Palm Sunday is an odd Sunday to start as a new rector. I just want to put that out there in the open. It’s odd. Hello, I’m your new rector, my name is Mike. I’m grateful to be here. Now let’s crucify Jesus…together. Well, before we get there, let’s pause for Palm Sunday. We’ve just begun our walk together this morning. This week the walk will be high drama. We’ll revisit the story of the Last Week of Jesus again and again. But before the Passion come the palms. The triumphal entry is a rich text. We could stay here all afternoon and unpack Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem together. Some family and friends have come to join Eli and me today on our first Sunday with you. My brother is here. He drove down from Iowa. Sam was a religion major, and last night he asked if I was going to preach on the relative price of donkeys in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. No, I’ll spare you that. We’ve got a lot of Gospel to get through today. Instead I want to share a small theory I have about Palm Sunday.
I think Palm Sunday is an invitation to make a choice. Palm Sunday invites us to choose between security and hope.
There were two parades into Jerusalem that day, say theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Jesus on a colt and his band of followers came in from the Mount of Olives, shouting Hosannas, dancing, laughing, spreading their cloaks and branches. The crowd hails Jesus, and there is an air of levity. This is Jesus’ flash mob, an action at the start of the great festival days in Jerusalem. He’s asking the people to pay attention. Jesus’ choice of steed, the cries of “hosanna,” they express an agenda. Jesus is proclaimed as savior. Jesus’ parade is about hope.
Another parade approached Jerusalem’s Western Gate, say Crossan and Borg. Pontius Pilate would have paraded up from Ceasaria on the sea surrounded by legions of decorated soldiers to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. Banners flying on the ordered Roman Road, the soldiers carried the latest in weapons technology and heavy armor, the metal glinting in the sun. Pilate was coming for crowd control. Part of that control was intimidation. Pilate’s parade projects a message as well, “we are here to provide security.”
Pilate’s world was a world of security. He was a frontier governor of the vast Roman empire during the time of the Pax Romana. Lasting peace for Rome came at the cost of repression of Rome’s conquered states. Palestine was a land of rebels. There were plots to overthrow the empire, and operatives even among Jesus followers. We hear about all of the centurions and Roman soldiers in Jesus’ miracle stories because they were an ever present reality. Palestine was an occupied territory, and intimidation from the authorities helped to maintain security.
Into this backdrop, Jesus rides into Jerusalem. He knew what he was doing. The prophet Zechariah foretold that the messiah would enter Jerusalem on a colt. Zechariah also has the Messiah descending from the Mount of Olives. If you visit Jerusalem today, you can walk down the Mount of Olives, which is covered with cemeteries. The buried dead are there, awaiting the Messiah. There are two huge doors in the wall that surrounds the Old City of Jerusalem. The doors are bricked up. When the Messiah comes, Jews believe, the faithful dead will rise up, and follow the Messiah in through the unblocked gates. Messianic expectation persists to this day. Jesus encouraged the people’s hopes, even if the entrance to Jerusalem didn’t play out exactly as they might have expected. Jesus was working on hope.
Jesus’ followers didn’t carry weapons. They weren’t there to start an armed rebellion against Pilate. They would have lost. The Romans had made security an object of worship. Their parades showed off all of their implements of security. Pilate wanted to intimidate any rabble rousers. Pilate was there to provide security, security for the status quo. Jesus’ followers carried branches, the sign of peace. Jesus parade holds a different message, a message of hope.
Where do we place our faith? In the promise of security? With the rag-tag band of hope? I venture that this question matters a great deal to how we go about life together in this world. Where do we place our faith? In security? In hope?
Don’t hear my say that I am against a sense of security. I think security can be a good thing. The opposite of security is insecurity. Some of you know that I’ve spent some time living in Central America. I can say, from some experience, no one wants to live in insecurity. Fearing for your safety day in and day out, fearing for your safety when you’re doing something as simple as shopping for groceries, that kind of insecurity does not inspire emotional and economic health. Insecurity is toxic to hope.
But security can become an idol, it can become an object of worship. A desire to maintain a sense of comfort and control can become really problematic in our lives. I’m sure you know this to be true. In my own life I have found that the events that have shaped my life, the big decisions and changes, like, say, becoming a rector, these times of change tend to make me feel vulnerable. Feeling out of control, insecure, is not comfortable. I know, trust me I know. I’m an Episcopalian. I’m really good at saying, “but we’ve always done things this way.” If find myself trying to run to what feels comfortable, what feels secure, and that can be a problem. The more I seek security, the less quickly I go through important growth.
We’re going to go through some of this together. Make no mistake. There are going to be times in the coming months, and probably years where we go through change as a community, and it’s not going to be comfortable. We may have different ideas about what security looks like, and we’ll be tempted to run to that security. The invitation from Jesus is to stick together, to pray, and to lean into hope.
I suspect that the crowd around Jesus were not exactly sure what was going on that morning, as they shouted Hosanna. They didn’t know what was coming next. In the chapter before Jesus had huddled with the disciples and explained that he expected to die. The crowd didn’t know. Even the disciples did not really know what the next week would bring. They didn’t have the comfort of doing things the way they had always done them. This was the first time they’d followed a messiah into Jerusalem.
Jesus had preached about the Kingdom of God. He used metaphors like mustard seeds and vineyards. He talked about the poor being valued, the lowly lifted up. Jesus incorporated all the wrong people into his vision of the Kingdom. But no one had seen this Kingdom. No one had visited. They were working on instinct. They were following their gut. They were choosing hope in the face of an empire that was built on security.
I know there are places in my life where my faith would benefit from letting go of a little security and reaching for hope. I know that work is never easy. I’m so grateful to be walking this way with you, starting today.
I also want to pay attention to the tone of the crowd with Jesus. Earlier I compared them to a flash mob. I think a flash mob is a good modern day understanding of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. If you’ve never seen a flashmob video, type “flash mob” into your Google search when you get home. You’ll see shopping malls full of shoppers, and suddenly music will start and the shoppers will do a choreographed dance.
My favorite flashmob happened in the Smithsonian in Washington around Christmas a few years ago. A Single cellist walked into the Air and Space museum and started playing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. By the end of the video all 120 members of the orchestra have joined in from around the hall, and the Air Force Choir is singing “Joy to the World” with full brass accompaniment. The faces of the visitors change as they realize what is going on. The onlookers at first seem uncomfortable, awkward insecure. As they realize what is happening, their faces are transformed to joy. Letting go of security, leaning into hope, can take us from discomfort to joy. I think Palm Sunday was a similar event. The crowd was having fun, watching this goofy man from Nazareth ride into the city on a colt, surrounded by branch-waving followers, shouting Hosanna.
I love Palm Sunday. I have since I was a little kid in the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood Colorado. I remember my mom and I standing in the entryway, both in our choir robes, and she was challenging me to a mock sword fight with the palms. Jesus’ joyful mob still spreads joy for us today. Palm Sunday is an important moment, an important start to this Holy Week. Palm Sunday pulls us into the drama of what is ahead. Jesus, in his entry to Jerusalem challenged Rome and it’s cult of security. Jesus’ flash mob, his crazy band, invites us to hope, together.