Palm Sunday March 28, 2021 Zechariah 9:9-10; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11
I love a parade! The tramping of feet, the beating of drums. My dad was a firefighter, so we would often go to watch the parade of firetrucks from all the surrounding municipalities.
Do you have a favorite memory of a parade? Thanksgiving Day? Rose Bowl? Mine isn’t of any of the big parades or even the firefighter parades. It’s from a time when I lived in a very little town in central PA. Whenever I hear Garrison Keillor talk about Lake Wobegon, I think of Millville, with its one stoplight and one little café and one little grocery store. On the 4th of July, there was a festival in the town park and a parade down Main Street. It was a pretty good parade: the usual high school marching bands and fire engines and convertibles with town dignitaries.
But the best part of all was at the very end. A real old-fashioned calliope loaded on a flat-bed truck and played by a woman who looked to be about as old as the calliope. But man, could she rock that thing! The best part of the parade was that when it got to the edge of town, there wasn’t anywhere to go – no streets, just corn fields – so the whole parade just turned around and marched back through town, bands playing, dignitaries waving and that little old calliope player still going strong. It was a hoot and a half. I still remember it almost 50 years later.
So now we come to today’s parade. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t always understand what was really going on in the original Palm Sunday parade. I’m with Debi Thomas on the Journey with Jesus website: “I grew up celebrating Palm Sunday with loud, festive processions. As a child, I carried palm branches down the center aisle of my church, sang, ‘All Glory, Laud, and Honor’ with my fellow parishioners, and shouted “Hosanna” at the top of my lungs. I did this without even knowing what the word, “Hosanna” meant. I assumed it meant some church-y version of “You’re awesome, Jesus!” or “We love you!” or “Rock on, king of the world!”
In fact, we turned Palm Sunday into a sort of Easter Lite, a little bit of celebration before we entered the tragedy of Holy Week. A while back, the day became one with a double name: Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. The beginning of the service was the procession with palms, but by the time of the gospel reading, the mood changed and we would read the entire story of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus. The wizards behind liturgical reforms did this for a reason. Attendance at Good Friday services was going down and the concern was that many people were not having the opportunity to enter into the somberness of the Passion story before they got to the joy of Easter morning.
That was sort of reasonable. It also allowed for the drama of the “Hosannas” of the Palm Sunday crowd turning to the “Crucify him!” shouted by many of the same people. I know that some folks didn’t like this, though. They liked the feeling of the happy, 4th of July-like parade and wanted to hold onto it. Except that “Hosanna” means something far less joyful than “Yea, Jesus!” In Hebrew, “Hosanna” means, “Save now!” As in, “Jesus, we’re in trouble here. We’re desperate. “Hosanna, Jesus. Come and save us now!”
The other problem is that in short-circuiting the Palm Sunday drama, we missed a lot of the meaning behind the parade. It was Passover-time in Jerusalem; the high holy day of celebration for the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. As the week of Passover began, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This wasn’t a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired or wanted people to be able to see him better. He chose a donkey because he was intentionally enacting a passage from the prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Your Sovereign comes to you without display, riding on a donkey, on a colt – the foal of a beast of burden.’” And everyone along the parade route would have known it.
It was more like a protest march than a parade. On the other side of the city a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem. This happened every year at Passover time: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea down on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be in the city in case there were riots. Passover was the most politically volatile of all the Jewish festivals. With the governor came troops and war horses to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem. For Jews this was a terrible irony. They had come to celebrate their release from bondage in Egypt. But now they found themselves occupied by the Roman empire and living under the boot heel of Caesar’s army. It was a bittersweet time indeed. Into this scenario comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, blatantly proclaiming himself a savior – but what kind of savior?
We might get so caught up in the street theater of the parade, the obvious slam at the imperial spectacle on the other side of town, that we miss a crucial characteristic of the man riding the donkey. The hymn that Paul included in his letter to the Philippians is perhaps the most descriptive insight we have into what was going on in Jesus on that day.
