Apr 14, 2019 by

Sermon for Palm Sunday 2019 by Paula Papky

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29        Luke 19:28-40


In 1939, John Ford’s movie Stagecoach was released.  It made the careers of John Ford and John Wayne, who was then still called Marion Robert Morrison.  I’ve been thinking that if Ford had made a movie loosely based on this Palm Sunday story, he might have set it in the time and place of the wild west.  Two gunslingers, facing each other down in front of the only saloon in town.  Maybe John Wayne could have played Pontius Pilate.  Not sure who could have played Jesus.  But there would have been a scene of John Wayne saying, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us pardner!”

Pilate would ride into town on a big black stallion with a huge posse of riflemen.  Jesus, of course, would ride in on a young donkey with his posse of twelve men trailing along.  He’d be unarmed, confronting Pilate with only his dignity and his certainty that he was called by God to this showdown with power.

The thing is, there really were on that day we call Palm Sunday, two men who rode into Jerusalem.  Jesus was not the only one.  Another parade, with much greater fanfare, had also arrived in Jerusalem.

You see, it was Passover, that great feast celebrating Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.  That meant the city was swollen with visitors.  And because of the crowds, large numbers of soldiers and police were also there.  Pontius Pilate, the governor, needed to be seen there too, in all manner of pomp and ceremony, to demonstrate his importance.  He was there, after all, representing the imperial power of Rome.

Imagine Pilate’s arrival through the western gate of Jerusalem:  cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, armour, weapons, golden eagles mounted on poles.  And the noise:  marching feet, drums, cheering crowds.  An awesome parade it would have been.  It was not only a demonstration of political and military might; it was also a display of the Roman Emperor’s status.  Tiberius had inherited some important titles.  Son of God, he was called.  Also, lord, savior, and the one who brought peace to the earth.  You can see what Jesus was up against.  “Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world.”  (The Last Week, Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p. 2)

Jesus and his followers came into the city through the Eastern gate and they must have seemed almost comical in contrast.  No horses or soldiers or weapons.  This Son of God is seated on a young donkey.  Jesus was deliberately copying Zechariah’s prophecy over Jerusalem:  “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”  In Luke’s version of the story, there aren’t even palm branches, that sign of victory.  So Pilate comes representing the Roman Empire.  Jesus comes representing the Kingdom of God.  No contest, right?

There’s an uneasiness about it all.  Maybe, when the disciples weren’t imagining themselves sitting at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, they felt fear and uncertainty.  Maybe it was when they glimpsed the soldiers and police moving through the crowds that they remembered Jesus telling them about his coming death and resurrection?  But they quickly forgot as they got the crowds cheering.  Luke writes, “But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what Jesus said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”  (Luke18:34)  They didn’t know what they were up against.  They threw down their cloaks on the road – well, you might say they went into Jerusalem completely unarmed, not even their cloaks for protection.  Caught up in the festive mood of Passover, they began a chant which the crowd ahead and behind picked up:  Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Save us!  Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

The Pharisees in the crowd say to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  And quoting the prophet Habakkuk’s dire warning to Jerusalem centuries earlier, Jesus replies:  I tell you, if these disciples of mine were silent, the stones would shout out.  Thirty-some years later, in Luke’s time of writing this story, the stones of the Temple were indeed blood-stained and scorched, shouting out the tragic story of the city destroyed.

Step back for a moment and imagine an ancient city, of which there were many all over the Roman Empire.  Cities were dwelling places of the gods.  Think of Rome and its temples.  The Pantheon or Temple to all the Gods.  There were temples to Artemis, to Saturn, to Apollo.  Throughout the Roman world, in other cities, there were other temples.  Imagine the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple, completed by Herod, sixty years in the building, stone upon stone.

Ancient cities were centers of wealth and power, as well as culture and industry.  They were the dwelling places of kings, governors, judges, priests.  They included civil servants, slaves, artisans.  Yet these walled cities could not supply their own needs.  They needed the surrounding people and land to feed them and clothe them, just as cities today do.  Someone once asked, “What is 120 times the size of London?  Answer:  The land area required to supply London’s needs.”

