Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation" - April 1, 2012 (Mark 1:1-11)

As they say, everyone loves a parade. Richmond loves a 10K.

How about a quick show of hands? How many of you participated in some way in the Monument Avenue race yesterday—or any year, for that matter—either running, jogging, walking or cheering folks on? Race officials tell us that just over 40,000 people registered for the event of the year yesterday, which coincided, somewhat appropriately, with the weekend of Palm Sunday this time. Many thousands more stood and cheered on along the route or waited at the finish line to support friends, family members and colleagues, or to enjoy the free-handouts of bananas and water bottles. Rain and chilly weather would not deter them, because, after all, everyone loves a parade.

To a degree, that’s what it felt like, at least to this participant. Maybe I just had Palm Sunday on the brain, maybe I got too caught up in the moment, but as I ran along the tree-lined avenue, the well-manicured lawns of the stately homes on my left and right, my mind drifted to the similarities and stark differences between what we were doing and the procession Jesus made into Jerusalem around 2000 years ago.

I looked hard, but I didn’t see anyone waving palm branches or “leafy branches” yesterday, not even the Jimmy Buffet cover band and fan club that was stationed just before mile marker 1. Instead, people waved things like signs and held out cups with water and Powerade. Some of the signs included messages to those I assumed were fighting cancer or signs made in memory to those they had lost. No one was strewing articles of clothing at our feet, but when I saw the elaborate and well-coordinated costumes that some people wore, I realized clothes did play an important part in the event for many people.

And about all those people! It’s difficult to pin down specific numbers, but historians tell us that during Passover, the population of Jerusalem could swell by an extra hundred thousand or so. In the gospels, it seems even Jesus can’t find a place to stay within the city walls and keeps going out of the city each night and then returning during the day. Jews would come in from all over the place—from as far away as Libya, Crete, Babylonia—to participate in the annual Jewish festival. You couldn’t stir ‘em with a stick yesterday in downtown Richmond, and I know for a fact there were runners from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco because they won the race. To celebrate Passover according to Jewish tradition, hundreds of thousands of lambs would be sacrificed within the city and in its immediate environs. There is no telling how much enjoyment of junk food and hours of morning sleep over the past year were sacrificed to the modern idols of health and fitness to complete yesterday’s race. And although I didn’t hear anyone shouting “Hosanna!” (which means “God save us!”) we runners and walkers felt a little heroic, symbolizing for many of those on the sidelines the hope of beating a life-threatening disease, or the power and grace of the human body, or simply the promise of setting goals and achieving them. Then it ended, and we left feeling justified, upbeat, tired perhaps…but happy.

And, as you can guess, that’s about the end of the similarities between the two parades. For as excited as the people of ancient Jerusalem were that day when Jesus sat atop a borrowed donkey and made his way along Jerusalem’s monument avenue, the feelings of joy and accomplishment would not even last a week. By the way, Jesus was not riding that donkey because it was April Fools’ Day or because Jesus was being made to look like one. The sturdy pack animal was actually the beast of burden that kings traditionally rode during times of peace. It may have symbolized humility, to some degree, but it was not altogether humiliating, as I’m afraid we’ve made it out to be. Jesus was being hailed as “King” by the people of the city, and therefore a donkey ride would have been appropriate.

In his recent book about the history of Jerusalem, Simon Sebag Montefiore paints a vivid picture of a Jerusalem that, with the exception of about a hundred years here or there, never was able to rule itself. Greeks, Romans, Persians all took turns ruling the city from the colonnaded fortresses in and around it in the centuries leading up to Jesus. Even the Hasmonean dynasty—a dynasty of the Jewish people themselves, which ruled for not even 100 years—relentlessly repressed the people who actually lived in the city. The people in power always feared those masses, and Montefiore explains that the Romans during that particular Passover were more jittery than usual. A recent Galilean rebellion around the Tower of Siloam, put down by Pilate, had resulted in some casualties. The people were ready for someone to save them and, at long last, let them have a go at power. Jesus of Nazareth symbolized that hope, that promise. They were there to acclaim him as king and help prop him up as the next strongman. But as the story plays out, enthusiasm turns into disillusionment and then bloodthirsty anger: voices that cheer him along his route and offer him Powerade start shouting “Crucify!” instead.

So, if our Monument Avenue 10K means for us a chance to gather together and celebrate a noble medical cause or a chance to make a personal record—a “P.R.” in runners’ jargon—what does Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession mean for us, especially if it turns out so badly in the end? Are we still gravitating to forms of power that dominate and control? Are we still enamored with force and symbols of oppression and military security? Are we still prone to look for salvation from a superhero god of glory, one with the abilities to outsmart the opponents who shows no weakness in defeating them? How can we look at the events of Holy Week, which begins with such promise and fanfare, and be anything but disappointed in what God has sent us in Jesus of Nazareth?

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could and ought to do.”[1] For us, remembering Holy Week gives us a chance to remember, once again, just that: that the reality of who God is and the ways God loves us are, more often than not, different from the ways we want God to. And by that I mean that in Jesus of Nazareth, God gives up traditional forms of power and success and joins us in our suffering. He doesn’t impress us with earthly glory. He comes not to control or even beat the occupiers at their own game. He comes to experience what it’s like when things go horribly wrong and show us God is still present there. He comes to undergo tragedy so that the power of tragedy may ultimately be undone. That God chooses to identify himself with this man, this story—when a relative nobody enters the city to cries of hope only to be denied, betrayed, and crucified—is something that we would never, ever imagine. Whereas in most parades the main focus of attention is on the person moving along the course, in this parade it’s different: his attention is focused purely on us. You might say it’s God’s own P.R. in humility. He “empties himself, taking the form of a slave…and humbled himself…to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2).

Therefore, with the script in hand, provided by gospel writers who themselves were so taken with the peculiarity of this God’s love that they recorded it in remarkable detail, let’s join the crowds on the sidelines.  Let's cheer, then mock him with scorn, then demand his death.  In the process, let us be reminded not so much of our love for parades, but of this parade’s love for us.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

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