The Two Crowds of Palm Sunday

This is a strange day, and the strangeness doesn’t stop with the dancing, or the weather, or the branches down in Delmar. When we talk about branches in the streets, I’m not sure this is what Jesus had in mind. But the strangeness leads itself to our odd Celebrations. Palm Sunday hold strange tension, difficult tension. And today I find that tension in the crowds in the stories we hear.

We hear of two crowds today. The Palm Sunday Crowd marches with Jesus down the mount of Olives, and up into the city gates. This crowd spreads their cloaks before him and shouts “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” This crowd is out of hand. They are making nonsensical political claims. The astonishing, silly crowed marches toward the fortress of the Roman Empire, toward the legions with their bright display of military might. But This crowd carries no weapons. They wave branches in the air, signs of peace, and yet they appear to proclaim a revolution. “Blessed is the king! Hosanna!”

Between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, in the days in Jerusalem, the crowd plays an important role. The religious and secular authorities are afraid of the crowd. As Jesus cleanses the temple, as he throws out the money chambers, he isn’t arrested because the authorities fear the crowd. The religious authorities, the secular authorities, they feared Jesus’ crowd.

So the authorities build their own collection of people, they make their own crowd. The authorities conspire with Judas. After the last supper, after Jesus Prays, again at the foot of the mount of olives, Judas shows up with the new crowd, a different crowd. Judas’ crowd won’t follow Jesus through the city gates, they will drag the savior, bring him bound in chains into the city, into the house of the high priest, and eventually into that Roman fortress. The crowd will follow Jesus to Pilate’s house, and to Herod’s, all the while taunting the so-called Messiah. Peter will tag along, and at one point Jesus most famous disciple will be recognized. “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ followers.” Peter will deny three times. He looses his nerve. And so Judas’ crowd, the authorities’ crowd, will press Jesus on toward calvary.

We will hear from this second crowd in just a few moments. Pilate, the Roman governor so cruel that the Romans removed him from power, this Pilate will turn to this second crowd and ask if they want to pardon Jesus. The crowd will judge him. The crowd will shout, “crucify him!”

This is a Sunday which features two crowds, vastly different in their response to Jesus.

As I re-read Luke’s Gospel, I found myself wondering: Who made up each crowd? Besides Judas, were there others who “switched sides?” Were there others who had been caught up in the shouts of Hosanna, who later found themselves shouting “crucify?” Religion is a funny thing, just because we count ourselves a follower of Jesus in one moment, does not guarantee we will behave like a follower of Jesus when it counts. I wish this sermon was as simple as saying, “choose the correct crowd.” It’s not. Faith isn’t that easy. Holy Week isn’t that easy. We find ourselves, at times in the wrong crowd. Our faith has found itself in the wrong crowd.

On Friday I will spend some time with James Cone, the theologian who most developed the connection between Jesus’ cross and America’s lynching trees. I’ll spend time there in the sermon on Good Friday, today though I want to begin the connection right here in Missouri.

Mark Twain, one of Missouri’s most beloved native sons once reflected on a lynching here in his home state. “And so Missouri has fallen,” he wrote in 1901 after a crowd in Pierce City killed three of its own black residents, two of them elderly. Twain speculated “Why does a crowd of the same kind of people in Texas, Colorado, Indiana..pretend to enjoy a lynching? Why does it lift no hand or voice in protest? Only because it would be unpopular to do it, I think; each man is afraid of his neighbor’s disapproval.” Twain lamented the lack of moral courage in his home state, the lack of neighbors willing to stand up against lynching, against a murderous mob, against racial violence. Where are those with moral courage willing to speak out, to stop the crowd? “Oh Missouri!” Twain laments.

Moral courage, Twain’s barometer, may well measure the two crowds we encounter today. Today we hear not one, but two stories from the Gospel. Only one is good news. It is easy to get caught up in the joy, the excitement, the anticipation of Palm Sunday. To march with Jesus that day took guts. It wasn’t just about the ridiculous scene of marching through a neighborhood, trumpets blaring. It wasn’t just that the neighbors might see. It took courage to shout Hosanna! Blessed is the King! Within earshot of the Roman fortress, near Caesar’s representative who had come to oversee the Passover celebrations, to suppress any potential revolution, it was dangerous, it took courage to proclaim Jesus as a revolutionary leader. There’s a reason the Pharisees want Jesus to quiet the crowd!