It was like that for Jerusalem, too.  Jesus’ own province of Galilee supplied fish, grain, vegetables and fruit for the Empire’s elite city-dwellers.  Wine, olives, oil, all were brought in from farms.  And taxes flowed that direction too.  Heavier and heavier taxes were imposed on rural land until the family farm was no more.  Rich foreign landowners bought up land for debt and built huge estates.  Those who had worked their own land now labored for mostly absentee landlords.

Cities could not risk the kind of unrest that would jeopardize elite appetites.  That’s why there was, just outside of Jerusalem, a large garrison, so that soldiers could pour into the city at the first sign of trouble.  There were Temple police, too.  And everywhere, spies watched for signs of protest, insurrection.  This was the dark side of these glittering cities.  Their walls provided protection from hostile enemies, but they could also be places of danger and death.  No wonder John’s vision in Revelation 21, of a new Jerusalem, beautiful and peaceful, come down from Heaven, gave such hope to the faithful of the late 60’s, Luke’s time of writing.  The vision was given to help them bear the destruction of Jerusalem and its sacred Temple.  It was an unthinkable image of Jerusalem for most of those who came that year to celebrate Passover, the feast of liberation.

What is Jesus up against, then, as he crosses this threshold?  He’s up against the power of Empire that robbed people of their God-given land and gave it to the 5% at the top.  He’s up against the stubborn class system that puts labourers, fishermen, shepherds, slaves, even children, on the bottom.  Social mobility wasn’t dreamed of then. And Jesus is up against a system of domination that keeps the vast majority of people land-poor, hungry, ill, excluded, hopeless.  These are the people he has behind him:  those so-called sinners he had eaten with, forgiven and healed.  Those whom he had restored to life.  They’re in the crowd that follows him over the threshold.

Crossing a threshold is very often dangerous.  Jesus is immediately warned off by the Pharisees, the control-freaks of the Bible.  But Jesus seems to indicate that what has been set in motion in Jerusalem must run its course.  He’s prepared for the danger that comes with confronting power.

It’s interesting to consider what thresholds we must cross, what gates we must pass through, to effect change, to overturn the devotion to money, power and systems of domination.  To take down the mighty from their thrones, to lift up the weak.  I’m thinking now of the challenge of climate change, the thresholds to be crossed.  Behind us are all those whom climate change will affect first.  Indeed, already our indigenous people of the north are feeling that warming.  So many people will have no power to protect themselves from floods and droughts and food shortages; from forest fires; from sweltering summers, melting glaciers, disappearing rainforests.  If ever there were a time to cross the threshold into restoring this sacred earth, it is now.  We go through that gate to confront the violence done to the earth, air, waters; to protect the vulnerable; to seek justice and all manner of healing.

Jerusalem was intended as a sacred city, the Divine dwelling place.  But its holiness was obscured by human need for glory.  It was a city of injustice, of a cruel sort of peace.  Jesus comes in as an anti-king.  He surrounds himself not with courtiers but with those who have suffered, whom he has healed; he comes not at the end and climax of a display of power but at the front of the parade, making a way for others to follow.

It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who once wrote:  “Do not hurry; do not rest.”  It seems apt here.There’s an urgency to this act of crossing the threshold, to restoring the sacred, especially if we believe we are called to restore our earth’s beauty and abundance.  So, we cannot rest, we cannot wait for others to act.  And yet we must not hurry, either.  We must take time to prepare ourselves.  Jesus spends a lot of time telling his followers what lies ahead:  his death.  But they’re in a hurry to pull  down one king and kingdom and put another on the throne:  King Jesus.  It’s only after his resurrection that they understand the life that is possible in Christ.  Meanwhile, we take time to focus, not to nap.  We gather our resources.  We share our dreams and visions of restoration.

We stand at the threshold of a profound, life-altering holy week.  The author, Christine Paintner writes that we have “One foot in the world of earthly and everyday experience.  The other foot is in the transcendent realm where the divine breaks through our ordinary consciousness.”  (The Soul’s Slow Ripening, p3)  We may be able to perceive the joy that awaits us at Easter.  But the cross and suffering lie before us, just over the threshold.

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