This is a transcript from the April 5, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
Well, it's Palm Sunday but has there ever been a Palm Sunday that felt more off and more strange? This is the time of year where we celebrate on the first day of Holy Week that Jesus comes into Jerusalem. He's surrounded by crowds who sing his praises. They say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."
They throw their branches on the ground and their cloaks on the ground, and we try to reenact that, don't we? We like to have the same kind of processions, we like to have the same kind of joy and conjure that up with our own palm branches, and our own hymns of singing Hosanna. But this is an unusual year. How do you have a social gathering and large crowds in a time of social distancing?
Anything that looks like a procession this year is going to more likely be a long line waiting to get into a store. Does anyone really feel like celebrating this year? Does anyone feel all that joy as we're watching the news and wondering what's coming? Am I the only one who has wondered whether or not we should just cancel Palm Sunday this year? Not that it's bad, it just doesn't seem to fit. Maybe it should go the way of proms, and spring sports and March madness. Let's put a pause on it, let's come back to it next year when we can do it right.
If Palm Sunday was nothing more than just the trappings, if nothing more than just the singing, nothing more than the props around at that day, I would probably agree. As I've been thinking about it, it seems to me that when we look at Palm Sunday a little more closely, when we examine it, when we strip away all the adornments of it, we get down to a message that, I think, is pretty relevant for today. We get down to the essence and the message that I think makes it perfect for Palm Sunday 2020.
Here's what I mean. It begins with the understanding that Jesus' procession, the one that we celebrate on Palm Sunday, wasn't the only one that was going on. There was another procession, maybe even the same day, and it had to do with Pilate. Now, here I'm building out some of the good work of Crossan and Borg, who in their book, The Last Week, would recount that, Pilate, even though he was the governor, he was the ruler of that area, did not live in Jerusalem, the capital city.
Instead, he lived in more of the Roman capital city of that area, which was, Caesarea Maritima. It was on the coast. It had better weather, it had better views, it was more comfortable, had better culture, had more WiFi, coffee shops, all the things that you would want if you were going to be a Roman official.
Once in a while, he had to leave the comfort of that place and he had to come to Jerusalem. It was always on the high holy days. It was always on the high holy days because, given that those days were not just religious festivals, they happened to do with nationalistic fervor. These were really the times when there would be riots. These would be the times where they would spur messiahs who were to come.
On these days, Pilate would get his legions and they would march in, they would come into the West Gate, the main gate, and make a show of force. They're making a statement and the statement was this, "Listen, you can have your high holy days, you can worship your god but let's be real clear who's in charge and that's us. We're the Romans. We're the ones who bring Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, and we will crush anyone who gets in our way."
If Pilate was trying to make a statement, so was Jesus. Jesus was not forced into Jerusalem, he chose to go. Jesus did not just stumble accidentally at the same time. We were told that there was a great planning, there was even planning ahead of time. On a certain day, there would be a donkey ready for him when he needed it.
Jesus was making a statement too but it was about a different kind of peace and it was a different source of power. What we have here is these two paths. One coming in from the east and one coming in from the west, but they're more than just geographical gates. This has to do with completely different worlds and completely different mindsets. These are completely different paths for humanity. How do we meet the great longings of the human heart? Where do we find the peace? Where do we find the things that we think make humanity work? There are two very different answers both colliding at the same time.
On the one hand, there is the Pax Romana and the Pax Romana has to do with power, and might, and force. It has to do with strength, and control, and taking, and sometimes if necessary, violence, because that's how you bring order. That's how you give a human soul what it needs and what it longs for. This is how humans flourish. Then coming in from the other gate, a different path and it was Jesus' path. This path had to do with love, and service, and humility. It had to do with forgiving and sacrifice, and forgiving and reconciling. It had to do with the things that on the one hand seemed ridiculous, that seems small. It wouldn't take a genius to calculate what was going to happen when, as it did in that week, those two paths merged in one and the same place.
