Sunday March 28, 2010 Palm Sunday C
Preacher Christopher McLaren
Text. Luke 18
Jesus is in the midst of the crowds of pilgrims making their way up the hill toward Jerusalem, surrounded by loud and joyful praises to God. He is traveling with his disciples who are in all likelihood a jumble of emotions, anxious about entering this Holy City as Jesus has been telling them of his coming suffering and death, excited to be in the band of pilgrims, and curious and joyful at the interaction of the crowds with Jesus. Luke’s telling of this story is spare, making but the slightest mention of the crowds, noting that they “kept spreading their cloaks on the road.” If we were to follow Luke’s Gospel it would be called “Cloak Sunday” instead of “Palm Sunday.” For Luke there are no Hosannas ringing, no green leafy branches in the mix of his narrative.
Jesus is a simple itinerant preacher coming into the big city from the country, coming into the heart of religious hostility as an outspoken reformer and critic of the religious institution of his own day. But for a nobody from the backcountry of Galilee it all seems like a heroes welcome, a kind of ancient ticker-tape parade. Jesus, an unlikely recipient of this kind of lavish praise, rides through it like miracle itself, with a certain nonchalance on the back of a donkey, a symbol of humility and gentleness. Evidently he has a tremendous reputation among the common people; his fame as a teacher, healer, holy man and prophet has spread like wildfire.
The Religious leaders of the day are obviously unnerved by this strange political demonstration. They have brokered a fragile peace between the faith of Israel and the power of Imperial Rome. They do not want a common political fanatic like Jesus to endanger the alliance. So Jesus' critics the Pharisees plead with him, "Teacher order your disciples to stop." They want Jesus to tame the outburst, to tone down his entrance to quiet the crowds. Lest we think these politicos paranoid it is noteworthy that during Jesus' earthly life, scholars estimate that there were at least sixty armed rebellions against the Roman occupation forces. People waving palm branches and shouting was a threatening sign, particularly when they were shouting that there was a new king in town.
Upon receiving the demand that he tell his followers to be quiet, Jesus says something interesting on that first Palm Sunday: "I tell you if you could quiet down these people, the very stones would shout." Nature itself would come to God’s aide.
There is something about Jesus that can make even a rock want to shout.
So, amid the joyous shouts and praises of the people, Jesus silently plods into hostilities that will inevitably boil over during the High Holy days ahead in this ancient and numinous city with its magnificent Temple and storied history.
This is a story about a small local parade in the midst of a whole city preparing to celebrate its most sacred feast. The entrances to the city are jammed with pilgrims from all over. The air is electric with expectation and the crowds that include Jesus’ disciples begin to direct their attention to Jesus whom Luke pictures as a gentle king arriving in the capital city with no sword in his hand, vulnerable to whatever his enemies will choose to do to him. Jesus the rabbi who taught non-violence, "Do not resist one who is evil,” seems ready to live by his own words and philosophy. He is the kind of king we would all like one that offers a different kind of kingdom, one in which peacefulness toward others even enemies is valued, economic justice for all is not only espoused but pursued, hospitality toward the immigrant and alien is normative, and one where forgiveness is woven into the fabric of relationships.
As the pilgrims climbed up the steep hill into the city they sang the the Psalms of ascent, ancient pilgrim songs. Somehow in the commotion and emotion of entering the Holy City, Jesus’ entrance became significant for some in the crowd. Jesus’ entrance into the city was understood by some as prophetic and provocative and by others as deeply hopeful. Luke is a bit understated in his description, while some of the Gospel writers describe the whole scene as an uproar, as if this small-time preacher from Nazareth is really making a big splash in Jerusalem. The words "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord" are not unusual as they were a typical line used by pilgrims greeting one another while attending a temple festivals.
The challenge for us to is find ourselves identifying with those who were strewing their garments on the road in front of Jesus’ entourage. What does it mean to pave the way for the chosen one of God? What does it mean to throw your North Face Jacket in his path? Or to through your Anne Klein wrap in the mud. One’s cloak was a valuable item. It was one’s protective covering against the elements and an essential garment. Is it a sign that you are committed to Christ way if you lay your Marmot Jacket on the ground for a donkey to step on.
The simple fact is that if we call Jesus our Lord, or see him as the blessed one of God, if we claim to desire to live like him and to be his representatives on earth, then what happened to him may indeed eventually happen to us. To be a disciple, to be a follower of Jesus is to risk his same fate. Of course it is easy to join him on the parade route, it is easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm of the crowds. What is not easy is to realize that the way of Christ leads toward the cross. To throw in your lot with this Jesus fellow is to know that true joy is to be found in losing ones life to find it “ in giving oneself away for the sake of others in such a way that newness of life is actually discovered in the process.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a champion of sorts. He was a peculiar man whose life was spent in ministry to those on the margins of society, those who were outcasts and ignored, those who had little status or clout. Jesus ate dinner with sinners, thieves and prostitutes and slimy tax guys. He wasn’t scared of what others thought about him. He cared more about people and about their knowing a living and gracious God than he did about being respectable. He dared to touch the unclean of his society: the lepers, the lame, the poor and the blind. He bent and at times broke the religious rules in order to show that people were more important than any human traditions. He refused to keep women in their place by engaging them in conversation, honoring their intellect, and allowing them to be included in his ministry. Jesus was constantly breaking down walls of division and opening the circle of God’s love a little bit wider. He was aflame with the compassion and love of God and because of that he suffered.
The facts are fairly conclusive. If you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? As our baptismal covenant proclaims, things will not always be easy for you. The world will not like you, but God will love you. To be sure you may suffer some pain or loss or rejection at the hands of those who wish that things could stay just the same, because they profit from them that way. But you will find that you are joyful in heart because you have thrown in your lot with Christ. You have joined him on his path, even if you know like Jesus knew that the way leads to the cross despite the hosannas along the way. We are all pilgrims in this place. The 60 or so pilgrims from St. Michael’s that will walk the healing way toward Chimayo this Good Friday represent all of us in our journey toward the Cross, the fertile and stretching destination that calls us to live like Jesus lived, no matter what the cost. The place where God’s grace and our desires can be transformed into loving service.
So let us take to heart the advice of Andrew of Crete from long ago who said:
It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, with the whole Christ “ "for as many has have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" “ so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.”
Andrew of Crete, 8th Cent.
It is you that Christ wants this day not your clothing. It is yourself that you can spread on the avenues and pathways of this world to help them become ways to God. It is Christ’s grace working in your that you can spread in this world. And don’t spread it thin, spread God’s love in thick and fertile ways along the roadways of humanity. It is our lives in Christ that are to be strewn like splendid palm branches in this world that they might become the Lord’s path; a pathway of hope and healing, a pathway of ever-widening and demanding love. It is a pathway that leads to the cross and beyond, for we know that the cross is not the end of the story, but the sight of God’s surprising triumph.