Year A; Palm SundayFB; 4.2.2023 Homily, 8 a.m.
Everything about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was intentional. It was prophetic in nature. The ancient prophets of Israel were expert at dramatic action to demonstrate what God was telling them. When words failed to have impact, they would act out their message. In the gospel story today, Jesus was that kind of prophet, a pilgrim messiah on his way to Jerusalem to observe Passover. He rode on a beast of burden, a humble symbol of peace.
He had asked the disciples to bring him a donkey. And they put their own garments on it, not a leather saddle of status. The crowds did their usual demonstration to usher in a warrior or king – they gathered branches of all kinds and waved them. They threw their own outer robes on the ground for him.
Jesus began his ride at the Mount of Olives, the hill to the east overlooking the magnificent city. There he intended to capture the image of the messiah’s return found in the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion…Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east…”
Spectacle accompanied Jesus on this day. Shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna! Save us!” filled the air. Bible scholars like to call the story of Palm Sunday, “The Triumphal Entry.” That matches the expectations of the people. Their shouts assume that he has come to save them. Some had seen him heal the sick, cast out demons and stand up to the religious authorities. But Jesus knew that the spectacle would soon end. Far from being a king or warrior, he would be arrested and put to death.
Still, the spectacle counted for something. All these years later, aren’t we hearing the story? Aren’t we waving palm branches? Aren’t we remembering that “Triumphal Entry?” The prophetic spectacle of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem draws our focus to the intersection of earthly goals of power and God’s desire for peace. We ask on Palm Sunday, why don’t the religious officials and the officials of the empire seek the good: peace, justice and love as God desires?
On Tuesday, Katie and I led a presentation in this year’s Lenten series themed Ethical Discernment. Our topic was clergy ethical discernment in the public square. I told the story of my interview at Grace Church, Plainfield, New Jersey. I had told the search committee plainly that I would NOT be a community activist like my beloved predecessor. I told them that activism was not my calling.
But a few years later, a newspaper article reported that the 150-year-old hospital of our inner-city town of Plainfield would be closed. This is a town of many poor working Spanish-speaking immigrants and a majority of African-American families. We were in an uproar. I was furious along with the people because the hospital board made the decision to close in a private meeting. They knew that the people would oppose their decision, so they voted in secret. It was a done deal when they announced it in the papers.
So, we created a year-long spectacle of protest. We marched up and down the main street next to the hospital. We filled the school auditorium twice and presented our case to state health officials. We traveled to the capital, Trenton and protested in front of the State House.
Still, our protests fell on deaf ears. Finally, we decided to create a spectacle right outside the hospital. There was an abandoned yard just across from the hospital. We set ups props for a graveyard, painted large signs of protest and shouted all day long. We even acted out dramatic skits to demonstrate the negative effects on the hospital closing.
We expected to be arrested. Hospital security was poised to apprehend us if we made the wrong move. We felt scared. But by this dramatic action we hoped at least, to grab the attention of the authorities so they would listen to us and consider conducting a community needs assessment before the hospital closed.
They never did. The hospital closed. But we were able to keep the local Urgent Care center open, and the suburban hospital 20 minutes away purchased two ambulances for Plainfield patients.
I wonder if failure is how Jesus saw his very intentional entrance into Jerusalem. I wonder if he really knew he would be arrested and put to death. I wonder how he felt that the outcome of the spectacle would not be triumphant and God-focused? Did it even draw anyone’s attention to God’s peace, humility, justice and love?
Did Jesus think his entrance into Jerusalem was in vain? What followed seemed like defeat after defeat. His betrayal, arrest, beatings in prison, mocking and death prompted his followers to flee. They thought it was defeat. They thought, “Maybe he wasn’t the Savior after all.”
In our day, we are seeing spectacle after spectacle of children, young adults and parents creating attention-grabbing protests against gun violence. The most recent protests have been in Nashville, Tennessee after three children and three adults were shot dead by an automatic weapon designed for war.
I know that church and school in Nashville. It’s in the neighborhood where I visit my long-time friends Kay and Bill. These crowds calling to end the sale of AR-15 guns and creating the universal back-ground check law join heart-sick loved ones of over 400 dead children so far this year killed by gun violence. What kind of spectacle is needed that will reach those law-makers who look the other way and wear automatic weapon lapel pins?
Jesus and the prophets teach us the meaning of spectacle for God’s sake and for the sake of love and peace. We don’t stop creating spectacle and speaking out because we think the powerful and greedy win. We continue to create spectacle knowing that even to his death, every word and action of Jesus was truth and always pointed to God. He went to his final days with a heart full of courage, love, humility and yes, fear. He died for the sake of the world he loved so dearly. And he was raised in the promise of new life and the vanquishing of evil.
We enter Holy Week with the sorrow that so many in power cause suffering. And we rise with Christ in the truth of his words, “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me…”