Sermon for Sunday, March 24, 2013
Palm Sunday, Year C
The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade
There were two processions that day. There was the one we gather to remember—Jesus riding into Jerusalem from the East, from the Mount of Olives on a donkey colt symbolizing peace. Jesus’ disciples waved palm branches signifying little more than that people were happy and branches were handy. Jesus was making a messianic claim but hardly anyone would have agreed about the meaning of it. In spite of all of our imaginings and piety about Holy Week, it is unlikely that even a small fraction of the Passover crowd knew anything about the Jesus’ parade.
The other procession came from the north, from Caesarea Philippi. The Roman Legions under the command of Pontius Pilate marched into town not to symbolize peace but to keep it. Their step was measured, their purpose unmistakable, their banner clear and uncomplicated. SPQR: the Senate and People of Rome. Everything and everyone else was secondary. And everybody from High Priest to lowest servant knew about Pilate’s parade.
The two parades on Palm Sunday have a way of illuminating one another, revealing how the columns that converged on Jerusalem so many centuries ago are, in many ways, still moving among us today. Step back with me for a moment to watch the two parades and hear what they have to tell us.
Let’s begin with the procession we Christians know so well. It was a faith parade and, like most things of faith, it was on a small scale, barely noticeable except to those watching for it or with an eye for such things. In the mosh pit of Middle Eastern crowds, like the ones we see so often on the news, Jesus’ entrance was no more eye-catching than a kindness at work or a generous check. The exercise of faith does not often stand out in a crowd. Jesus was not the focal point for the day; this kind of faith seldom is. The Jerusalem crowd was all caught up in the combination of triumphant religion and chest-thumping patriotism that character-ized Passover. Faith, the kind that quietly moves mountains and changes lives, is not like that at all. Jesus, at the center of this Palm Sunday ripple moving across the boisterous sea of Passover exuberance, sensed his task and the rightness of doing it even though the subsequent telling of the Holy Week story indicates that even he did not have it all worked out. Faith rarely knows the details of the landscape it approaches, which is why the faithful are called followers. If we knew for sure where we were going, we would not have to follow. Children were there, raising a ruckus as they tend to do and offending the stuffy. Children know that truth is something we do, not just something we think and that tends to irritate grown up thinkers.
Jesus was on a donkey colt, not a very dignified animal for high drama. He was showing that God’s ways are not, as Isaiah once said, like our ways at all. Jesus was vulnerable on this ridiculous little animal, the kind of vulnerability that is true strength. Jesus was beaming generosity, the kind of generosity that is true power. And inside of this barely noticeable moment there was a springtime of meaning that for the next 200 centuries will bring people like us out to places like this to sing Hosanna. It was pregnant with meaning and power.
And there was the other parade, the one everybody in Jerusalem would have noticed because Pilate and his legions came to town to be noticed, to impress everyone with their raw power. There was no uncertainty at all about what they were doing or how they would do it. Triumphant religion and chest-thumping patriotism fell into sullen silence before them. Thick crowds parted like Red Sea waters, their noise muted by the beat of drums and the clank of weapons. Pilate was as grim as a founder’s portrait in a boardroom, his troops scowling like chaperones who come to see what is going on. As the legions neared, children were swept behind their mother’s skirts and gripped in their father’s hands. Rome was not a theory or an idea, it was the dominant reality of the day, a truth everyone had to acknowledge. The Romans knew that power is control and control is power; vulnerability is a weakness to be avoided in oneself and despised in others.
The compelling clarity of Pilate’s show of force was rooted in the worship of a small god. SPQR: the Senate and People of Rome. Like other small gods such as profit or security, popularity or youthful-ness, SPQR was marvelously simple to serve. When only one thing is important there are no confusing conflicts. Later in the week when Pilate was faced with an innocent man on the one hand and a threat to the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – on the other, he worked through it in no time, washed his hands of the ambiguity and threw the innocent man under the bus, or onto the cross if you will. Pilate, to his credit, did ask “What is truth?” but then because in his world such a question is always rhetorical, he did not stay to find the answer even though the one who is the way, the truth and life was standing in front of him. Small gods and simple truths allow that kind of dexterity and require that kind of blindness in ways that those struggling to follow Jesus never know. Pilate’s parade was grand, malignant and dying.
Two parades, so very different from one another. One small, subtle and barely noticeable, clear about its joy but little else, vulnerable, generous and changing the world. The other large, loud and unmistakable, clear about its purpose, strong, brutal when it must be, consistent and adverse to change.
In Jerusalem so long ago the two processions were far apart. You had to be part of either one or the other. But today they are mixed and mingled. Here on a pious Palm Sunday we know we belong in Jesus’ parade where vulnerability and generosity are our hallmark, and joy is our reward; where we strive to follow our Lord through the jostling crowd toward Easter. But tomorrow morning Pilate’s parade will form again and the world we sometimes call ‘real’ will proclaim that power and control are what life is about, and vulnerability makes for road kill. The call of small gods like profitability, security, popularity and looking good will be heard and the simplicity of serving them will have its appeal. On Monday, if anyone asks “What is truth?” we will all know it is rhetorical and no answer is to be expected.
In our secular world, the two parades mingle together. Pilate’s parade is large, loud and unmistakable while Jesus’ is small, subtle and visible only to the practiced eye. But the two parades, mingled as they are, actually go in different directions. One is the world’s way, the other is about changing the world. One is what takes up most of life, the other is what all of life is really about. Jesus’ parade goes on. Pilate’s ends in dust. Today we know where we belong. Tomorrow it won’t be so easy, which is why we need to remember today. Amen.