I don’t know about you, but Palm Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the church year. Maybe even my favorite Sunday. I loved it as a child, too: singing Hosannas and “All Glory, Laud and Honor”; waving palm branches and joining in the Jesus parade. And when you are a child, it just seems like a parade. And for children, that is what it should be.
But for us as adults, Palm Sunday is complicated. It’s not just a parade for no reason, but a prelude: a gateway into a week full of challenges, miracles, and mysteries.
We have a busy week ahead of us. We will experience the confusion and the fear of the disciples; the betrayal and the tragedy of Judas; the tears and the compassion of the women; the terror and the doubts of Peter as he denies Christ three times. And then we will gather again on Friday to resume the story and watch it to its final conclusion on the cross.
So we are no longer children watching a parade. Palm Sunday has a new meaning for us because we watch it through a window onto Holy Week, with its many ups and downs, twists and turns.
Palm Sunday was not an uncomplicated parade for the people who watched it in Jesus’ day, either. You see, history tells us that there were actually two parades on Palm Sunday.
In their compelling book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, the New Testamant scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, and that Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry.
You see, every year, the Roman governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate, I name you surely know from the role he will play on Good Friday) would ride up to Jerusalem from his palace on the coast at Caesarea. He came to be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to many times its normal size. He came to be where the action is. He came to put on a great big show of power, wealth, and glory. And he came, above all, to make sure the Jews didn’t start making any trouble.
You see, Passover commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from the mighty empire of Egypt. The Passover Seder commemorates the bitterness of slavery under an oppressive regime and a sweet taste a freedom from a reign of terror – and you can see why that made the Romans nervous. That’s why Pontius Pilate had to come to Jerusalem in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge.
Here is Borg and Crossan’s description of Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, leather, armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
This is the background against which we now watch the Palm Sunday Parade.
As Pilate clanged and crashed his imperial way into Jerusalem from the West, Jesus approached from the East – and his parade could not have been different.
He came on a borrowed donkey, not an imperial stallion. He came surrounded by a pretty rag-tag bunch of disciples: tax collectors, fishermen, farmers. He came followed by crowds of people who had been touched and healed by the son of God. He came followed by men whose blind eyes had been made to see; women who had been healed after years of bleeding; the lame who had found they could walk again; the dead who had been brought to life again. He came surrounded by a cacophony of shouts of Hosanna – which means “save us”!
His was the procession of the humble and meek; the explicitly vulnerable. This Jesus was the governor not of an earthly Imperium, but king of a strange kind of kingdom where the last would be first, and the first, last; where the meek, not the powerful, inherit the earth; where the kingdom belongs to the peacemakers.
At least these scholars I mentioned before are convinced that Jesus’s parade on this Sunday was a deliberate, but a moving display of quiet, non-violent, non-revolutionary power. “What we often call the triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission,” they say.
This is the kind of peaceful, but stubborn nonviolence that has inspired leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King, to Nelson Mandala, to Ghandi. The quiet, but utterly fearless, unshakable display of humility, gentleness, and commitment to the kingdom of God.
The thing is: these parades are not a historical episode. I don’t tell you about these two contrasting parades just in case you happen to like history books.
All over the world today, two parades are marching. Perhaps you have seen an armored motorcade with a president or world leader in it: the long parade of big black cars, secret service agents; usually the road is blocked off and the whole parade is surrounded by police cars: well, this was something like that. Or maybe you’ve seen pictures in the news of the kinds of military parades that perform for leaders like Kim Jong-Un of North Korea.
Parades of power and might will never go out of style. Neither, I suppose, will parades of money. Sometimes I think Munich is a pretty good place to be if you want to experience the parade of self-satisfied displays of money and success.
But the Jesus parade is still marching on today, too, here in this very city: the parade that marches to a quiet but unmistakable, unbending, unyielding drumbeat of the kingdom. I see this parade in those who care for the homeless, the migrants, the asylum seekers, and the vulnerable children of our city. This parade goes marching on any time any one of us, in whatever quiet, humble, modest way, stands up for right, makes a choice for peace, shares what we have, takes pity on another fellow human being, and holds out a hand.
And I dare say the parade comes marching through here pretty much every Sunday, as we gather, week in and week out, whether it’s a so-called Holy Week or not: when we gather here to sing our Hosannas, to wave our hands and lay down our cloaks and our lives to the one we call king.
Sometimes, we don’t look like much. But perhaps we look suspiciously like the rag-taggle bunch of followers who took up after Jesus, calling his name, touching his cloak, reaching out their hands: ordinary people, taxi drivers and cleaning women, business people and teachers, mothers, brothers, husbands and wives with children in tow, gathering together for no other reason than because we have heard the call of the one who is blessed, who comes in the name of the Lord. And we too cry every week: Hosanna! Save us!
You can join in this procession, too, but I think I should warn you fair and square that this procession isn’t just banners and marching bands. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, we know now, as adults, where this parade is headed: straight into Holy Week, straight into the eye of the storm, straight towards the cross. It is a parade not just of glee and giggles, but of self-sacrifice, of love that, in the words of the Epistle to the Philippoians, “empties itself,” takes the form of slavery to love, that is demands humility and obedience, even as love as marching, step by step, towards the cross.
But of course the parade doesn’t end at the cross; in the words of Psalm 118 that we read this morning, we are following Christ all the way to the gates of righteousness, that we may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord – forever.
And we don’t gather here this morning, or any morning, just for fun. We come to learn to love. We come to be of service to one another, to be obedient to the law of love, and to march in step to the parade of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ: the parade that is marching this week towards the cross – and next week, towards Eastern morning and eternal hope.
Two processions. Two kingdoms. Two parades.
Which will you choose?