Palm Sunday

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Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying 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.  3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’  And he will send them immediately.”  4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 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.”  6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  9The 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!”  10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Parade or Demonstration?

A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother.  His father returned from church holding a palm branch.  The little boy was curious and asked, “Why do you have that palm branch, dad?”  “Well, you see,” explained the father, “when Jesus came into town, everyone waved Palm Branches to honor him, so we got Palm Branches today.”  The little boy replied, “Aw Shucks!  The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday that Jesus shows up!”

There must have been electricity in the air.  After all, it was the day when Jewish pilgrims from all over were arriving in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover.  I’m sure there were children running joyfully and chaotically all around, ingesting the energy they felt surrounding them.  Families would have been busily making the correct preparations for the Passover meal, securing the unblemished lamb for the sacrifice and the dinner, collecting all the necessary herbs and spices, filling their carafes with the wine.  Excitement was abounding!

Somehow, though, I doubt if Jesus felt the same level of celebration.  You certainly do not hear it in the way Matthew tells the story.  Though we tend to focus on the crowd’s joyful reaction to Jesus’ arrival, Matthew spends most of his time telling us the careful way Jesus prepared for that moment—his entrance into the city.  We are told just how precisely Jesus engineers the whole scene.  We hear about a particular village with a particular colt.  We hear the words the disciples are supposed to say when confronted as to why they are taking it.  Out of the eleven verses Matthew uses to talk about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he spends six of them focused on the details of preparation.

So perhaps we can interpret from Matthew’s details that Jesus carefully prepared for that moment of arrival because it was not simply a casual parade he was organizing.  Rather, Jesus was laying out the script for a kind of guerilla street theater, a demonstration, if you will.  Jesus was being purposefully provocative.  He knew what was unfolding on the other side of town.  So, Jesus staged his parade, his moment of street theater, to directly contrast with the other parade happening that day in Jerusalem.

Even though scripture does not record the other parade happening that day, we know from historians that, throughout the first century, Rome staged an imperial parade in Jerusalem at the time of the major Jewish festivals, especially Passover.  Let’s not forget that Passover was the religious festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from their earlier Egyptian oppressors.  Not only was there excitement in the air of Jerusalem, there was also tension.  You could cut the air with a knife.  It was a tender box, just waiting for ignition, a powder keg anticipating a spark.  Many people hated the Romans for economic reasons, resenting the heavy taxes and levies laid upon them and the way that these were extorted by the local quislings.  Others hated the Romans for their pagan ways, worshipping a pantheon of gods instead of the one, true God.  One can imagine the whisperings in the shadows, sharp glances between folks wondering if this would be the year when the uprising would happen.  Might this be the time to finally throw off the Roman yoke?

So, it was the practice of the Roman governor, in this case Pontius Pilate, to come from his pleasant seaside villa in Caesarea Maritime to Jerusalem, some sixty miles to the west, in a vibrant display of force.  To be there in person, to supervise things and have the appropriate force on hand ready to quash any misbegotten idea that they could liberated again, this time from their Rome.  To underline their point, Rome always carefully managed its imperial parade in order to announce the raw political and military power of the empire.

The Roman governor would ride into Jerusalem on his war horse at the head of a column of a cohort of imperial cavalry and soldiers.  People would gather on the side of the road to watch, viewing the governor’s coterie of well-trained battle horses, foot soldiers clothed in leather and bronze armor, helmets crested with red plumes, javelins, swords, shields, banners, and golden eagles mounted on poles.  All the accoutrements of war.  They would hear the marching of feet, the cracking of leather, the clinking of bridles, and the beating of drums.  There is no doubt that both the sights and the sounds of Pilate’s imperial parade were meant to serve as reminders of just who was in control.

Jesus would have known this annual event was happening, which is probably one reason why his demonstration was designed to be drastically different.  At Jesus’ parade, the peasants who lined the streets to watch saw a man sitting atop a colt, not a war horse, riding in from the east, not the west.  That image, purposefully designed by Jesus, would have inevitably brought to the Jewish people’s minds the prophet Zechariah and the promise of a God-given king for Israel—a king who would banish war from the land and command peace to the nations.  Zechariah would say:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah 9:9-10, NRSV

Like Pilate, Jesus also rode at the front of a group, but unlike Pilate, his parade was not composed of a finely organized column of foot soldiers and cavalry.  Instead, Jesus led an unorganized bunch of men, women, and children walking alongside him, sometimes behind him, sometimes ahead of him.  They were not wearing their military finest.  Rather, they were wearing sandals with normal, everyday civilian clothing.  Unlike Pilate’s military procession, Jesus’ ragtag group was not an impressive display of power, by any stretch of the imagination.  

