Turning Point

Turning Point

Loving God, today as we reflect upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and all that unfolds there, may we listen with compassion, open hearts, and willing spirits.  May we trust in your grace.  May we be guided by your Spirit.  And may you grant us the courage to seek out the path you would have us walk.  Amen.

I’ve always loved Palm Sunday worship.  As a kid, it may have even rivaled Easter worship for me because it was the day we got a souvenir when we walked into church.  I loved getting my own palm branch to wave and sing Hosanna.  And I’d usually hang onto that palm branch all week until it was brown and brittle.

I still love Palm Sunday, even as it is also a complex day in which we remember the contradictions and shifting circumstances that will follow.  While we eagerly get caught up in the parade, the praise, the singing, and the joyful hope, we are also aware of what will happen to Jesus in the days to come.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a turning point in the gospel narrative.  It focuses our attention on that important city and all that will transpire there.  And, as Jesus enters Jerusalem and faces the difficulties and complexities of his day, we are invited to do the same.

A number of biblical scholars view the Palm Sunday parade as a sort of protest march.  It was a nonviolent demonstration of faith in God as the ultimate authority and hope in the coming of God’s Reign.  It was an action that stood in direct contrast to the authority and reign of the Roman Empire that ruled the Mediterranean region and occupied Jerusalem.

The First Century Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that almost three million pilgrims would come to Jerusalem for the Passover each year.  His number might be inflated.  But, nevertheless, we know that at Passover the population of the city swelled.  There were pilgrims everywhere.  The whole city and the temple complex was buzzing.  And the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, accompanied by plenty of Roman soldiers, made the journey from his home near the sea to the city in order to keep things under control.

Passover, after all, is the celebration of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s Egypt.  And so, it was a time that was also ripe for potential conflict or uprisings against the Roman state.

We can imagine what Pilate’s entry into the city might have been like.  Soldiers carrying weapons, Pilate riding a horse or in a chariot, a choreographed display of their earthly power.  Some people probably got out of their way when they saw them coming.

Contrast that with Jesus’ entry into the city (which may have even happened on the same day as Pilate’s).  Peasants carrying branches and cloaks to spread along the road, Jesus riding a young donkey, a choreographed display of a different kind of power.  And, rather than getting out of the way, many people joined their processional as they went along.

The way Mark tells this story makes it clear that Jesus is intentionally doing things differently than the Romans.  In addition to the obvious contrasts, there is also that little detail that Jesus will only borrow the colt and will return it right after he’s done.  Many of Mark’s first readers probably knew from experience that the Romans didn’t borrow anything.  They just took whatever they wanted.

The excitement grows, along with the crowd, as they make their way down from the Mount of Olives and into the city.  “Hosanna!” they shout.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

“Save us!” they call out.  That’s the literal meaning of hosanna.  They are paraphrasing Psalm 118 as they offer their praise, call out to God, call out to Jesus, and proclaim that God’s Kingdom is being ushered in.

We can’t know the thoughts of every person there, but they probably hoped for salvation on many levels.  Liberation from Roman occupation was certainly part of that.  A longing for release from their own suffering, sickness, economic and other hardships, all of the tough stuff of being human, was part of this too.  Some probably hoped that Jesus would heal them.

And they hoped for a renewed world.  They hoped for God’s Reign on earth.

When we shout and sing our hosannas on Palm Sunday, we join their chorus of praise and hope, and their prayer for salvation, liberation, and for a renewed world.

Hosanna!  Save us!  Even though we may have hope, this plea for salvation seems particularly poignant this year.  Save us from this virus that has destroyed so many lives.  Save us from the acts of violence that continue to plague our society.  Save us from the hate and injustice at the root of this violence.  Save us from all that divides, and keeps us apart, and hinders our ability to really listen to and care for one another.  Save us from ourselves.  Save us from it all.

We can understand how the crowd walking into Jerusalem that day may have longed for God to swoop in and make things right.  We can understand how some may have wished for a swift revolution, a total upheaval and reorientation of the world they knew.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the one they praised and followed upon his little donkey, the one they had such hope in on Sunday, would be stripped of his dignity and unjustly killed by the state that Friday.

Things didn’t turn out at all how they had hoped they would.

Some people may not have been surprised by this turn of events, even though they were sad and heartbroken.  They had probably seen similar things happen before.  Imperial power doesn’t like to be challenged, even nonviolently.

