The sermon for week April 17, 2011
This past October, Kate and I headed downtown to attend the Sylvania Fall Festival. It was a bright autumn day, the leaves were just beginning to change. Kate’s best friend from high school was in town and we were excited to show her our new town, and show off our church booth. We arrived just in time for the parade.
We were expecting some rinky-dink parade with a few old cars, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts holding flags, and maybe a Shiner or two in a funny little car. What we saw, though; was nothing short of spectacular. There were all types of people, groups, bands, cars, floats, parade queens, police and fire trucks; it was way beyond our expectations. So much so that Kate’s friend turned to us and said “Just where exactly did you end up? This town is awesome!”
Sociologist William Kornblum states that you can learn a lot about a community from a parade. It acts as a visualization of the social order of a community. How are men, women, and children displayed in the parade? What functions do they serve? Are the genders together or segregated? Likewise are the ages, races, and other social markers together or segregated? What symbols and rituals are highlighted?
We found an inclusive and affluent town, with many of its businesses, social groups, and religious organizations walking side-by-side, integrated largely in race and gender. People were politely conversing between their booths, supporting and learning from one another. We learned just what type of town we landed in and we were proud to be a part of it.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have this theory about Palm Sunday. They think that on a spring day in Jerusalem just before Passover in the year 30, two parades entered the city. On one side of the city, there is a procession that is largely composed of peasants, following a teacher from Galilee riding a donkey. On the other side, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate enters the city on a war horse at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.
The contrast between the two parades cannot be more different, a donkey and a war horse; a Roman Governor with all the credentials, wealth, and backing, versus a poor peasant spiritual leader. The crowd of the wealthy merchants and religious leaders view the imperial march.
Imagine the sunlight glinting off the spears carried high by Roman Centurions. There is a procession of weapons, helmets, golden eagles mounded on poles. The pounding of horse hooves, the clinking of bridles, the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the beating of drums, the swirl of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers some curious, some awed, some afraid, some resentful.
Contrast that to the other parade where the peasants, the unwanted, the lower-class and poverty types. Yet it is they, they who have nothing that are inspired by the procession and join in and they put down but their own cloaks and branches cut from trees. Nothing to carry or show, no gold, no banners. Just what they have on their backs or at hand.
What each parade shows and the symbols they use tell a lot about the two groups gathered. Palm Sunday teaches us that Jesus was not a purely spiritual leader who went around trying to get people to convert to something called Christianity. He was a social and spiritual leader of the oppressed and poverty-stricken masses. Great crowds flocked to him, and he was opposed by powerful forces. His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem was a parody of the Romans’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. To the dismay of many Christians who don’t want their faith to get too political, Palm Sunday was all about politics.
It was, in effect, an anti-war demonstration, a challenge to imperial injustice, a proclamation of God’s justice “on earth as in heaven!”
The story just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem illustrates the kind of ruler of the world God is. God rules with Jesus’ healing touch, giving sight to the blind (Matt 20.29-34) and raising people from the dead, even though they have been dead 4 days. Unlike Caesar who rules through economic and military domination and putting people to death. God’s rule of the world is radically different from the imperial rule of Caesar.
When the Sylvania October Fest Parade ended, it just ended. The participants in the parade got to the end of the route and went their own ways. Some went back to participate in the booths along Main Street, others went to eat somewhere. Others went home, but still had new knowledge. The end of the parade did not affect its purpose or mission. So why do we let the parade of Palm Sunday get colored by the outcome? Jesus is put in the role of dead man walking and the crowd is the fickle bad guy. Or it’s the Jews. Or both. We’re not there yet. Jesus is a hero and the crowd is for him.
The Palm Sunday crowd cries out “Hosanna!” which is one of the few Aramaic words found in the New Testament. This word in language of Jesus’ home town and region means “Save us.”
Save us from what? Rome. Oppression. The traditional Jewish view of the messiah was an armed revolt that would overthrow the occupying power and would established a just kingdom without the people having to lift a finger. No participation required, you just had to believe.
