Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
We cycle through news stories quickly these days – and don’t worry, I’ll come back to the most recent and pressing one – but it wasn’t so long ago that parades were in the news. Not just Mardi Gras parades, either, but big military parades, and in particular, the idea of having one here. I’m not going to get too deep into this. Suffice it to say, from the reaction, that there are those who think a parade is just a parade – a way to celebrate our country and honor our troops – and those who think a parade is a statement, either to us here in the United States or our opponents abroad.
Just a parade, or an attempt to make a statement? What kind of parade do you think the people of Jerusalem saw on that first Palm Sunday?
That might seem like a strange kind of question. We’re used to Palm Sunday as the joyful, triumphant time before it all went wrong. But still, it was an interesting kind of procession, wasn’t it? Hardly what you might have called stately: a man dressed like a peasant, riding on a donkey colt, while a ragtag group of disciples and Passover pilgrims walked alongside waving branches and singing pilgrimage songs. The kind where if you were there, you might have stopped and wondered what was going on.
Well, according to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book The Last Week, this was likely not the only procession to enter Jerusalem that day. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would have also been on his way to the city. After all, it was the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday of liberation, and the occupying Romans were ready for trouble. Pilate, that day, would have entered the city from the other direction, riding on horseback, followed by impeccably dressed soldiers on horseback and on foot. Borg and Crossan ask us to visualize: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”
From the west, a stately imperial parade. And from the east, a man rides into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, surrounded by a spontaneous crowd waving branches and singing Hosanna.
You be the judge. Of course, there were some aspects of Jesus’ ragtag Palm Sunday procession that might have caught the eye of those who were paying attention. For example, the prophet Zechariah had written long ago that the Messiah would arrive from the direction of the Mount of Olives, riding on a donkey. Spreading your coats on the ground was something you might have done to welcome a king. For a king to enter a city on a donkey, rather than a horse, was a sign that he came in peace.
Unlike, for example, the parade entering the city from the west.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Jesus could have walked. He and his disciples had already walked from Galilee, in the far north of Israel, to Judea in the south. He didn’t need to ride a donkey the last two miles. It’s almost as if Jesus got to the Mount of Olives, cocked his head, heard the hoofbeats and drums of the Romans in the distance, paused for a minute, and then said to his disciples, “You know what? Bring me a donkey.”
One parade to answer another.
In other words, it’s possible to understand Palm Sunday not just as Jesus’ brief moment of glory before all hell broke loose – but almost as an act of satire.
In other words, Palm Sunday is when the Gospel gets political.
And while it’s possible the disciples and the people surrounding them joined in the procession naively and unironically, it’s equally possible that as they watched Jesus prepare to climb on to the back of that too-small donkey and head toward the city, something clicked, and they began to smile as they spread their coats on the donkey’s back and on the road in front of him.
Their choice was clear: they could choose Rome, with its pomp and circumstance and raw military power and wealth. Or they could choose Jesus, the peasant king who came in peace.
Who would they proclaim as Lord in their chants and songs? Jesus, or Caesar? Whose kingdom would they pledge allegiance to? Jesus’, or Caesars?
On that day, they chose Jesus. On that day, the Gospel was a political act. In fact, you might call it downright subversive.
Doesn’t it seem sometimes like the Gospel has lost its edge? Like we’re so worried about not being “political” in church that we actually forget about the very political implications of the Gospel? Or even worse, that in the US in the 21st century, Christ and Caesar have somehow come to mean the same thing?
I’m certainly not trying to say that God is a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, I think it’s pretty dangerous to go from “the Gospel is political” to “God happens to agree with all of my political views.” But what I mean is that truly living out the Gospel does make a political statement, and it has to do with who we proclaim and serve as Lord.
Jesus didn’t get out there with signs protesting Roman rule. He certainly never led a military uprising against this oppressive colonial power. What did he do? While Caesar’s representatives were marching into Jerusalem, he had his own parade. And instead of conveying power and grandeur, he conveyed humility and peace.
And in doing so, he made a mockery of the values the Roman Empire was built on. And this fact was not missed. We only have to look to the end of the week to see that.
A couple years ago two pastors and 90-year-old homeless advocate were arrested in Ft. Lauderdale for feeding homeless people. Ft. Lauderdale had been passing a series of laws designed to make it harder for homeless people to live on its streets, in an effort to “clean up” the city, believing that “the sight of homeless people was affecting tourism.” One of these laws restricted feeding people in public. So when Arnold Abbott, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims headed out to a Ft. Lauderdale park that day in November 2014, they knew they risked angering Caesar with what they did.