It might sound odd, but it was at a spiritual retreat that I really came to understand this. You see, this was a Sufi retreat. Although Sufism is part of Islam, it is the mystical tradition of Islam. Like all mystical traditions, it is not concerned with institutions and doctrines, but with intimate connection with the Divine. What I discovered, as I became immersed in Sufism, was that Jesus is there, too – all over the place. Maybe not always in name, although Sufis hold Jesus in great honor. But certainly in the message – and one very relevant for us today. In three ways:
1. Spirituality is the way of the heart.
2. The necessity of emptiness – in order to find yourself, you must lose yourself.
3. In order to lead, you must lead with the heart, with love.
Both Sufism and Christianity are about transformation. Unfortunately Christianity became so institutionalized and doctrinized that we lost a lot of the core spiritual practices. Thankfully, due to renewed interest in Christian mystics of the past and present, we’ve been reclaiming our own tradition.
So when I hear Sufi teachers talking about the way of the heart, I hear Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant, in which God will put a new heart within us. And when I hear the Sufis sing about purifying the heart, I hear the psalmist praying, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And I don’t hear that as only a cry for forgiveness of sin, but as a longing for a complete transformation of being that is immersed in the knowledge of the Divine Presence. I believe that’s what Jesus experienced in his time in the wilderness wrestling with his temptations. He was being transformed, becoming thoroughly connected to his Higher Power. Becoming empty of ego, of self.
One of the teachings of Jesus that the Sufis quote a lot is that in order to find yourself, you must lose yourself. We must become empty; we must give up the strivings of our egos and lose ourselves in Divine mystery. This doesn’t mean lose yourself and become weak nobodies so that anyone can take advantage of us. The truth is that the more we lose ourselves in God, the stronger we are – with the right kind of strength and power. We reflect the non-coercive strength and power of God.
This is what St. Paul reflected in the Christ hymn:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
though in the image of God,
did not deem equality with God something to be clung to –
but instead became completely empty and was thus humbled –
obediently accepting death—even death on a cross!
And here is where we enter the Palm Sunday story: “Let the same mind be in you.” Become completely empty. Lose your life in order to find it. We can see what gave Jesus the ability to go to the cross – his transformation in the wilderness, his embodiment of the Spirit of God, his oneness with God, his emptiness and unattachment to the powers and principalities of the world. This is the Jesus we see riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, illustrating the prophecy of Zechariah, in which the victorious ruler comes riding on a donkey, bringing peace to the nations.
And here again I was reminded by the Sufis that, in order to lead, you must lead with the heart, with love. That might seem like a ridiculous statement, given the violence in our world today. Two mass shootings in less than a week; even our outrage is tempered by cynicism about any changes in gun control laws. Love sounds like a terribly ineffectual response to domestic violence, exacerbated in these isolating pandemic days; to attacks on people of Asian descent, even here in our diverse Bay Area; to anti-transgender legislation, assaults on voting rights, and twenty years of war in Afghanistan.
But violence, injustice, and oppression was no less of a reality in Jesus’ day. The call to lead with love has never meant a mushy kind of sentimentality. It’s about Love with a capital L. Consider that Caesar Augustus, the longest reigning Roman emperor, had bronze tablets made before he died and placed all over the empire extolling all the things he’d accomplished. On these tablets were the words “I conquered” and “I brought peace. The way of the Pax Romana was first victory, then peace. But consider also that in the 41 years of his reign, there were only two days the army was not in the field.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day to announce an alternative program of active non-violence. Instead of “first victory, then peace,” its rallying cry is “first justice, then peace.” Peace through forgiveness, reconciliation, love for the neighbor (including the enemy), radical hospitality, emptiness of self for the sake of peace. This is a grassroots movement; it comes from the bottom up, not the top down. And we are all called to participate in it.
And, of course, this is where it gets difficult. How do we participate in such a program when the need is so huge? I may believe that our American empire is just as committed to “first victory, then peace” as was Rome, but what can I do about it? You may believe that the Wall Street empire wages war on the 99% of us, but what can you do about it? We may think that something must be done about gun violence, but what can we do?
What must Jesus have wondered as he looked around at all the people crying out for help in their need and despair? Did he weigh the prospects of raising up an army, fomenting a revolution, staging a violent insurrection, maybe even trying to assassinate the governor as he rode in on his war horse? I’m sure that’s what many of those lining the parade route wanted. But if Jesus ever entertained such ideas (and I don’t believe he did, not after his time in the wilderness), he abandoned them in favor of a better way.