The peasants who gathered alongside the road to watch declared their devotion to this peace-loving Messiah.  Unlike the stone-faced, silent, and intimidated crowds watching Pilate’s parade, these spectators joined in the celebration, taking off their cloaks and spreading them on the road ahead of Jesus, creating their version of a red-carpet welcome, if you will.  And they cut leafy branches from the fields and laid those out, shouting “Hosanna, Hosanna,” which means “Save now, save now.”

Imagine what it might have been like.  Men, women, children, people young and old, all shouting praises and cheering on their leader in this modest spectacle.  And yet, even in the middle of that cheering, playful protest, they were also crying out “Save now.”  Save now.  It seems kind of mixed-up, when you think about it.  Playful cheers, celebratory looks on their faces, intermingled with the reality of their deep, perhaps desperate desire to be saved from their oppression under Rome; saved from whatever despair would creep into their dreams at night; saved from being unable to imagine a different kind of future for their children; saved into a new wholeness and a freedom they had longed for since the very first time they experienced the liturgy of the first Passover event and heard their grandparents tell them about their original liberation from Egypt.  When you put all of that side by side, the cheering playfulness next to the cries of “Save now,” it sounds so . . . contemporary.

Who among us, especially given the current circumstances of social sequestration, the inability to be with those whom we love, the weight of the worries and deep anxieties we are now carrying?  Who among us doesn’t feel a deep longing for our world to be saved, made whole, made fully home . . . now.  And let me speak plainly.  When I say “saved,” I am not talking about salvation as some sort of future, get into heaven free card.  No, the liberation God offers is not just some futuristic anticipation but rather a lived experience in the here and now.  Theologian Douglas John Hall put it this way: “the salvation, the salus, for which the God of [scripture] yearns is the integrating of the whole creation, the reconciling of humans not only with God but also with one another and with the earth itself.” 

With that understanding of salvation in mind, can you imagine joining your voice with the voice of that crowd?  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Save now.  Save now.  Save us, O God, from the pervasive power of racism that keeps digging its talons into our systems and our imaginations whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  Save us, O God, from the continuation of violence that assails our communities.  Save us, O God, from notions of religious liberty that enshrines discrimination of any kind that ignores your command to “love your neighbor.”  Save us, O God, from the pervasive political partisanship that divides us and keeps us from working together for the larger, common good of a more just society.  Save us, O God, from the grief of burying another friend who’s died from cancer.  Save us, O God, from this horrific virus that threatens human life across our planet home.  Hosanna, save us, we cry, even when know one is within earshot of hearing our heartfelt plea.  Jesus, save now.

Now, this is where our Christian faith story gets even trickier.  Those of us who follow this protest-engineering, Occupy-Jerusalem-moment-creating Jesus, believe that somehow, as this week unfolds, “Save now” is exactly what Jesus does.  And yet, he does not do it the way anyone expected.  He does not reveal the salvation, the making whole, the reconciliation of our world in the ways those who were playfully joining in his parade might have desired at the time they cried out “Save now.”  He did not do it in the ways we might desire when we cry out “Save now” today.

No, as the events of this coming week will remind us, Jesus saves us, revealing God’s renewal of our world whole through his suffering, not his splendor; through his vulnerability, not his power; through his willingness and determination to never waver in being who God had called him to be—God with us, God for us—even though that insistence would lead him to his death on a Roman instrument of capital punishment.

Listen to how Barbara Brown Taylor spoke of Jesus’ saving work in what she calls “Jesus’ obituary”:

It is an old, old story: Love comes into the world as a little child, fresh from God.  When Love grows up, Love feeds people, Love heals people, Love turns things upside down.  Love’s actions do not set well with the people in charge.  They warn Love to leave well enough alone.  Love meets hate, meets politics, meets fear.  Love goes on loving, which gets Love killed—not by villains in black hats but by people like us: clergy, patriots, God-fearing folk.  What brought them together was their rage at him [at Love] for being less than they wanted him to be—or for being more than they wanted him to be—but in any case for not being who they wanted him to be, and they killed him for it.

Barbara Brown Taylor

No, I imagine that in that protest parade, in that demonstration, with all the energy and excitement in the air and the sounds of playful joy all around, no one in that crowd expected what was coming next.  Not even the disciples fully understood what was coming next.  The only one who did was the One on the colt, the One who had done all he could to carefully prepare for this moment, the One who heard the hosannas of his people and who knew he was about to finish that work, and that they would not understand it.  Not yet, at least.  The only soul who knew what was coming as he rode into Jerusalem that day was the One whose other name was and is Love and who would give up his very life to make the depth of that Love known.  Hosanna, they cried.  Save now.  And Love did.  And Love does. Amen.