Steve Lindsley

Mark 11: 1-11

On a spring day in the year 30 AD, there were two processions that made their way into the city of Jerusalem.   We know a good bit about one of them.  It was the beginning of the Jewish Passover; and every year Jerusalem’s population would swell to over double its size.  Think of what Charlotte would be like if we ever got the Super Bowl or Final Four here.  Jews from all over would travel for days on end, even weeks, just to be at the great temple for the celebration.

The procession in our passage today began at the eastern gate of the city, what was known as the Susa Gate.  The crowds had been gathering there since early morning.  They’d gotten word that he would be coming into the city from the wilderness, this man they knew of in bits and pieces.  And they wanted to see him.  They wanted to experience Jesus up-close.  And they all had different reasons for wanting to do that.

There were some in the crowd who were weary of oppressive Roman rule and the staleness of their faith, and they saw Jesus as someone who could breathe life into all of that.  Others saw Jesus as the perfect catalyst for their radical agenda; these Zealots who believed Jesus would lead them to military victory and rid them of the Roman empire they so despised.  Still others in the crowd, those in positions of religious authority who had been tasked by the empire with keeping the peace, they had gotten a bit squirrely with some of the things Jesus talked about, like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek; because those things, while simple enough, tend to upset the order of things.  And then there were those who thought Jesus was nothing more than a side attraction – a delusional lunatic or a fabulous liar, take your pick – and all they were there for was the show.

All of those people, and certainly others, waiting in the crowd outside that Eastern gate on a spring day in 30 AD.

And then it begins – a soft hum at first, the sound of anticipation.  It spreads through the crowd like a shot of electricity, folks careening their heads to see, children hoisted on parents’ shoulders.

And at last, there he is. They see Jesus on this donkey, paraded through the streets of eastern Jerusalem.  They’re laying their cloaks down in front of him, like a royal rug rolled out in the palace.  Young and old alike, waving palm branches in the air.   Some in the crowd begin shouting: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!  They’re quoting the Psalms; Psalm 118, to be exact.  They’re using the faith they’ve known all their lives to understand what is happening in their life right now.

And that word, “hosanna.” Hosanna.  A cry of infectious joy; the word literally meaning, “Save us!  Rescue us!”  It is adoration of the highest caliber that Jesus neither needs nor wants.  But they need to say it, they need to sing it; because they’ve been waiting for this moment for so many years.  And so the crowds lift their voices in praise as they welcome the Nazarene carpenter riding on a donkey.

It is a big deal, this Palm Sunday.  It’s a big deal for Jesus and his followers, for the beginnings of what would later be the church.  And it’s a big deal for us, which is why we reenact it right here in our sanctuary every year, right down the center aisle at the beginning of our worship.  And I love that we do this; I love that we join with our siblings in Christ over thousands of years and thousands of miles to march once again in the parade.

It is a big deal.  But not for the reasons we may think.

Now it’s true, this is Jesus’ triumphant entry into the holy city – but that’s not why it’s a big deal.  It’s true that all those people were shouting praise to their Messiah – but that’s not why it’s a big deal.  It’s true that this procession would set into motion a chain of events that would lead Jesus to the cross and later to the Resurrection.  But none of these are the reason why this Palm Sunday procession is such a big deal.

This Palm Sunday procession, the one many of us took part in at the beginning of worship today, is a big deal precisely because it was not the only procession that happened in Jerusalem that day.

For there was another one taking place at the same time on the western side of the city, at the Jaffa gate.  We don’t typically know about this one; but the truth is, it had been going on for years and years.

This procession was an imperial march of the Roman empire – the world power of the day.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, led the march, followed by legions of Rome’s finest soldiers, decked out in full military regalia and riding on pristine calvary.  Trumpets blared in unison, the sound carrying for miles.  Purple and gold flags waving in the air.  And the crowd!  More people than you could count; they lined the streets and hung out of windows and stood on top of buildings to behold it all.  Children “oohed” and “aahed” and adults shook their heads in amazement.

And this was no innocent parade. Its sole purpose was to get the people’s attention.  Rome ruled over Israel and all its conquered lands with a mighty fist; promulgating their power through intimidation and fear.  These processions were dramatic and frightening displays of their military might.  They were a not-so-subtle reminder by way of soldiers and swords and spears and calvary and trumpets and even the governor himself that, as the city’s population swelled in size, any troublemaking or nonsense would be dealt with swiftly and severely.  All week long, these tools of conquest and domination would communicate a chilling message without having to say a word: Enjoy your little Passover celebration – just remember who’s really in charge.