Later that week, as predicted, Pilate would win, or seemingly so. Roman power would win, or seemingly so, because by the end of the next week, it was Jesus's path that exposed Rome and its power and all those who follow that path as weak and ineffectual. They were exposed.
Now, this idea of something that seems invincible, that seemed overwhelming, that seems invulnerable suddenly coming and crashing down because something smaller and insignificant rendered itself, it seems crazy but it seems a lot more believable in our time, doesn't it? Here we are in this age where you and I are watching from our screens. We are having the social distance because there is this little virus that you can't even see, unless you got a giant microscope. It's not really even alive and yet it brings down whole bodies, it brings down whole families, it brings down whole communities. Military might is no match for it. It brings down whole economies. Things that we thought were invulnerable suddenly are being shown to be incredibly fragile.
Lent begins with these words about, "From dust we came and to dust we will return." It's not meant to be words of despair, it's not meant to scare us, it's meant to offer us a new hope. For as fragile as we are, as frail as we may be, that there is something that we can trust in, that will deliver, that will give us the peace that we're longing for. That when Jesus comes in on that donkey, when Jesus comes in with open hands and not an iron fist, when Jesus comes in, vulnerable and offering a different way, He's offering us a path of life and He's giving us a choice.
He's saying, "Listen, there are two paths." You can get an example of that because coming from the other side of the city is an example of what most people think rules this world. I'm telling you, there is a different path with a different kind of peace and a different kind of power.
The first work of Palm Sunday, regardless of whether we have palms, or processions, or songs, is to ask us, are you on the right path? Are you on the path that can bring the peace that you are looking for?
If not, now is the time for a change and it begins with prayer. I'm going to lead us in a prayer of confession and as I do, I would invite you to let these words become your words, our words together.
Let's pray. We have been tried and found wanting, oh Lord. We have been tested and failed. We seek your help and yet we miss your presence. We call you Lord, yet we follow other masters. We are driven by fear and have allowed it to drive wedges between us. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy, forgive what we have been. Help us amend what we are and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk with you in all your ways for the sake of the love of Christ which draws us, blesses us, and sends us to serve. Amen.
It's Palm Sunday, and if all we were going to come and do was to wave our branches and sing our songs and then go home, we might as well have saved our breath. But if we were to come on Palm Sunday and recognize again that Jesus is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, then at least we have a fresh beginning. But it is just the beginning because Palm Sunday is more than just the day that happened 2,000 years ago, it is happening today. Just as it was 2,000 years ago, there is a path, there are two paths that are there and there is the one path that Christ has followed, that Christ asked us to follow as well.
These are anxious times and our default will be then to rely on and look for our help and our security through the main gate, the West Gate; the things that rely upon power, and strength, and might, and force. But it's a Palm Sunday so we are reminded that there is another path and it is the path of sacrifice, and of service, and of humility, and love. It's still love.
How do we know which path it is? You already know. You already know because in your heart, there are things that are stirring that are telling you. You already know because there are images that bring us courage. You already know because there are acts that we see done and they gladden the hearts of all those who see them. We want to cheer for them. We want to cheer for those acts of service that make us proud, proud to be humans. Then there are the stories, the stories that warm us, the stories that inspire us to be even more.
Beyond that, there are the words of the people who live their lives. Words like Martin Luther King, Jr, someone who was very familiar with that path. When he said, "If we're to have peace on earth, if we're going to have peace, our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation." And this means we must develop a world perspective.
That is someone who understood the path or maybe it is in the time of suspicion because we live in a time of suspicion. We live in a time, whereas one historian says, "For the first time ever, we have a partisan pandemic."
As if the virus is new political affiliations, that darkness cannot drive out darkness. We need to be reminded of the words that only light can do that, for there is a path that recognizes that hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
On this Palm Sunday, maybe we can't raise our branches, maybe we can't process, maybe we can't join our voices in song together. No, but we can join our hearts together. We can entrust ourselves to the one who came in the name of the Lord and we can follow in that same path.
On this Palm Sunday, may you know the blessing of the one who comes, and he's here now, and in the following, may your life be a blessing to others. Amen.