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Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
We Were There: The Crowd
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29
Jesus, guide us through the streets of our journey. Open our eyes and our ears to the guiding of God's spirit, who calls us to costly faithfulness and to joyous wholeness. Let us sing with all our selves. Hosanna!
alive now! March/April 1992
Well, Fourth Church saints, I knew you had it in you. From time to time, I’ve seen it from up here. I’ve seen you giggle or smile with me, even if it was just out of sympathy, because you realized I was the only one who thought my joke was funny. And I’ve seen it when you danced at the Gala of Hope, Fourth Church. Y’all can dance. And I watch your playfulness and joy come out each time we baptize kids or adults, or when our youth lead worship, or when our choir’s anthem reaches a new height of power and you cannot help but break out of the overused frozen-chosen stereotype and move a little bit.
But never, ever, ever, did I imagine that I would be leading worship at the stately and wonderfully traditional Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago while watching tons of children streaming down the aisle in a joyfully chaotic palm parade, with our pastoral resident wearing a donkey costume coming right down the center aisle with them, followed by our sophisticated and professional choir members holding up animal puppets and making animal noises. You all are truly amazing and will always keep me on my toes. That is for sure.
But I do love this sense of play and celebration. And we can imagine it captures at least some of the emotional vibe the crowd felt that day watching Jesus make his way into Jerusalem. Excitement must have electrified the air. After all, it was the day when travelers from all over were coming into the city of Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. I’m sure they, too, had children running joyfully and chaotically all around, ingesting the energy they felt surrounding them. Families would have been busily making the correct preparations for the Passover meal, securing the unblemished lamb for the sacrifice and the dinner, collecting all the correct herbs and spices, filling the carafes with the wine. Surely excitement was everywhere in the crowds that day in Jerusalem as people got ready for the festival.
Somehow, though, I doubt if Jesus felt the same level of celebration. You certainly do not hear it with the way Mark tells the story. Though we tend to focus on the crowd’s joyful reaction to Jesus’ arrival, Mark actually spends most of the time telling us the careful way Jesus prepared for that moment, his entrance into the city. Like with his telling of the transfiguration, Mark once again slows down the gospel train and pumps the brakes a bit on his urgency in order to tell us how precisely Jesus engineered the whole scene. We hear about a particular village with a particular colt. We hear the words the disciples are supposed to say when confronted as to why they are taking it. Out of the eleven verses Mark uses to talk about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he spends six of them focused on the details of preparation.
So perhaps we can interpret from Mark’s details that Jesus carefully prepared for that moment of arrival because it was not simply a casual parade he was organizing. Rather, Jesus was laying out the script for a kind of guerilla street theater. One commentator wrote that this moment was less like a “triumphal entry” and much more like an “Occupy Jerusalem” event (Wolfgang Stahlberg, “Mark 11:1–10,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 338), not too unlike the Occupy protest movements from a few years ago. Like the protestors who camped out in Lower Manhattan, Jesus was being purposefully provocative. After all, he knew good and well what was unfolding on the other side of town. So Jesus staged his parade, his moment of street theater, to directly contrast with the other parade happening that day in Jerusalem.
Perhaps some of you have heard about this other parade before. In 2007, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put out an excellent book entitled The Last Week, based on Mark’s rendition of the Passion story. It has become an important resource for many of us preachers. In that book, the authors claim that even though scripture does not record another parade happening that day, we know from historians that, throughout the first century, Rome always staged an imperial parade in Jerusalem at the time of the major Jewish festival of Passover.
After all, Passover was the religious festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from their earlier Egyptian oppressors. So the powers of Rome always wanted to be proactive at that exact time of year in order to squash anybody’s misbegotten idea that they could be or should be liberated again, this time from Rome. So to underline their point, Rome always carefully managed its imperial parade in order to announce the raw political and military power of the empire.
Their imperial parade was led each year by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. He would ride into Jerusalem on his war horse, from the west, at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. The people gathered on the side of the road to watch would inevitably see big strong horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, and golden eagles mounted on poles. They would hear the marching of feet, the cracking of leather, the clinking of bridles, and the beating of drums (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, pp. 2–3). And there is no doubt that both the sights and the sounds of Pilate’s imperial parade were meant to serve as reminders of just who or what had control over their lives and their deaths.
Jesus would have known this annual event was happening, which is probably one reason why his parade, his street theater, was designed to be drastically different. At Jesus’ parade, the peasants who lined the streets to watch saw a man sitting atop a colt, not a war horse, riding in from the east, not the west. That image, purposefully designed by Jesus, would have inevitably brought to the Jewish people’s minds the prophet Zechariah and the promise of a God-given king for Israel—a king who would banish war from the land and command peace to the nations (Zechariah 9:9, quoted in Matthew 21:5).
Like Pilate, Jesus also rode more or less at the front of a group, but unlike Pilate, his group was not composed of a finely organized column of foot soldiers and cavalry. Instead, Jesus led an unorganized bunch of men and women walking alongside him, sometimes behind him, sometimes ahead of him. They were not wearing their military finest. Rather, they were wearing sandals with normal, everyday working clothing. Unlike Pilate’s following, Jesus’ group was not an impressive display of power, by any stretch of the imagination. But they were an impressive display of devotion.
