Palm Sunday, 2017

Parade’s are fantastic, aren’t they?  Versatile; colourful; full of activity, noise and wonder.  They help define our triumphs, they shape our memories; they offer joy and encouragement.  Parades can be vehicles for pride, promise, or protest.  They can promote patriotism and politicking.  They help us honour heroes, living and dead.

Parades help us express things that are not easily captured by words alone. Just watch the frantic flag-waving in Westville on 1 July, or the tears of joy when the Maple Leafs celebrate their next cup.  What’s not to love about a parade?

Bearing all this in mind, is it a parade that best describes what we encounter in the gospels, at the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry in Palestine?  A quick organizational meeting to arrange transport.  Impromptu decoration with clothing and foliage.  Crowds willing to shout themselves hoarse along the route, chosen for maximum visibility.  This is the only “parade” Jesus is known to have taken part, and he was both the organizer and the ‘grand marshal’.  His was the only ‘float’; his followers and friends provide the sound-track…and his opponents used this simple (but effective) procession as part of the evidence against him at his “trial” (so called).  And of course, we know that what began with shouts of triumph ended in disaster.  Sometimes, this happens – especially when the gathering is emotionally charged, or motivated by an ideal (or a dream) – think Martin Luther King Jr., or the senseless violence that seems to grow around victory celebrations of sports teams or politicians –  So why take the chance?

Jericho to Jerusalem – healing along the way – gathering stories, and courage, and the will to celebrate the festival in the city that “kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13: 34). Trouble around Jesus has been building for some time.  He has (in Matthew’s gospel) suggested, three different times , that he would be handed over, condemned to death, mocked, flogged and crucified; but still, the journey must continue.  Not because of a death wish on Jesus’ part – and not because “he had no choice” in the pure, pre-deterministic sense of the phrase – indeed, Jesus chose to live (and die) into his convictions about who God is and what God intends for Creation.  But is this a parade, or a protest march?

What’s the difference?  Both draw attention to an event; large, noisy, mobile gatherings of citizens are designed to convey messages.  Parades assume celebration or remembrance, while a protest march is likely to point a finger at the societal problems where politics, power, religion and reality meet.  In the days before social media campaigns and the lobbying of special interest groups, parades, and protest marches could be distinguished by the presence (or absence) of marching bands – think ‘million man’ (and more recently woman) marches on Washington, or civil rights marches in Selma, or marches, gatherings, and vigils by first nations people in our own country – politics, religion and personal convictions all coming together to raise awareness, or challenge injustice…or, in Jesus case, to proclaim “liberty to the captives and release to the captives…” (Isaiah 61: 1).  In the festive, chaos of the capital, what is needed is a display; you must be noticed to be heard (then and now), so the noise, the branches, the subtle symbolism – all this lends itself to Jesus message.

He leads this parade as a prophet – so say the crowds who gather with him – but the establishment is not kind to prophets.  Prophets say too much; they challenge traditions and view the world through different eyes.  They claim insight and they bring turmoil; they speak the truth to power.  If this is who Jesus is, then we must reexamine our ideas about this day on the church calendar – this pivotal event in the history of faith.  We mark the day by waving palms and imagining a festive, cheerful feeling in the air.  We allow ourselves to breath a little easier as we near the end of our Lenten reflections and welcome the life and hope of spring (at least in this part of the world…).   We often treat Palm Sunday as a ‘warm-up” for Easter; and while it’s true that we are very close – that we, who know how the story ends, can afford to be joyful and hopeful whenever we gather – this event in Jesus life marks the height of the tension between Jesus and his opponents.  This parade of protest was the last straw.

Chanting – singing praise to the “Son of David” – seems harmless, right?  Except that slogan suggests a new king in the old style – from a time when Israel was a sovereign nation – when God’s chosen ruled the land – when God’s rules were the only rules in town.

The whole city was in turmoil.  Civic leaders, loyal to Caesar; religious authorities with their own skins to save; indifferent citizens who imagine that politics and religion have nothing to do with one another.  This talk of David’s son, not to mention the shape of this noisy crowd – donkeys and peasant clothing and leftover shrubbery – mocks everyone who sits in power of their own procuring.  This seemingly harmless collection of people, animals, songs and actions has offered a challenge to the powerful that will be answered with force.  Jesus knows it – he’s been warning his disciples about the consequences – he knows how rebellion is dealt with, and this is a sign of rebellion.

Jesus mocks the powerful to point us to the true power of God.  Power that lifts up the broken hearted and cries out against injustice.  Jesus displays disdain for power with his donkey-riding cavalcade – as though heads of state arrived at the UN on roller-skates.   Jesus actions suggest that true power – real leadership – resides, not in the trappings of power, but in the power of God.

That power will be tested by the powers that be.  Disciples will be coerced; crowds will be scattered; the power of the state will be exercised to its ruthless limits.  And we will see who prevails.

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