Some people may have been frustrated by Jesus’ nonviolence, frustrated that this demonstration didn’t lead to an uprising against Rome, even if the chance of success of such a coup was slim to none.  Some may have turned on him or abandoned him because of that, thinking he was a fraud or a failure.

Some may have fled Jerusalem with a reasonable fear that they would be targeted too.

Some may have just left for home in grief and hopelessness.

We can’t possibly know how all of the people in the crowd felt or reacted.  So, we should take care not to simply lump them all together.

We should also take care not to distance ourselves too much from the crowd either; or to distance ourselves too much from the disciples whose human frailty, failings, and fears would lead them to betrayal, denial, and desertion.

They all wanted to be faithful and yet they failed.  So do we sometimes.  To follow Jesus all the way to the cross is a difficult path.  And we’re all just human.

Part of the purpose of observing Holy Week each year is to enter into this story once again.  Even if it is uncomfortable.  Even if it is heartbreaking.  We can’t fully understand Easter without going through the events leading up to it.  And so, we are invited to enter into the tough stuff: Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the arrest, Peter’s denial, the desertion of Jesus’ closest friends, his suffering, his death, and the silence of the tomb.

The unjust crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman state is an illustration of the horrifying inhumanity that human beings dole out to one another.  Sadly, crucifixion was quite common in the Roman Empire, even if it was largely reserved for those found guilty of treason.  For example, after the slave revolt that was begun by Spartacus in 73 BC was stamped down, Rome crucified six-thousand slaves all along the Appian Way.  Rome used crucified bodies as billboards to remind people who was in charge and what would happen to them if they got in the way of the empire.

The cross of Jesus puts a face on this inhumanity.  The cross of Jesus asks us to confront this inhumanity.  The cross of Jesus exposes the futility and moral depravity of any such systems of violence and oppression that kill God’s people and destroy God’s creation.  The cross of Jesus asks us to find a better way.

And Jesus showed us a better way, albeit an often harder way.  He showed us the way of grace, the way of service and self-sacrifice, the way of peacemaking, the way of restorative justice, the way of love.  According to Luke’s gospel, even at his own crucifixion, he exhibited this profound grace as he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

If we let it, the story of Jesus’ last days can move us to deeper compassion.  The sorrow we feel for Jesus is also sorrow for all who suffer in so many ways – for all who are sick, for all who grieve, for all who are oppressed and marginalized by those in power, for all who are unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and condemned, for all who are victims of brutality and violence, for all who have felt abandoned and deserted.

Our compassion for Jesus and our desire to be faithful to him asks of us compassion for and fidelity to all who suffer.

The story of Jesus’ suffering and death also reveals to us the depth of God’s compassion for us.  God was there on that cross with Jesus, deep within him.  God did not abandon Jesus, even if he may have felt that way when he cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  God was with him to the end and beyond.

If we take seriously the notion that God’s love is incarnate, that God’s love was alive in Jesus and is alive in this world still, then there is nowhere God isn’t.  God understands our suffering intimately.  God experienced it with Jesus.  God still experiences it when any member of God’s beloved creation hurts.  And God is with all who suffer and die.

God has been in the ICUs with those who are sick, with those who are dying, and with the doctors and nurses working so hard to help and heal.  God is still there.  And God is with their loved ones in their grief.

God is with all whose lives have been cut short by violence and hate.  And God is with their loved ones in their grief.

God’s heart breaks with our heartbreak.

And God has been with us all the while.  God went all the way to the cross to show us that love is stronger than hate, that love is stronger than violence, that love is stronger even than death.

Salvation did come for those in the Palm Sunday crowd who cried out for it in hope.  But it didn’t necessarily show up in the way some might have expected it.

For those wishing for a total upheaval of the world they knew and the ushering in of God’s Reign on earth, things didn’t change overnight as they might have hoped.

But God did show up.  God was with them in all their struggles and would continue to be.

And God continues to show up.  God is still with us in our struggles.  And God’s love continues to take root and grow.

Not even crucifixion, not even death could stop God from transforming that which seems broken beyond repair in this world into a new creation.  And God is still bringing forth new life, even in the most unexpected and unlikely of places.

So, as we turn to face Jerusalem today and shout our hosannas, let us not give up hope.  For God’s grace continues to seek, to save, and to call us into the work of compassion and Kingdom building.

And, as we move through this Holy Week, let us seek to walk with Jesus.  And may his story, which is also our collective story, move us and break our hearts open a little wider.

For God need our open hearts.  God needs the fertile soil of our souls in which to plant.

And let us wait to see what seeds of compassion, what seeds of new life and new love, might take root and start to grow.