By the Rev. Sarah Buteux
March, 28, 2021
Palm Sunday, Year B
Palm Sunday is a Sunday when we make a little more noise than usual. In imitation of what happened on that day in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, Christians around the world stand up and sing “Hosannah!” We march up and down the aisles of our churches waving palms. Heck, in our church, we march up and down the streets. And it’s fun. And it’s silly. And I miss it.
I love meeting up with St. John’s and Edwards in Pulaski Park. I love seeing people, especially the kids, running around from priest to pastor in an effort to collect a different kind of palm from each church. I love watching people watch us as we try to walk, wave our palms, and sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” at the same time, because it’s not pretty. It’s all a bit of a disaster really and not a little bit humbling. We may be out there in our robes our stoles and our Sunday best, but we’re far from dignified. Which, honestly, is as it should be, because that very first procession wasn’t exactly dignified either.
Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem was actually a parody, a send-up, a Christopher Guest level satire, and one that bit hard because like all good satire it was based in truth.
When Jesus trotted into Jerusalem on the back of that little donkey he was not just aiming for the temple, he was aiming for the heart. And, God bless him, he hit pretty much everyone right where it hurt.
His first and most blatant target was obviously Rome. In those days when a Roman war lord would return from battle, he would ride into the city on a great white charger with the spoils of war pushed before and dragged behind him in chains.
People would line the streets and cheer for the conquering hero – whether they wanted to or not – and pay homage to the relentless spread of the Pax Romana, a peace violently forced upon nation after nation as they fell to the Empire.
The Romans routinely created spectacles such as this to inspire both awe and fear. They were the superpower of the ancient world and they invested a lot on P.R. so people wouldn’t forget it and try something stupid. When people turned out for a procession, especially in a big city like Jerusalem, they came expecting to be impressed.
So when Jesus, a man rumored to be the messiah of the Jews, a man who was no doubt already on Rome’s radar, comes riding into town on the back of a donkey, it’s a joke… like showing up at the Oscars in a Ford Fiesta.
A donkey is not a ride calculated to impress. The opposite in fact. It is theater of the absurd: Jesus playing the clown in order to mock the people who are scared of him, make fun of the people who find him threatening, and make light of all the rumors that he has come to lead a rebellion.
You can almost hear the soldiers talking amongst themselves:
“Wait? Is this the guy they’re so afraid of back at headquarters? This is why we have extra security out on the streets today? You’ve got to be kidding me.
On the one hand, like all good satire, it was funny: Jesus poking fun at the Romans, gently mocking all their pomp and circumstance by making a fool of himself. I bet a few of the soldiers even laughed… at first.
Because, on the other hand, like all good satire, at its heart, Jesus’ humor was deadly serious. Jesus knew, perhaps even before they did, that he was provoking them even as he mocked them.
They didn’t need extra soldiers on the street to handle him. After all he was just a little guy on a donkey. But the crowd that began to gather in his wake was another matter. No one was forcing these people to walk before or behind. No one was compelling them to wave their palms, lay down their cloaks, and sing.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
All of a sudden these people were chanting about King David. They were daring to remember the good old days, long before Rome, when they were on top. There was a hunger in the people that day for revolution and freedom. And so, what started out as a bit of a joke quickly turned into something more serious.
You see, the Romans thought their relentless consolidation of power could protect them from anything. The procession that followed in the wake of Jesus and his donkey gave them a glimpse at the anger and unrest that swirled just beneath the surface of their law and order. I think that parade may have marked the moment when Jesus began to make even Rome a little bit nervous.
But Rome was not Jesus’ only target that day. He was also taunting the chief priests and the Sadducees, any members of the temple establishment who happened to be paying attention. The energy of the crowd would not have been lost on them either.
Afterall, they were not blind to the loyalty and love Jesus inspired. As humble and ridiculous as he appeared on the back of his little donkey, it was plain to see that Jesus was the kind of man who could ignite a revolution.
You could dismiss the power of his teaching, you could overlook the power of his healing, but you could not deny his chutzpah. Here was a man who could lead the people to rise up; a man so charismatic, he might really be the messiah.
And the moment they realized this, I believe a curious and awful thing began to happen in their hearts. I think maybe they realized that they didn’t really want one.
All these years they had been working on behalf of their people, doing what they could under difficult circumstances, bartering with Rome for just enough power and privilege to make life bearable, all the while consoling their people with the promise of a savior. And now, when it looks like there really is someone who could usher in a new kingdom, the leaders realize that maybe they don’t actually want the change they claim to believe in.