It kind of casts our Palm Sunday parade over here in a different light, doesn’t it?  It’s not some innocent exercise we’re engaging in; some spontaneous celebration that just happens to mimic what’s taking place on the other side of town.  No, this Jesus celebration was planned well in advance.  This was thought through carefully.  As Religion professor and noted author Marcus Borg writes:

Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of empire that ruled the world.  Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city and embodied an alternate vision, the kingdom of God.[1]

Which means what happened on this day long ago, and what we revisit and relive every year, is by definition a protest demonstration.  Bet you never thought of Palm Sunday that way, did you?  A protest demonstration.  An occasion to take a stand and ask ourselves, who is it that we pledge our allegiance to: the kingdoms of the earth or the kingdom of God?  Who is it that we sing our “hosannas” to: a human king or a divine one?  Where is it that our heart ultimately lies: with the powers that rule by intimidation and fear, or the power that rules with love?  All of which can be summed up in a single question: which parade do we choose to be part of?

It’s a simple question – but also a complicated one, too.  It can be hard sometimes distinguishing between the two because they can sometimes look the same.  It can be hard knowing whether a power comes from God or from something else.  It can be hard discerning that juncture, that instant, where one bleeds into the other.

Which is why over the years I’ve come to imagine this scene on a spring day in Jerusalem in 30 AD and find myself thinking not as much about the people who were in the parade with Jesus at the eastern gate or the people who were in the parade with the empire at the western gate; but I find myself instead thinking about the multitudes and multitudes of people who were in neither.  Those who were in the rest of that large and sprawling city going through the motions of their day: maybe celebrating Passover, maybe going to the market or their jobs or their schools.  Those who were just trying to make it to the next day, whatever that day would bring.

I find myself thinking about those people, those non-parade marchers and observers, those unwilling to pledge their allegiance one way or another, for the sole reason that they made up the vast majority of the people in that city.  And I think about those people 2000 years ago because the truth is I think about those same people an awful lot in 2024.

And here’s the thing: whether they eventually decide to join one of the parades or not, will depend in large part on what they see and hear from each, what they experience and interpret from each, and whether they feel that either one will do what is most important to them – and that is to make a difference in their life and in the world.

And there’s the rub we face as those grounded firmly in the goings-on at the Eastern gate, showering the carpenter from Nazareth with ancient praise, our little yet not-so-little protest demonstration.  Because we, as our mission statement claim, are people who are called to “make a difference.”  And you don’t make a difference by doing nothing.  So yes, there are times when making a difference for Jesus means coming out loud and clear on what we are against  What we believe is wrong.   It is true that, from time to time, our faith compels us to stop, interrupt, call out, take a stand, speak up, stand in the way of.

Just as our faith also compels us, from time to time, to be clear on what we are for: unconditional love, justice for all, a reasonable working wage, voting rights, affordable housing, the equality and equity of the human race.  Those things that Jesus was for, would be for if he were with us today.  We are forever defined by those things that he lived and died for.

And as followers of Jesus Christ, it can be hard knowing when we are called to be one or the other.  When we need to be clear on what we are against, and clear on what we are for.  In fact, that might be the greatest challenge living in today’s world; a world divided and bifurcated and split right down the middle, a world where we perpetually live in our silos and echo chambers, a world that pushes us to pick a side and stay there.

Thing is, our faith calls us to be more nuanced than that.  Almost like a dance.  Not changing our core beliefs, but knowing when it is time to be defined by what we are against and when it is time to be defined by what we are for.  We are called to engage in this nuanced dance, precisely because it is what Jesus did.  He preached love at times – and other times called people out.  He welcomed all to the table – and he also flipped tables.  He participated in a protest demonstration at the eastern gate of Jerusalem – and days later he broke bread and drank wine with one who would betray him.

Friends, it can be hard, dancing this dance with Jesus.  But for the sake of the rest of the city, we must do this.  For the sake of those who are leery of pledging allegiance one way or the other.  For the sake of those who have been burned before by such devotion.  For the sake of those who are not looking for easy answers or quick fixes; but are just looking to be seen, to be heard.  Those who are longing for a creed that makes room for the complexity of life, a community who cherishes relationship and connection.  That is what they need from us.

So yes, let us march in our holy parade, children of God.  March on!  Let us wave our palm branches high in the air and sing our hosannas because it means something for us to sing it.

And as we do this, may we not become so enamored with the sound of our own voices that we fail to hear what the rest of the city is trying to tell us.  May our vision not be so obscured by all those palm branches that we cannot see the people on the other side of them.  May we not be so captivated by the rhythms of our own marching that we fail to notice the cadence of the community around us.

On a spring day in the year 30 AD, two processions made their way into Jerusalem.  This Holy Week, my fellow marchers, I ask you not simply which one you choose to be part of, but how you will march for those who are in neither.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!







* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] The Last Week: A Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan (2006: HarperSanFrancisco), 4-5.