Has everyone here heard of the current popular singer Adele? Show of hands—have you heard of her?
If you haven’t heard of her, Adele is a mega-star, famous for her incredibly rich and sultry voice, but also for her songwriting, which includes a James Bond theme, but which tends to focus on very, very painful romantic breakups.
In fact, she’s so famous for her songs about lost love and being dumped that people have started rating their own past breakups as being a scale “between 1 and Adele.”
But what you need to know this morning is simply that she is a mega star who performs in big venues all around the world. She is one of those people who actually gets by in life with only having a first name.
So you may be surprised to learn that several months ago, the BBC put Adele up to taking part in a contest—a contest of Adele impersonators.
She was given a fake nose and chin and changed her hair a bit, and told everyone her name was Jenny, that her day job was being a nanny.
The other contestants complimented her on how much she looked like the real Adele—and many of them, of course, also looked like Adele.
She was nervous before going out in front of the judges—who were in on the whole thing.
The other contestants told her she’d be great. Nobody was catty or trying to intimidate anyone. In fact, once each contestant had sung her song, she sat in the audience to cheer on the other contestants.
So the real Adele went last.
Though the other singers only just met this new girl, Jenny, they cheered her on as she walked to the microphone.
The intro starts. She messes up. They pull for her as one of their own.
And within about two measures of Adele’s singing, one of the impersonators snaps back in her chair, as if she’s gotten an electric shock. Her eyes are as wide as saucers.
By the time Adele is halfway through the first verse, all of the other impersonators know that it’s the real Adele who is singing for them.
And they start singing the song right back at her. Many of them are crying.
Because of course, to them, she is so much more than a singer that they like and feel like they can resemble for fun and profit.
She feels like someone that they actually know. Someone they can actually relate to. Someone who has been there when their own breakups and disappointments were all too real.
And so to meet her, to be with her, to have her singing right to them, was this deeply emotional moment.
I’m starting with that story this morning because it reminds me that there is such a deep difference between impressing people and inspiring them.
And that’s worth remembering on Palm Sunday because, in so many ways, it is the contrast between impressing people and inspiring them that lies at the heart of this day.
Palm Sunday is the day when Jesus enters Jerusalem, riding a donkey, and the crowds who are on their way up to the city for Passover celebrate him as a conquering hero, cheering him onward and throwing palms and branches before him to make him a highway.
It must have been something.
But it wasn’t impressive—and what can be hard to remember is that it wasn’t supposed to be.
I’ll come back to that in a moment.
What you also need to remember is that literally across the city, coming in one of the other gates that same day, would have been Pontius Pilate and a Roman legion, entering the city as conquerors there to remind the conquered—with all the theater of power that this entailed: gleaming uniforms, handsome horses, precise movements, and impeccable postures.
There arrival was designed to impress—to intimidate—and to remind the onlookers of their place in the world, which was to say, the Romans were there to remind the people that they didn’t have much of a place at all, unless Rome said so.
So when Jesus arrives, on the other side of town, slouched on a donkey, maybe wearing his hood to shield his head from the sun, almost like an invalid, well, there wasn’t much of the air of a conquering hero about him.
Not by Roman standards, anyway.
Yet it was a bold move, just the same, and the people loved him for it.
But more than that, I think Jesus genuinely inspired people.
And so, if some of the crowd on Palm Sunday was there cheering on Jesus because the whole thing seemed like a stunt, and that was fun, well…there were also plenty of others who were there because who Jesus was…the kind of world he talked about…the people he noticed…the people he loved…all mattered to them.
They were there because Jesus had given them language for something, maybe in the way that a song seems to give us language for something that we’d never quite had before.
Jesus inspired them, and that was absolutely real.
I like to think that maybe some of the Rich Man’s brothers had found their way into that crowd. And that the Prodigal Son was there with his older brother. That the Good Samaritan was there with the man he’d helped.
Or in any case, that some of the people who had heard those stories somewhere or other were there, and that they saw one another for the first time, and realized that they had something so important in common.
That they were almost family, even though they’d never met before then.
Because, of course, that’s what happens when we are inspired. We see connections that we hadn’t seen before. We feel drawn in.
There is a world of difference between finally finding your people and, once again, being put in your place.
And I think that’s why Jesus was so incredibly important to people even if they encountered him only briefly.
He represented the notion that our people—whoever it is, and whatever that means—is out there to be found. That, in God, who we really are will be revealed at last. And that God is searching for us even now.
It wasn’t about being impressive. It was about being authentic.
And that inspired people to change their lives. To drop everything and follow him. It inspired them to believe.
Now, when you put it that way, it makes it sound as if Rome never had a chance.
That in the battle between impressing people and inspiring them, inspiration must always win.
Maybe in the end—at the very end—it must.
Maybe all those signs on water towers and billboards in the rural South that say “Jesus Saves” should get repainted to say “Jesus Wins.”
I believe he will.
And yet, maybe you agree with me that sometimes in our world, we Christians can start to sound as if we are more interested in impressing people than inspiring them, and that all too often, this does not help the cause.
We like to think that the choice is always clear.
The fact is, the choice is not clear at every moment in our lives.
As much as we may hunger for inspiration and hope to live in the light of what’s inspired us, we still have that side of us that longs to be impressed, and to impress.
The Romans paraded that way because it worked—and it still works.
Power and control speak to us in any number of ways, and in any number of contexts.
Part of us always longs to know our place in the scheme, and is willing to jockey for a better one, and that is not unimportant (although you’ll notice that I’m phrasing that carefully).
But the power of Jesus…what was so important about who he was…what he taught, was that he told us that the scheme was so much bigger than the Romans could ever understand.
The scheme was more than big enough for each and every one of us to have a place within it—and it was the kind of place that was worth having.
Sad to say, there were many in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday who would quickly forget that.
There were some who cheered Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, who a few short days later would cheer his death upon a cross just outside the city walls on the other side of town, not far from where the Romans had marched in.
But we can choose to remember.
We can choose to live our lives as people who were and are inspired. We can choose the path of Jesus.
That’s what Palm Sunday offers us. It’s a reminder of that choice—and a challenge to make it for Jesus again each day.
You and I may not be able to sing like Adele. (O.k., so Lisbeth can.)
But how we wear the graces we’ve been given makes just as big a difference.
How it is we live makes just as big a difference.
The choice is just as much before us.
What will be? The helmet or the palm?
May we seek the grace always to choose the palm.