I mean, they didn’t have all the power in the world, but they had more than some and that little bit of influence and respect was precious. Life under Rome wasn’t ideal, but at the end of the day, being the leader of an oppressed people is a heck of a lot better than just being one of the oppressed.
The status quo wasn’t great, but neither was the idea of burning the whole thing to the ground, so they balked. I think watching Jesus go by on the back of his stupid little donkey made them realize that they didn’t want him no matter who he was.
He forced them in that moment to admit to themselves that they had no interest in giving up their privilege to work, fight, suffer, or sacrifice for something as slim as the promise of a new kind of kingdom? Jesus triumphal procession made a mockery of everything those men thought they stood for.
And finally, there was the crowd. All those people gleefully and joyfully marching alongside Jesus, voices raised in songs of hope and liberation. Here was a man they would gladly crown king, a man they would follow into battle against the greatest superpower in the world, a man for whom they would risk everything if he could just put them back on top.
But even as they marched alongside him, they must have wondered somewhere deep inside if the joke wasn’t on them, for this man they would call captain had no sword. This man they would name king had no crown. He didn’t even own a real horse. On his little donkey, Jesus made a mockery of even them and their hopes for revolution.
People sometimes wonder how it could all turn around so fast. How it could be that these people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with their Hosannas could be persuaded to yell “crucify him!” in so short a time. It doesn’t surprise me at all.
In her sermon “Truth to Tell” Barbara Brown Taylor recounts a time on a retreat when the leader asked them all to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives. I’m sure most people tried to think of the nicest, kindest, holiest person they knew. But when it was time to share, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking: who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it” (Bread and Wine p 91).
On the back of his little donkey, Jesus told the truth without speaking a word.
He showed the Romans that their power could buy them time, but it would never buy them peace.
He showed the people at the top that power could buy them privilege, but it could never buy them integrity.
And he showed the people at the bottom that power can reverse any hierarchy, but revolution is a far cry from salvation.
Friends, Jesus didn’t come to re-shuffle the deck. He came to level the playing field. He came to show us that any system built for some at the expense of others, any society predicated on violence, domination, or supremacy, is doomed from the start.
God’s dream for us is so much bigger than that. God’s kin-dom is so much better than that. But to get to that, to build that, to experience that, we need to be willing to pour out our power, relinquish our privilege, lay down our grievance, and want what’s best for each other no matter the cost.
And I will tell you right now, no matter which side you find yourself on, there is always a cost.
Jesus told them all a truth they didn’t want to hear, and he did so without even opening his mouth. All the noise was theirs; all the sound. The palms, the psalms, the suspicion and politicking, the guessing and second guessing, all of it accompanied Jesus right up to the gates of the temple, and then it stopped.
As you read the scripture, the silence at this point in the narrative is almost palpable.
The Bible tells us that, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple…” and then …nothing. Almost as if someone hit the pause button.
Now I know the temple was a busy place, but I imagine Jesus passing through the gates, getting lost in the crowd, and dismounting, unnoticed, in a quiet corner. Like a scene in a movie, I imagine all the background noise zeroing out, and Jesus just standing there apart from all the hustle and bustle, the intrigue and expectation.
I imagine that for a moment, for just one precious moment, that there was nothing. And then, as one after the other, his disciples found him, I imagine the volume gradually flooding back in.
In the very last verse of our reading for today, Mark tells us that, “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
I imagine Jesus, before he left, looking from one corner of the courtyard to the other… shielding his eyes and looking up at the temple…seeing the world for one brief moment just as it was, and knowing in that moment all that it could be.
I imagine him seeing the world just as it was and knowing, in that moment, the price he would pay for what it was about to become.
Friends, we too are in a moment. Some people have called this time the “Great Pause.” Like the people in that crowd 2000 years ago, many of us have been brought face to face with truths about ourselves, our faith, and our country, that we would rather not see.
We all know that things have to change and that the change we need will come at a cost.
Jesus was willing to pay the price. Not the price of our sins in some cosmic transaction with God, but the price we exact from those who show us our sin, who call us to account, who speak the hard truths we need to hear if we’re ever to be in right relationship with one another and God. Jesus was willing to spend all he had – his power, his privilege, his very life, to show us there is another way to live and love in this world; a way that honors all for the sake of all.
He took a moment before he plunged back into the narrative.
I hope we will too.
A moment to see ourselves for who we are and consider who God is calling us to be.
A moment to ask ourselves how far we will go,
how much we will give,
to live in this world not as it is, but as God would have it be?
A moment to consider what Jesus on his little donkey might be saying to us all, even now, as we cry together: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”