Monday, 25 March 2013 00:00

"Palms", March 24, 2013

Luke 19:28-40
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Palm Sunday
March 24, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

I do some of my best sermon preparation around a pot of boiling maple sap.  Yesterday, I was trying to come up with something new to say on Palm Sunday. Jean Lubke suggested I do something that started with the letter ‘P”.  There’s Palms, Pilate, Parade, Passover, Preconceived notions, Prophecy, Potential, Priorities, Procession, Provocative, Politics, Protein, Passion, Possibilities, Pomp and circumstance, peace…Such a plethora of “P” words, so little time.  I think I’ll stick with “Palms.”

When I was in San Francisco, we had the great advantage of having palm trees all over the city.  And on Dolores Street, the palm trees line the divided boulevard, a gift from the 1915 world’s fair hosted in the city recovering from an earthquake nine years earlier. In a possible blurring of the line of the separation of church and state, the city helped out the churches by trimming the trees a week before Holy Week.  And instead of needing to cart away all of the discarded palms, they just left them at the base of the trees.  The church folk took care of the rest.  It was the only time a church I served didn’t have to buy palms.

Now, I don’t know if the Roman occupying government in Jesus’ time had a similar idea, but the word is that there were enough palms to pave the road on a kind of green carpet.  The carpet was to welcome the Messiah, the one who would deliver the people from their Roman oppression.  Of course, Jesus didn’t do that.  I mean, he did ride the donkey and he even told people not to hold back on their praise.  But he didn’t lead the revolution.  The closest he got was the turning over of the tables of the moneychangers. He didn’t lead a revolution. Hold that thought.  We’ll get back to it.

Let’s get into the minds of the community on that first Palm Sunday.  Many scriptures indicate that it was near the Passover Feast when Jesus came to Jerusalem.  People from all over the countryside came back to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, the city name “place of peace.”  Passover is an annual feast when the people symbolically relived the oppression in Egypt, the slavery of the Hebrew people, the ten plagues and the eventual liberation from Egypt through the red sea and on the way to the Promised Land.  Of course, the drowning of the pursuing army of Pharaoh made for great storytelling. At every Passover meal, we are to reflect on the oppression of the Hebrew people and see if there is a way we can make peace.


Jerusalem was occupied territory.  While the Hebrew people were the vast majority, they were controlled for all intents and purposes by the Romans.  The Holy Roman Empire was expanding and taking smaller, weaker countries as booty.  They granted them peace as long as they did what the Romans wanted them to.  This was known as Pax Romana.  If anyone stepped out of line, they were executed, crucified publicly as a warning.  Jewish historian Josephus tells of thousands of people crucified under Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor), all because they were seen as insurrectionists.  We might call them freedom fighters.

This had been going on for a long time and there was revolution in the air on that first Palm Sunday.  Revolution-minded Zealots were organizing.  And with people behind them, there was nothing that could stop them.  Not even the power of Rome itself.  Pilate, I’m sure had heard about the promised messiah.  People had asked Jesus over and over again, “are you the one or shall we wait for another?”  This messiah was supposed to be a military ruler who would lead the people to squash all that was against God.  The time was now.  You could feel it in the air.

So Pilate had his own procession on Palm Sunday.  His was draped in the trappings of imperial power: adorned robes, horses, spears, chariots, the limos and tanks of the time.  Pilate moved in with the Roman army, his own department of homeland security, during Passover week to make sure that the minions stayed in control.  Revolution was in the air, especially with the memory of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt.  Pilate didn’t want a Hebrew Spring.  He was ready and the crossbows were locked and loaded.  He was ready for the insurrection to begin.  His troops were nervously watching the crowds, wondering what would happen.  I imagine Pilate in the blazing sun being fanned by palm branches in the hands of his slaves.  No irony there.

Then they came.  Hundreds of people their ranks swelling as they got closer to Jerusalem, down from the Mount of Olives they came.  They waved their palms at first, but then cast them into the road, a symbolic thumbing of the nose to the elite. The one they were following was in an ordinary robe riding a borrowed donkey. He looked like a commoner, but the people who knew the ancient story knew that this was the way to identify the messiah.  “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of God.  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”  Watch out.

I couldn’t help but think about this as Pope Francis was unveiled, eschewing the pomp and circumstance usually attributed to his office. He emerged from behind the curtain at the Vatican wearing not the robes of power, but the common white cassock and simple cross. Will he continue to advocate for the poor in such an office?  Will his office cloud his prophetic voice?

