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When we lived in Edmond and the boys were younger, we would take them every 4thof July to downtown for the annual Independence Day Parade, one of the largest in the nation. We would go with the neighbors on our street, and we had our “spot”, where we’d watch the parade go by and, much later, watch our own kids in the parade, walking with the Boy Scout troop or marching in the band. The 4thof July parade in Edmond, Oklahoma wasn’t hard to figure out. There was no deception or subtlety in the messaging. America means the military, the fire department, law enforcement, commerce, banks and industry, team spirit and the Miss whatever contest with horns blaring and sirens wailing…oh, and Shriners. So many Shriners in little midget cars and on giant motorcycles, in vintage muscle cars and a few brave souls in clown suits tossing candy. I could stand in the same place I stood as a kid and probably have the same Shroner hand me candy. It was the same every year because parades are meant to convey a message…and dispense candy. Those are the two functions. Now, I don’t know what kind of candy they had in first century Palestine, but I do know that their parades had the same purpose.
Now, Shriners we get. Flatbed trailers with an entire VFW post or another giant service vehicle laden with employees blasting out “And I’m proud to be an American…” for the seventieth time in the parade – these are images and sounds and cultural “hooks” that we get. Palms and donkeys and shouts of “Hosanna” are not. For us it’s an image familiar only because of picture books from our Sunday School days, remember those “Golden” books, likely a very cartoonish, unusually pale Jesus riding on donkey – a donkey who looks a lot like a brown Eeyore. We have no imagination for what other images might be present, no deep, visceral connection to smells or sounds, or phrases shouted…no personal memory connected to this Palm Sunday parade at all. And Hosanna is just a word we hear and sing only around Easter…I mean, no one shouts Hosanna anymore. Can you imagine? I have a half-caf, venti latte for Chris! Hosanna!!!
These hooks don’t catch us, because they weren’t written for us. They are deep remnants of another culture’s history. But what if I gave youthisimage? A man astride a horse, riding fast through the New England countryside, carrying a lantern? And what if he was shouting, “The British are coming, the British are coming!” Who am I talking about?
And what does Paul Revere inaugurate with this midnight ride? What message does he carry, what does he symbolize? <answers from congregation>
Paul Revere announces revolution, and the expectation of freedom, liberation and autonomy. And we all know that by heart, as they say – it is part of our lore, our mythology, our own story, taught to us in a dozen different ways from when we were young. It may not bear any resemblance to what actually happened, but it remains a “living” image, like Jesus on a donkey would have been to the listeners of Luke (and Mark and Matthew and John) hearing this story they had been told before, picturing the images, imagining the sounds just like we do for that midnight ride.
Myths like these come with their own language. The American Revolution certainly has “catch phrases.” Give me liberty or give me ________? Don’t fire until you see ___________________________? For the Palm Sunday story, the word is Hosanna. Hosanna is a term that literally, in Hebrew, means, “save us!” It is the same root that underlies the name Joshua, Hosea, and Yeshua, or Jesus. It is the primary word used during the Hallel Psalms, sung in synagogue during the first two days of Passover which, in the Gospel stories, just happens to be the exact time Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, mimicking the images and stories from the Jewish prophets as he engages in this street theatre through the back gates of the city, deliberately provoking the powers that be using images and language the people would know by heart. If you think that Jesus wasn’t political, his “parade” is proof otherwise – not to mention that, at least in Luke’s version, this parade is preceded by the “parable of the talents” where one servant defies a cruel ruler and the unjust system by he rules with his own actions.
The message was clear to his followers – God was getting ready to do something incredible in their time. God was about to transform their daily world of trouble into a perfect, holy, just city, full of grace — a New Jerusalem, a paradise where God’s will was done by everyone. Zechariah predicted it in scripture! The Messiah, the return of King David, come again to kick out the Romans who had so oppressed and wounded the people. When you have been beaten down, enslaved and treated unjustly for generations, it’s not hard to imagine a party kicking up at the possibility of such monumental change.
