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You know this a demonstration, right? This account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey? It’s a protest, a rally, a dramatic dissent aimed right at the power of his time, organized by a few young adults, seemingly without power, dismissed by the authorities, sick of the way things are and ready for a change. I don’t know how many of you went yesterday to the March For Our Lives, not only here in Tulsa but all across the country and even the world, but it bore so many things in common with this Palm Sunday parade that I’m surprised I didn’t see someone on a burro. And even heard from some online accounts that at many demonstrations, church groups carried palm branches, all too aware of the symbolism.
This is the right way to start off Holy Week, which tells the story of the final days of Jesus…or at least what Rome thought was the final days of Jesus. It’s a story of protest to be sure, a protest fueled initially by outrage, but a protest that stems from the same things that happened on the first Palm Sunday – the arrival of a new paradigm, a fresh lens with which to see, the ushering in of a new world. This new kin-dom is still here and not here, still coming to fruition, not flourishing in a giant wave, but popping up in fits and starts, like the new shoots of a crepe myrtle that the gardeners are trying to get rid of, but can’t. How do we hear this story once again? Like Christmas, it is an annual challenge to make the story new again, not to mention finding ways to present an entire Holy Week for those who can’t make it to a Maundy Thursday service, nor to Good Friday. This is not a criticism of you, this is a busy time of year. Somehow we need to hear the whole story of Holy Week – because it’s not just a journey from mountaintop to mountaintop, not a parade followed by the glory of Easter…in between the life and resurrection there is despair, there is destruction and devastation, there is death. Without that part, we might think that God is only present in our prosperity, not in the darkness and the doubt…we might think that the parade is the point, when it is really the challenging work that comes afterwards.
So today we begin with the parade, with the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem like a coronation satirizing a parade that takes place at the main gates of the city with the coronation of Pontius Pilate lead by a garrison of Roman soldiers who come each year to Jerusalem for the high holy days of Passover – to make sure the Roman subjects, these Judeans, don’t get too celebratory, or get all hyped up on this God thing and forget who’s really in charge. Pilate arrives with military force , banners and flags, royal cloth and golden chariots – a show of Roman power. Jesus arrives on a borrowed donkey with palm leaves taken from the trees around them to decorate his journey in – a show of solidarity and a very different kind of power.
The tradition says that these parades occurred at the same time on different sides of the city. That is certainly possible. But I like to think that they took place at the same time, through the same gate, the donkey next to the war horses, the children dancing around the soldier’s feet, the crowds intermingled and indistinguishable. Palm Sunday does present us with two choices – will we attend the parade of empire, complete with military might and the marks of wealth and power that empire always portrays? Or will we go to the parade of Jesus, amongst the outcast and uncounted, delivering a whole different idea of power? But what is intriguing to me now is that we are far more likely to discover that these parades are not so neatly divided…they are intertwined, weaving in and out of each other in a way that is disturbingly confusing.
This complicated by the attitude of the people following Jesus. They shout, “Hosanna – here is the Messiah!” But they do not know what they are saying. They expect, like we still expect, a hero riding into town with a red cape to save the day. They expect good to defeat evil with a single, mighty blast, or that power has come as the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun – a good guy with a gun. Only Jesus doesn’t have a gun. And he teaches that those who live by the sword, or the gun, will die by the sword, or the gun. When he is asked to show his power as the “Son of God”, he gives it away.
We still don’t appreciate the implications of that, either, for in the centuries since this parade, right up to today, we have been trying to make Jesus into Superman, with muscles and invulnerability, the conquering force of all conquering forces, not a rejection of war, but rather the ultimate warrior.
I believe that Jesus knew how people would see him, and how they would take this title “messiah.” They would misunderstand completely, trying to make him into the next great king, in the mold of David, here to overthrow the Romans with armed force and setup a new kingdom on the earth. But his is not a kingdom, it is the kin-dom, and it is already here he teaches us. We just can’t see it, or maybe we won’t see it. It takes new eyes.
The apostle Paul, one of the first writers of the Jesus movement, wrote that we human beings see, “through a glass but dimly.” We get partials, portions of the truth, often distorted and blurry, and we too often think that we have arrived at the finality. Sometimes our most well-intentioned things, driven by partial truths, cause great suffering and chaos in the long run. The reality of Holy Week asks us to move from a paradigm where we seek and are governed by certainty to a paradigm of trust. Holy Week asks us to consider the difficult and confidence-resisting questions, like – what is Easter without Judas? How do look to Jesus as our model of trust and yet hear his words from the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Without darkness, what is light?
As we head into Holy Week and the stories are told again with their familiar plots and wrote characters, there is space for us to hear that the great joy of Easter morning is born from the deepest betrayal and darkness. There is space for us to hear that God works in the gray areas, moving with us, improvising as we change directions and make decisions, some of which we think are so good at the time, some of which aren’t good to begin with…there God moves and molds and re-calibrates, seeking to let some light shine through. It is what happens when we move past the parade, and step into the work of solidarity and advocacy, which is difficult and gray and messy. That is where we encounter the God who makes all things new…though rarely in the ways we expect. I believe that this is what these young people who are leading the way on issues like gun control are going to find…complexity, doubt, paradox, conflict and, if they stay past the march, epiphany, hope, trust, life.
This week is not mean to be all parades and chocolate eggs. You are mean to hear about last meals and snuffed candles, to listen to the sound of dirges and minor keys, with blood, sweat, tears and the hammering of nails. This week ends with a tomb shut tightly and the death of a dream. It comes with mourning and heavy grief, and that is part of Easter. In fact, it’s critical to Easter, for Holy Week models for us a dedication to the refrain of life, death and resurrection that lies at the heart of Christianity. We learn, through this story being told again and again, not to expect life to last forever, to know that we cannot have new life without death and to expect, indeed to plan on, resurrection.
That is what we are seeing, by the way. You can call them marches, or dismiss them as the idle demonstrations of young people who just don’t know any better. You can think they don’t make any difference, like an itinerant rabbi with a small following leading a parade of nobodies on a donkey. But they are resurrection…after life and death, they are resurrection. Black Lives Matter, the “metoo” movement, the force of young people saying, “Enough”, these are all protest parades, pushing past the numbing agent of “thoughts and prayers” to bold action, announcing with “hosanna-like” intensity a new vision for the world. These movements say in a loud voice that the life of patriarchy, racism and the idolization of violence has had it’s day, we are living through it’s death now, and, though it’s been a long time coming, something new will be raised.
It will soon be Easter, and the tomb will be empty and then what?