A sermon for Palm Sunday at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, April 2019
Some of the Pharisees in the Palm Sunday crowd wanted Jesus to tell his people to pipe down. They were afraid of the judgement that might be called down upon them – from Rome, if not from God. They were worried that the authorities might sense a riot, and crack down on the Jews ahead of their Passover festival, the most sacred feast of the year. They were offended that some in the crowd seemed to have crowned Jesus as the Messiah, without first consulting the chief priests, let alone King Herod, and don’t even mention – please don’t mention – Caesar’s puppet, Pontius Pilate.
They were frightened that God might be doing some new thing, and that either they had missed it, or, perhaps more worrying still, that they might yet be required to join in.
Jesus told them, if the people piped down, the stones would sing out. The walls of Jerusalem, the foundations of the Temple would proclaim the story of God’s faithfulness to Zion, God’s saving mercy and redeeming power – the power that brought the people out of Egypt, and the mercy that returned the remnant from their Exile, and the faithfulness that promised to do it again and again, as long as the people called upon God to be with them. The stones that had built up the Temple, and had been brought low, and raised up again, and now trembled as the troops of Rome entered one side of the city,
while a procession of praise escorted Jesus in at another (Borg & Crossan, 2); these stones knew their history perhaps more completely even than the people, and if the world fell silent, they would bear witness to God’s terrible and faithful and merciful judgement and love.
And some in the crowd cautioned quiet, please don’t draw attention, please don’t.
The stones cry out God’s faithfulness and pray still for God’s salvation. The people praise Jesus for all of the works of power they have seen and the words of wisdom they have heard and they cry out for more: Hosanna, which means Save us, we pray (Levine, 31).
We know that by the end of the week, the tables had been turned. Jesus was arrested, and a crowd clamoured for his crucifixion, appeasing the emperor with his blood and their betrayal. We so often tend to see these mobs in black and white hats, but the probability exists that the same Pharisees and undecided disciples who had held back their hosannas at the gate, whispering their doubts, now shook their heads sadly, saying, See what it has come to. What did we tell you? They stood between the agitators and the agitated, casting pity over Jesus’ desperate disciples, standing slightly apart, as they
had at the gate, washing their hands of the whole distasteful, disgraceful episode.
We read of the weak, duplicitous dealings of the high priests and potentates. We remember the injustice of Pilate and the fickleness of the populace. We know about the betrayal of Judas, of Peter. But what about the way in which this small and particular group of Pharisees betrayed themselves?
These were good people. They were good, religious, pious people. They knew their scriptures, they understood the implications of Jesus’ words and actions, and the response of the crowd. There was a reason that they gathered by the gate to see him coming: they wanted to believe, they wanted to shout hosanna; in their hearts, they prayed that it might be true, that he might be the Messiah, that salvation, the kingdom of God might be at hand. They knew enough to know that it was true. Yet they held back.
They were afraid: of being wrong, and seeming foolish; of being right, and called to be brave; they knew that God’s grace changes everything, and they had concerns.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. This little band of churchgoers was not unwise, but they were not all in.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this, seeing as this parish is no whitewashed tomb, nor is its worship in vain. Still, there is a risk always of making our religion tame, forgetting the wild freedom of Jesus’ call to carry the cross; of becoming respectable, at the expense of revolution. It would be a judgement upon us if our building, the wood and stones, the cross and the carillon, were to proclaim the gospel more loudly than our lives, than we ourselves could manage. Even for the most faithful, Holy Week is a necessary reminder that there are no half measures when it comes to following Christ, who told the rich man to give it all away, and told the uncertain applicant to leave the dead to bury the dead, to leave no piece of his heart behind if he were to follow in the way of life, of our life-giving, loving, liberating God.
Secretly, perhaps, many of us have sympathy with those Pharisees, those faithful and devout people, who wanted nothing more than a quiet and pious life. We may not fall into the trap of Peter, denying Jesus outright, and God forbid that we fall into the pit that Judas dug for himself. But we betray ourselves, each time we secretly pray that not too much will be demanded of us, that not too much will change, that the way of the cross will not lead us into crisis; that our faith may fly under the radar of the world and its empires and its everyday interactions, injuries, and options, and the question never be
Dare I say that even Jesus knew that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, wondering whether it was all too much, wondering whether he might, after all, slip quietly into insignificance, retire, perhaps, to Galilee, try to live down his bold words about the work that God was doing in his world? Of course, we know what he decided. He would not betray himself, nor his followers, nor his God, for the sake of a little peace and quiet.
Holy Week sets a high bar for the followers of Christ. It raises the cross before us and asks whether we are willing to cry louder than the forces of sin and death for our salvation, or whether we will rely on some structure, stones, wood, the cross and the carillon to do it for us, and hope that they are loud enough. It asks whether we are all in.
No wonder, then, that the word the crowd cried out was Hosanna: Save us, please. Hosanna: Save us, we pray.
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2006)
Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week (Abingdon Press, 2018)