The Marches of Palm Sunday
NOTE: An audio version is available at saintpaulsventura.org/sermons. Title "Palm Sunday"
A sermon by the Rev. Susan Bek
Palm Sunday, Year B • Mark 11:1-11; Mark 14:1-15:47; Zechariah 9:9-10
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ventura
March 25, 2018
This morning we remember Palm Sunday. Jesus' earthly ministry was about to come to an end as he made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We participated in our own little reenactment of that day with the Procession of the Palms and marched to the church in a state of joyful and jubilant celebration. Then, just as they did for Jesus that week, things changed quickly. We soon found ourselves reading through the Passion of Christ, and our emotions were stirred. Joyful celebration turned into sorrow and despair.
In this post, I'm going to talk about some of the historical context around Palm Sunday. Then I'll draw a connection between the march for peace that Jesus lead that day and the marches for peace going on all over the country this past weekend. Finally, I'll end by answering this important question, "Why rearrange our schedules and make time to experience Holy Week?" Whether we pay attention or not, Easter will come next Sunday. So, why bother with Holy Week?
The Passover was a time of remembrance; when the local people, along with their relatives who came from near and far, gathered in Jerusalem to remember the story of how their God saved their ancestors and delivered them from the hands of a terrible oppressor. Pilate and the Romans probably thought the story of slaves escaping from the mighty Pharaoh through the parting of the Red Sea, was pretty farfetched. But the Jewish people believed it and celebrated it year after year.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judaea under emperor Tiberius. It was his job to maintain law and order. And, as the city filled with people preparing for the Festival of Passover, Pilate prepared to take his place in the Fortress Antonia, overlooking the Temple and its courts. From there he would keep watch and make sure that nothing got out of hand. The message would be clear - no one should, for even a moment, think that they could successfully rise up against Rome the way their ancestors had against Egypt.
Not just one procession, but two.
Historians tell us there were two processions in Jerusalem that Passover week. Pilate entered the city from the west. He was draped in the glory of imperial power with his horses, chariots and gleaming armor. He and the Roman army rode into town and took their places watching over the city to make sure that no one stepped out of line.
The other procession was quite different. Jesus entered the city from the east riding a young donkey. He had no fancy robe, no mighty armor. He was a commoner, but, that day, he was hailed as a king. The people saw him coming and removed their cloaks, so they could lay them on the road before him and they waved branches of palms as he passed by.
Understanding the Symbols
The symbol of riding in on a donkey is different from that of riding in on a horse. Kings rode on horses in times of war and on donkeys in times of peace. Jesus entered Jerusalem that day riding on a donkey; that is to say, he came in peace. He was heralded as a king with the waving of palms which were symbols of victory, and the people laid down their cloaks in his path so even his donkey didn’t have to touch the dusty, dirty road.
As had been foretold.
This was a powerful image to the people who hailed him as a king that day. They knew their scripture well. For them, things were coming together just as had been foretold by the prophet Zechariah. Generation after generation of their people held on to the promise that one day a king would come, “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey”
And what kind of king would he be? In the words of the Message translation, it says,
“Shout and cheer, Daughter Zion!
Raise the roof, Daughter Jerusalem!
Your king is coming!
a good king who makes all things right,
a humble king riding a donkey,
a mere colt of a donkey.
I’ve had it with war—no more chariots in Ephraim,
no more war horses in Jerusalem,
no more swords and spears, bows and arrows.
He will offer peace to the nations,
a peaceful rule worldwide,
from the four winds to the seven seas."
It must have been so exciting to see this coming to pass. After all, they had been waiting a long, long time for God to come and help them.
But then, again,
This business of proclaiming Jesus as a King was a risky thing. It was an open act of defiance against the Roman Empire and exactly the kind of thing Pilate’s show of power and strength was meant to prevent.
Why was this so upsetting?
The shouting and the waving of palms was making a scene, and it upset the religious leaders terribly. Roman soldiers were stationed all over the city; ready to quickly react to anything that might indicate a growing rebellion. They were on the lookout for crowds, especially ones that were shouting…and the fact that these people were hailing this common man as a king was absolutely unacceptable!
This put everything in jeopardy.
The Romans allowed this Festival and all religious practice on one condition, that it helped keep the peace. What Jesus and the others were doing, could ruin everything. So, some of the Pharisees ran up to Jesus and shouted, "…order your disciples to stop." Jesus answered, "I tell you, even if they were to keep their peace, the very stones would cry out."
Why wasn’t Jesus worried about upsetting Pilate?
I’m sure that was unbelievably upsetting to the religious leaders who were trying so hard to keep things calm in the city that week. But that didn’t matter to Jesus. Why? Because something more important was happening; something the Pharisees couldn’t understand; something bigger than Pilate; something larger than the Roman Empire; something even more powerful than the coming crucifixion.
The Spirit was on the move. Something remarkable was about to happen and, even if the people didn’t recognize it, all of Creation would. Heaven and earth were about to move, and things would be changed forever.
Marching for Peace, Then and Now
The Spirit is on the move again today. People are once again marching for peace, this time because it is absolutely unacceptable for our children and their teachers to have to live in fear. The youth of our nation are gathering support and taking a stand against the epidemic of gun violence. Like the people gathered in Jerusalem that day, these students, and those who stand with them, are finding their voices and crying out for change. Through his example, Jesus teaches us that calling for peace sometimes requires raising our voices and turning over the tables of the money changers.
Not only does it require giving up our complacency and gathering up the courage to take action, it also requires taking risks. The question of how to end gun violence is a complicated one, not everyone agrees. Some will criticize. Some will complain. Some will stand in the way. But, Jesus didn’t let that stop him, and we can’t let it stop us.
Our call for peace must be a peaceful and compassionate one. We can be insistent without being aggressive. We can show through our lives the peace that we wish to see while relentlessly calling for change.
This weekend we found strength in numbers and a kind of exhilaration that comes from standing together. Still, it’s a complicated problem and sometimes things get worse before they get better.
The Passion of Christ
As we heard in the gospel lesson, things got complicated for Jesus too. The people, who on this day were so excited and hopeful, were soon very disappointed in the man they hailed with their shouts of praise and adoration. And, by Friday, they were ready to give up, and some even shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Why does this service have such emotional ups and downs?
This morning’s service is designed to help us experience some of all of these emotions. It gives us the opportunity to read and even reenact in small but significant ways, some of the most profound stories of our faith.
The reason we do it this way is simple. We want to be ready for Easter, really ready. Ready not just to remember a spiritually fulfilling, life changing experience, but ready to have one ourselves. For the Resurrection to touch us on a personal level, we need to let the events of Holy Week and the crucifixion touch us and change us too.
Not just another week
What lies ahead of us is not just another week. It is a week like no other. In whatever ways we can, we need to step away from the busyness of our everyday lives to ponder and celebrate the mysteries of Holy Week.
“Why rearrange our schedules and make time to experience Holy Week?”
Because doing so helps us prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Easter and helps us connect with the courage and determination we will need to stand up for peace and justice in the world.
God bless you!