Palm Sunday: Persistent Preposterous Hope

Palm Sunday begins with Jesus telling his disciples to do something dangerous: he instructs them to commit horse theft. He also, arguably, tells them to lie about it. Jesus says, if people ask why you’re untying the colt, tell them its master needs it. This is a moment when our Common English Bible translation pulls a nuance out of the Greek. Jesus doesn’t just say “The Lord hath need.” Jesus says, “Its master.” Jesus is pushing definitions. Palm Sunday asks us to question the categories and the expectations, to shout Hosanna, to cast aside our cloaks and dance our way into a new way of looking at the world.

Every Gospel writer tells the story of Palm Sunday. The details vary a bit. Matthew and John, to explain why Jesus would encourage theft, quote Zechariah who prophesied that the king would come to Jerusalem riding on a colt. Luke like Mark, our gospel today, perhaps expects us to fill in that particular detail. But all agree that Jesus began up in Bethany, along the ridge of the Mount of Olives. Up there you look down on the deep Kidron Valley, you look down on the Temple Mount, on the shorter Mount Zion. Today the golden dome of the rock glows in the desert sun from sacred precincts where the Temple once stood. From Bethany, where Palm Sunday begins, you look down on the Holy City, on its ancient walls. The two hills, Mt Zion and the Mt. of Olives are close together and steep.

John’s Gospel also gives us the view from the other side. Religious leaders see the crowd thronging after Jesus. Throughout Jerusalem you can look up and see the roads and footpaths on the Mount of Olives. Today the hillside is covered with tombs and churches. You can see people praying by the graves. The ancient prophesies tell that the Messiah would arise on the Mount of Olives, then the dead would rise and march into the Holy City. Today you can watch tourists taking camel rides from the lookout points over Jerusalem. Staring up at that hillside in the first century, John puts worry in the mouths of the religious leaders: they see how many people have chosen to follow Jesus. They see the danger.

John gives us a glimpse into the danger Jesus willingly courts on Palm Sunday. Remember, then as now, Palm Sunday comes at the beginning of the Passover. A blessed Passover to our Jewish siblings.
The scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg tell us that Palm Sunday wasn’t the only parade. Pilate would also have been arriving that week, from the opposite direction. Pontius Pilate would have paraded up from Ceasaria on the sea surrounded by legions of decorated soldiers walking in step to arrive in Jerusalem ahead of Passover. Banners flared on the ordered Roman Road, the soldiers carried the latest in weapons technology, sharp points glinting in the sun. Pilate was coming for crowd control, to ensure order as the pilgrims ascended for the festival. Pilate is there to intimidate the people into quote un quote “keeping the peace.”

In this context, Jesus tells his followers to steal a horse, just as a huge cadre of police have arrived. Jesus smiles as the crowd dances, celebrates, waves their branches in the air shouting hosanna within earshot of Pilate’s palace, in full view of that stairway where Jesus will be tried and sentenced, in full view of Golgotha, the hillside where Jesus will hang on a cross and die. Without a permit to march, in occupied territory, under the watch of murderous authorities, Jesus stages an outrageously fun action.

Today I want to notice just two points about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The first: Palm Sunday dangerously questions the wisdom of social order. The second: Palm Sunday raises dangerous questions with nothing but disarmed hope.

Dangerously Questioning the Wisdom of the Social Order

I’ve already been working on the first point. I think there’s a reason Jesus has the unnamed disciples “borrow” that colt. Call me crazy, but I think the Bible includes Jesus’ instructions to tell the folks “its master needs it” for a reason. Jesus is calling the question, the same question from his parable about manna, about money, and God: “who is your master?” Whose command do you follow? Who is the Lord? That word is packed in Ancient Rome. The salute to the emperor was “Ceasar is Lord.” Saying “Jesus is Lord” comes with another implied meaning. It is saying “Jesus is lord, and no one else.”

Remember Pilate’s parade, Pilate’s procession, was all about order and security. It would have been impressive. The Romans made security an object of worship. Their parades showed off all of their implements of security, cutting edge weapons and technology. The army, with their horses, and banners, filled the road. Pilate was in Jerusalem to intimidate the rabble rousers. Pilate was there to provide security, security for the status quo.