And the peasants who gathered alongside the road to watch declared their own devotion too. Unlike the stone-faced, silent, and intimidated crowds watching Pilate’s parade, these spectators joined in the fun, with perhaps the same kind of playfulness we demonstrated in the beginning of our worship. Though they did not have animal puppets to wave, they took off their cloaks and spread them on the road ahead of Jesus, creating their version of a red carpet, if you will. And they cut leafy branches from the fields and laid those out, shouting “Hosanna, Hosanna,” which means “Save now, save now.”
It is a powerful thing to imagine, isn’t it, being a part of that crowd? Men and women, children, people young and old, all shouting praises and cheering on their leader in a strange, guerilla style, street theater, Occupy Jerusalem kind of protest. And yet, even in the middle of that cheering, playful protest, they were also crying out “Save now.” Save now. It is a rather mixed-up sounding moment. Playful cheers, celebratory looks on their faces, intermingled with the reality of their deep, perhaps desperate desire to be saved from their oppression under Rome; saved from whatever despair would creep into their dreams at night; saved from being unable to imagine a different kind of future for their children anymore; saved into a new wholeness and a freedom they had longed for since the very first time they experienced the liturgy of their Passover and heard their grandparents tell them about their original liberation from Egypt. When you put all of that side by side, the cheering playfulness next to the cries of “Save now,” it sounds so . . . today.
For who among us, even when lightened and buoyed by the joy-filled playfulness of energetic children and youth and an animal-noise-making choir, also, even in the midst of that joy, doesn’t feel a deep longing for our world to be saved, made whole, made fully home . . . now. And let me speak plainly. When I say “saved,” I am not talking about salvation as being given a pass into eternal life based on what we believe or don’t believe. That is not how I understand biblical salvation. It is not how most of our Reformed theological tradition understands salvation these days, either.
Rather, I agree with theologian Douglas John Hall who writes, “the salvation, the salus, for which the God of [scripture] yearns is the integrating of the whole creation, the reconciling of humans not only with God but also with one another and with the earth itself” (Douglas John Hall, Why Christian, p. 60). So with that understanding of salvation in mind, can you imagine joining your voice with the voice of that crowd? Hosanna. Hosanna. Save now. Save now. Save us, O God, from the pervasive power of racism that keeps digging its talons into our systems and our imaginations whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Save us, O God, from the continuation of violence both far away and right in our own city, whether it’s in our neighborhood or not. Save us, O God, from notions of religious liberty that enshrines discrimination of any kind and ignores your command to “love your neighbor.” Save us, O God, from what now sounds to understandably cynical ears to be the empty promises of moving beyond political partisanship in order to really work on the major economic and social issues in our city. Save us, O God, from the grief of burying another friend who’s died from cancer. Save us, O God, from the reality that we have to tie blue bows to remember that not all children are safe in their own homes. Hosanna, we whisper, even amid our playfulness and even sometimes in the midst of our joy. Jesus, save now.
Now, this is where our Christian faith story gets even trickier. Those of us who follow this protest-engineering, Occupy-Jerusalem-moment-creating Jesus, believe that somehow, as this week unfolds, “Save now” is exactly what Jesus does. And yet, he does not do it the way anyone expected. He does not reveal the salvation, the making whole, the reconciliation of our world in the ways those who were playfully joining in his parade might have desired at the time they cried out “Save now.” He did not do it in the ways we might desire when we cry out “Save now” today.
No, as the events of this coming week will remind us, Jesus saves us, reveals God’s making whole of our world, through his suffering, not his splendor; through his vulnerability, not his power over; through his willingness and determination to never waver being who God had called him to be—God with us, God for us—even though that insistence would lead him straight to his death on a cross.
Listen to how Barbara Brown Taylor spoke of Jesus’ saving work in what she calls Jesus’ obituary:
It is an old, old story: Love comes into the world as a little child, fresh from God. When Love grows up, Love feeds people, Love heals people, Love turns things upside down. Love’s actions do not set well with the people in charge. They warn Love to leave well enough alone. Love meets hate, meets politics, meets fear. Love goes on loving, which gets Love killed—not by villains in black hats but by people like us: clergy, patriots, God-fearing folk. What brought them together was their rage at him [at Love] for being less than they wanted him to be—or for being more than they wanted him to be—but in any case for not being who they wanted him to be, and they killed him for it. (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, p. 126)
No, I imagine that in that protest parade moment, with all the energy and excitement in the air and the sounds of playful joy all around, no one in that crowd expected what was coming next. Not even the disciples fully understood what was coming next. The only one who did was the one on the colt, the one who had done all he could to carefully prepare for this moment, the one who heard the hosannas of his people and who knew he was about to finish that work, yet they would not understand it. Not yet. The only one who knew what was coming as he rode into Jerusalem that day was the one whose other name was and is Love and who would give up his very life to make the depth of that Love known. Hosanna, they cried. Save now. And Love did. And Love does. Amen.