here in the U.S.
This year, as of around 7:30 this morning, there have been 155 mass shootings in the U.S. That averages out to 1.68 shootings per day. 556 people have been wounded. 247 have died.
But 247 unnecessarily dead people so far in 2023 is apparently not quite enough for those who can do something to help stop it to actually do it.
There were 753 mass shootings in the U.S. last year. 859 people were killed. 2,982 were wounded.
In 2021 in the United States, 920 people died and 3,141 were wounded in the course of 818 mass shootings.
I don’t want to, but I feel I need to go on.
In 2020, there were 696 mass shootings in the U.S. 661 people died and 2,750 were wounded.
That means since the 2020s began, there have been 2,419 mass shootings in the U.S. 2,680 people have died in those mass shootings. 9,422 people have been injured by bullets that have been fired from guns used in mass shootings since January 1, 2020.
I’ll remind you that these numbers only speak to mass shootings where four or more people were shot in a single shooting spree. It doesn’t include shooting incidences where less than four people were shot. Those numbers are even more staggering.
But, it has been made very clear to us that those numbers still don’t constitute enough loss, or generate enough concern for our elected officials who CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT to actually DO something about it.
These numbers we’re talking about today are big - too big. They tell us that something is horribly, horribly wrong.
The numbers are mind-numbing. But inside those egregious numbers is something even more haunting.
Many of us remember the shooting that happened at a high school in Columbine, Colorado back in 1999. The shooters killed 12 students and one teacher. The shooters, both teenagers, also died.
Since then, according to trackers at the Washington Post, there have been 376 school shootings in the U.S. Not all of them have resulted in deaths and physical injuries, but every single one of them has left scars and created trauma that most of us cannot see.
It would be incredibly naive of us to think that 23 years and 18 days is enough time to get over what happened on that day in April 1999.
The stories of nightmares and panic attacks and meltdowns by those students who survived the guns but still face the unthinkable trauma continue to be told today.
On February 14, 2018, a 19-year-old, in what was then considered the safest community in the state of Florida, carried in a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and opened fire on the students and staff at a high school in Parkland, Florida. In less than four minutes, 17 lay wounded and 17 were dead.
A story in the New York Times said while some students began running for their lives, others remained holed up in classrooms, storage areas, and bathrooms. While they hid, they sent texts to their parents and others with pleas for help.
Panicked parents were trying to remind their terrified children to stay as quiet as possible. “Remember your training about noise discipline,” they said. “Stay quiet, stay calm.”
In one room the students held their breath as they hid behind tables and desks. They heard their classroom door open - not knowing if it was the shooter who came to kill or the police who came to rescue them. They were relieved but still startled by shouts and commands from the officers to raise their arms into the air. The trauma for those students and school staff will always haunt them.
I hope that you and I and our loved ones will never know that feeling of helplessness and desperation.
I can’t imagine what the parents, grandparents, and loved ones of this terrified child were feeling this past Monday. I have a feeling though, that whatever they were feeling, it didn’t phase the unmoved politicians one bit.
I have been haunted by this picture. The fear and the pleading and the desperation on this beautiful, terrified little face has stayed in my mind ever since I saw it this past Monday. And for the life of me, I can’t see how anyone who has an ounce of compassion or heart can look at it and not grieve.
But apparently, they can.
John Archibald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. He wrote these words on AL.com this past week.
“Since 2019 several states have passed laws… to protect kids from learning about America. They think it’s better to keep children in the dark than take the chance they might feel bad about themselves - or their country.
In that time there have been more than 130 school shootings… and we are worried about children feeling discomfort.”
“Well, it is discomforting. It’s life and death in classrooms and hallways and the psyches of our children. It’s a plague and travesty that our politicians act swiftly to keep children from feeling bad about the sins of their forefathers, but refuse to budge as deranged and misguided people march into schools with military might strapped to their backs.”
I know that I’ve taken us far away from the story of a homeless king riding his way into the city of Jerusalem.
Jesus didn’t ride into town looking for a fight. He didn’t plan to lead a coup or try to remove those in power. If he had, he certainly would not have led the charge on a donkey. He would’ve come charging into the city on a steed, a horse that could push the people aside and take the city by storm.
Jesus has always, in every deed, in every word, in every example, been about the business of healing and peace. He has never advocated for war, but he has always stood with those who are victims - victims of bigotry, victims of racism, victims of sexism, victims of violence, victims of church - and victims of their government.
I’ve spoken in this church before about the misguided and misinformed legislation, I feel, that was passed during the most recent legislative session here in Kentucky. The LGBTQ+ community, and especially the trans community, were portrayed in distorted and ugly, ugly ways. And we’re not finished talking about that here at BUCC.
But today, my heart is broken by what is happening with senseless gun violence. My heart is not only broken for all of those who’ve been victims of the guns and the bullets, but it’s broken for those who continue to be victims of their government that refuses even to acknowledge that there is a problem - or if they do acknowledge anything at all, it’s in an effort to redirect and deflect from the real danger, the real issue. And don’t believe for a second that they don’t know what they’re doing. And don’t for one-second fall for it.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem and those people waved their palm branches in honor of their arriving king, they were saying to the powers that be that they were ready for a new way. They were ready for someone to lead them who would do it not to protect his own power, but to give them the power - to give them the power to refuse the oppressor’s oppression.
In his book The Last Stand, John Dominic Crossan describes this scene:
“Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30… One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey, cheered by his followers. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor… entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial calvary and soldiers.
Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.”
The word Hosanna means to “save us.” The people’s shouts of “Hosanna” as Jesus entered their city were a cry for someone to come save them. They waved palm branches in defiance of a religion and a government that loved itself more than it loved the humans it was supposed to serve and protect.
That’s why we must remember the palms.
I want you to look at this face. I want us to see her. She survived the bullets of this past Monday, but we see in her face an anguish that may never go away.
In his writing about the Covenant School shooting, David Archibald said this about the angel and all the others she now represents:
“A little girl, her tiny face and hand pressed pleadingly against the window of a school bus, cries into our souls. You feel her agony and her pain. You feel the fear and the keening, the sense that something happened in the presence of this child that will never be forgotten. That can never be forgotten. You know she will never see the world the same way again.”
She’ll never forget. She’ll always remember. She‘ll never move on. She will always live with the fear and the sights and the sounds and the smells of that day. She will always be haunted by them.
And in a matter of time, we’ll move on, and the thing that happened this past Monday at Covenant School that forever changed that little girl and all those lives will - before you know it - be distant to us.
But can we be different this time? Can we not let up? Can we say to those who tell us that nothing can be done that if they can’t do something, we will replace them with someone who can? If they can’t care we will replace them with someone who does.
Can we not forget this time? Can we wave our palms and shout Hosanna! in defiance of those who refuse to care enough to do something? Can we wave our palms and shout Hosanna! in such a way that we welcome the giver of peace and the giver of hope and the giver of life who stands against those in power who refuse to be instruments of peace and hope and life?
Let’s wave our palm branches for all of those who would be alive today, for all those who live with the trauma. Let’s shout Hosanna! and wave our palm branches for that One who comes in the name of all that is good and right and full of righteousness. Let us wave them as palms of welcome to that one and let us wave them today and tomorrow and forever as palms of change.
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