The Paradox of Palm Sunday

Mark 11:1-11



Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote, in their book, The Last Week, these words:


Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. With its climax of Good Friday and Easter, it is the most sacred week of the Christian year.


One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. . . .


On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor . . . entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.”  (The Last Week, page 2, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan)


When I started serving a church as a pastor and came to my first Holy Week, I got up onto my high horse and declared to the congregation that we were going to tell not only the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, to loud whooping of hosannas, but also the Passion story of how Jesus was betrayed and deserted by his followers and tortured and led to the cross to die. My rationale for packing all this material into one service was that most people in the Free Church tradition, that is, non-Catholics and non-Episcopalians, skip right from the Yay, Jesus of Palm Sunday to the Yay, Jesus of Easter without the Oh, No of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. That would not be right!


Fortunately, my congregation put up with all of this. After a time, over the years, I carefully climbed down off of my high horse and let Palm Sunday be what it was, all by its lonesome.


The title of this sermon is, The Paradox of Palm Sunday. A paradox can be defined as a situation with contradictory features. I was discussing Palm Sunday with a friend and she commented on this very point. On the one hand, Palm Sunday is a time to celebrate a new way of life for humanity, a way that honors all people as valuable and deserving of respect and dignity. On the other hand, we know that some of the same people who were singing gustily on Palm Sunday were shouting “Crucify Him” later in the week. So, inherent in our celebration of this day is the knowledge that we, as humanity, have the capacity to lose sight of and lose faith in a new way of living, one that challenges the powers that be. We find ourselves held captive by the domination structures that were present in Jerusalem then, and are present in the world today. The paradox of Palm Sunday is that it is both joyous and ominous, both freeing and foreboding. The challenge, therefore, as I see it, is to recognize this paradox and trust that God can use this paradoxical reality for our spiritual well being.


A colleague of mine once paraphrased the transactional analysis saying of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” when talking about Christianity. His saying went like this. In Christianity, I’m not Okay, You’re not Okay, And that’s Okay.


Palm Sunday is like that. We want to climb on board the train that is headed toward freedom, justice, and equality. Something deep inside the human spirit resonates with the idea that we are all connected, that we are interdependent with one another and, even, with all creation. This was the message of Jesus as he traveled to Jerusalem. As he entered the city, people hailed him as if he were a king. He was a king, of sorts, but a different kind of king, one who did not exist for himself or his own power or privilege or to support domination structures, but one who lived for others, all others, even, and especially for those who were the poorest and had the least power in society.


But, as my colleague suggests, the human spirit, while yearning for a better way, out of self-centeredness and fear, chooses the safe, the familiar, the predictable, even the oppressive way.  The Apostle Paul spoke to this in his Letter to the Romans: chapter 7:19-20.


For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me.


Paul liked to talk about sin and the law, and about grace.  Jesus, God bless him, did not concern himself overmuch with theological language. He just loved people. All people. And this love took him from the countryside, where he would have been safer, to the city where he would have a larger audience and where he knew he would meet the leaders who enforced the system he condemned.  He knew his message was in direct conflict with their message. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, which we may call the Realm of God. The Realm of God directly confronts the realm of Caesar or Herod or Pontius Pilate. To sing and praise Jesus as a political leader anywhere in the Roman Empire, let alone in Jerusalem, was to commit treason. No wonder the leader of such a movement was arrested and executed. It was inevitable. But, and here is a spoiler alert, the message of Jesus did not die. It lives. Right here. Right now. 


The hardest thing to accept about Christianity is Jesus. Not the miracle stories of Jesus. Not the healings. Not even the language of the church where Jesus is called the Son of God, Lord, or Savior. The hardest thing to accept about Jesus is his message that God wants us to live a different way than we do. Right now, in our lives, we are dealing with terrible situations in our world. There are wars in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan. There are tragic stories of refugees in North Africa, Asia and the Americas. There are economic threats. Environmental threats. Political threats. In the midst of all the suffering in these places and with the men, women and children in these places, we gather to hear a story of courage and hope, a story that runs counter to the domination story of might making right and the power of the fittest. We gather to hear a message of peaceful and loving defiance.


There were two processions that Palm Sunday. 


We are in both processions.  We are the ones who are fearful and awed and coerced by the power of armies and wealth, who wonder how a life of self-sacrifice would affect our standard of living. So we keep quiet when we know there are people in need around us and at our borders and in lands where a different language is spoken. We are the ones who accept the inequalities in our institutions because they have become normal and it hurts our brains to think of ways to make them more just.


We are also the ones laying down palms and singing joyful, hopeful songs about a change in our society, a change that will bring people together around the pressing political issues of our day. Not the kind of togetherness where we all agree, but together in trust that human kindness and decency will overcome our fear and will give us the courage to believe what Jesus said about loving God and loving neighbor and walking on the way of life. 


I will close with a story familiar to many.


A grandfather is talking with his grandson. The grandfather says, “In life, there are two wolves inside of us which are always at battle. One is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear”.The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”The grandfather replies, “The one you feed, my child.” Amen.


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