Sunday, March 25, 2018 - Palm Sunday

Texts: Mark 11:1-11 (Processional Gospel); Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)

This has been a weekend of rallies and marches across the country. Hundreds of thousands gathered in “Marches for Our Lives” in Washington, DC, Chicago, and other cities. Led by our nation’s youth people came together in response to the latest school mass shooting in Parkland, Florida to demand changes in our gun laws as well as other changes in our political and social culture.  The youthful leaders saw these gatherings as the beginning of a movement for a better future for this nation. Chicago area Episcopalians who gathered with Bishop Jeffery Lee ahead of joining the Chicago march heard our bishop say that the march yesterday was the beginning of our Palm Sunday procession, and some carried and waved palm branches.

Indeed, I think there are some similarities between the marchers for our lives, who chanted concerning politicians held captive by the National Rifle Association, “Vote them out, vote them out,” and the marchers who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem chanting “Hosanna!”

Jesus had been making his way from Galilee through Judea, teaching and healing and casting out demons and collecting followers, and was about to enter the holy city at Passover time.  Arrangements had been made for a parade to call attention to his entrance. Those arrangements included securing a colt on which Jesus could ride and cutting leafy branches in the fields. Jesus’ followers spread their cloaks on the road to make a kind of royal carpet. And waving their branches some went in front of him and some followed him shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!”

This was not a surge of people coming out of the city to greet Jesus. How would they even know who he was or that he was arriving? This was a demonstration by Jesus’ many followers to announce his arrival. It was a political demonstration because they were hailing Jesus as the one who would restore the Davidic kingdom. You can be sure that this caught the attention of the authorities in the city, particularly the Temple authorities---the priests and scribes. They lived in a delicate balance with the occupying Roman administration. Rome was always respectful of local cults and cultures; that was one of the reasons for their governing success. In return for religious freedom the Romans expected priestly support of the imperial administration. Jesus’ entrance into the city upset the status quo. In fact, upon entering the city he went straight to the Temple and assaulted it by overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the sellers of sacrificial victims. He made claims about replacing that Temple with himself, with his body. “Tear it down and in three days I will raise it up.”

The priestly and scribal authorities needed to get rid of him. But there had been that demonstration by his followers. How many followers did he have mingling among the many pilgrims and visitors in the city for the National Passover? Given this uncertainty, the priests had to make arrangements to grab Jesus under the cover of darkness and have a quick trial and execution. A traitor in Jesus’ inner circle conveniently played into their hands. Jesus was arrested outside in the garden after the Passover Seder, given a trial of sorts in the middle of the night, and delivered to the Roman governor early in the morning.

Here we meet a second demonstration. Some locals turned out at the residence of the Roman governor to ask him to honor of the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time.  Pontius Pilate, perhaps sensing an easy way to get Jesus released (since he didn’t find him to be a threat), presented Jesus to the crowd, along with a known insurrectionist named Barabbas. If the crowd gathered before the procurator had included Jesus’ followers who accompanied him into the city the previous Sunday, they surely would have shouted for Jesus to be released. But this was a different crowd and the priests stirred them up to ask for Barabbas.

Why would they choose Barabbas over Jesus? Probably because Barabbas was a troublemaker they knew rather than a troublemaker they didn’t know. Yes, Barabbas had murdered a man, but Jesus had assaulted the holy Temple---the primary shrine of their nation. So when Pilate presented Jesus, they cried out “Crucify him, crucify him.” They were insistent on it and Pilate finally gave in and had Jesus flogged in preparation for his crucifixion.

Where were Jesus’ followers when this dirty deed was being done---all those people who had marched in with him shouting “Hosanna”? We know that Simon Peter had followed Jesus when he was taken away from the garden. He was hanging around the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Upon questioning by a servant girl, “Weren’t you with that man from Galilee?,” he denied knowing him, and hurriedly left the scene.

Since Jesus was on the cross by nine in the morning, his followers either didn’t know what was going on or, if Peter had spread the word, they were purposely lying low. But according to the evangelist Mark, none of Jesus’ disciples were there. At the cross only a Roman centurion was astute enough to recognize what was going on. “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This is the only statement about Jesus in the entire Gospel of Mark that the evangelist left unchallenged.

We proclaim both the Palm Gospel and the Passion Gospel on this Sunday because we need to see ourselves at both ends of the week. We need to ask: where are we in this story? Are we with the supporters of Jesus who hailed him as king and thought they had a movement going to renew their nation, but weren’t around when they might have made a difference? Or are we among those who felt a need to support the established order by asking for Jesus to be crucified? Will we who marched for the lives of our youth yesterday continue to do what it takes to support their aspirations? Or will we return to our daily affairs and leave the status quo unchallenged and unchanged. Or…are we like the soldier who had a glimmer of understanding about what was really taking place---that the world’s mess is so intractable that God needs to be involved, even unto death on a cross?

This is a story we need to follow throughout this week because it’s important that we know which group we identify with. And if we’re with the group that calls for the affirmation of life rather than the group that accepts death as the price for maintaining the status quo, then we need to gather at the font at the end of this week to renew our baptismal covenant and commit ourselves anew to the kind of Kingdom Jesus ushered in by his death and resurrection. Amen. 

Pastor Frank Senn