Matthew 21:1-11 – Palm Sunday
The whole city waited breathlessly for his arrival. There was excitement, and lots of talk, not the kind of talk we’d call gossip but talk that was full of hope, wild hope that, no matter how bad things had been, no matter how long the people had suffered, things were going to be different now, because of him. People tried to figure out the best way to welcome him, to prepare for the wonderful future he was going to bring. He was The One, the one they and their fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers before them had been waiting for, hoping for, dreaming of. Some people even now had started to call him “the King.” Life for the people of this city and its surroundings was going to be different–transformed–because of his leadership, his powerful gifts and what they promised, and the people of the city would be filled with pride and self-confidence once more. They’d see themselves in a new way, and their city in a new way, or better, their city would be restored to its former glory.[i]
Chicago can relate to this. Their beloved Cubbies hadn’t come through for over a century. The fans, year after year, would recall the Cubs past glories and hope for a successful future. This continued for 108 years. But, on a damp evening in Cleveland last October the Chicago Cubs, finally, won the World Series. And lest you think this wasn’t a big deal in Chicago, the victory parade is rumored to be the seventh largest gathering of people in human history.
Now, in some ways, Jerusalem was a lot like Chicago back in the first century. For many centuries, Jerusalem had been a city of both hunger and hope, and always recalled its past glories and its future promise. Remember heroic King David, the great leader who ruled in justice and peace, whose memory inspired the people to long once again for a king who would restore them to those former glories? The Messiah himself was said to be “the son of David,” and they hoped he would be the king of Israel, a nation that had lived under the heel of one oppressive, violent empire after another, all the way back to Egypt, and later Assyria, Babylon, and now Rome. The Romans extracted heavy taxes from the people, stationed troops overlooking the temple itself to keep a kind of peace in the city, and chose from the people a few collaborators to keep things running smoothly in this land so distant from the center of the empire. The situation in Jerusalem and the countryside was not good: many people were drowning in debt, a high foreclosure rate on the land concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, and most people were hungry, jobless, and desperate.
The kings of Israel themselves, after David, had done a terrible job of living up to what God expected of them, and that’s why the prophets often scolded Jerusalem for its neglect of the poor, its injustice and greed. Jerusalem was both the holy city and, as Jesus said, “the city that killed the prophets.” But at this point in history, the power rested in the hands of the Romans, and those who collaborated with them. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan draw a wonderful picture of that “Palm Sunday” long ago. They describe not one but two processions into the city that day: one, from the west, was led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor coming into the city to “keep the peace,” no, better, to keep order, during the Passover, the Jewish high holy day celebrating Israel’s long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire. “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city,” Borg and Crossan write: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”[ii]
This was the power of empire on display, but it was also a kind of theology, too, because the Roman emperor claimed to be the son of God, so “the way things were” were that way because their “god” decided it should be so. Works out well for the Romans and the wealthy, but not so much for the people under their heel.
Now, on the other side of town, from the east, came a very different procession, one we read about in Matthew’s Gospel account today. This “king” rides in not on a warhorse but on a donkey, surrounded not by cavalry or foot soldiers with helmets and banners but by peasants, the urban poor, and the spiritually hungry as well, holding palm branches, and exuberantly full of praise and hope that has been kept alive by those prophets who promised a time of peace, and justice, and a leader who would inaugurate that great and glorious day. Zechariah and Isaiah were two of those prophets, and Matthew quotes them in this passage, but he also recalls something that happened earlier in his Gospel, when Jesus was a little tiny, humble baby whose birth caused such a stir in the city that powerful King Herod felt compelled to strike out at him in fear and violence. He was a threat to the powerful then, and during this Holy Week, he will be seen that way again.
The powers that be of the temple will hand Jesus over to the powers that be of the empire, and that empire will kill Jesus. That’s what empires do. That’s what these two processions were about, one kind of power confronting another. For a while, it will appear that the empire, that violence and suffering, injustice and greed have won. But on the third day, we know, that God will say no to this kind of power, and yes to the power of love and justice, compassion and peace, yes to the power of new life. I read a story this week about saying yes to the power of love and justice.
Katheryn Matthews writes that when her children were small they joined a small, African American church in an impoverished neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. And each year, this little congregation went on their own Palm Sunday procession to another church several blocks away. Now, you must understand that this was a neighborhood that had erupted in flames and riots when Dr. King was killed, and years later its violent crime rate was still very high. The “Hough riots” happened right in front of the church, and the church members remembered looking out at the buildings as they burned. “But,” Katheryn writes, “I confess that I was a little uneasy each year, as a mother of small children, wondering if it was wise to take them on this walk. The choir led us in spirituals as we processed down Ansel Road, and I remember watching my sons and daughter as they took all of this in, especially when they looked up at windows that had no glass in them but only blankets across them, and children who pulled back the blankets to look at the procession passing by. This was where they lived, every day. How could we take that walk on Palm Sunday, how could we say and sing that we wanted to follow Jesus, and not make the connection to the suffering of the people that surely touched his own heart and led him to say and do the things that eventually brought him to this moment, to this confrontation with the powers that be?”[iii]
I think this is a story that really speaks to the Church today. It’s so much easier to say that Jesus died for my sins and washed them all away than it is to take up the cross of the suffering of the world, to make a choice between one procession and another, to choose non-violence, and justice, generosity and peace, rather than opting for power and security and judgment. So here’s the relevant question that we must ask ourselves today: “Are we there with Jesus?” Are we willing to pay the price with him for holding onto that dream of God, the reign of God when, as the prophet Isaiah says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”? The prophet Micah speaks these same words, but he adds, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
No more hunger. No more war. My friends, we are invited to dream with God of that great day, as we hear this story at the beginning of another Holy Week. And, we are also invited to find ourselves in that story and thus, we must choose, one procession over the other. I hope we will remember, as we make our own decision, what Margaret Farley has written about what it means to be a follower of Jesus: “Christianity,” she writes, “is a religion of resistance and hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death.”[iv] The choice, then, is before us. What it will be? Which procession shall we join? Will we dare to hope, and to follow Jesus on his way?
(A note on the title of this message. “The Tail of the Kite” was the illustration I used for the Palm Sunday Children’s message, 2017)
[i] Kathryn M. Matthews Passion Amid the Palms (ucc.org/Samuel/sermonseeds 2017)
[ii] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. (Harper: San Francisco, 2006) pgs. 2-5
[iii] Ibid. Matthews
[iv] Margaret A. Farley. Changing the Questions: Explorations in Christian Ethics (Orbis Books, 2015)