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“A Processional Hymn”
Sermon on Mark 11:1-11
Passion/Palm Sunday, Year B
The Palm Sunday story is so well-known that it’s easy to think it has nothing new to say to us. The ingredients are so familiar: the crowds shouting “hosanna” and rolling out a carpet of cloaks and branches as Jesus rides a young donkey into the royal city of Jerusalem. These features of the story have so shaped our liturgical celebrations that we have come to treat Palm Sunday as a kind of dress rehearsal for Easter, a triumphal celebration with Jesus in the starring role. It’s his last moment of earthly glory, a first installment on the real glory about to come.
On one level, that is true enough. But this inaugural event of Jesus’s last week tells us so much more about the person of Jesus, and the meaning of his life and death. How you see this event depends on your angle of vision as you watch the procession come into view.
Jesus’s approach to the city, as the Gospel writers describe it, is meant to make us think of the coronation parade of a mighty king victorious in battle. Jesus comes down from the Mount of Olives: any spectator who knew their Scripture would immediately think of the prophecy of Zechariah, who said the Mount of Olives would be the staging ground for God to fight the hostile nations and restore Jerusalem to glory. The donkey is also from Zechariah; the coming king would be a military hero, both triumphant and humble. To the crowds streaming into Jerusalem for Passover, inflamed with messianic hopes, these symbols could only mean one thing: the king who was coming would rise up against the Roman occupiers and get them out of the city. No wonder they greeted Jesus with adulation! As they spread their garments on the road in front of him, they were re-enacting a coronation custom from Old Testament times.
It’s clear that Mark wants us to make these associations, to recognize the royal status of Jesus, but what kind of king are we dealing with? Jesus himself is silent throughout these proceedings. He neither denies nor affirms the acclamations that are coming his way.
Maybe the procession that set out toward Jerusalem was something more like a protest march than a coronation or victory parade. The city Jesus was approaching was the center of both civil and religious authority, and Jesus would challenge both during his week in Jerusalem. When he returned to the city the next day, he headed right to the Temple, and I think you know what happened there. He drove out all the merchants and money-changers, accusing them and everybody connected with them of desecrating the Temple and dishonoring God. That demonstration was the action that sealed his death warrant. It is hard to describe how offensive this action was: the duty of a pilgrim during Passover week was to show reverence for the Temple and everything it stood for, not to challenge its power, insult its personnel, and predict its demise. But the Temple was also a powerful economic institution controlled by the high priestly families, and Jesus was pronouncing judgment on a system that exploited and defrauded the poor.
Just as he challenged the religious and economic power of the Temple, he also implicitly challenged the political power of the Roman state. Jesus set the power of God over against all the earthly “powers that be.” In his subtle mockery of military might and his own repudiation of violence, Jesus’s mere presence was unsettling. His popularity with the crowds was a threat to the Roman government charged with keeping the peace. The authorities were bound to move against the threat that he presented.
And that is why his movement toward Jerusalem was also a funeral procession, in spite of its mood of celebration. In some Greek tragedies, there is a joyful scene involving a procession or a dance right before the “catastrophic climax” of the play. This joyful interlude is designed to throw into stark relief the terror of what is to come. The parade Jesus was in seems to function a bit like this in Mark: the happy, confident approach to the city was a bit of theater before he would abandon himself to the fury of the world.
Jesus, of course, was the only one who knew he was riding in his own funeral procession. He’d announced it to the disciples back in Galilee, but they refused to believe him. He already knew he was headed toward betrayal, arrest, and death. These events would be the inevitable outcome of his way of being in the world, and he refused to give up one inch of who he was to make things easier or safer for himself.
At numerous points during that last week, Jesus could have called the whole thing off, stopped the show before it really got started. He could have gone underground, left the Temple authorities alone, stopped saying the things that made him so inconvenient to the Romans. But his faithfulness to God and to who he was wouldn’t let him. He couldn’t save himself by becoming someone other than who he was.
In that last week in Jerusalem, Jesus’s refusal to fight back perplexed his disciples and enraged almost everyone else: Pilate, before whom he is silent; the temple guards and officials who beat him up; and the mob who shouts for his crucifixion. Through all of this, Jesus refuses to use the tools and tactics of violence, even in his speech, against a world that is poised to condemn him to an obscenely violent death. Everyone else actively or passively involved in the crucifixion tacitly accepted the necessity of violence.
The events of Holy Week compel us to think about what might be a plausible Christian response to the violence in our world. Today I am thinking specifically about the epidemic of mass shootings our country has been enduring for at least two decades and which seems to have spiked in recent years. I realize that by bringing this up I may be accused of being too “political,” and that an issue that has so divided our country should be left out of the pulpit. My first response to that concern is to say that if we have anything to say about human life in this world, we can’t avoid politics: Whenever we talk about people and the strategies they enact to achieve their aims and interests, we’re being political. We can’t get away from politics – Jesus’s Palm Sunday procession was an intensely political event, as were all the events in Jerusalem that conspired to get him executed as an enemy of the state. I would add to that that gun violence is an issue that has indeed been politicized, but it can’t be dismissed on that account – it has to do with human flourishing and how we respond to evil in the world. As Peter Marty said in a recent article in The Christian Century, gun violence in America is a “spiritual issue of the highest order.”[i]
I think it speaks to the spiritual poverty of our national life when the only response we can see to the problem of too many guns is to arm ourselves more heavily. Whether we want to admit it or not, somehow we have made a decision as a nation that unfettered access to arms of all kinds is worth the death of schoolchildren. We rationalize our gun culture by appealing to what Bible scholar Walter Wink has called “the myth of redemptive violence,” which is essentially the argument that the appropriate response to a “bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” It’s true that formula occasionally applies, as in the case of the school shooting in Maryland last week. But it doesn’t solve anything, and it doesn’t address the spiritual crisis we are in because of our national obsession with firearms. We have, in effect, baptized the gun: we see it as something that should rightly be used to carry out Christian objectives.
So this problem isn’t just “political,” it is spiritual. What is political is the nuts and bolts of how we are going to deal with this crisis as a nation, and we have to leave that to legislators and policy-makers as we participate in the political process as private citizens. But we can’t just dismiss this problem as if it had nothing to do with our Christian witness.
Above all the violence in our world – the verbal violence that has become the regular tone of our political discourse and the physical violence that has become a regular feature of our gun culture – stands Jesus Christ, our prophet, priest and king, who refused to use any of the stratagems of coercion or violence to save himself.
As the star of a very peculiar coronation parade, Jesus is a king whose majesty is hidden from all but the eyes of faith. As the instigator of a protest march, he is the prophet who announces God’s holy opposition to systems of injustice and oppression. And as the central figure of a funeral procession, he is the perfect sacrifice who went to death for the sake of people who misunderstood him, rejected him, betrayed him, and condemned him – people just like you and me, no better and no worse. He did it so that we could get the message of his extraordinary life and death.
He has taken the violence of the world into himself, and has given it back as love rather than more violence. Jesus Christ is the majestic power of God and the burning truth of God, poured out for us in unquenchable love.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2018
[i] Peter Marty, “American Idol,” The Christian Century 135:6, March 14, 2018, 3.