Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sermon for April 13, 2014 / Palm Sunday



Lent: Letting Go of Acclaim


With great hope and celebration
we join the procession of life
en route to Jerusalem,
honouring the Christ,
in Jesus,
as alpha and omega.

The palm branches we throw down -
the royal carpet for His passing -
are our own lives,
offered as hallelujahs
that it has all come to this:

Fourteen billion years it has taken
to come to this One,
arriving as servant, though honoured as King;
as peasant, though Lord of Compassion;
no formal education, though born as Wisdom;
dormant in the stars, gestating in the pregnant Earth;
and through Mary, Mother of God.

What joy is ours as we take our place
in the great procession of life,
heralding and blessing
this One who comes in your name,
and all who are coming
with a song of holiness on their lips
and a yearning for wholeness in their hearts.

Blessed,
blessed,
blessed,
is the one who comes in your name!
by Bruce Sanguin from If Darwin Prayed

A parade enters Jerusalem. People cheer as the Ruler rides into the City majestically from the West. The King rides on as a symbolic presence at the Passover Feast. Who is leading this parade? None other than Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate rides in an impressive and lavish procession, designed to astonish people with a visual display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.

Another parade begins at the same time as Pilate’s. From the other side of Jerusalem, from the East, Jesus rides a borrowed donkey down to the city gate from the Mount of Olives.  Jesus produces a fringe festival to Pilate’s pomp; a counter-demonstration. Jesus and his parade goers might be able to hear the procession in the West; the sounds of marching feet, beating of drums, creaking of leather and cracking whips, which drown out all other sound from the markets and streets. From the East, if we draw close enough, we might hear a band Jerusalem’s marginalized citizens singing, “Hosanna! Save Us! Blessed is the one who comes!” as they throw palms on the road and Jesus rides into town. Jesus rides in a procession that he stages as satire.

All parades use symbols. The Silver Spring Thanksgiving Parade has every civic organization in the county marching down the street, complete with flags, scouts and soccer teams, dance troupes, armored police enforcement trucks, and street venders overcharging for balloons. When I lived in Western New York, the parades were all fire trucks and farm equipment . . .  and street venders overcharging for balloons — perfect for a small agriculturally-based village. Pilate’s parade has banners, armor, weapons, and gold eagles mounted on standards (no balloons) — perfect symbolism for the power, authority, and wealth of the Roman Empire — a fitting tribute to the Roman Emperor who likes his subject to flatter him with titles like “Son of God”, “Lord” and “Savior”.  No one on the street has to ask what Pilate’s parade means. Pilate is not marching 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. He rides to remind rioters and revolutionaries that they dare not challenge or defy the power of Rome.

In the East, a few people stop, point, 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.” They shake some palm branches and throw them on the ground as Jesus rides to suffer at the hands of the worst that Rome represents.

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 citizens value in society. It has power and strength, authority and riches. It’s a brawny and dominant symbol of the Empire’s potency. Pilate’s parade offers control. Leadership. Security. It leaves us with our mouths gaping wide. Pilate’s parade is not mentioned in any of the scriptures, but his spectacle probably forms the background of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade. Jesus’ parade makes more sense when we know that Pilate had another parade going at the same time. Jesus’ parade is clearly a caricature of Pilate’s parade. Jesus’ parade is laughable. It’s 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. Many of us are drawn to that which makes us feel important and admired in the hopes that it might rub off on us. But something keeps calling me back to Jesus’ parade. The past couple of weeks I have been puzzling over what it is. Why do I feel so anxious when I take part in Pilate’s parade? What is so enticing and, at the same time so scary, about the pomp and splendor?  Sometimes I want to be part of the spectacle, even when I know in my head that Pilate’s parade does not represent my values.
Pilate’s parade may attract us. It may inspire feelings of importance and status. But there’s a cost. We have to give up something to be in Pilate’s parade. 

  • Pilate wants our strength, but only if we give up our need.
  • Pilate wants our obedient devotion, but only if we give up our longing to understand our doubts.
  • Pilate wants fear and admiration, but only if we are willing to sacrifice our self-determination.
  • Pilate’s parade offers us status, but we have to be willing to march in time with Pilate’s relentless, marching beat to earn it. We must become who Pilate wants us to be.

Jesus’ parade draws me in a different way. His parade actually scares me more, because it asks more of me. Jesus offers an opportunity to laugh at the greed and hubris around us. It’s a call to find freedom by doing some of the most counter-intuitive actions, like:

  • giving up the self-superiority that fools us into thinking we are better than others,
  • giving up fear-driven control tactics that make us grasp for counterfeit security,
  • giving up the expectation that God promises prosperity,
  • giving up on hopelessness that keeps us entombed in life’s shadows,
  • giving up on acclaim that tempts us to lulls us into pretentious pomposity.

What a welcome Jesus got as he entered Jerusalem from the East. “Hosanna!” the people cried, pitting him against Rome and hailing him as a real King. The crowds loved Jesus on Palm Sunday. But just remember, a few days later a different crowd will call for his death and the release of a murderer. Popularity and acclaim are fleeting. If we put all our faith in the applause of others, we will be very disappointed. Instead, God calls us to put our faith in a steadfast love that sustains us through the times when others abandon us.

Jesus’ parade invites us to hold all parts of our life together. The bliss and the sorrow. The promise and the pain. In his parade, we do not march in time with one stringent beat. We walk with Jesus in a humanizing and unassuming march of humility — a pageant that proclaims a power that comes from following God, not pomp and privilege.

Can we do it? Can we give ride with Jesus to the Temple where he will topple the money changers’ tables? Can he hear him naming the practices we take part in without thinking? Can we follow him as he leads us back from corruption, consumption, and consumerism? Can we give up some acclaim so that we can get back to our true humanity?

Here is Jesus, riding to on Good Friday and the cross. In a world that avoids suffering and denies death, here is Jesus riding on to embrace life’s pain. Can we give up some acclaim and allow ourselves to face pain and suffering?

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 empire that uses violence, coercion or the steps of the Peacemaker who leads us to wholeness? Those who take advantage of the poor and marginalized to maintain control and order, or the One who has heals and blesses all? Economic and political systems that benefit a few at the cost of the masses, or a non-coercive, non-hierarchical  public square where all each person is responsible for shaping the common good? Can we help bring forth a world that embraces each life, that values the power of community in relationship, that trusts in the authority of love and the possibility of peace— the one where we can be truly free. Which procession will we participate in?

Sources: “All This Joy, All this Sorrow,” A Sermon Preached by Peter Ilgenfritz , www.ucucc.org/worship/Sermons/2008/20080316.pdf‎
 “Which way will be our way?” A sermon by Joe Hoffman
“Palm Sunday 2012 – Which Procession Will We Join?” http://godspace-msa.com/2012/03/26/palm-sunday-2012-which-procession-will-we-join/
The Last Week, by Marcus Bord and John Dominic Crossan

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