Sunday, April 5, 2009
Palm Sunday Sermon
April 5, 2009
There’s been a little tension in our house lately. As relative newlyweds, David and I are still learning the delicate art of disagreeing with one another in love. I am truly grateful for our differences, because if he and I were just alike I think that would make for a pretty boring life. One of the things that David is extremely passionate about is politics. He watches the news channels, listens to talk radio, and reads political blogs on the internet- he follows it all. While I’m not as into following the daily ins and outs of what’s happening in the political realm, I do stay informed of what is happening in the world. So what’s the tension? We tend to have opposite political beliefs. I truly believe that at the core it is the same values that inform our beliefs- but how those values find they expression is quite different.
Sometimes this difference between us causes tension. I’m talking about almost as much tension as there is when Vanderbilt plays UT, or the kind of tension there is in our house when it is time for the Kansas City Chiefs to play that Titans- now that’s tense! David and I experience tension because we are different, but we are able to love each other deeply and treat each other with respect in the process. Behind the tension lies passion for both of us- things we care deeply about. I know many of you are also deeply passionate about politics and sports- maybe there is even some tension in your house around these kinds of subjects.
I can tell you there is some tension and some passion happening in what is happening on Palm Sunday. When you see Jesus enter Jerusalem on a donkey you see a very passionate crowd. Finally, there is an understanding in the crowd of who Jesus is and his significance as the son of God as he enters the holy city. People lay their cloaks on the road for him and cut palm leaves that they spread on the ground before him. They stand and cheer, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” You can hear this same kind of passion in our singing this morning, and you can be reminded of the passion behind the palm waving as our children process in with the palms. Palm Sunday is a day of recognition and of celebration with passion. The crowd knows that Jesus is the divine one, who comes from the line of their ancestor David and who comes to bring a new kind of kingdom- and that is something to get passionate about!
But there is also tension in this celebration, for at the same time that Jesus is humbly entering Jerusalem, there is another procession happening. Pontius Pilate, the Roman leader who rules Jerusalem and the surrounding areas is entering the city in quite a different way. Pilate lives on the coast, but travels to the city of the Jews on all the high festival days to make his presence known. His presence is a military presence- there to subdue the Jewish people if needed. The Jews are about to celebrate the Passover, a feast commemorating their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Pilate is not going to let them get any ideas about being freedom from Roman occupation.
In a book called, The Last Week, written by two biblical scholars- John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, Pilate’s entrance into the city is described. “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, 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 silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” Pilate’s entrance is in sharp contrast to the other procession that was happening that day.
One of the reasons this Palm Sunday event is so remarkable is that the people shouting “Hosanna!” seem to finally understand- even if just for this moment, Jesus and his message. He is so totally different that the kind of Messiah the people of God have been waiting on that for much of the Gospel people do not recognize who he is. If they happen to catch a glimpse because he has healed them they are asked not to tell anyone. In Mark’s Gospel every time someone understands and recognizes who Jesus is prior to Palm Sunday he asks them not to tell anyone. Somewhere along the way someone recognized the Messiah and told others about him. The word has spread and now there is a crowd on Palm Sunday.
The crowd is passionate about welcoming this new kind of king into Jerusalem. He is not a military power- riding in on a horse flanked by the cavalry. He is a servant-leader who humbles himself and rides in on a donkey. He doesn’t command respect by using violence or force, he earns respect by treating everyone he comes into contact with in a loving way.
The people expected that the king to rise up from the line of David would be a little more like royalty, instead of being from a humble family. They expected that he would conquer political forces like Rome, and overthrow them so that the Jewish people could once again be free. They were not expecting him to arrive into an imperfect world and proclaim, “The kingdom of God is here!” “Here?” They would have asked. “Here where Pilate rides in with his forces to make sure our religious festivals don’t get out of hand. Here, where only the wealthiest among us have any kind of a decent life? Here, where we live each day under Roman oppression?”
Jesus is still proclaiming that the kingdom of God is here. Only now, for those of us who have never lived in a kingdom Jesus declares that the “democracy of God” is now here. “Here?” we ask. “Here, where we’re in an economic recession? Here were we still have troops fighting in Iraq? Here where the unemployment rate is over 10%? Here, in a time when so many of us are filled with fear and uncertainty about the future?”
We rejoice today, because the kingdom of God is here. We’ve seen it- little bits at a time. We have seen fiercely loving acts in our lifetime. We have seen times when love triumphs over fear. We have seen how good and kind and loving our neighbors can be. And so we have seen the community of God. And yet we have seen the opposite as well- we have seen what happens when fear (which is the opposite of love) overtakes. So we know the God’s kingdom has a future element to it as well; we know that it has not yet come in its fullness.
The fact that we know God’s kingdom is here, and at the same time we know that there is much sorrow, suffering, and fear in the world- that causes us some tension. Parker Palmer talks about this “gap between what is and what could and should be.” He calls it the tragic gap. Our job is to live creatively in the tension of this gap between the already and the not yet. Palmer says if you cannot hold the tension creatively, you fall into one of two categories- either corrosive cynicism or irrelevant idealism.
We see a lot happening in the world, in our community and maybe even in our own families that is full of pain and sorrow. We are about to enter into what we call Holy Week, a week where we remember the awful and tragic events of the last week of Jesus’ life. If we are true to our faith we will not skip from one celebration to another. We will not go from shouting “Hosanna!” to shouting, “He is Risen!” without remembering to walk the painful, sorrowful road that lies ahead. As painful as it is, we must allow our hearts to break this week. Transforming suffering and heartbreak is central to what God is all about.
If we shut down when there is sorrow or suffering in our own lives or around us- then we are not able to live in the tension between what is now and what could and should be. But if we allow our hearts to break open wide then there becomes more room to experience the world’s joy and sorrow. Palmer says, “In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross. It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate.”
If we truly want to experience this week as “holy” we will be vulnerable enough to allow our hearts to break open. We will not let them break to the point where it paralyzes us and we are destroyed- but we will let them break open as we feel deeply the pain of the world not being as it should be. Our hearts will break as God’s did as we remember the death of Christ this week- and if we let them break open- then we will see that more love will also flow in with the sorrow and perhaps we will find on Easter morning a love and joy that we didn’t even know our hearts could experience.
Tension isn’t always a bad thing. As Christians I believe we are being called to live in the tension. We live within the tension of our differences as humans, and strive to love each other anyway. We live in the tension of knowing that God’s beloved community is here and now and the Jesus who was praised on Palm Sunday came to bring it. We also know at the same time that God’s community has not yet come in it fullness. That is a tension that can stretch us, and challenge us and on occasion break our hearts wide open.
If we can creatively live within the tension of what is and what should be, and if we can allow our hearts to break wide open with pain and sorrow I truly believe that we will also receive more love and joy into our hearts than we could have ever imagined.
Which procession do you want to be a part of this Palm Sunday? The one that operates out of fear- or the one that operates out of a love so deep your heart might break? It is up to you to decide. This week your challenge is to truly walk with Jesus through the last week of his life and as you do- let your heart break wide open with the sorrow, so that it might be filled with the joy of the resurrection next Sunday. Amen and Amen.
References: The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan.
“The Broken Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap,” by Parker J. Palmer, Weavings, vol. 24, March 2009