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Palm Sunday & Memory

March 24, 2024

David Collins



Today, we are going to talk about memory. Memory plays an integral role in our lives and particularly within our faith. Memory is more than just a mental shoebox of old photos; it's the canvas on which our life experiences, emotions, and beliefs are painted. It shapes our identity and worldview. It’s how we connect the past to the future.


Memory is also what we deal with here in church every week. Not just our individual memories, or even this congregations’ memory, but the collective memory of the church. We engage with the same Bible, and hear the same promises God made and then fulfilled, that hundreds of generations before us, over thousands of years, have also read.


I’m really grateful for that collective memory, because my memory isn’t so good. As they said in Seinfeld, it’s going to be a very smooth transition into senility for me one day. You might not even notice.


One of Megan’s and my favorite pastimes is reminiscing. We don’t participate equally though. She does 80% of the work and I get to listen. So we reminisce “together” and I say “Oh yeah! I do remember that now”. I don’t always, but they always sound like stories that could be true. And they sound like stories I’ve heard before!


Malleability of Memory

You know, I might not be alone in all of this, because it turns out that our memories are not as fixed as we might think. A famous study on the malleability of memory revealed that each time we recall an event, we're not reaching back to the original moment itself, but rather to the last time we remembered it. This process of recalling and then storing the memory again means that our memories can change slightly over time. They can be shaped by our current emotions, by what we’ve forgotten, and by new information we’ve learned since the original event.


This discovery has huge implications, especially for people suffering with PTSD. Therapists have found that understanding the malleability of memory can be pivotal in healing, as it allows individuals to reshape traumatic memories by revisiting these memories in a safe environment. Patients can alter their emotional responses to these memories, and gradually diminish their impact.


For the rest of us, this malleability of memory might explain why we all have that one family story that gets bigger and more dramatic at every family reunion. Or why two people can remember the same event so differently, each convinced of their own version. (If you’re in a committed relationship, I’ll bet you’ve had a few arguments because of that.)


But it's not just about the fish that got away growing larger with each retelling; it's a reflection of how our brains edit and reinterpret our past experiences to fit into our current understanding and how we’re feeling right now.


So, in a way, our memories are less like photographs—fixed and unchanging—and more like paintings, with every recollection adding a new stroke, sometimes altering the scene subtly, sometimes more dramatically.


In our scriptures today for Palm Sunday we see a record of this. We see how memories get recast in new lights.


Fair warning: if you think the Bible is an absolutely accurate newspaper, there might be some things today that bother you. But stick with me. And know that I love the scriptures as much as, if not more, than you do. And I love them for what they really are, not what someone somewhere told me they have to be. I wouldn’t teach you this stuff if it didn’t really matter or I thought it would destroy your faith.


In fact, this is really important stuff. When you shake things up, you get the good stuff to rise to the top.


And keep in mind, that during the most important time in the life of the Church, they didn’t really have what we would call “The Bible” at all. In the first century, during the most critical era for the church, they were living out their faith without a printed guidebook. Instead, they shared stories by word of mouth, leaned on personal experiences, and exchanged letters that traveled from one group of believers to another.


Now, those letters would one day be part of the New Testament but they weren’t yet!  Early Christianity was more of a vibrant, living conversation. It was about following Jesus’ way, guided by the shared memory of the community and the leading of Holy Spirit. Their faith was alive, interactive, and constantly evolving. And I don’t think anyone would claim that they were any less Christian than we are. But there’s nothing wrong with thinking the opposite is true.


So with all that in mind, let’s look at the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, or Palm Sunday. This story is told in all four gospels.

Palm Sunday

Mark is the earliest gospel. Matthew and Luke both had his work by the time they set down to put theirs together. And all three tell the story that Palm Sunday with the donkey was all Jesus’ idea.


Mark 11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”’ 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.


Luke tells basically the same story. He cleans it up a little. Takes out some of the unnecessary details. But it’s pretty much identical. Matthew, however, shows us how malleable memory really is, and how the demands of the present, affect the way we remember the past.


You see, Matthew’s community was much more rigidly focused on the letter of the Old Testament prophesies than Mark’s and Luke’s were. They all cared, but Matthew’s community must have cared a lot. The way they read the prophesy to be fulfilled wasn’t poetic, but literal. The prophesy as they knew it went like this:


Matthew 21:5

‘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.’


We, and everyone else, reads that poetically, right? The clause, “on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” is just describing the donkey.” But Matthew and his community read it as two animals. And that commitment in their present, changed the way they remembered the past. So in Matthew’s gospel, he sends his disciples to get two animals: a donkey and a colt. And somehow he rides them both, at the same time.


Matthew 21: 7

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.


I don’t know. Did he stand with one foot on each animal? Maybe they were stacked? Like the Jesus was on the colt which was on the donkey? Or maybe he just levitated above them both in the lotus position?


I knew some folks who were raised in a fundamentalist church, and they said the way their church reconciled these two different memories was that Jesus just did the whole thing twice. Once on a donkey, and once on a donkey and a colt.


Now, if you’re troubled by this, if this shakes your faith, then I have some bad news and some good news for you. The bad news is that you have been engaging in what is called Bibliolatry. The idolatry of the Bible.


Bibliolatry

The bad news is that you care more about the Bible than you do about the God the Bible points to. The good news is that God cares more about you, than God cares about the Bible. The good news is that you can move from having your faith in the Bible, to having your faith in God. And in doing so, you can love the Bible for what it really is, a record of the church’s collective memory, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course, but still, an historical document, that like all historical documents shows the worldviews of the people who wrote it all down and froze it in time.