One of the men arrested told a local TV station that one of the police officers said to him, “Drop that plate right now” – “as if I were carrying a weapon,” he said. The police officer must himself have been carrying a weapon, yet somehow it was the man brandishing a plate, used for feeding the hungry, who was seen as a threat to the values of the city. Kind of like the man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Like I said, living out the Gospel subversively isn’t all protest signs and revolution. It doesn’t even necessarily mean breaking the law, and “Caesar” doesn’t have to be the government. Sometimes the powers that be are other powerful institutions. Sometimes they are our prevailing cultural norms. When Jesus encountered those powers, he didn’t fight them; instead, he said “Here is my parallel witness.” Sometimes just living out the values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world can be enough to call out those values of this world.
When Caesar says the homeless are an eyesore, we can say “Here’s a sandwich.”
When Caesar makes immigrants our enemies, we can say “You are part of our community.”
When Caesar demands that we devote our lives to work and be on call 24-7, we can observe Sabbath.
When Caesar says salvation lies in acquiring more stuff, we can give our money away.
Our lives, lived in light of the Gospel and according to the values of the Kingdom of God, can quietly call into question the values of the world around us.
I do think we need to be a little careful here, because if all of a sudden we’re living just to make a point about how much better we are than everyone, then we’ve colossally missed the point. The point is that our lives are a witness – and in the end, we can call Caesar Lord, or we can call Jesus Lord. We can join Caesar’s parade, or we can join the Palm Sunday procession. But if we join Jesus’ parade, it ends up exposing the other for what it really is.
I have to admit that I struggled for a while with all of this in light of this week’s school shooting. In our culture where mass violence has come to be practically expected, where we mourn and then do nothing and wait for the next time, where we throw up our hands and say “Well, you can’t stop evil,” and where what does it mean to live by the values of the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of Caesar?
A lot of my friends talked angrily this week about the need for more gun control. I agree with them, though some of you may not. And I pondered whether being faithful to the Gospel meant that I should stand here and say so, even if that came across as “too political.” But I think if I did that, I would win points with some of you who agree with me, while others would go home angry and more convinced of their own views than ever before. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that yelling louder is actively creating a safer and less violent world. And I am sure that the roots of our problem here in America go much deeper than our access to guns. There was a story going around this week about a principal who took it upon himself to visit the homes of children at his school who were the most isolated and angry, to show them he cared and intended to be personally involved in their lives. He assigned them mentors to check in on them when they didn’t seem to be doing well, and to ask how they could help. By the end of the year, supposedly, the attitude and behavior of many of these children had improved.
I’m not saying that replaces the actual structural, systemic, even legal changes needed, but maybe our witness to the Gospel begins with intentionally extending love to those who are isolated and angry.
There was also the story of a man who owned multiple guns, including an AR-15, the kind that was used in this shooting and in many other recent mass shootings, who surrendered the gun to the Broward County sheriff’s office this week. “I enjoyed shooting this gun,” he said, “but I don’t need it. There’s no one who needs it.”
Maybe our witness to the Gospel begins with our own sacrifices that, instead of holding on to that which is our right, instead proclaims “I come in peace.”
If this all sounds jumbled and kind of like I’m thinking aloud, that’s because I am. I don’t know for sure that my convictions are right, and I don’t know all of what needs to change so that I don’t have to fear for my daughter’s life every time she leaves for school in a couple years, and I don’t for sure know my part in it all, though I repent of the many times I have done nothing. It sounds great and bold to say that the Gospel is political, but in the end, it’s not always clear how our commitment to the values of God’s Kingdom play out in real life, or how they confront and critique the values of Caesar’s kingdom.
And maybe sometimes our witness begins in talking to each other and committing to find some solution together rather than simply yelling louder – even if we are right. That would be countercultural, right?
Or, maybe our witness does mean peacefully holding our ground for what is right, while we strive to love our enemies and opponents at the same time.
I don’t know. Sometimes I just ask the questions. I think any one of these might be a way to choose Jesus’ kingdom over Caesar’s.
Here’s what I do know: that the Palm Sunday story isn’t just a story of a triumphant entrance. It’s a story that casts its shadow over the week to come, when Jesus will much more directly and much less satirically come into conflict with the powers that be in Jerusalem, whether Jewish or Roman. This is the subversive act that sets the stage for the rest. Jesus didn’t die because he was a nice, loving guy. He died because love breaks the rules, spoken and unspoken. He died because love – quietly sometimes – speaks truth to power. He died because love is subversive. He died because love is political.
Here’s what else I do know: Caesar might have a big parade. But his kingdom, in the end, cannot withstand the kingdom whose law is love.
So as we head into the season of Lent and into the unfolding events of Holy Week: whose kingdom is it going to be?
 Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Bible Really Teaches About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 3