Sunday, April 1, 2007

Sermon: Palm Sunday

When Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time, I often think of his humility as he enters that holy city, he rides no great steed, no war horse, he’s not carried in by the people, but he rides a colt, a foal of a donkey. And I think of the poem written by G.K. Chesterton, called THE DONKEY

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

I love that poem because in the donkey’s perspective even as the donkey is derided, the devil’s walking parody, the donkey recognizes that he had that one great hour, a shout about the donkey’s ears with palms at the donkey’s feet… The donkey was carrying Jesus and the people came and shouted Hosanna, they laid palm branches and garments along the path, hailing his coming to Jerusalem, welcoming him in grand fashion.

You get a sense of the love the people had for Jesus and how the crowd was around him; but there was also others watching Jesus, those who feared his arrival. Some among the Jewish leadership were not convinced that Jesus was the messiah, some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop as he entered Jerusalem." Jesus answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." The same Jesus who challenged authority in the villages, by the sea, out in the highways and byways had now come to Jerusalem.

It was not time to back down, even the stones would shout out… Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

But the Pharisees were not the only ones there… For in that same week, there was another grand procession. This one began at the Governor’s capital of Caesarea on the coast. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, and a imperial cavalry had come to Jerusalem to reinforce the troops there. Pilate who oversaw Jerusalem and all of Israel for the Roman Empire, was there to make sure there was no trouble during the Jewish Passover. The entrance procession of Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts from the people of blessed is the king, would have roused the Roman interest.

The next day when Jesus threw the merchants out of the Temple, he would not only have angered the Jewish authorities who were looking for a way to arrest him, but also the Romans, who would want to quell the disturbance created by Jesus and his disciples. Jesus understood that through his actions, and the actions of his disciples and the crowd that he was confronting power and authority in a way that would change the world but also lead to his death…

As William Stringfellow wrote, “The real witness of Palm Sunday is not the parade or what the disciples or secular authorities saw; it is the encounter between Christ and the power of death.”

By Jesus own actions, it put him in the sights of the empire that would destroy anyone who would not live by their Pax Romana. Jesus confronted the power of death in the occupying imperial empire of Rome As two authors put it, “The contrast is clear: Jesus versus Pilate, the nonviolence of the kingdom of God versus the violence of empire. Two arrivals, two entrances, two processions—and our Christian Lent is about repentance for being in the wrong one and preparation to abandon it for its alternative.” (Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan)

When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, it is a call to follow him not only in the triumphant entrance to Jeruslaem, but throughout Holy Week from celebration, to betrayal, to abandonment, to the cross…

We are called to follow the one who came in the name of love and peace, who rode humbly on a donkey, who threw out the merchants so God’s house could be a house of prayer for all people. The one who confronted death with his life. We are challenged to repent of our allegiance to the way of prosperity and power and to once again follow the way of the cross. To shout out with the crowd and those stones: Hosanna! Blessed is the king!

Let me end with a poem by Boris Pasternak called "The Evil Days", the author famous for Doctor Zhivago, who talks about holy week and helps us place ourselves there…

Not more than a week had passed
Since Jesus rode into the city,
And palm fronds were strewn in His path,
Hosannas resounded in greeting.

Yet each day brought new gloom and fresh menace.
Hearts untouched by love were unmelted,
And eyebrows were clenched in contempt,
And then came the postlude, the ending…

And the yards of the town were oppressed
By skies filled with leaden foreboding,
While Pharisees sought for their proofs
And fawned like vixen before Him.

And sinister powers of the temple
Deferred to the judgment of scoundrels,
And now He was damned with a fervor
No less than the praise that resounded.

And there, in the neighboring gateway,
A throng of spectators now crowded,
And they heaved and surged back and forth
And jostled, awaiting the outcome.

And whispers passed down the streets
And rumors invaded the precincts,
And His childhood now seemed like some dream -
All those tales of His flight into Egypt…

He remembered the grand elevation
Of the desert [wilderness scarp] and the mountain
Where He quelled the satanic temptation
And renounced earthly might and a kingdom.

And the feast at a wedding in Cana,
Where the throng was amazed by that wonder,
And the time when, in mist, as though walking
On land, He had trodden the waters.

And the hovel where paupers were gathered,
And the candle-lit stairs He descended,
When the flame in its fright was extinguished
As the dead one was now resurrected. Amen.

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