Yr A ~ Palm ~ Matthew 21:1-11
Who is this?
On our recent trip to New York we were strolling down 5th Avenue on a Saturday afternoon, which meant the street was pretty crowded, so we didn’t really notice the large group that was standing on the corner across the street. Well, we didn’t notice them until we heard the scream. Or was it a shriek? We looked over and this sea of teenage girls suddenly burst into motion and raced down the side street screaming at the top of their lungs. We all looked at each other and laughed, and figured it must have been a celebrity. And instantly the question hit us, “I wonder who it is?”
Now, we didn’t care enough to go and find out – anything that sends 50 teenaged girls screaming is probably not on my radar – but we still wondered. Who is this?
You can’t help yourself. You see a commotion, something that attracts a crowd, and you’re undeniably intrigued. Who is this? Why are people reacting this way? What am I missing? I should go and find out.
Can you imagine a city teeming with pilgrims, all fired up because it’s a big festival but also seething because the Roman soldiers are everywhere and everyone is constantly under threat? Matthew’s gospel describes the city as being in turmoil. One of the reasons was apparently the arrival of Jesus – on a donkey – reminding the people of the peaceful king in Zechariah – thumbing his nose at the Romans (even if the Romans didn’t realize the symbolism of the donkey, the Jewish pilgrims certainly would have). The crowd is singing, or shouting hosanna, or waving branches and palms, and they’re causing a ruckus. If you were there you wouldn’t be able to contain yourself. You’d be craning your neck trying to get a look, or moving through the crowd to get closer – and there’d only be one thing on your mind: who is this?
Who IS this?? This is a very dangerous and provocative man!Every year we come to this day and every year we give out palm fronds and we get up and march around. It’s fun. It’s a great way to embody and enact a bible story. But we’re missing a couple of key features. One is menacing Roman soldiers glaring at us waiting for any excuse to pounce on us and arrest us. Another is the sense that this isn’t really a happy and fun event. It’s a highly politically charged event.
Marcus Borg does a masterful job of explaining this aspect of Palm Sunday. I’m going to quote him at length:
“The story is familiar: as the week of Passover begins, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and people cheer him, shouting “Hosanna – blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
“Less well-known is the historical fact that a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.
“It is clear what Pilate’s procession was about. By proclaiming the pomp and power of empire, its purpose was to intimidate. But what about Jesus’s procession, his entry into the city? His riding a donkey into Jerusalem echoes a passage from the prophet Zechariah that speaks of the king ‘commanding peace to the nations’ (9.10).
“Thus for Passover that year, two very different processions entered Jerusalem. They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world. The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation.”
Who is this? It’s a question people have been asking about Jesus since the very beginning of his life. It’s a question that has as many answers as people asking it. Your answer to “who is Jesus” might be quite different than mine, because really the question is “who is Jesus for you?”
Now, we all have probably always known who Jesus is – at least on some level. Can you think of a time when you didn’t know anything about Jesus? But which Jesus do you know? Is it the same Jesus you knew when you were a kid? Is it the same Jesus that you knew 10 years ago? Is it the Jesus who figuratively flipped off Rome?
How many Jesus’ are there? Who has the right Jesus? Well, I do, of course. I joke, but then again, maybe not. If someone asked you “who is this Jesus guy anyway?” what would you say?
Who is Jesus for you?
Friend? Guide? Support? Rock? Redeemer? Saviour? Shepherd? Mentor? Example? Lover? Teacher? God? – Lord? That’s how it started. The earliest expression of faith, long before there were any creeds or gospels or even one letter from Paul, the very first expression of faith was “Jesus is Lord.”
If I asked you, “who is this?” would you answer “Jesus is Lord”?
And if he isn’t Lord for you, who or what is?
Did you know that when the early church said “Jesus is Lord” they weren’t just making a claim that Jesus and his Way had authority in their life (Lord technically means ‘master’), they were also making a revolutionary political statement. You see, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn’t. Saying “Caesar is Lord” was one of the common tests of loyalty in the empire. Everyone said it, or else! So if instead you said “Jesus is Lord” you were living dangerously!
Does that describe your faith life? Are you making revolutionary counter-cultural political statements with your faith? Is that the Jesus we celebrate in our churches? Gandhi thought so, but he quickly learned otherwise. After deciding to attend a church service in South Africa, he came across a racial barrier; the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going?” a white man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone.
Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”
The church elder snarled at him, “There’s no room for your kind in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps,” provoking Gandhi’s famous quote, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Who is this?
Our Moderator, Gary Paterson, agrees with Borg. He says, “Palm Sunday is a day to acknowledge that there is an edge to this Jesus, a sharp and demanding challenge. The gospel writers, perhaps adding details in the knowledge that came with hindsight, are clear that Jesus is staking a claim – challenging the powers that be, whether Roman or temple elites, proclaiming that there is a different way of living where we render unto God what is God’s – which, finally, is everything; Caesar can only claim the leftovers. The claims of the Palm Sunday Jesus have political dimensions, his teachings and witness have social and economic implications. He dreams of turning lives and the world upside down.”
Who is this?
This is a revolutionary, and to join the palm parade is to join the revolution. Does what we’re doing feel like a revolution to you? Jesus and his disciples were standing up against “the man” and offering God’s counter-cultural view of how the world could be.
Is that us?
Are we counter-cultural?
Yes we are!
You ARE a revolutionary.
Your presence here this morning is counter-cultural. As you sit there you’re thumbing your nose at the materialistic, dog-eat-dog, conspicuous consumption, me-first, keep-your-hands-off-my-taxes, I-got-mine-screw-the-other-guy mentality that is the kingdom of this world.
A few decades ago people hid their cars on Sunday morning because they didn’t want to be seen NOT going out to church, because everyone went to church. Now what happens if a neighbour sees you get into your car Sunday morning? Aren’t you the one who gets the funny look – the dismissive eye roll?
Now what would happen if you mentioned Jesus to that neighbour?
Well, first you’d probably have a heart attack just thinking about it – which we’d better get over in a big hurry or it’ll be lights out for the North American mainline church – but then you’d probably hear the neighbour say, “Oh, I’ve got nothing against Jesus. Jesus is pretty interesting. It’s church I have no use for.”
It’s curious that in the 21st century, especially among the younger generations, there is a real disinterest in organized religion but there’s also a great interest in Jesus. There’s even a book titled, “They Like Jesus but Not the Church.”
But which Jesus do they like? Who is Jesus for that neighbour?
It’s gentle Jesus meek and mild.
It’s the “be a do-gooder” Jesus.
It’s the ‘Jesus loves you’ Jesus.
It’s the Sunday School Jesus that we all hopefully grew out of as we learned to really wrestle with our faith.
It’s no wonder that church or Jesus don’t do anything for your neighbour. I can get that Jesus in a greeting card and a ‘chicken soup for the soul’ story.
That is not the Jesus who rode a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem and dared to proclaim a revolutionary upside down view of the world with God at the centre and love and justice being more important than power and money. Chances are your neighbour has never heard of that Jesus. Or if he has, he doesn’t think he’ll find him in a nice, quaint little church.
Who is this? This is a paradigm shifter – a guy who reveals God’s presence everywhere and paints a vivid picture of God’s kingdom and calls us to live it. Does your neighbour see you living an alternative lifestyle to the common way? Aside from where you hang out Sunday mornings do they see you making different choices than them based on different values? Does your neighbour see the revolutionary you are? Is your faith bold enough to make them look at YOU and wonder “who is this?”
It always feels good to give a rousing, rallying message like this but before we get too carried away we need to remember something – something very sobering. ‘Palm Sunday Jesus’, who tilted at the powers that be, became ‘crucified Jesus’ by Friday.
That’s what often happens to dangerous revolutionaries.
That’s where the story goes when you dare to tell Caesar that his world is built on a lie.
Will we dare?
Who is this?
Could there be another Jesus figure emerge today, someone filled to overflowing with the Spirit and Presence of the Holy Mystery we call God, someone with a crystal clear vision of the kingdom of God that offers abundant life to all who would open themselves to it, someone willing to speak truth to power and bear the inevitable push back no matter what the cost?
If you saw such a person making a commotion, raising a ruckus, rocking the boat, would you dare to ask the question? “Who is this? Why are people reacting this way? What am I missing? I should go and find out.”
Or maybe that person is you?
Jesus has entered through the gates and set the week in motion.
We have joined the parade. We are part of the revolution.
In the shadow of empire I pray that your faith may inspire the crowd to wonder…who is this?