April 13, 2014

Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 26:30-35

“Palm Branch Flash Mob”

I wonder how many of you have participated in a demonstration or a political protest. How many of you have showed up at a rally to speak out against a funding cut, or to encourage a government to take action, or to show solidarity with an oppressed group? Have you ever stood in a crowd and chanted a slogan? Have you ever walked in step with a group, wondering if your presence will make a difference, or send a message, or wield some power when joined with others who care about the issue enough to show up and participate?

Some of you grew up in the hey-day of protests, demonstrations, and marches in the 1960’s when young people banded together to make their voices heard in the political world. Even those who were not particularly “into” politics got involved at least occasionally, swept up by the excitement and enthusiasm of being part of a movement. In recent years, such gatherings are becoming more and more frequent again. Around the world, young people are coming together in parks, and squares, and shopping malls to proclaim – not only with their votes, but with their voices and their very presence – that regimes, and dictatorships, and unjust systems and cultures and practices are not going to be accepted anymore. The people are going to demand change, and sometimes they are actually going to get it.

The “Idle no more” movement that started right here in Saskatchewan has encouraged a lot of demonstrations like this. First Nations people, along with their allies, are taking to the streets to stand up for the protection of natural resources and lands, for the dignity and well-being of Indigenous communities and individuals, and for the celebration of Native cultures and spiritualities. There have been flash mobs and round dances, rallies and walks of support… all organized to raise awareness, to educate, and to make a political point.

Although we tend to think of it as a religious festival now, the event that we celebrate on Palm Sunday every year was not a religious ceremony when it first happened. It was probably more like a political demonstration – a flash mob of support for the preacher and healer who was being hailed as a prophet and possibly a Messiah-figure.

Five or six days before his crucifixion and death, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey (or if we pay close attention to the way Matthew’s Gospel tells it, he was riding on two animals – a donkey and a colt). A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

I think we tend to imagine that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was simply a natural occurrence inspired by the enthusiasm of the people for Jesus’ message and the kingdom values that he was promoting. Somehow it seems kind of crass to think that the palm parade was more like a publicity stunt carefully planned to make a political point.

But if we read the story carefully, it’s very clear that Jesus chose to turn his entrance into a procession. He instructed his disciples to go into a village to borrow the animals. He wanted to fulfill the prophetic saying, that the king would come… “humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” And although Jesus did come humbly, riding on a donkey instead of a war horse, by doing so he was making a very bold statement to the people of Jerusalem. He came in peace, yes, but he came like a king. And that symbolic act would have led to both the praise of those who supported him and the turmoil in the city amongst those who didn’t.

“Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30,” write biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book about Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. They continue by contrasting the two processions, one from the east largely composed of peasants, following a certain Jesus from Galilee riding a donkey down the Mount of Olives.

On the opposite side of the city, from the west approaches the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, entering the city on a war horse at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. He has come from Caesarea Maritima for the purpose of maintaining law and order during the potentially tumultuous days of the Jewish festival of Passover. “Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God,” the authors note, while Pilate’s proclaimed the “power of empire,” thereby embodying the “central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can say that I’ve ever participated in a demonstration or a march that really required me to take a risk. I’ve joined in a chant at an occasional political rally, and I’ve stood in a park with a candle singing peace songs, and I’ve signed petitions and written letters and added my voice to causes that I felt were important. But I’ve never risked getting hurt, or arrested, or really given up much of my own well-being or security for the sake of a greater good.

I was watching a TV show the other day in which some high school students organized a walk-out. They did it to support one student who wasn’t going to be able to graduate, and they all felt that she was being treated unfairly by the school. So instead of writing their exams, all the grade 11 and 12 students got up and walked out. They risked their own graduations, their own academic records, and accepted the possibility of having to go to summer school because they wanted to stand in solidarity with one student who was being unjustly punished.

But as I watched the show, I was wondering who was going to be the first to get up and walk out. Who was going to take the risk before the safety of numbers provided some protection? I was trying to imagine myself doing something like that in high school… I wondered if I would have had the courage.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a colt and a donkey, a large crowd gathered to join in his procession, spreading cloaks and branches on the road and shouting words or praise and joy at his coming. They called out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Now, most of us have probably heard the meaning of the word, “Hosanna.” Originally, it was a prayer. It meant, “Save us, we beseech you.” But by the first century it was a word that had pretty much lost its meaning. It had become a contentless, festive shout, something like a religious “hurrah.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary explains that it’s comparable to the word, “Goodbye” which was also originally a prayer – “God be with you.” But now “goodbye” means a great deal less than it once did.

And so, as Jesus entered the city at the beginning of his last week in the world, many people greeted him and called out with enthusiastic shouts. They had the right words, because they called out a prayer for salvation. But most of them probably didn’t even realize what they were saying. None of them probably knew that he would actually be the one to do it.

And when the turmoil in the city increased, and the supportive crowds thinned out and eventually changed their chant, even those on Jesus’ organizing team started to lose their courage and their commitment to the cause. They were the ones who had gone to get the donkey and the colt. They were the ones who had started the chants along the road. They were the ones who had given months and even years of their lives to Jesus’ mission, but when push came to shove they didn’t want to get killed over this.

I can’t say that I blame them, and Jesus didn’t either. He knew that even his closest friends and followers would become deserters. They would betray him, and deny him, and break their promises when the risks became just too great.

This week, as we remember Jesus’ last week in the world, we come face to face once again with the fact that, as humans, we are just exactly like the crowds and the disciples, like the religious leaders and the soldiers, who betrayed, denied, and deserted, who accused, convicted, and killed the innocent one who was God’s living, loving presence in the world.

This week, we confess that for most of us, there are very few people and even fewer issues for which we are willing to give our time, attention and effort. And there are even fewer for which we are willing to give our lives. Like the crowds on that first Palm Sunday, our shouts of support are often hollow and meaningless, and our courage and conviction quickly wanes.

But Jesus doesn’t blame us, and God is patient with us too. With amazing love and boundless grace, God forgives us our self-centered orientation, and keeps on calling us to turn our lives once again to the way of Jesus. For he was the one who was willing to risk, and to get hurt, and to sacrifice (even when everyone else deserted him, and there was no safety in numbers). And he was willing to suffer, and even to die because of his great love for the world, because of his great love for us.

And so, if we cry “Hosanna!” today, may our shouts and our songs not be empty words, but authentic prayers from the depths of our hearts: “Jesus, save us from our sins! Save us from ourselves!” And if we begin this holy journey with Jesus through his final week in the world, let us stay close to him and have our lives re-oriented to his path. And may we grow in courage and conviction each day to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us, that the Kingdom of God may come. Amen.