Palms and Passion

Prepared for First Presbyterian Church Apopka.  Primary text John 12:12-19

The church I grew up in was pretty traditional. We celebrated the big liturgical days, honored the seasons of Advent and Lent, and made sure that the sanctuary reflected the calendar with the proper colors and candles and such. By the time I got to high school, I was conversant, if not fluent, in most of the symbols of our faith.

The one thing that stumped me was Palm Sunday.  And based on some very unscientific polling I’ve done over the past couple of weeks, I was not alone. For many of us, Palm Sunday was one of a handful of “prop” worship days.

I mean, most worship services are all about the eyes and ears, but we don’t get to touch or feel much beyond the offering plates. The big exceptions are Christmas Eve candles, Ash Wednesday ashes, the bread and juice on communion Sundays, and a splash if you’re getting baptized. Then there’s Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday was a big deal at our church. The part of central Texas where I grew up is a little bit north of our latitude here, so we didn’t cut our own palms. We had oaks, pines, elms, juniper and lots of holly and yaupon underbrush. No palmettos. No palms. Unless you wandered over to the coast. Our palms came from the florist, so I grew up thinking that Jesus entered Jerusalem under palms that looked like the broadleaf ferns used to fill out bouquets.

In we’d walk, following strict instructions not to use our fern-palms as weapons before placing them in the assigned spot on the chancel. Then we turned around to sing something that included a lot of hosannas.

Like many children, once relieved of my palm-marching duties, I doodled and daydreamed my way through the remainder of the service. Thus, it was many years before I was able to make any connections between Palm Sunday and the rest of the events in Holy Week.

And even when I was old enough to understand the timeline, it seemed like an odd story. Never before had Jesus seemed like a parade kind of guy.  And yet, here he is, entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the cheers of a crowd that seems to adore him. If we are going to make sense of this event, we need a little more context.

My reading this Lenten season led me to a book by Marcus Borg and John Crossan called The Last Week. Following the timeline provided by Mark’s gospel, the authors describe what happened during days leading up to Easter Sunday. They include historical and political context that fills in some of the gaps that our gospel writers didn’t need to worry about for their original audiences.

Chapter 1 is focused on Palm Sunday, and I’d like to read you a couple of passages that synthesize nicely some of my research prep for today:

<Read segments describing the two processions entering Jerusalem – Jesus’ and Pilate’s>

I want to lift up a couple of details here… Pilate knew exactly what he was doing when he rode this ostentatiously into Jerusalem. Like modern May Day Parades at the Kremlin or Tiananmen Square, Pilate intended to make clear what sort of power was at his disposal, the power of the empire. This show went beyond power, though.

Pilate was also providing a reminder of the theology of the empire. Emperor Augustus claimed Apollo as his father and was said to have ascended into heaven, taking his place among the gods. Inscriptions can be found that refer to Augustus as son of God, lord and savior. His successors continued to claim divine titles for themselves.

Pilate was in Jerusalem to see that peace was kept, though not necessarily through peaceful means.

Meanwhile, back among the peasants, Jesus knew what he was doing, too.  He approached the city from Galilee, riding on a colt that his disciples found for him.  John tells us that the disciples didn’t make the connection until later, but Jesus must have had in mind the words of the prophet Zechariah when he sent them off in search of the donkey.

According to Zechariah, a king would come to Jerusalem humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  The prophet says that the king 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” (9:10).

In other words, this king will banish war from the land – no more chariots or war horses. Peace will be his command to the nations. The peace Jesus represents is pretty much the opposite of what Pilate’s procession embodied and promised.

This contrast between the world’s power and God’s power, between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar is central to understanding the story of Jesus.  And this contrast is our key to understanding why we still so desperately need to embrace the fullness of what God offers the world through the teachings of Christ… by way of the Body of Christ.

Imagine if you will, living in land where the wealth was concentrated in the hands of an increasingly smaller percentage of the population. Where those with wealth have been given the power to rule or given unlimited access to those in power. A land where the line between religion and politics has been blurred because the work of the state is happening inside the house of God.

Odds are good that you and I would be among those who have very little because there are so so many of them. So many have been left with no land, not even enough for subsistence farming, that homeless beggars are everywhere. They have no standing, no influence, and they have little or no hope – barring some sort of coup d’etat or revolution.

They are literally hungry, and they long to believe that the long-awaited king, the one who would be like David and bring the nation back to its days of glory… that this promised one would come in their lifetimes. They have heard of this Jesus, and some have been fed, or taught, or even healed by him.

Jesus is entering Jerusalem, not on a whim, not by accident, but as a political statement. He is going into the city that represents a system of domination and claiming a place for God’s alternate economy, He is offering God’s alternate power structure based on mutuality and love of neighbor.

Perhaps the foolishness of king on a colt welcomed by the hungry and desperate poor is part of what Paul pictured when he told the Corinthians that the cross was foolishness to those who were perishing….

How could those with plenty, those who had more than enough food to eat, those with luxurious homes and access to anyone and anything they desire… how could they see the path this Jesus offered as better than what they have? Why would they give away their abundance or share their power?

No… They were more likely to join the procession at the west gate, perhaps quietly assenting, but nonetheless aligning themselves with Pilate.

But those with nothing but prayers and hope? They saw Jesus come in on a donkey and they were ready to crown him, they were ready to praise him, they waved palms as if he were already the victor and was bringing home the spoils of war.

This is why the powers of the empire saw Jesus as a dangerous spark that might set off the fires of revolution. His voice amplified the voices of the prophets who called for justice to roll like water and for God’s mercy to pour down like rain down, for the coming of God’s righteousness and peace.

The question for us, just as it was for the pilgrims in Jerusalem, is this: where will will find ourselves standing?

We can wave our palm branches in support of the Kingdom of God this morning, but what happens as we leave the sanctuary and go out into the empire that the world has built up around us?

Will we call out those who use the same ancient dynamics of oppression and domination to ensnare millions in war, slavery, usury and poverty?

To do so, we must resist the temptation to separate this day from the rest of this Holy Week, pretending all of its power and meaning reside in Good Friday and Easter Morning. There is power in this subversive act, in this alternative procession, in this invitation to be the people of God who dismantle the kingdoms of the world.

When the people recognized Jesus and blessed him, their hosannas were like alleluias or amens, familiar liturgical words that expressed joy and hope. But some recalled the deeper meaning, the older ways of praying passed down from their grands and greats who knew that hosanna was a cry for help, for rescue, for salvation.

Hosanna, they cried out.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, to help us, to save us, Hosanna in the highest.

Alleluia.  Amen.

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