“Brave Together” Mark 11:1-11
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
Sixth Sunday of Lent – Palm Sunday
Rev. Sean Weston
There were two processions that day. Every year, the Roman governor of the area would come to Jerusalem for Passover. year, at least 150,000 Jews from the surrounding countryside would make the trek to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, tripling the city’s population. Passover is the Jewish celebration of being liberated by God from slavery in Egypt, one of three times each year that people from the countryside would come to Jerusalem. The streets were bustling. Think of the kind of energy that fills a church on a big Sunday, like Easter Sunday. This is one of the most important events each year.
But for as long as anybody could remember, Passover was also a time of grief and sadness. Yes, God may have liberated the Hebrews from slavery long ago, but now they were in bondage to the Romans, who controlled everything, took everything, and killed anybody who stood in their way. It’s hard to celebrate freedom when you’re still in chains.
To make matters worse, the Roman authorities were brilliant at reminding everybody who was in charge. The governor made a point of being there each and every year during Passover, coming in from the west with his triumphant royal procession. One author describes it this way: “Calvary on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold….the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” Remember, the Rome didn’t just believe that the emperor was the ruler of Rome; no, the emperor was the Son of God and prince of peace.
So, you have a city filled with people celebrating the Passover of freedom. While they do, each year, an armed procession comes by with your Roman governor, to remind you that you are indeed not free. Not only are you not free, but the people who control your lives are claiming God’s mandate to do so, claiming that peace could only come through the show of incredible force. Twisting the knife, pouring salt in the wound, choose the image that works for you. The point is that there is a painful undertone just beneath the surface as the Passover begins. I imagine as families and communities gathered, the pain wasn’t expressed openly. One or two people might say something: “when are we going to do something about the violent Romans occupying the city? When is enough enough?” Chances are, though, they would be shushed before saying more. It was too dangerous to say such things – and too painful to hear. Better to try to keep a low profile, better to try and find joy in the struggle to grind out a life, better to take what you can get and not complain. You wouldn’t want what little you have to be taken away. Let the sleeping dog lie.
Try to imagine what that would be like. As the Roman procession is taking place, maybe you’re on your way to pay your respects like you’re supposed to. Then something happens that you don’t expect. Somebody stops by in a hushed tone: “there’s another parade right now. That Jesus guy is riding a donkey into town into the back gate and people are surrounding him. They say he is the Messiah – the true king. They say he is going to take charge and save us.” Now you have a choice? Which parade will you go to? You know what the safe choice is. But your heart is somewhere else. You’ve seen the Roman parade countless times. You don’t know if there’s anything to this Jesus guy, but you know you want things to be better.
You decide to take a risk and head to the other side of town for the other parade. You haven’t decided what you’ll do once you arrive – you just want to check it out. And when you arrive you find the strangest thing: Jesus is riding into the city not on a powerful animal of war but on a small animal of peace. A crowd has assembled, and they are shouting the most amazing thing: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” You see that they’ve spread their cloaks on the ground, and you immediately remember the Bible stories you’ve heard your whole life: when God wanted to replace the evil King Jehoram, God arranged for the new king, Jehu, to make a procession as people spread out their cloaks before him. This is no idle talk. This is dangerous stuff. You hear the chants and see the cloaks and you know immediately that the governor is being mocked openly, by this rag-tag bunch setting up a makeshift parade to Jerusalem’s back door, claiming that this Jesus is the true king, the true Son of God, the true prince of peace.
You consider leaving immediately. Do you really want to be associated with those people? The consequence could be death. But then you remember all of the times you said to yourself “somebody needs to do something.” You approach the crowd, with no small amount of fear. As you do, they see you and joyfully call at you to join. “It’s okay,” they say, “we’re doing this together.” The closer you get the more excited you are. You’ve never seen so many people openly mocking Rome. You’ve never seen so many people risk their very lives to make things better. You begin to wonder, on this Passover of freedom, if God is setting your people free once more.
In some ways you and I are very far removed from that world 2,000 years ago. In other ways, though, things are plenty similar. Writer Debie Thomas notes several parallels:
“officials at the Pentagon – under orders from President Trump – are planning a multimillion dollar military parade, a symbolic show of force from the world’s most powerful nation. Concurrently, as thousands of children and teenagers around the country ‘walk out’ of their schools to plead for commonsense gun control in the wake of yet another mass shooting, detractors are calling instead for more guns – more conceal-and-carry options, fewer restrictions on gun ownership, and more armed adults in schools. What, I wonder, would Jesus-on-a-colt have to say about our obsession with might? Where and how would his parade-of-the-radically-vulnerable speak truth to today’s centers of power?”
It makes me wonder today – which crowd do we want to be part of?
Palm Sunday did not take place in a vacuum. Each and every person there knew exactly what was at stake. We don’t know if the Romans even took notice of this little procession. We don’t know if anything happened to anybody in the crowd. We don’t know who, if any, of the people there were also in the crowd that would shout “crucify him” later in the week. We do know that it would have taken an incredible amount of bravery just to be there. I’m a huge fan of Jesus, but I think we miss something if we focus on him in this story. Scared as he might have been, he knew that he was going to be okay in the end. I’m most amazed by the crowd of vulnerable people who, having a glimpse of hope, took a huge risk together.
After all, Jesus didn’t actually take control of Jerusalem that day. He didn’t become king. Rome would hold on to power for hundreds more years, and things would actually get worse for the Jewish people. It’s easy to imagine that those in the crowd were let down: they thought everything was going to get better, and it didn’t.
But I also wonder if that in that brief moment, laying down their cloaks and shouting Hosannas, the crowd realized that in one sense they could be free in the here and now. They realized that freedom does not mean you can do whatever you want without consequence, but that freedom means that you no longer allow the fear of what might happen to keep you from doing what you believe is right. Jesus was truly free – not because he could escape the consequences of his actions – because he could not. Jesus was truly free because he chose to do the will of God regardless of what might happen. I wonder if in that moment, the people in that crowd experienced the true freedom of the children of God.
When is it that we might experience that sense of true freedom? I imagine that many of the people of all ages, but particularly young people, marching against gun violence yesterday experienced that freedom. Young people from communities of color have been standing against gun violence and over-policing and mass incarceration for decades, and I’ve seen enough to know that just being with other people demanding change can bring a sense of freedom. I know that in my own life I’ve been in various crowds like yesterday’s crowd and that Palm Sunday crowd and I’ve experienced a sense of freedom. In that freedom there is excitement, no matter how monumental the challenges. I hope that we in church-land are not so accustomed to this day where we process with the Palms that we forget how risky it would have been to surrounded Jesus that day; how exciting and freeing it would have been to join his movement.
Nobody in that crowd surrounding Jesus found their freedom alone. It was only in community, linking arms with one another, having each other’s back that freedom was found. As we enter Holy Week, in this journey to the cross and the empty tomb, we are confronted with a choice. Which crowd will we join? Will we play it safe and stand by while power flexes its violent muscles? Or will we surround this Jesus and be brave together? Will we seek not the false freedom of violent power, but the true freedom of God’s peace?
I close by offering this blessing from the Catholic Franciscan tradition:
“May God bless us with discomfort – discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts. May God bless us with anger – anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless us with tears -tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with foolishness – enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.”
May it be so. Amen.