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Sermon for April 5, 2009 -- Palm Sunday

A Tale of Two Parades
April 5, 2009 / Palm Sunday

Based on “All This Joy, All this Sorrow,” A Sermon Preached by Peter Ilgenfritz and “Which way will be our way?” A sermon by Joe Hoffman

Two parades enter Jerusalem. From the West, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, rides through the city gates on a grand war horse at the head of a majestic procession of imperial soldiers on horseback. From the East, Jesus rides a borrowed donkey down to the city gate from the Mount of Olives. From the West, drowning out all other sound from the markets and streets is the marching of feet, the beating of drums, the creak of leather and the crack of whips. From the East, if we draw enough, we might hear a band of voices singing “Hosanna!” “Save Us!” “Blessed is the one who comes!”

All parades use symbols. The Trumbull Memorial Day parade, for instance, has every volunteer and civic organization in town marching down the road, complete with flags, a military fly over, and street venders overcharging for balloons. Its symbolism is perfect for our area. When I lived in Western New York, the parades were all fire trucks and farm equipment — perfect for a small agriculturally-based village. Pilate’s parade has banners, armor, helmets, weapons, and gold eagles mounted on poles — perfect symbolism for the power, authority, might and wealth of the Roman Empire — a fitting tribute to the Roman Emperor whom they call “Son of God”, “Lord” and “Savior”.

Jesus rides in on a donkey. Those in the crowd who know the scriptures catch the symbolism from the prophet Zechariah, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) The rest of Zechariah goes on to say exactly what kind of king he will be: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

In the West, no one on the street asks who is this. Everyone knows it is Pontius Pilate processing from his palace on the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He has not come to Jerusalem out of respect for the religious devotion of his Jewish subjects. He rides to make sure that no trouble breaks out on this holiday when pilgrims swell the city and the Jews remember the story of their liberation from another empire in Egypt.

In the East, a few people stop and ask, “Who is that?” And someone says, “It’s Jesus, whom they call a prophet. He comes from up north in Nazareth in the region of Galilee.”

If you were there on the streets of Jerusalem, which parade would you be drawn to?
Pilate’s parade has huge appeal. It’s noisy. It’s big. It stands for all the things that were valued in society. It is power, strength, authority, and wealth. It is a brawny and dominant symbol of the Empire’s potency. Pilate’s parade offers control, leadership and security. And let’s be honest, it leaves us with our mouths gaping wide. Pilate’s parade is not mentioned in any of the scriptures, but this parade forms the background of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade. Jesus’ parade only makes sense when we know that Pilate had another parade going at the same time. Jesus’ parade is clearly a caricature of Pilate’s parade. It is laughable. It is ridiculous. A grand leader decked in gold on horseback versus a peasant riding a borrowed donkey? Jesus’ parade wants to make us wake up, to pay attention, to laugh at the Empire, to think about who really is in charge of the land of Israel and the nations of the world.

Much in my life draws me to Pilate’s parade. Big and powerful things have allure. I want to be around people who can make me feel strong and influential. All of us are drawn to that which makes us feel important and admired in the hopes that it might rub off on us. And yet, something keeps calling me back to Jesus’ parade. The past couple of weeks I have been puzzling over what that is. Why do I feel anxious when I drift away from Jesus’ parade to Pilate’s? What is so enticing about Pilate, even when I know in my head his parade does not represent my values? I was puzzling over this when I heard a song. It’s called “Chariot” by a band called Page France. It’s a song with a simple melody and steady, moving beat. I heard this song and thought, “This is it. This is what draws me to Jesus’ parade. Something in this song.” I’m going to play a little bit for you, with the understanding that music is like love. You can’t always explain why you love something. You just do. This song moves me. It makes me feel.

When I listen to a song like this, I remember that Jesus does not ride in order to subdue and punish me. He is does not ride to inspire fear and make me behave. Jesus rides to let me know that he is one of us. He breaks the bread for us and sings. Something about him that makes us want to play a little – to wave some palms and have a giggle in the face of warring madness. Jesus rides so we can become a happy ending.

Pilate’s parade attracts us. It inspires feelings of importance and status. But there’s a cost. We have give up parts of ourselves to be in Pilate’s parade. We need to bring our strength but cannot bring our need. We need to bring our devotion, but we cannot bring our longing, doubting selves. Pilate’s parade offers us status, but to earn this status we have to be willing to march in time with Pilate’s relentless marching beat. We have to become who Pilate wants us to be.

Jesus’ parade is different. Jesus’ parade invites us to hold all parts of our life together. The joy and the sorrow. The promise and the pain. In his parade, we do not march in time with one strict beat. We walk with Jesus. His parade wants us to remember the truth of our humanity. Here is Jesus, confronting a grand parade of status and power, inviting us to walk a very human parade of humility — a parade that proclaims a power that comes not from following God, not human strength and weaponry.

Here is Jesus, riding to the Temple where he will topple the money changers’ tables, calling us to be aware of the practices we take part in without thinking; calling us back from blind materialism, consumption, consumerism, to our true humanity. Jesus rides to the place where people give in to fear and resort to violence to solve their problems. He calls us to reach out in love to those who came to greet us with hatred.

Here is Jesus, riding to on Good Friday and the cross. In a world that denies suffering and death, here is Jesus not denying pain but embracing it, calling us back to our humanity to feel the truth that is pain and suffering. Only in facing it can such pain and suffering be transformed.

Jesus rides to Easter. The Good News of Easter is not that we wait for a leader on a white horse to come into town to save us. The message of Easter is what we will celebrate when we come to the table: “This is my body broken for you.” It is here, in and between us — a broken, longing, hoping people — that Christ rises. Here in this body. In this place and time. Restoring us to life, Spirit and love.

Holy Week is our week to reflect prayerfully and passionately on our faith. It is our time to ask which way of life we will follow. We decide and then we bring all of our heart and soul to living that way.

There were two processions that day. And the people had to decide in which one they would participate. That’s still the decision we all must make. Which world order will we help to bring forth: The domination of the empire that uses violence, coercion and the taking advantage of the poor and marginalized to maintain control and order: to maintain the power structure that benefits a few at the cost of the masses? Or, will we help bring forth the world that embraces each life, that values the power of community in relationship, that trusts in the power of love and the possibility of peace— the one where we can be truly free. Which procession will we participate in?

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