A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read today’s scripture click here. If you want to listen along click the play button below.
Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
the people waved palms
with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
we may still walk beside you… even to a cross.
The Collect for Palm Sunday from the New Zealand Prayer Book
This prayer captures today’s lesson so beautifully. It speaks to the precipice of Hope, the razor’s edge of choice that we face everyday. Can we walk with Jesus? Or do we offer our messiah something else? Can we walk in Love? Or do we offer our fear?
Today, in this drama, it’s clear: We offer Jesus our disappointment in him. Our thoughtlessness. We offer Jesus our laziness and our self-righteousness. Our stubbornness and our nostalgia for an easier life.
Today, on Palm Sunday, the lesson is that we offer Jesus our privileged comfort and our skepticism. Our judgment. Our sarcasm. Our gossip. Our cynicism. We offer Jesus our refusal to participate. Today, we offer Jesus all of our forms disappointment.
The Passion narrative illuminates with almost frightening clarity the interweaving of our personal spirituality and societal responsibility. How our personal salvation is directly connected to our participation in the common good and how deeply, deeply important it is to remember this. Even though it’s the easiest thing to forget and the one thing we most want to deny.
On a social level, Jesus was the leader of a protest. It’s that simple. There is no other way of reading the gospel, try as you might.
Rome was an occupying force. The Jews had been trying to wrestle free from Roman control for decades and many people had been labeled “messiah” before Jesus was even born. And each time the people got their hopes up that this one would successfully raise an army and drive out the Roman oppressors.
But part of the problem was that the Jewish authorities were enabling the Roman leadership so that they could continue leading their religious services, a special favor offered to them by Rome. Otherwise, they would have had to bow to the worship of Caesar instead of God. This deal-making between the Jewish leadership and the Roman authorities, of course, caused deep corruption.
Which got worse over the decades. So, when the Jewish leadership turned Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor, it was pretty much expected that they would.
Still, the people tried to raise a messiah… one who would free them from the oppression they were experiencing. And lots of zealous leaders claimed messiah and attempted violent revolution. And those people were all crucified by the Roman state.
Along the most well-traveled pathways, Roman authorities used to have rows and rows and rows of posts lined up. Posts prepared to receive a person nailed to a cross-beam. Sometimes there would be hundreds at a time. People implicated in a crime against the state.
This was Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome for the non-citizen. Oppression. Intimidation. Crucifixion.
Our scripture tells us that God will always upend the powerful from their thrones. So, of course there was protest. When people’s lives are being trampled on, there is going to be some kind of backlash to that. There always has been and there always will be.
And then we have Jesus. Our scripture also tells us that he was a messiah like no other. And I believe this to be true. And this is where our personal spirituality leads to social responsibility. Because the way he spoke, the things he said, the support he offered, the actions he took…
He taught something completely different than violent upheaval.
It wasn’t about making Israel great again.
It wasn’t about meeting force with force.
It wasn’t about the human desire to take an eye for an eye.
It was about meeting force with resistance to force. Instead of the Peace of Rome, a militarized peace, Jesus teaches us the peace which passes our understanding… beyond our understanding.
This becomes personal because it requires each one of us to recognize something that we’d rather not pay attention to. That inside ourselves is a part that is capable of going down an extremely dark path that slowly and violently robs us of own humanity, our own holiness.
And the decision to allow violence, to turn a blind eye to violence in any of its forms, regardless of the excuse we use, is the first step down that dark path. And so we pray rather than react violently. We find a way to listen to God to listen to each other instead of seeking vengeance.
We strive, we act, for justice instead of shrugging our shoulders and walking away wishing it were more comfortable.
God’s peace, the peace which passes understanding…
Jesus taught that this kind of peace is healing and is how change really happens. This kind of world is what God really wants.
The kind of world where power is brought to its knees at the foot of a manger, not at the end of the barrel of a gun.
Where force is met with resistance to force. Where violence is met with non-violence.
But if we are to make that real, if we are to follow our Saviour and be the healing agents Jesus teaches us to be, then we must pay attention to that need for retribution in ourselves and practice our own resistance to that violence.
Practice the peace of God, not the Peace of Rome.
But it’s hard. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for all of us.
It’s easier to want someone to do battle for us, a show of strength to prove something. It’s more convenient to mock and gossip and judge, rather than to think we might be wrong. Or, perhaps, it’s just hard to be on that edge of Hope, where we might dare to believe in ourselves so deeply that we could be become a new creation, a source of true healing for the world.
To follow Jesus is to believe that God chose incarnation and made the whole creation holy. And that requires us to treat the whole creation as if it were actually holy… starting with ourselves. To walk in love as Christ loved us.
Perhaps it’s easier to be cynical and stubborn because hope, real hope, can be so hard. I mean, what if I put myself on the line and things didn’t get better? What if I fail. Isn’t it better to just never try? Never believe in the first place? We don’t want to be disappointed and so maybe that’s why we offer our disappointment as a preemptive strike against the possibility of real peace, real love.
And perhaps that’s why we are asked to remind ourselves every year just how hard this walk with Jesus is, to be on the edge of Hope. On Palm Sunday. And in our walk through Holy Week.
Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem the people waved palms with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that, we, when the shouting dies may still walk beside you… even to the cross.