Sermon on Mark 11:1-11, for Palm Sunday B, March 25, 2018
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Palm Sunday is the perfect time to talk about what it means for us to call ourselves Christians, or Followers of Jesus.
By the way, there are a growing number of people who are uncomfortable with the word “Christian” to describe us, but more comfortable with the term “followers of Jesus.” The reason they give is that “Christian” carries a lot of baggage that they do not want to be associated with.
It is true, I am sure we would all agree, that there have been ugly periods of the distant past, like the Crusades and Inquisitions, and of the not too distant, like the support for slavery, and of the present, like intolerance, a lack of inclusively, being anti-science, not to mention abuse.
So, many people want to distance themselves from those connotations of the word “Christian,” and yet still want to be followers of Jesus, and to be known as being followers of Jesus. The first name for being a Jesus follower, according to Luke, was being a person of “The Way.” We are on “the way,” which means we are on a journey. Where are we headed? Wherever Jesus is going, that is where we want to go.
The Personal and the Public, Contemplation, and Action
So what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus today? Palm Sunday is a perfect day to ask the question because Palm Sunday has always been two things at once, and being a follower of Jesus is a coin with two sides as well: the personal and the public.
Franciscan theologian and author Richard Rohr founded an organization that specifically seeks to help people follow Jesus both personally and publicly, so he named it, the Center for Action and Contemplation. Action is about our public lives. Contemplation is about our personal lives.
According to Rohr’s vision, as I understand it, all our public actions as Christians must be informed by our Christian way of looking at the world, and by a personal life that is structured and nurtured by our regular Christian spiritual practices, especially contemplation, which many people simply call meditation, or silent centering prayer.
The combination of the two is important, because public action by itself, without this supporting spirituality, may simply be serving ego needs; like the need to be right, the need to be noble, the need to be superior. Action without a foundation in contemplation may end up being about making enemies and using non-christian tactics, even violence. If the goal is to follow Jesus, it ends up being self-subverting.
Theologian and anti-war activist, in the Viet Nam era, Walter Wink, said he knew of peace groups that had become toxic because of internal tensions. The ego-work of the spiritual practice of regular contemplation was undoubtedly missing from their spiritual lives. They tried to have action without contemplation. But both are essential.
On the other hand, a personal spirituality that does not engage in public life is stunted and self-absorbed. Many of the great mystics of our tradition, like St. Francis, for example, had periods of their lives of prayer and solitude, followed by a life of action in service to others. Contemplation and Action. That is exactly what we see in Jesus, who spent hours in prayer, and then went out to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and proclaim that the kingdom of God had come.
So, when we come to biblical texts, we often see two kinds of implications: the personal and the public. And Palm Sunday is a perfect example.
There are two aspects of Palm Sunday that are important for us: the “then” aspect of what happened that day, and the “now” aspect of what it means to us. So, let us look at both of these, noticing the personal and the public in each.
Palm Sunday Then
The way the Gospel of Mark tells the story, Jesus said,
“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”
What can we learn from this? First, that this public action was pre-arranged. Jesus, or someone on his behalf, had set it up in advance. There was a password, or pass-phrase involved: “The Lord needs it.” And all worked according to plan.
Second, the timing was important. It was the season of Passover. Passover celebrated the night the Israelites escaped from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. It was a liberation celebration. It was like our 4th of July, only it all happened in one place, in Jerusalem. Ancient historians said hundreds of thousands of people came to Jerusalem for the event. And every one of them was wishing for another liberation – this time, from the oppressive Roman empire and its local collaborators.
Third, there was an intentionally comic aspect to this plan. The colt was unridden. I know something about this. I was born in Kansas where I lived until I was six. I got to watch my father saddle-break horses. The first time you put something on the back of an animal that is not used to it, the animal does everything it can to get it off. It would have been comic to watch a fully grown man trying to ride an un-broken donkey colt. It would have looked a bit ridiculous.