A few Pharisees asked Jesus to calm down the crowds.  Maybe they were trying to protect the people from the blood lust of the Romans.  Maybe they had seen a little too much bloodshed.  “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  But Jesus said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  That’s how badly people wanted to be free.  That’s how badly they needed a revolution.

They were marching and singing and waving the palms and it was all going according to plan.   But then he turns a corner, sees the city, and something makes him weep.  Maybe it was the warmongering of the crowds.  Maybe it was the armed guards looking to pick off anyone who got out of control.  Maybe it was the scared leaders colluding to keep the peace.  Peace?  “Jerusalem! If only today you knew the things that make for peace, but you do not know them for they are hidden from your eyes.”  What has hidden them?  Cowardice? Misinformation? Blind hope? Blind anger and righteous indignation?

Jesus stopped and wondered aloud if the people really wanted peace or if they wanted vengeance disguised as peace.

Is the best way to make peace to make war? Do we need to arm our teachers?  Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong?

Jesus says from the cross, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  It’s a willful ignorance, a blindness.  Maybe it’s a blindness of the heart and not just of the mind.

They weighed on his words, just waiting for the call to attack. They were ready to follow him into battle. But he surprised them. He told people to check their assumptions. He told them to repent. Us repent? They are the ones who need to repent. They are the ones who took our land. They are the ones who tax us beyond our means. They are the ones who outlaw our language in favor of strange tongues. It all sounds like Greek to me.

In the 7th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the disciples of John the Baptist said to Jesus, “Are you the one, or shall we wait for another?”  Jesus responded:  Go and tell John:

The blind receive their sight.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

It says nothing about a military conquest.

They might have been tempted to take their palms back.  Or at least rethink their allegiances.  And they were not looking at their allegiance to God. They were looking at their allegiance to Jesus.  They needed to wait for another.  When Jesus charged them to check their allegiances. They said, “We are.  We don’t like you any more.  Crucify you!”

This was a great week for our kids.  Not only was it Spring break.  Not only did we make a trip to Ohio and back to visit families and go college hunting.  Not only did we make our first batch of maple syrup yesterday.  But the DVD of Les Miserables came out.  We watched it again last night and loved the music and the spectacle of it all. Revolution is the theme.  You have characters who are living in squalor being told to take their miserable lot and quietly endure. They eventually brim over with revolutionary fervor and most die.  You have people finding and losing love in the midst of war.  You have mercy and forgiveness that is true freedom.  For some, like the tragic figure Javert, that is more than they can take.  The hero Jean Valjean is a reluctant messiah figure.  And he is so compelling because of his own self-doubt.  But he is also captivated by the holiness that he sees in the struggle for freedom.  His chains no longer bind him when he realizes, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

So what was Jesus wanting to have us do on Palm Sunday?  Was this all part of a cosmic plan of confusion and mayhem?

I said earlier that Jesus didn’t lead a revolution on that Palm Sunday.  But the procession amidst the palms did set something in motion.  It did cause confusion. But confusion is another word for cognitive dissonance.  And cognitive dissonance is needed to question assumptions.  And questioning assumptions is what we need to really start making changes.  Maybe the revolution was something that was begun on Palm Sunday and it begins in our hearts.  It begins when we take sin and suffering seriously.  It begins when we see the powers and principalities as dubious diviners, but also as deceivers.

It begins when we don’t settle for business as usual.  When we reflect on the death of Jesus which brings us to a new understanding.  What needs to die in our lives in order for a new seed to grow?

And so like the Hebrew people of old, we hold lour palms.  They can fan the elite.  They can make a carpet for the one who reminds us of God’s intention for us. They can be transformed into a cross. The palms symbolize our exuberance and our struggle to be faithful followers of the incarnate Christ.

The end of Les Mis is a clear resurrection scene.  Not only are all of the poor and heroes brought back to life for one more song and one more triumphal entry, but they come with a new understanding of what it all means.  They come and join each other on the barricades which are no longer about the petty squabbles in 19th century France, but in all of our struggles.  If we look closely enough, we will see that we have companions on our journey.  We have loyalty and solidarity that is crucial for real revolution.  But we also have a change of heart.

Maybe the point of Palm Sunday is for us to lament like Jesus on the confusion of our time and point toward the way of peace.

That is a procession that is worth taking. It and it alone leads to resurrection.