Palm Sunday. John 12:1-16.
The traditional reading of Palm Sunday often has a festive air to it. Something new is about to enter the world. There is cheering and laughter and this reading brings a sense of well-being to all the activities. It is often easy for us to ignore the events of Holy Week. So often we jump from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday because all the activities in between are, let’s face it, difficult to handle. We all love a parade. Parades are fun – not so the death march.
Life is hard enough as it is without having to deal with betrayal, denial, and death. So let me set up the scene this morning using the Borg and Crossan book, The Last Week, which reminds us that “two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and [most of] his followers came from the peasant class. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers – [very different scenes]. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; [and this was] Pilate’s central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology.” A combination that’s hard to beat.
According to Borg and Crossan, the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem is a “prearranged ‘counterprocession.’ Jesus planned it in advance. Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession, in contrast, embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central not only to the gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.” That contrast holds perhaps even to this day.
There is an undercurrent of emotions that arise when we read and re-read this account of Jesus’ last days. Can you hear it – the single violin and that single note held that emotes tension within us as it builds and builds. Can you feel it in your gut?
In the story of Palm Sunday we hear the story about religious authorities and crowds, about the powerful and powerless, about the struggling to stay awake and the struggling to be faithful. We hear about betrayal, denial and desertion. Like Borg and Crossan, writer Stephen Patterson, also sees power at the core of this tragic story, and writes: “the struggle between those who have power and those who do not; between those who enjoy easy access to food, clothing, housing, and various of life’s pleasures and those who must make do without almost everything; between those who live at the center of things and those who exist at the margins. Jesus had something to say in the face of this warped system, “a word of criticism, shot like an arrow from outside the city wall into the heart of his culture. His word hit home, and it stung. For that he was killed” (Stephen Patterson, The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning). (Source: UCC Sermon Seeds)
Are empires and their brutality a thing of the past because we are much more civilized now? Asks theologian Katherine Huey. The challenge for us is to understand, as Borg and Crossan suggest, that “empires” of one kind or another are a reality in every age, including our own. “We have no reason to think that the temple authorities were wicked people. Moreover, as empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is simply the way domination systems behave.” Borg and Crossan even call this system of domination ‘the normalcy of civilization,’ and it clashed profoundly with the passionate love of Jesus.”
Included in our hearing of scripture today is the story of Mary and Martha and their brother whom Jesus raised from the dead, Lazarus. According to John’s account the anointing was done by Mary. The woman who anoints Jesus in other accounts is not named. The unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head while Mary anoints his feet. No matter which version we prefer is the fact that Jesus was blessed by a woman.
In our reading today we heard that a dinner was prepared which Martha served at their home in Bethany. There Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, the cost of a year’s wages. She anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. What a wonderful, loving gesture this was. We are not clear if this was done in thanksgiving for the return of their brother to them, or just as an act of unselfish grace bestowed on Jesus. Perhaps it is both.
This tender scene was quickly contrasted by Judas who interrupts the gathering with his criticism of Mary stating that the money presumably would have been better spent on the poor. And once again we feel that tension, that conflict, that undercurrent of emotions in this powerful story. Just trying to do good and we are confronted and demeaned and dismissed. Although this event took place centuries ago, I believe we can identify with the tensions, conflicts, and undercurrent of emotions in our own lives as we do things not pleasing to others or when we learn of difficult situations unfolding in our world. It is hard to stay neutral when we hear of school shootings and deaths of children. It is hard to stay neutral when we hear of shootings in nightclubs, or in stores, or even in churches. It is hard to stay neutral over political issues like gun control, or abortion, or DACA. Sometimes it is even hard to have honest conversations about these issues in our own families because it feels dangerous to do so. Do you feel the tension, conflict and undercurrent of emotions as well?
We’ve been told that death and taxes are constants – well, so is change. Change is difficult. As M. Scott Peck reminds us in A Road Less Traveled in his opening line, that “Life is Difficult”. It sure can be. Within this congregation you have said goodbye to your pastor of the past 10 years, Linda Mervine. Her leaving shuffles the deck and leaves with it a sense of grief. The familiar becomes unfamiliar and that also brings tension, conflict and undercurrents of emotions as you ask, “what’s next?” And this week is the loss of Rayburn Jones. So, yes, what’s next?
Kathrine Huey (UCC Sermon Seeds) reminds us that “in our own ‘real lives,’ when we face pain and loss, we can draw on the gentle strength of Jesus, who suffered without striking back, and held firm to the deepest truths that sustained him. When facing what seems to be impossible to endure, we too can do what is possible to bring healing and compassion and mercy to bear on the situations of our lives, both personal and communal.”
Huey continues: “This, then, is not a story about something that happened once, long ago, and never again. Jesus is with those who suffer in every age, and he understands our human experience because he has shared it. The deliberate response of true faithfulness, we learn in the Gospels, is not violent retribution and revenge. Christians understand that we must do everything we can to end unnecessary suffering, especially the suffering caused by injustice for much of the time, after all, we can do something about that, even if we can’t stop a tsunami or a tornado. Going even deeper into the meaning of the cross, Margaret Farley writes that our faith, is one 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. . . . The God of Christians is not an arbitrary ruler who demands the price of suffering and death, but a God who makes possible all of our loves, as well as our resistance to evil” (Margaret Farley, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 2).
On this Palm Sunday, even in the midst of tensions, conflicts, undercurrents of emotions, God is faithful and walks with each of us. May we feel God’s presence especially as we walk through this Holy Week. Amen.