Chapel @ Bethphage, Israel by David Eck

Not all parades are created equal. My two favorites are Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade. I like Macys because of all the Broadway musical numbers. I get the chance to hear songs from shows that are currently running. I make a list of what I would like to see…or not see. I like the Rose Bowl Parade because of the spectacular floats with their vibrant colors and designs.

In Asheville, I’ve been to the annual Holiday Parade and the Mardi Gras Parade. They are much smaller affairs but both have their moments of joy and fun, especially when I seen them though the eyes of my granddaughter, Mallory.

But not all parades I’ve been to are festive. I once participated in a march for immigration reform that happened on Palm Sunday weekend. We started at St. Eugenes Catholic Church and made our way to the center of town. On a national level there are events like the two Women’s Marches in 2017 and 18. Yesterday there was the first March For our Lives whose goal is to put an end to gun violence in our schools. I attended the local event in Asheville. It was a powerful and moving event.

You see what I mean? Not all parades are created equal! Some are celebrative in nature. Others are designed to provoke or inspire. Some are filled with shock and awe. Others are simpler but no less powerful.

This brings us to Palm Sunday. If you ask most people about how this day feels it’s usually regarded as a joyous occasion. The festive mood of Palm Sunday is amplified because of the way we observe it. Palm branches are everywhere. Shouts of “Hosanna” fill the air.

When the weather co-operates we meet in the front garden at Abiding Savior where our palms are blessed. Then the cross leads us into the worship space while signing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” This is accompanied by a few rousing hymns such as “All Glory Laud and Honor” which we sang this morning, and “Hosanna, Loud, Hosanna.”

All of this gives us the impression that Palm Sunday is a celebrative affair. But, like I said before, not all parades are created equal. While Palm Sunday has its moments of joy, there is something about this parade of one that disturbed and provoked some people.

The first glimpse of this we get is from the gospel stories themselves. Mark’s version is simple in its construction. Somewhere between Bethphage and the Mount of Olives, Jesus mounted a young donkey, cloaks and leafy branches were laid on the road, and crowds followed behind Jesus shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He went to the Temple, looked around, and headed back up the hill  to stay in Bethany for the night. There is nothing ominous about this account whatsoever. It’s the Palm Sunday parade we have in our minds’ eye.

When we get to Matthew, things start to change. First, we are reminded that this parade was a fulfillment of prophecy from Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Matthew is telling us that this parade was designed to make a statement. It was a proclamation that a new king, the Messiah, had arrived in town.

To emphasize the power of this palm parade, Matthew says that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” In other words, not everyone was shouting “Hosanna” and laying cloaks and branches on the road. Some people were unnerved by what Jesus was doing. While Mark’s Jesus looked around the temple and went home, Matthew’s Jesus cleansed the temple. He overturned tables, and shouted, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The tension gets turned up a notch in Luke who tells us that some of the Pharisees who observed this parade, said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” They were not pleased with all this adulation, nor with the way Jesus chose to enter the city of Jerusalem. He was making a statement that they would have considered to be heretical in nature. It most likely was the final proof they needed that this Jesus was a rabble-rouser who needed to be stopped.

Finally, when we get to John, who was the last of the gospel to be written, We see further exasperation from the Pharisees. In response to Jesus’ palm parade they said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

As we lay these stories side by side I hope it helps you to see that while Palm Sunday has its moments of joy, there is something about this Palm parade that disturbed and provoked some people.

The final piece of information that is helpful in understanding the Palm Sunday story doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from history. The scholarly work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan has been invaluable to me over the years, in helping me to see our gospel lesson with new eyes. During Jesus’ time it was not uncommon for Pilate to throw lavish military parades to announce his presence in the city of Jerusalem. He did this for big festivals such as Passover in order to keep the peace.

His parades were shameless displays of power to remind everyone who was in charge of Jerusalem. They would contain cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners and golden eagles mounted on poles. They were designed to strike fear in the hearts of the citizens and visitors of Jerusalem. They were a reminder for everyone to behave themselves or there would be serious consequences.

If we contrast this lavish military parade with Jesus riding a donkey, proclaiming to be the kingly Messiah, we realize that Jesus was not just making a religious statement, he was making a political one as well. He was making a mockery of Pilate and his need for such gaudy, over-the-top displays of power.

So what does all of this tell us as we celebrate Palm Sunday? First of all, it reminds us that not all parades are created equal. This parade in particular was more than a celebrative affair. Jesus was making a statement about both religious and political power. In essence, he was challenging both.

This is not something new. He did this consistently throughout his ministry. He proclaimed the worth of those whom the powerful saw as having no value. He showed through his deeds that service is the chief character trait of God’s people. And above all, he taught us that the only commandments we really need to follow are love of God, neighbor and self.

This did not sit well with everyone. It’s what ultimately got him killed. The people who were in power wanted to stay in power. Jesus threatened to upset their comfortable and profitable way of living which was at the expense of others. This is the tension we see that exists in the Palm Sunday story.

Today, as those who sang “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” it gives us an opportunity to remember exactly what we are signing up for! The humble king who gave his life for us, asks us to humble ourselves and give our lives away in service to others. It’s that simple. It’s that profound.

At the end of our worship service we’ll have the opportunity to reflect on the passion of Jesus. The celebrative mood of this service will shift. But that is the nature of Holy Week. I hope that what Pastor John has to offer us will help to deepen your appreciation for what Jesus did for us so that we may have life, and have it more abundantly. Amen.

Copyright ©2018 by David Eck