As the Sufis say, we must lead with the heart. This means that we need to nurture our spiritual practice, maintain our connection to Divine Presence, to the heart of God. One way is to meditate on the Philippians hymn:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Become completely empty. Lose your life in order to find it.” In our spiritual practice, we will find – just as Jesus did – how to lead with our hearts, how to know what we should do. In the words of Zhuangzi, the Chinese Taoist philosopher, born in 369 BCE:
Do not seek fame. Do not make plans. Do not be absorbed by activities. Do not think that you know. Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite. Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all.
The palms of Palm Sunday – whether paper cut-outs, the palm of our own hands, or branches you may have cut from a tree – remind us of the humble, yet powerful leader of our non-violent revolution of love. They will also serve to remind us of our call to participate in the realm of God, what John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s great cleanup of the world” – which he reminds us is not at some time in the future, but is happening right now.
One leading contemporary voice in this great cleanup is Valerie Kaur, founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, who declares: “The world is in transition. It’s time to birth the beloved community. Each of us has a role. Are you ready for a revolution of the heart?”
If you take the pledge to rise up in Revolutionary Love, this is what you’ll declare:
We declare our love for all who are in harm’s way — refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, queer and trans people, Black people, Indigenous people, Asian Americans, Latinx people, the disabled, women and girls, working-class people and poor people. We vow to see one another as brothers, sisters, and siblings. Our humanity binds us together, and we vow to fight for a world where all of us can flourish.
We declare love even for our opponents. We oppose all policies that threaten the rights and dignity of any person. We vow to fight not with violence or vitriol, but by challenging the cultures and institutions that promote hate. In this way, we will challenge our opponents through the ethic of love.
We declare love for ourselves. We will protect our capacity for joy. We will rise and dance. We will honor our ancestors whose bodies, breath, and blood call us to a life of courage. In their name, we choose to see this darkness not as the darkness of the tomb – but of the womb. We will breathe and push through the pain of this era to birth a new future.
Valerie Kaur is a practitioner of the Sikh religion, but I think that we can see the ancient wisdom that flows through many traditions. As followers of Jesus, we claim our inheritance of this wisdom. We claim the story of Jesus as the way of Love. We tell our stories in the context of our belief in the God who pulls us each closer to the Divine heart and pushes us out into a new future. Back and forth we go, into deep personal inner contemplation and reflection and out into healing the world. Jesus leads us in the way of Divine Love.
This way will become more difficult in this coming week. We are about to enter the most solemn time of the Christian year. Even though colorful Easter decorations and chocolate bunnies can be found everywhere you go, we are still in the purple zone of Lent (although you might see scarlet in some churches during Holy Week. Scarlet is a color traditionally associated with the Passion, the color of blood but distinguished from the brighter red of Pentecost). We did not read the entire story of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus today. We will do that on Friday evening. And even if you are not able to participate in that service, I hope that you will read it on your own in preparation for Easter morning. Or watch the Easter Vigil being prepared by PLTS for Holy Saturday. I promise: the joy of Easter will be that much sweeter.
In closing, I offer this from the 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi. Maybe he was thinking of Jesus on this day:
Through Love, all that is bitter will be sweet,
Through Love all that is copper will be gold,
Through Love, all dregs will become wine,
through Love all pain will turn to medicine.
Through Love, the dead will all become alive.
Through Love, the king will turn into a slave.
Love is the Master.
Love is the One who masters all things;
I am mastered totally by Love.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Look! Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished. This ruler shall command peace to the nations;
stretching from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
Christ, though in the image of God,
did not deem equality with God something to be clung to—
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition, found in the likeness of human being.
Jesus was thus humbled—obediently accepting death—even death on a cross!
Because of this God highly exalted Christ
and gave to Jesus the name above every other name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend
in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God: Jesus Christ reigns supreme!
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Teacher needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘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.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead and that followed were shouting,‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Entry into the City
Swanson, John August
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Entry of Christ into Jerusalem
Morgner, Wilhelm, 1891-1917
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