Maybe that’s why this story makes it into all four Gospels. That’s a pretty big achievement. The Christmas story, after all, only makes it into 3 gospels. The Lord’s Prayer is only in two, the parable of the Good Samaritan in only one. So, maybe we’re not giving Palm Sunday enough credit. It is typically just the way to start off Holy Week, a blip on the radar and, unless we join new members as we did today,
just another Sunday as we move towards Easter.
Can we appreciate, though, even if just for a minute what a shift this parade represents? Historical research tells us it is likely that at the very same time this parade was happening, with donkeys and palm branches, another parade was entering the main gates of Jerusalem. This one, quite in contrast to Jesus’ ride, looked more like our 4thof July parades. It was the full might of a Roman garrison on display, leading the Governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, through the gates with full armor, heavy spear, sharp sword and the clear message during the celebration of the high holy time of Passover to not get too celebratory. Remember your place, Hebrews…Rome is in charge.
In that sense, Jesus’ parade was a shift for his followers, who had quietly left their nets and followed him, reflectively, passively following Jesus all across the countryside. But this day? This Palm Sunday? This was the day that they found their voices, if only for a few moments. It was the day they summoned their courage, and assumed their role as witnesses to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, becoming earnest participants in the realm of God, shouting Hosanna and really believing that God’s salvation was possible…even imminent.
Before this, when Jesus argued with the authorities, they watched, with trepidation. As The Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor says in her commentary, “When he defended a prostitute, they gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they glanced around guardedly to see who was listening. When he kissed lepers and healed those of broken bodies, they whispered in fascinated awe.”
For the past three years–from the day Jesus called them from their fishing nets until this moment–the commitment to follow Jesus, it had been personal. It had been intimate and private; but today, this day, Palm Sunday, the commitment to follow Jesus, it becomes public and it becomes political. We know, of course, that this feeling won’t last, that this same crowd will join in with the calls of “crucify him” that will soon come. But let’s just stay here for a single Sunday, a snapshot of hope and promise, if only to know what is possible for church to imagine.
Perhaps Palm Sunday is featured in all four gospels because this is the day the followers of Jesus become actors and leaders, participants in the kin-dom of God. This is the day the church comes out of the closet. This is the day the church distances itself from the state and from all worldly power, ceasing to be the purveyor of the weak language of left versus right and instead the bringer of moral truth. Maybe this day, even more than Pentecost, is this is the day the church is born, and it’s our turn now, ourturn to show the world what Jesus taught us about God, to show the world what love looks like, to show the world what it looks like to love not only your neighbor but your enemy, not only your enemy, but the immigrant and the alien, the stranger, and the other…the endless supply of “the other.” Now it is time to show the world what it looks like to forgive those who trespass against you, to forgive the one who sinned against you–who sinned against you–to forgive this one not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. Now is the time to show the world that power is only power when it is given away.
As Rev. Dr. Taylor concludes: In a manifestly violent world, it is now our turn to show the world, to show our friends, our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, what it looks like to follow the Prince of Peace, to turn the other cheek. It’s our turn now. In a merciless world, a dog-eat-dog and might-makes-right world, in a world red in tooth and claw, it’s our turn to show the world what God’s mercy looks like.
Maybe, just maybe, Palm Sunday is in all of our gospels because it launches the church as a place where we can all hear the prophets, see the images of mercy and justice in our heads, hear the songs of protest and passion and find our own conviction, our own courage to be out as Christians, claiming inclusion, social justice and non-violence as things that aren’t along side our faith…they ARE our faith.
It sounds like an amazing opportunity and I hope that excitement and enthusiasm that I can see on the faces out there will be carried out into this world to make a difference…oh, and there’s just one more thing. Doing this…having this kind of vision…making this kind of claim on mercy and grace and love in our world today might just get you yelled at. Make no mistake, it won’t be well received when you tell people that God loves everyone– every. single. other. It might get some negative comments on your social media, or a one-finger salute from someone in the crowd. It might be the death of some relationships. I don’t suspect that any of us will get nailed to a tree, but you might get called all kinds of names, be uninvited from any number of places, maybe even punched in the face. As we will learn in this week to come, speaking long and loud enough about God’s Grace, pushing the right buttons of the political systems, and reaching out to the “wrong” people is what got Jesus in trouble…in fact, it got him more than trouble, it’s what got him killed.