Jesus crowd had courage on Palm Sunday. But this is a Sunday with two names. Our prayerbook names the day, The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. We read both stories. One we re-enact. The other we endure. The crowd at the Passion lacks moral courage. No one, not even Peter stands up to question. Pilate’s role makes no sense historically. As I said before, Pilate was famed for his cruelty. He is one of only a few local leaders ever removed by Rome for being too cruel. Pontius Pilate, the historical Pontius Pilate, crucified Jewish leaders with abandon.

Yet In the Passion story, Pilate wants to release Jesus. And the crowd refuses. In Luke’s version of the story, the version we read today, the responsibility belongs to the whole crowd. Pilate comes to them, looking for moral courage. No one stands up. No one refuses. Where are Jesus’ followers? No one speaks. And Pilate goes along with the crowd. He bows to the mob mentality.

I need to pause for just a moment as I retell this story. It is important to face our history. We have to own up to a legacy of anti-Semitism that has so often utilized the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. For centuries this story, this moment in the story, the decision of the crowd to crucify Jesus, was used by Christians as a reason to persecute and to murder their Jewish neighbors. Too often Christians reenacted this story, and played the role of the crowd, they went along, lacking moral courage, with a tide of Anti-Semitism, with a faulty Biblical logic.

That is why on Good Friday, when we read John’s version of the story, the version that casts “The Jews” as a character, we will take up a part. Not today, when we we hear Luke, but on Friday when we hear John, the whole congregation will take the part of the crowd. We will all say together, “away with him, crucify him.” We will say those words because we are all, all of us to blame. For every time we went along and didn’t speak up, and a neighbor suffered. For every time we didn’t question the crowd.

Today we are faced with two crowds, and we know it is easy to get caught up in a crowd. As Mark Twain lamented, we are all afraid of our neighbors’ disapproval. Mobs like the Good Friday crowd have been all too common, even in Missouri, even today. To be a follower of Jesus means questioning the crowd mentality. To be a follower of Jesus means making a conscious choice. To be a follower of Jesus means standing up when standing up might put your popularity, and even your life, on the line. To be a follower of Jesus means asking why some lives still aren’t valued. To be a follower of Jesus means sometimes making authorities nervous.

I wish it were as simple as saying, “choose the right crowd.” But Palm Sunday is more complicated, Holy Week is more complicated. Life is more complicated. We will at times find ourselves caught up in the wrong crowd, witnessing, benefitting from, perhaps even participating in the suffering of our fellow human beings. We find ourselves caught up in the wrong crowd at times. The question is not avoiding this crowd, but what to do when we find ourselves in the midst of persecution. Will we have courage?

Building courage takes practice. And it helps to stand in a courageous crowd, to march with Jesus. On that first Palm Sunday the shouts of Jesus’ crowd sounded thin against the walls of the city. Jesus’ crowd may have been enough to make the police and the leaders nervous. But those who shouted “Hosanna” knew they were making a a risky scene. Their branches of peace couldn’t defend them from the terror of the Roman legion, from the power of the next crowd that would gather in the city.

Palm Sunday is just the beginning of the story. Across this week, we will let the story develop. On Thursday we will gather in the upper room for one last meal, to wash one another’s feet, to take our place among the lowly. We will share the Communion of Christ’s body and blood, and remember Jesus’ offering of himself. On Friday, like Judas, like Peter, we will find ourselves caught up with the mob. We will shout, “crucify!” We will remember we all miss the mark. Then we will stand, powerless, at the foot of the cross. Finally on Saturday we will gather in the dark, when all seems lost. And yet a fire of hope will be kindled, the shouts of terror will be overcome by shouts of joy. We will proclaim the good news, Life is Stronger than Death. Love is Stronger than Hate. Jesus is risen!

Even at the beginning of the story, as that crazy crowd danced Jesus into town, Jesus knew their silly courage would win in the end. He tells the authorities “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Despite appearances, despite the opinion of the powerful, despite the might of injustice, despite the time the crowd gets it wrong, Jesus knows, justice will win. Love will win. Even when it all seems dark, stand up. Build up your courage by walking in Jesus crowd. Though the numbers may seem against us, though the sky may be gloomy and the winds may howl, Jesus’ followers will dance our way to salvation. Join in. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord!

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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