Palm Sunday: Stay Human

Holy Week begins with a march.

The work of this week begins in the streets, which might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit strange. But the strangeness has a purpose. This is a week we tell our central story. Christians tell a story of great public loss, of suffering, or betrayal. Hope, for Christians, is quietly hidden in the mess of great loss. This week we tell a story that seems at times seems preposterous. Jesus, one of the victims of history, triumphs over the tyranny of evil, of violence, of death. The story is hard to tell, it takes us all week. In telling this story we learn, for Christians there is no escape, even if it makes us feel silly. The only way out is through. The only way through is together.

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, footage of our Palm Sunday march led by the Gaslight Squares ended up on the local news. A few congregation members reached out to me after they saw themselves dancing through the streets on tv. The emotions were, shall we say, mixed. There was delight, but there was also some dread. “Mike, if we keep getting coverage, people might know I am a church-going Christian…” I’ll leave that quote unsourced.

I suspect, because the cameras were turned on Palm Sunday, there is a bit more to the emotion. This is a day that starts our silly and ends up deadly serious. This is a day when we juxtapose joy and sorrow, laughter and pain. It is a strange thing to be seen on the news, waving palms on an early spring day, dancing with a parasol. You can’t capture the whole image of Palm Sunday, all the emotion, with a camera. If all people see of our church is the parade, then might they think we’re a bit strange?

Stay Odd

I think that’s part of the point of Christianity. Flannery O’Connor is often quoted saying, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Certainly there was oddness on the day of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. The oddness was intentional. The oddness was the point, because this March is a protest. The theologians John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg note that Jesus’ band wasn’t the only procession to arrive in Jerusalem that week. That same week Pontius Pilate paraded up from Ceasaria on the sea, surrounded by legions of decorated soldiers to quote unquote “keep the peace” at the Passover.

From the hilltops of the Mt of Olives, where he was staying, Jesus and his followers could have seen Pilate’s dust cloud on the horizon, all those soldiers on the move. You could have heard the hoof beats of Pilate’s army, the spears and shields clanging, the steel glinting in the sun. Jesus’ March is a response to the authoritarian parade arriving to the other side of the Holy City, marching up from the sea.

From the edge of the wilderness, marching through a huge graveyard, Jesus unites the riffraff, the vulnerable, those who would be policed by all that power. Jesus’ followers cast off their cloaks, give what they have. They stay vulnerable and playful and brave. Pilate’s soldiers carry the world’s most advanced weapons. Jesus’ band waves branches, signs of peace. Hosanna is the shout of people who by all accounts should consider themselves beaten.

Human Rights in Authoritarian Lands

We know a little bit about living with those who should consider themselves beaten. Our parish accompanies a nonprofit, Cristosal, which represents the victims of violence and human rights abuses in Central America. The context, especially in El Salvador, is bleak. This week marked the one year anniversary of the so-called “State of Exception,” a martial law instituted by El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele. A year ago, Bukele suspended habeas corpus, and his state of exception has been used to lock up over 65,000 people, most of them without any real trial. In this context, Cristosal has been working to try to get insulin to diabetics, to secure the release of nonviolent offenders, to document the abuse.

In spite, in fact because of his tactics, Bukele has broad public support. How can someone who so blatantly violates human rights be popular? Sarah Kendzior a St. Louisan and scholar of authoritarian regimes, and who holds PhD in anthropology from WashU, wrote these words a few years ago about living in the shadow of authoritarianism. They’ve gone viral a few times, because there is so much resonance. She writes:

“Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control. It is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.”

She goes on, “[authoritarian regimes] can take everything from you in material terms: your house, your job, your ability to speak, and move freely. They cannot take away who you truly are. They can never truly know you and that is your power. But to protect and wield this power, you need to know yourself right now before their methods permeate, before you accept the obscene and unthinkable as normal. We are heading into dark times and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal.”

Some would argue that the problem extends beyond Central America, that here, in Middle America, we are living through darkening days. Our State Government is making brutal and cruel laws, against teachers, and LGBTQ+ people, against science and history itself. Our State Government keeps trying to put more guns in more places, even when guns are the leading cause of death for children. There seems to be no talking sense to these politicians. We’ve tried. Still, we cannot accept brutality and cruelty as normal. We have to respond.

Pilate was a Case Study in Authoritarianism

Inarguably, the days of Jesus under Rome’s empire were a case study in surviving authoritarianism. Pilate’s cruelty was too much, even for Rome. The historian Josephus tells us that Pilate was removed for the violence with which he suppressed a Samaritan rebellion, by the Roman Empire. Can you imagine? As we hear the story of how Jesus was condemned, as we join the shouts to “crucify him” remember who sat as judge. Remember who commanded the armies. Remember how scared Jesus’ neighbors were of their tyrant governor.

In the face of brutality, normalcy looks odd. In the face of self-serving politics, care for the vulnerable seems strange. In the face of cruelty, the self-sacrificing way of love, the way of Jesus is out of step. If we want to follow Jesus, we need to be out of step with the drumbeats of a cruel society.

Stay Human

The most important response to dehumanizing forces is to stay human. Stay human. Incidentally, the jazz musician Jon Batiste called his band “Stay Human” and described their concerts as “Love Riots.” He said they played as a way of remembering who we are in a world that seeks to erase our humanity. Stay human. Stay odd. Stay true to who you are. Stay out of step with forces of conformity and deformity and despair. Keep dancing. It may not look like much, but it is the only thing that really matters.

In recent weeks, I have told you that your Easter Joy will be directly proportional to your engagement in Holy Week. I believe that to be true. Because, in the darkest hours of Jesus’ life, we find a master class on how to face down cruelty and pain, betrayal and loss. This story can help us when we face pain and loss, when we reach despair. In this story we find hope.

We tell this story through the whole week, and you are invited to join in. On Thursday, stand around the table and participate in Jesus’ last supper. Wash one another’s feet and remember the humble origins of Jesus’ movement for love. On Friday, take time to mourn the wrongful death of a human being condemned by a perversion of justice, mocked and executed at the hands of a violent state. Late on Saturday, gather with us in the dark, kindle the fire of hope. Pass through death into life.

Holy Week tells us there is no way in this life to escape pain. There is no way to escape grief. There may be times when we cannot escape the authoritarian calculations of governments and the betrayal of friends. There are times when the only way out is through, and the only way through is together.

Hosanna is the cry of history’s supposed losers banded together. Hosanna is a song of rebellion, the rebellion of the highest heaven through the weary throats earth’s lowest subjects. Hosanna says, “you will not take our self-worth, you will not take our faith. You cannot take our dignity.” Hosanna is a joyous rebellion in the face of despair. So shout “Hosanna” this day. Let the Hosannas ring, even from hospital gurneys, even from prisons in El Salvador, even in the halls of the Missouri state capitol. Risk making a fool of yourself in front of your neighbors. Be a fool for love because you continue to cast your lot with humanity over tyranny. Shout Hosanna, and then buckle down to pray and dance and stay human through what comes next.

Published by Mike Angell

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

One thought on “Palm Sunday: Stay Human

  1. Having read this on Easter afternoon, I’m a bit behind the ball. But what a wonderful sermon! What encouragement to those who are or who feel left out in one way or another.! Thank you for encouraging even, or perhaps especially, those of us who are, or consider ourselves, in good shape, not hounded by the voices of derision and hate, to push against derision, and, overweening pride. Blessings and a wonderful Easter Season to you and yours.

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