Two Processions: Palm Sunday
+May the words of my mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in You sight, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
On that spring day two thousand years ago, two different processions entered the city of Jerusalem, one from the West and one from the East. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote in their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, these two processions couldn’t be more different. They were opposites.
The procession coming from the West wasn’t too different from a modern day motorcade with its sleek black cars with blacked-out windows. The Western parade was made up of Roman equivalent: a legion of imperial soldiers, bright in their expensive armor, gallant in their deep red robes, and imposing on their tall, muscled warhorses. Chief among the Western parade was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, at the head of an impressive cavalry and legion of soldiers. Governor Pilate was coming from a breezy seaside city, to bring law and order during the annual Jewish festival of Passover. Like any city expecting to quadruple in size due to holiday visitors, the governor packed the Jerusalem streets with police to make sure the revelers didn’t get too rowdy. He needed to make sure nobody got any funny ideas of political revolution, which Rome had to quash several times in the previous few hundred years. The procession from the West served as a reminder that Rome was King, and anyone that opposed these mighty warhorses would find themselves six feet under them. Pilate’s boss, Emperor Tiberius, considered himself to be the Savior of the world, the One Who Could Keep Peace by giving his people bread and circus. So, for Jerusalem, Passover became a time for bread and circus and revelry, under the thumb of Pontius Pilate.
The procession from the East, on the other hand, was almost laughable. It was made up of peasants, farmers, craftsmen, everyday joes. But nevertheless, people followed a peculiar prophet named Jesus from the hinterland. Far from a sleek Cadillac or mighty warhorse, Jesus rode in on a borrowed donkey colt that could barely hold his weight. Jesus’ legion had only twelve dusty soldiers who looked like they needed some bread. They had no banner. They had no warhorses. They had no flashy red cloaks and had no armor. And yet they also proclaimed a Kingdom, but not Caesar’s. They proclaimed the Kingdom of God under the banner of God’s self-sacrificial love for humankind.
Meanwhile, across town on the Westside, peasants waved palm branches at Pilate while he rode on a red carpet laid out for him in the streets. Palm branches were the symbol for victory and red was the symbol of battle. Imagine a 1st century equivalent to “Hail to the Chief” played on trumpets in his parade. His standard-bearers held a golden eagle on top of a long pole, so high that anyone in a crowd could see it. The eagle was the symbol for Roman might and everyone did well to remember its power.
Meanwhile, on the Eastside, Jesus’ parade started diverting attention away from Pilate. His bedraggled band of followers brought the palms for Pilate and laid them, defiantly, at the feet of Jesus. I wonder what caused these peasants to join the Jesus bandwagon so quickly. Maybe the peasants recognized victory in the eyes of Jesus, perhaps they even saw a God of love. Maybe they were tired of Pilate’s taxes and warhorses and wanted someone like them in charge. Someone who could commiserate with their hardships and rule on their behalf. Maybe they wanted an average Joe instead of an above average tyrant. Maybe they really did see something divine in this backwater prophet.
Instead of “Hail to the Chief” the peasants sang the ancient psalm of their people: “Hosanna, Lord, Hosanna, bring us now success!” Hosanna in Hebrew means “Save us, Lord, bring us victory!” and would’ve been sung at festivals. We sang something similar just now, “All glory, laud and honor to thee Redeemer, King!” and joined with them in our praise of this lowly King Jesus on his borrowed donkey.
We get to choose which procession we follow.
Maybe we Christians, like those 1st century peasants, want something new, something different from what the world is feeding us right now. We don’t just want bread and circus. We want a King who has defeated the last enemy, death itself. And he’ll be our Ruler in this life and life after death. We want an honest, divine ruler who knows our hearts. We want a divine king whose banner is love. We laud and honor a God-made-human who isn’t impressed by much. God doesn’t want us for our money, our fame or our accomplishments. King Jesus has numbered the hairs on our head. God has loved us while we were in our mother’s womb. We have a King Jesus who has gathered us like a mother hen has gathered her chicks, sheltering us from every storm.
And our King Jesus is kind. And he is generous. And he doesn’t need a motorcade or a salary. He only wants our love and our love for each other. His campaign platform really is “love of God and love of neighbor”. And 1st Century palestinian peasants gave Jesus the shirt off their back for such a self-sacrificial platform.
King Jesus did not come to leave the world the way it always was. King Jesus’ platform of love of God and love of neighbor was the opposite of Rome’s. Rome was cynical about human nature and believed the worst about people and believed they needed an iron fist to keep people in line. King Jesus believes in the best of us and was willing to die for the worst part of us.
Basically, King Jesus flips the world upside down. His parade seems foolish to the world, to Governor Pilate and to his legion. But to us, King Jesus’ upside down kingdom is our lifeblood. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
And God chose lowly King Jesus to upend our expectations of power. We’ll see, throughout this Holy Week, how he does it. He tackles sin and puts death to death.
But today, we focus on the fact that we serve a Servant King. A King who rides a dusty donkey instead of a warhorse, whose banner is self-sacrificial generosity instead of oppressive subjugation. And we’re seeing it in the midst of this pandemic, too, this self-sacrificial love of God.
You see the self-sacrificial generosity of God everywhere, if you look. You won’t necessarily see it in the boldface news headlines. You’ll see the generosity of God in the faces of doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. You’ll see the generosity of God in the night shift cleaning crews. You’ll see the generosity of God in the delivery workers bringing you essential medicines, supplies and food. You’ll see the generosity of God in the faces of the first responders, firefighters, police, trash collectors, sewage workers, and manufacturers working all hours. You’ll see the generosity of God in the epidemiologists and pharmacists working odd hours to find a cure. You’ll see the generosity of God in the grocery store clerks stocking shelves and anyone giving us essential services. These workers, like Jesus, won’t get a motorcade either. But God loves them and may God bless them. King Jesus exalts them and anyone as generous as them, especially in a moment of crisis like this. That’s self-sacrificial love and Christians believe it’s sacred.
Christians have known and proclaimed for centuries “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. But I think recent events have shown it in stark relief. Those workers who haven’t been appreciated until now will be appreciated. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Give the humbled and bedraggled workers extra tips when they bring you the groceries.
St. Peter’s, I charge you to do what you know how to do: show off the self-sacrificial generosity of God, not only with palm branches but with your time, talent, treasure with tips and donations to help those lowly workers. Because they’re King Jesus in disguise. They may come to your door in a beat up sedan instead of a donkey, yet these essential workers are, like Christ, bringing us what we need in a dark place.
“All glory, laud and honor to thee Redeemer, King” and to all those who are generously showing the self-sacrificial love of God.
May God bless us and all people. May God keep us. May God’s face shine upon us and bring us all peace.