I am sure the main question on your lips as we begin this sermon is, What does this reading from Mark have to do with the call to worship we read at the beginning of this service? Well, what indeed? I’m so glad you asked. So we’re going to look at Psalm 118 and the Mark text and then, of course, explore what this all has to do with us.
The call to worship is taken from Psalm 118, the subtitle of which is “A Song of Victory.” The writer of this psalm has been through some harrowing times, hemmed in by other nations on all sides, calling on God in distress: “Save us, we beseech you, O God!” (118:25). The psalmist enters God’s gate for the righteous and invites all to “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” (118:27). Can you see the beginnings of our Palm Sunday procession of branches right there, several thousand years ago, a thousand years even before Jesus?
This is a ritual giving of thanks to God, who has delivered the writer from danger. Even as others rejected the psalmist, God did not do so. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (118:22).
So in Mark, we see Jesus enter the gate of Jerusalem with great ritual: riding on a colt that has never been ridden before, with followers laying down their coats and greens on the road before him like a red carpet. He enters like a king and goes to the temple. It is a grand entrance indeed. He is enacting Psalm 118, in essence.
And he is giving thanks to God, whose steadfast love endures forever, even as Jesus rides into the final stormy week of his earthly existence. This ride demonstrates his own faith to God’s call, difficult as it may be.
But you notice what happens after this grand entrance: nothing. “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). Bethany. Did you catch that this is where he came from at the start of our reading? He starts from Bethany, makes this entrance into Jerusalem, looks around… and goes back to Bethany. I hope he returned the colt along the way, as he had promised he would do. (“May we borrow this colt? It’s for Jesus. We’ll bring it right back….”)
You kind of expect a grand entrance to be followed by something big, like a coronation, or a wedding, or a battle. But it turns out that the entrance was the something big. It was a statement. It was street theater. As I have mentioned before, at roughly the same time as Jesus and his entourage are entering Jerusalem from one side with their homemade parade, Pontius Pilate is likely entering Jerusalem from the other side with fancy horses, military might, and a great deal of show. Because Jerusalem was a gathering point for the Passover celebration of the Jews, Pilate needed to make an appearance to remind them who was in control, meaning Rome. And how do you do that? You bring out all the military brass, parade through town with a lot of swagger. In modern terms, you pull out the police in riot gear, or the troops, swoop in with helicopters and tanks and bullhorns. “We’re in charge here, people. Don’t you dare forget it.” Kind of like Myanmar right now.
In this context, here comes Jesus with one measly colt, no weapons, and this ragtag band of followers who still don’t quite get what’s going on. This is Jesus as jester, lampooning the powers that be.
All of which means that, even though this grand entrance looks a little silly, it’s actually, as we know, very dangerous. Jesus is reminding people that Rome thinks it’s in power, but really God has the ultimate power. When people lay down their coats before him and call out their Hosannas, they are saying they would rather recognize God’s authority than Rome’s. That’s nonviolent civil disobedience. And as we know, it’s not going to go over well. Jesus may have turned around and gone home that evening, but he has just set the stage for everything that follows in this Holy Week: betrayal, arrest, rejection, assassination. Which is supposed to be the end of the story, but we’ve been here before and know that there’s more. We’ll save that for next week.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” We may think of Jesus when we hear this sentence—that Jesus is rejected and then becomes the chief cornerstone of Christianity—but the sentence could apply to anyone. Next Sunday, April 4, is Easter. It is also the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At one point he made a visit to India, where he learned more about Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance methods. As King was introduced to a group of high school students who came from families from the Untouchable caste, the school principal said, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” As Isabel Wilkerson writes in her book Caste,
“King was floored. He had not expected that term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first….
Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for—20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettoes, exiled in their own country.
And he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” [Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 22.]