Because what really matters about the story of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem is how it shows what a true Messiah is like, that he doesn’t ride a war horse like a conquering kind, but rides a humble donkey, and maybe also somehow, a colt.


In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this entry into Jerusalem was a deliberate act by Jesus.  It is his intentional and very public declaration of his messianic identity and his kingdom's nature, not as one of earthly power and conquest, but of humility and peace.


But that’s not exactly how John remembers it. John gives us just four short verses about it. And he’s the one who says it was on a Sunday and he’s the one who talks about the palms. But according to John’s gospel, and especially of the communal memory of his community, it wasn’t all Jesus’ idea. In fact, according to John, Jesus was teaching the crowd a lesson by grabbing that donkey.


In John, “the crowd” had been clamoring for Jesus to be King ever since he fed them.


John 6:15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.


Crowds can be like that, can’t they? The bigger the crowd gets, the less committed they are to reason, so the only sane thing to do is to leave. But leaving isn’t always an option.


After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the crowd went nuts.


John 12:12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

‘Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—    

the King of Israel!’


They had already decided that Jesus was King, and a conquering king worthy of palm branches at that. Better than Pilate, better even than Caesar. John doesn’t remember the whole triumphant entry thing being Jesus’ idea at all. John remembers it being in response to the roar of the crowd that Jesus grabbed a donkey to ride.


14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:

15 ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.

Look, your king is coming,    

sitting on a donkey’s colt!’


The way John remembers, or maybe the way  that the community needed to remember, was that he didn’t plan it.


Rather, the unbridled enthusiasm of the crowd bothered him. It wasn’t that he got caught up in it. Instead, he reacted in order to show them that he wasn’t the kind of king they thought they wanted, the strongman who would make them great, who would punish his enemies, and expel the infidel. He was the kind of king they actually needed. The one God had really promised. Who wouldn’t fix one nation at the expense of another, but heal the world itself. Not right away, obviously. But one day.


Next here comes the key verse for the whole morning, that took me until now to get to. It’s the reason we’re talking about memory in the first place this morning. It’s this amazing editorial comment from John right in the middle of the story.


John 12:16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.


They did not understand these things at first. They only got it later.


Sometimes, we don't get the full picture right away. The disciples were right there with Jesus, seeing all these events unfold in real-time, yet they didn’t fully grasp what was happening.


This should be a comfort to us. If the disciples, who walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and lived life alongside Him, couldn’t piece it all together immediately, then it’s perfectly okay for us to admit we don’t have all the answers either. Faith isn't about having a flawless understanding of everything from the get-go. It’s about growing in understanding, about being open to the journey of faith where revelations come in God’s time, not ours.


Even when we think we’ve got it all figured out, life has a way of showing us there’s more to learn. That’s not a failure, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Every experience, every piece of new information, every change in our lives can and should shed new light on the rest of it, especially on our understanding of God, and the Bible.


So, like the disciples, our understanding is supposed to evolve. It’s okay not to have all the answers. And it’s more than okay to reexamine what we think we know in light of new insights, and experiences.


Childhood Faith

There's a certain charm to the simplicity of childhood faith, and the feeling of certainty that comes with it—it’s more immediate and free from the complexities and doubts of adult life. And sometimes we do roll around in our doubts too much, don’t we? Like we can’t commit to anything. We find out we can doubt anything. Maybe nothing is really true?


Some people see that and decide to try and hold onto and defend their childlike faith because it feels pure and clear. They think that being a good believer means to guard their faith from change or challenge.


But that’s not the way to go either.


We’ve talked about memories being malleable, not rigid. Our faith should be the same. Clinging too tightly to the faith of our childhood without letting it evolve can be like trying to hold onto a memory exactly as we first experienced it, never allowing it to be influenced or enriched by the rest of our experience, or new insights in faith.


For those who treasure that uncomplex faith: it’s a beautiful starting point. Yet, we should welcome the growth and deepening of our faith. We don’t need to defend our memories or our faith from the changes that time and experience bring. Instead, let’s be open to how these memories and our faith mature and expand. This doesn’t mean we lose the essence of what we believed when we first believed, but, we allow it to deepen and become more nuanced. Become ours.


As we walk through Holy Week this week, and celebrate Easter next Sunday, it's more than a ritual; it's a chance to live out this dynamic nature of memory.


If you’re seeking the certainty you once felt, remember John 12:16, where the disciples didn't fully understand until Jesus was glorified. Your journey should be like that. You're not just reliving old memories of when the story of Jesus first impacted you; you're given the chance to form new ones, to reshape and deepen your understanding.


Holy Week invites us to experience these sacred events again, not for the first time, to allow our past certainties to evolve into a deeper, more profound, faith. It's okay if our memories of these events have shifted or if they don't hold the same clarity they once did. What matters is how we interact with and even reframe these memories.


There’s nothing to defend, because God doesn’t need defending, or protecting. He’s not that kind of king. He rides a donkey. And maybe even a colt.


So, let’s engage with each part of Holy Week, let's do it with openness, ready to challenge and expand our recollections. Let's allow the Holy Spirit to refresh our perspective, making this week not just a trip down memory lane, but a transformative experience. Holy Week is a time to reexamine and renew our memories, understanding that faith, like memory, grows and deepens, and offers us new insights and revelations that bring us closer to the heart of God’s story.


Amen.







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