Palm Sunday: Jesus’ March

Today is about a march in the streets. Today is about hope in the face of deadly displays of power. This day, Palm Sunday we shout Hosanna despite the “wisdom of the world.” Today we dance, we make a spectacle. Today we might feel a little awkward, and still I hope, we can move past that awkwardness to have some fun. Palm Sunday is about a march that points to hope, to life, and to the power of Gods’ message. Justice will win. Life will win. No matter how dreary the circumstances, love will win.

Pilate also staged a parade.

Scholars tell us that Jesus’ march wasn’t the only procession into Jerusalem the week that Jesus died. Pilate also staged a parade. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, representative of Ceasar, the oppressor, also made his way to Jerusalem. Pilate marched his military parade up to the Holy City. The Roman Governor was making his way up from Ceasaria on the sea, making his way up to the tumultuous Holy City of Jerusalem.

Pilate’s arrival, according to scholars, was a fear-inspiring military parade. He came with the full force of the Roman army. He marched with thousands of troops. Pilate rode a white armored horse. Pilate’s flags fluttered in the wind. His soldiers, their spears and shields glittering in the sun approached marched with precision through the city streets. Pilate was asserting himself with his grand military parade.

Pilate was feeling vulnerable. Vulnerable leaders like to show off their military in a parade. Pilate had reason to be nervous. The Passover was coming, those nights when the Jewish people remember their liberation. The Roman authority didn’t want the people to remember their story too well. He didn’t want them getting any ideas from Moses telling Pharaoh “let my people go.” So Pilate made a mighty show of his arrival. He demonstrated that his empire wasn’t going to be so easy to overthrow. Look how powerful we are! Look at our weapons, our machinery of war. 

Against the backdrop of Pilate’s might, Jesus also arrives at the Holy City,

coming down the Mount of Olives from the other side of town. Jesus makes a decision about his entrance as well. This is political theatre, and Jesus makes quite a spectacle. Whenever I hear that word “spectacle” I think of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant grandmother hissing through her teeth, “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.” That’s what Jesus was doing. Loud boisterous, practically falling down the mountain, his is no organized military parade. The crowd shouts “Hosanna,” a word from the Hebrew Bible that always accompanies a plea for help. In the Jewish liturgy, “hosanna” is used to commemorate the Exodus, God’s coming to liberate God’s people.

Jesus wants people to remember. Remember, God is with the victims. God is with the victims. Remember God is on the side of the oppressed. God is with the poor, with the migrants, with women, with orphans. God chooses sides, and God always, always, chooses to stand with the marginalized. That is what the story of Exodus tells us, and that is what Palm Sunday tells us. God is with those who hurt, who fight for justice. God is with us when we say “Not One More.”

We are on the threshold of Holy Week. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem marks the beginning of the end. Even as we shout “Hosanna” we know what is coming. At the end of this service, we will hear the Passion Gospel (which is why this homily will be short. But don’t despair. There will be a great deal more preaching this week). This great Holy Week we mark the death of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. We remember his last supper, and the washing of feet. We watch and pray in the garden. We survey the wondrous cross.

As we prepare, a note of caution.

The whole series of events on its face, look like failure. As an Easter People, we can forget the pain, the disillusion, the loss. What we remember looks like a failure. You could easily imagine a Roman Soldier watching Jesus’ strange arrival to the city. That soldier could easily say: “what a loser.” That is the irony of Holy Week.

If the scholars are right and Jesus and Pilate arrived on the same day, the morning papers the NEXT day would have made it clear which arrival was more significant. Pilate’s parade would have been front page news, above the fold. The headline: “Pilate’s presence means Passover Celebrations to proceed with Public Safety in mind.” Jesus and his band MIGHT have made the end of the local section, page b37: “Goofy prophet from Nazareth rides in on a donkey, authorities are keeping an eye on him.” Jesus wasn’t the cover story.

This is the irony of Holy Week. On the face, God’s action looks like failure. Jesus does not show off God’s might. Rather, Jesus humbles himself. The way of Jesus is the way of the downtrodden, the laughed at, the left out. Jesus’ arrival, Jesus’ last days, Jesus’ death identifies God with the lowest of the low in human society. Jesus looks like a failure.

And still the people marched. My friend Winnie Varghese is a priest in New York, and for many years she served St. Mark’s in the Bowery, a feisty growing diverse congregation, not unlike Holy Communion. I recently came across a quote from a sermon she preached there a few years back. She articulates the difficult and yet hopeful road of Palm Sunday:

[Jesus’ followers] don’t know how many days it will be, but they know he will die—[so] they just celebrate their freedom. Now hear it, because no freedom has happened. They are not any more free than the day before or the day after, but they have in this brief moment…a little vision of what the reign of God might look like That a gentle, healing, wise man, in the position of the prophets, enraged by injustice against women and children and his people and the sick and the outsider, that this one could be a sign of God’s reign now. That this might be who we are. And the people respond with this glorious procession, every one of them potentially marking themselves also for death by Rome…They risk themselves to sing aloud a memory of who they knew they could be because God had told them they could be those people: the chosen, the beloved, the wildly inclusive.

On Palm Sunday Jesus’ march, Jesus’ movement, took a risk. They sacrificed not only dignity, but safety, to say “we know who God is. We know where God stands.” Even if the world doesn’t seem that way, even when the world calls us foolish, we will stand with this messiah. We will stand where he stands, with the outsiders, with the outcasts, with the victims, with the immigrants, the LGBTQ+, the women, the children, the people of color. We will make a spectacle.

If after the march yesterday, you’re feeling hopeful, despite the lack of apparent official response. If you caught a glimmer yesterday that “another world is not only possible, she is on her way.” I want you to do two things.

First: Give thanks to God for the students of Parkland Florida,

for the young women and men, the teenagers who stood up and said “Enough.” Give thanks for our teenager, two of whom were leading the march here in St. Louis on the front page of today’s Post Dispatch. Those kids who put up with mocking, and slander, and threats, those students who have been called ridiculous for calling for sensible gun reform. Give thanks for their courage, for their leadership. Give thanks for the hope they gave so much to bring us.

Second: Know that this hope is a part of your heritage.

The spectacle, the march, it is in the DNA of the movement we pledge ourselves to week in and week out in this church. God stands with those who are most in need. God stands with the victims. God stands with the oppressed.

If in the days and months ahead you find yourself at a vigil for someone who died in the street, or writing your senator or registering voters. If you find yourself in the workplace questioning the salary gap between women and men, or challenging the mistreatment of a co-worker. If you find yourself in a laundromat on a Tuesday sharing cheap pizza, laundry soap, and a laugh, even if your actions seem foolhardy, even if they seem like a failure. If you find yourself making a spectacle, well, join the march. Shout hosanna. You’re with Jesus. And God stands with you. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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