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” When we talk today about the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Dr. King, we see the parallels between his life and work and the life and work of Jesus. They dedicated themselves to the untouchables, to justice for everyone, to spreading the good news of God’s liberating love. You don’t see King riding into town on a donkey. You do see young people walking into a diner and just sitting down at the counter. You do see people of all ages walking across the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma. You see people carrying signs that say, “I am a man,” because all their lives they had been called “boy” or worse. And we see Pilate’s army in riot gear, siccing dogs on the protestors, beating them, blasting them with fire hoses. Because such street theater is a threat to the powers that be.
It doesn’t sound threatening in the abstract, to sit at a counter, to walk across a bridge, to say “I am a man.” But, like Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, it suggests that there is an alternative to the oppressive powers that be. And we get there not with guns and swords and fancy horses and armor. Not with police in riot gear. We get there with whatever we have in our hands—a colt, some branches from the fields, a few coats. We do a little street theater, carry signs, wave branches, sing hosannas as we march. We write to our legislators to let them know what we care about and want them to care about, too.
Right now, around the world, people are daring to show up in the streets to say there is a better way. In Myanmar, where the military is shooting into the crowds and killing people. In Hong Kong. In the streets of the US with signs saying “Black Lives Matter” or “No human being is illegal” or “Climate change is real.” These are often not the so-called “important” people. They may be the stones that the builders rejected—the ordinary people, or even the untouchables. I saw a sign at one march that said, “You know things are messed up when accountants start marching.” Like Jesus, the people who take to the streets are creative, they are persistent, they are dedicated, and they know there is a better way. I’m not talking about the anarchists who just want an excuse to smash and steal. I mean the people who are working courageously, tenaciously, passionately for change. Like Arundhati Roy, they may be saying, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” (Arundhati Roy - Another world is not only possible, she is... (brainyquote.com))
Friends, on this Palm Sunday we are invited to join the parade. Which parade do we choose? Do we cheer Pilate and his army, who represent oppression and power and the status quo? Or do we throw our coats down and wave branches for Jesus, who comes vulnerable and unarmed, proclaiming a way of love and justice?
We have been inviting people to share a Gratitude and Generosity Moment in worship lately. This is really what we’re asking you to share: which parade are you attending, and what does that look like for you? What rallies lure you to the streets? What does your sign say and why? What lights your heart on fire so ferociously that you have to speak up? Some people don’t want to speak at a Gratitude and Generosity Moment because it sounds like praising themselves for being good. My hope is rather that you are helping to light us all on fire with the passion for justice that motivates you. Progressive Christians are often a humble, quiet lot. We don’t want to impose our faith on anyone. But the truth is, if we are hearing good news that reframes our lives in terms of love and justice, not only do we need to be sharing that good news, but we need to be waving greens or carrying signs in the streets, working for the new world that is breathing, that is beginning, that is coming. There is no neutral. We’re either at one parade or the other, Pilate’s entrance or Jesus riding on a colt.
On this Palm Sunday, we know what the coming week holds for Jesus. He is heading into the storm. But what he knows, and what the psalmist knew in Psalm 118, is that God’s steadfast love endures forever. This is not a promise that anything will be easy, and certainly for Jesus it was not. For King it was not. For so many others who have pledged their lives to this work, it is not easy. It is dangerous and hard. And God’s steadfast love is right there with us. So let us be bold in working for that new world, that alternative to hate and greed and caste systems.
I want to close with a story of singer-songwriter Betsy Rose. She was at a rally—a peaceful, nonviolent rally. The police were there, and tensions were escalating. As she saw that the event might devolve into violence, she thought, “What can I do? What can I do?” In other words, what did she have in her hands? And what came to her was a song by Holly Near. So she started singing: “We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.” And the people started singing with her: “We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.” Everybody took a deep breath. The police stepped back. The day ended peacefully. Whether through street theater or letters to our legislators or singing our hearts out, let us be showing up to the work that lights us with passion. It makes a difference. You make a difference. Share that with the world. Amen.