It was meant to look ridiculous. We are told that Jesus was riding the donkey into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, from the East. Historians tell us that every year, because of the potentially explosive feelings and large crowds that came together to celebrate Passover, fearing that it would spark a revolt, aimed at a new liberation, the Romans always sent reinforcements. Governor Pilate himself would have been on a big white war horse accompanied by a platoon of heavily armed soldiers, cavalry, and footmen, approaching Jerusalem from the West.
So Jesus’ humble and comical donkey ride from the East was likely intentional mockery. One scholar calls it “street theater”. The two processions mirrored each other.
They could not have been more different. Pilate’s procession represented Roman power; the power of the sword. The power gained and maintained by violence. The power to oppress – the annual economic burden they imposed on the local populations they vanquished was substantial.
Jesus’ procession was not on a war horse, but on a peaceful donkey colt. Jesus’ procession represented his teaching: blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Instead of a kingdom of oppression, Jesus proclaimed the presence of an alternative kingdom, the kingdom of God, in which people’s health concerns were taken seriously; people’s food concerns were addressed; people were valued as children of God, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or social stigma.
Next, what can we learn from the crowd reaction? Mark’s gospel tells us that the crowds that welcomed Jesus chanted,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
Hosanna is a prayer to God to “save us now”. They wanted Jesus to be like a new king David for them. They wanted their old kingdom back.
We will never know what might have happened, had things gone differently, but from the Roman perspective, to hear people speaking of a Jewish kingdom, in the middle of massive crowds who were there in Jerusalem to celebrate Jewish liberation, was too much for them to let alone. By week’s end, they had figured out how to get Jesus with a minimum of crowd intervention or incitement. They came by night, arrested him, and within hours, executed him for treason.
The gospels tell us that Jesus had a premonition that going to Jerusalem would mean his own death. It is not that he wanted to die, but that he accepted that proclaiming an alternative allegiance, an alternative kingdom, was dangerous. But the danger did not dissuade him. Jesus’ motivation was always love. Love for people.
Love, or compassion, motivated him to heal sick people. Love and compassion motivated him to feed hungry people. And love motivated him to resist all forms of oppression and domination, including systems of domination and oppression. So he went to the heart of those oppressive systems out of love for people, in spite of the danger it posed.
That is why the cross is for us, a symbol of love. Jesus’s public actions grew out of his own personal spirituality. He understood God as his Father, or literally, in his language “Abba”, an affectionate way of referring to God as “daddy”. In other words, he knew that he was loved.
And his whole public ministry was spent extending that same love to everyone and teaching us that we too are loved. As beloved, our role is not to live lives of self-preoccupation or self-absorption, but to live, as Jesus did, on behalf of others. Even at great risk, if need be, on behalf of others.
Palm Sunday Now
That was then; what about now? Now, Palm Sunday has become a celebration Sunday. We celebrate the triumph of love over hatred. We celebrate the triumph of non-violence over violence. We celebrate the kingdom of God which is still present, many years after the kingdom of Rome has faded into history.
In the words of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, in the context of the struggle against apartheid,
“Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through him who loves us.”
So this is what Palm Sunday means for us today. We can imagine ourselves on that parade route, welcoming Jesus, embracing the kingdom of God that he came to proclaim, shouting,
“Save us now” believing that God does save us, and is saving us now!
Save us from…
Save us, we pray, from being seduced by the power of violence. Save us to be peacemakers.
Save us, we pray, from accepting any status quo which includes oppression, abuse, or discrimination.
Save us, we pray, from accepting lax laws and loopholes that put all of our children at risk in their own schools.
Save us, we pray, from forgetting how much we are beloved, forgiven, and embraced by God.
Save us, we pray, from ego, from self-preoccupation, from seeking security when sacrifice is called for, from concern for our own honor above living honorably.
Save us for…
Save us, we pray, for the beautiful, hopeful, transformative vision of life in the kingdom.
Save us, we pray, for the open-hearted love for all of life, for people, for the creatures of the earth, and for the planet that sustains us all.
Save us, we pray, for the joy of living as fully human, fully spiritual people, who long for goodness, for beauty, and for truth.
Save us, we pray, for the deeply meaningful life of being followers of Jesus and his comic donkey.
Hosanna in the highest!
God, save us!