Compare this to the traditional Christian view of Jesus. All one has to do is believe in Jesus, no participation required. This puts Jesus in the role of a “dead man walking.” Palm Sunday is a parade toward the death God intended him to die “for us.” Jesus dies for our sins. Yet if you look at Palm Sunday as an anti-Roman parade, one that people were called to lay down what they had for Jesus to welcome him into the world, this paints a whole different picture. It has more implications.
It shows that Jesus died as a natural result of being human and challenging domination systems. He had the courage to say “God wants justice for all. Not just the Jews. Not just the Romans. But the whole world.” There are groups out there who do not like to hear this Good News, they want to throw up boundaries and be certain they are right. These are the type of systems which hung Jesus on the cross. Jesus then dies for our sins, but not the “I had road rage the other day” or “I lied about eating the last cookie” type sins. This is a systematic view of sin. The type of sins like in not confronting the domination systems that we let an innocent man die. The type of sin that lets 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. The type of sin that allows kids to languish in failing inner-city schools. The type of sin that is calloused to the needs of the poor, widowed, and orphaned.
The Palm Sunday parade gives us the symbols of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It involves humility and participation. It emphasizes compassion, justice and peace as the central tenants. It resists any domination systems that dehumanize others and labels people as enemies, less than worthy, or unloved by God.
It is as David preached last Sunday, it is about losing the bonds of death and calling out the Lazuruses into life. It is the promise and recognition that you are not alone, that there are those out there who love you.
It is also about faith. Paul Tillich described our faith as our ultimate concern. And our ultimate concern could be made known by how we answer the questions like “What is the most important thing in the world to you?” “Where do you find meaning and purpose?” “What gives you fulfillment?” “What are you willing to sacrifice your life for?”
What did Jesus sacrifice his life for? Community, peace, nonviolence, a life of deep commitment and gentle certitude that forgiveness and reconciliation are the most powerful things out there. That God’s grace encompasses all, even his enemies which hung him on the cross. Even his friends who did nothing to stop that from happening, and ran and hid and denied and betrayed him.
The moral of the parade of Palm Sunday is that we do not, we cannot, sit back and just witness and watch God’s parade come by like we would if we were watching the Roman procession. True power does not lie in military or economic conquest and oppression. True power lies in peaceful participation and humble cooperation. We are called to take off our cloaks, to cut down branches and participate in the coming of the kingdom of God.
You have started a parade here. Recently Al Compaan and our Green Team with the help of Bill wrote about the process of putting solar panels on the roof. It was for a contest that would send two winners from the church with the best story to the General Synod this June in Tampa Bay Florida on Cleveland’s dime. We didn’t win. However, the stories of the parades started by other churches are just as inspiring. The parade of this church is inspiring! The parade of Nu Vizion is inspiring. The parade of our denomination and its history is inspiring.
There is a movement, ecumenically minded, called “Big Tent Christianity.” That’s nice, but tent’s still have walls, you need tickets to get in. Tents are static, they don’t move, and require people to come to them, and we’re finding out mainline tent doesn’t bring the people in like it used to. Plus, there is no tent big enough for the crowd we’re hoping to attract. So I posit we think in terms of “Big Parade Christianity.” When we pass, people will ask, “Who are these people?” And people will respond, “Those folks? Those are followers of Jesus, a teacher from Nazareth who started a parade 2,000 years ago and they are still at it.”
Jesus calls us to start a parade in response to the sins of the world. The brokenness of the world. We are disciples of Christ. We walk alongside our teacher on the donkey, knowing that if we imitate him we may indeed end up like him. That is a risk we take as we go about spreading the good news. That is the leap of faith we must take, knowing that resurrection is indeed, a reality. Amen.
Borg, Marcus. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.
Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus.
Kornblum, William. Role of Sociological Imagination: Parades. Video found here.
Lindon, Luke. 'Everyone Has Faith' blogpost on AssociatedLuke. referencing Paul Tillich.
Note: you can read the winning church stories here from the article entitled "Wild, Attainable Dreams"