Palm Sunday 2018
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 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. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 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.
This morning’s scripture is both simple and multivalent. We’re all familiar with it and yet, it retains a powerful ability to challenge us in new ways. At a surface level, we can easily see that this is one of the wildest and most politically explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry. For us, the story is a reminder of the political challenge of Jesus’ ministry and a warning of the difficulties intrinsic to practicing Christian praise.
So, let’s start with a question.
How many of you are familiar with carnival?
Have any of you seen a New Orleans jazz band
participate in a carnival procession?
How would you describe it?
Carnivals are largely a remnant of an art form that has evolved in many ways and still exists in popular culture, albeit in completely different forms. The central feature of this art form is that the participants act like jesters. They behave in humorous, disorienting ways that mock the way the world is structured. In a New Orleans carnival, jazz bands often take on a role wherein they allow the least of society to unmask and challenge the most dominant.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is this kind of strange satiric theater. In Mark 11, Jesus lampoons the political powers of the day through a carefully planned, carnivalesque “military procession” into Jerusalem. And he invites his disciples to worship him, rather than any other “powers that be.” When we pay attention to the fact that Jesus carefully planned this entry we notice several details. He began at the Mount of Olives, a traditional location that the people associated with an expected battle Jerusalem’s liberation. In entering on a colt, he took on the guise of a triumphant national hero ready to restore the Davidic monarchy. And in actions that would have been considered treasonous to the Romans, the crowd spread not only palm branches, but cloaks on the ground in front of Jesus as an act of honor. And to top it all off… what? Nothing. No political revolt, but a quiet retreat to sleep and meditate. It’s incredibly anti-climactic, but that’s the point.
This story is about Jesus' ability to turn imperial notions of power and rule on their head. He’s acting out a level of political satire that the crowds largely miss. His entry does not repeat the entries of the past or even of our present but presents us with an alternative expression. He doesn’t lord his authority over others, but humbly rejects domination. He identifies with the poor and refuses to rely on the violence the people so desperately wanted. He comes to subvert the mechanisms by which we build and release our most violent tendencies. He comes not as a lamb led to slaughter, but as a God who willingly took on humanity to suffer in the role of a jester so that we could see the evils that our systems perpetuate. Jesus came willingly to be our scapegoat. We killed him because he was our scapegoat. But in the process and in his resurrection, in his satire, he turned the world upside down and started a revolution that will never die.
So, let us each ask, “what lessons might Jesus’ satire have for my own life?” For one thing, I think that this story should make us evaluate the things we associate with love. The crowd waving the palm branches loved Jesus – or so they thought. We, as western Christians, live in an individualistic society. As a result, it’s not hard to realize that the most powerful psychological projection our society makes comes in the form of “falling in love.” But we might often commit the same mistake as Jesus crowd, we might project the most noble part of ourselves onto another human being. This is the kind of false love we see in today’s story and it can appear in many different forms. The Lutheran pastor Walter Wangerin writes about this when he says, “Love lies a little. Love, the desire to like and be liked, feels so good when it is satisfied, that it never wants to stop. Therefore, love edits the facts in order to continue to feel good.” When we love another person, we are truly recognizing their reflection of God. But we are often also quite mistaken, either for loving an object inappropriately, or for allowing our own projections to cloud our vision of the true beauty within someone else.
The crowd loved their own projection of Jesus. They did not truly love him for they did not know him. They were infatuated with the image they created for themselves – a reflection of their own desires – a rock star. This kind of love is superficial. But with Jesus, there is no superficial love. Instead, we are given a love that withstands the horror of crucifixion. It is the kind of love that displays how illusive our sense of reality can actually be.
A philosopher once wrote that to love is to suffer. God’s love is not a longing to seize and hold another person like an object that can be controlled – for an object is not what the other is, and if that is what you love then you only love yourself. The correct kind of love for Jesus is a full glimpse of reality and an endurance through suffering. God’s love is not sentimental. It is like the love of a parent. It can see flaws, but still strives to heal, restore, create and embrace.
Palm Sunday shows us how often we misinterpret God’s love, as well as our love for God. The true measure of our love must comprise the capacity to extend ourselves in real acts of compassion toward the afflicted, forcing us to come out of ourselves. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is the miracle of God’s full attention. It teaches us about a different kind of love and the dangers of our own projections – be they political, social, personal, or interrelational. We are all flawed and we can learn something from God’s great sense of humor. So, as we leave today, let us not take palms as tokens of triumph, but as warnings against idolatry. May each palm be a reminder that we each need to grow into Christ’s example of love. Amen.
 Walter Wangerin, As for Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 3.