Security can be an idol, it can become an object of worship. A desire to maintain a sense of comfort and control can become problematic. We’ve seen it in our streets. We’ve seen it as police have used illegal force to quash protest. Police departments in this city have been forced to settle lawsuits for millions of dollars because their officers decided to break protocol and violently seize control of the streets. We’ve seen it as homeowners have brandished guns at protestors, threatening those would would dare to march down their street. Desperately clinging to security, to the status quo, it can really be problematic.

Gun Violence Epidemic

And sometimes we long for security. The past two weeks have witnessed two more mass shootings in our country, in Atlanta and Boulder Colorado. The second shooting took place just 20 minutes from where I grew up. Know one I knew was hurt, but family and friends were asking again, “why here?”

In a partial answer to their question, I noticed something in all of the news coverage this week. We’ve become accustomed to the language of pandemic. We’ve talked about the global pandemic of covid. We’ve drawn comparisons, especially after the movement for Black Lives spread around the globe last summer, we’ve talked about the pandemic of racism. The last two weeks we’ve talked specifically about the legacy and reality of anti-Asian racism in the US and around the globe. But I noticed that the news has been careful to talk only about the epidemic of gun violence, the epidemic, not the pandemic.

Gun violence is an epidemic, not a pandemic, because gun violence doesn’t spread across the globe. Many other countries have been able to more effectively control gun violence. The question “why here” is thoroughly uncomfortable when there is an observable cause.

The coronavirus pandemic and the gun violence epidemic intersect in the ongoing pandemic of racism. Gun violence, like the coronavirus, disproportionately affects communities of color. While the last two weeks have brought the first mass shootings in our country since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns, overall gun deaths were up significantly last year, and again in St. Louis, guns ended the lives of far too many people of color.

We all know partisan politics has made the coronavirus pandemic longer and worse. Early on the virus was been politicized, and the politics around the virus cost lives. Our politics around the epidemic of gun violence continue to cost lives. It’s measurable. The expansion of access to guns, which is a party priority for the leadership in our state, that expansion has cost lives.

You Should Hosanna to the Savior

It’s dangerous to ask these questions of the social order, to make these observations. On Palm Sunday Jesus knew what he was doing was dangerous. Jesus knew that allowing a crowd to shout Hosanna, to stage a demonstration on the Mount of Olives, Jesus knew this was revolutionary. You shout Hosanna to the savior, to the rescuer, to the Messiah.

But notice, notice what they are waving. We wave palm branches, but palms didn’t exist in Jerusalem at the time. It was likely olive branches, symbols of peace. There are no weapons mentioned. Jesus’ crowd isn’t ordered and ready for battle, Jesus’ crowd is full of laughter. Jesus raises dangerous questions with nothing but disarmed hope. Christians are people of persistent preposterous hope. Jesus’ knows what he is headed into, and he encourages the crowd anyway. Jesus encourages raucous disarmed hope.

It is hard to be Christian, it’s hard to have persistent hope when we live with the 24 hour news cycle. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, they have become the background noise of our lives. Earlier this year I finally turned off the notification of breaking news on my phone. I just couldn’t take it anymore. Even without the buzzes and banners this week couldn’t escape the much publicized impossibility of change. I heard talking head after talking head pontificate about our intractable partisan divide. It is hard to hope when bad news is constant.

Hope Anyway

I believe Jesus would encourage us: hope anyway. Shout hosanna. Dance your way through the streets in full view of the authorities. It doesn’t have to be this way.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Life-saving scientifically driven solutions could become bipartisan priorities. They could be human priorities. We can confront racism in our structures, our communities and ourselves. One of my spiritual teachers, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr likes to say, “we don’t think our way into new ways of living. We live our way into new ways of thinking.” We’re not going to think our way out of this, but we might risk being vulnerable, we might dance and laugh our way into a new political reality, into a new human reality.

Sometimes you’ve just got to borrow a horse. The master needs it. I know, it sound preposterous, but the people who follow Jesus are invited to look a bit foolish. We are invited to take risks. We are invited to break with party orthodoxy for the sake of recognizing the improbable. Jesus’ followers are meant to cause a dangerous and celebratory ruckus with nothing but disarmed hope. That is the message of Palm Sunday, persistent festive hope. Even when the naysayers think they know the way the story is going, persistent hope. Because we know that what might look like the end is only the beginning. Persistent preposterous hope. Happy Palm Sunday.

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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