The Parade: Risking Reputation - Message from February 21, 2021
First Sunday of Lent
Scripture: Mark 11:7-10
Preacher: Rev. David Ourisman
Message: The Parade: Risking Reputation
Listen to podcast | Tithes and Offerings
The official title of this sermon is The Parade: Risking Reputation — This is the first of a six part worship series that Epworth is following this Lent.
and I’ll get to the risking reputation part by the end of the sermon.
But the unofficial title of my sermon is Palm Sunday in Context.
I don’t think we realize how much we are influenced by the context in which we hear a text or read a text. Context plays a huge role in how we find meaning, and I’m going to demonstrate that with the Palm Sunday story.
So how do we usually come to this story? We usually hear it in a specific liturgical context.
We usually hear this text read aloud in worship on the sixth Sunday in Lent, on Palm Sunday
Think about that.
Most times we hear the story, we will have been observing Lent for quite awhile. Lent is a penitential season. Our attention will have been on Jesus’ passion, on Jesus’ suffering. We may have focused on his journey to Jerusalem, or on the cost of discipleship, or on the looming specter of the cross.
We may have looked deeply into our own souls and considered how we need to grow.
Sometimes in our practice we give up something for Lent (like chocolate) and gone without that thing for six weeks (which I foolishly did one year).
Lent can be a down time. Lent is a dark season. Winter is still dragging on.
So when Palm Sunday finally comes, we can be forgiven if we feel a sense of relief with Easter just a week away, with spring about to blossom, finally. Palm Sunday is usually a day of celebration.
We call the Palm Sunday lectionary “The Triumphal Entry.”
We read it at the beginning of the service,
and then we wave palm branches as the choir processes down the center aisle.
And the hymns we sing on Palm Sunday are usually happy songs.
Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang.
All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer King.
So in this typical liturgical context, Palm Sunday is a day of celebration, a day to anticipate Easter,
a day to let go of the darkness of Lent. It’s the beginning of Holy Week, we frankly skip over the distressing events of Holy Week, so anxious we are to get to Easter and its joy and its victory.
So that’s the usual context in which we come to Palm Sunday, and, honestly, it’s a reading that robs the story of much of its power.
But context matters.
I remember two times when I’ve preached on the Palm Sunday story
in something other than the usual liturgical context. Both times, I was drawn to the Palm Sunday story by something that was happening in the news, something that was going on in the world. Both times, the context revealed a layer of meaning in the story
that I had not seen before.
The first time was February 25, 1979. I know that date because I have notebooks of the sermons I’ve written.
1979. Imagine a much younger version of myself, with no gray in my hair, no lines on my face a much younger David who began his sermon this way 42 years ago (and afterwards in coffee hour you can tell me if it still preaches):
A few weeks ago I saw one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on TV.
It was the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran after years of exile in Paris.
Khomeini is the religious leader
of the millions of Muslims who live in Iran,
and I was struck by the outburst of emotion
when he returned home again,
thousands upon thousands of people cheering
and trying to reach out to touch him.
It was a startling thing to watch.
This kind of emotionalism is really foreign
to our religious experience in America.
Our culture distrusts overt emotionalism.
We prefer a more rational approach to things.
Suddenly, as I was watching all this go on,
a thought came to mind:
this is how it must have been
when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Crowds were lining the road.
People were in the same kind of emotional frenzy.
They cried, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
They lined his way with palm branches.
They reached out to touch
this dynamic, magnetic religious leader from Nazareth.
That’s what I said 42 years ago. The homiletician in me would have urged the 27 year old David to go deeper. Surely it’s about more than Jesus being a dynamic, magnetic religious leader. The crowd’s excitement was coming from a deeper and darker place. It was coming from a profound hope that Jesus would be the promised Messiah, that by entering an occupied Jerusalem,
its liberation from an oppressive empire would be set in motion.
Palm Sunday has this in parallel with Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran 42 years ago. Joyful crowds full of hope that the rule of their oppressors was coming to an end.
The 27 year old David missed that connection, but he found another one.
The title of his 1979 sermon was “The Donkey and the 747.” Jesus came on the back of a borrowed donkey, in humility and peace, while Khomeini projected power and glory as he arrived on a chartered Air France 747 jet.
I expressed anxiety 42 years ago about that symbolism, that display of power. I wish my anxiety had been wrong. Kohmeini’s return was one of the defining moments of the twentieth century, setting off a chain of events with devastating implications for America and for the peace of the world.
In that context, Palm Sunday teaches us
that triumphal entries are not necessarily good things.
The other time I preached Palm Sunday off-lectionary was last June, and I preached that sermon here at Epworth (virtually).
What was the context that drew me to the Palm Sunday story that time?
I was distressed by the desecration of a holy place, by the desecration of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, now Black Lives Matter Plaza. I was distressed by the desecration brought about by a political figure (who shall not be named), whose soldiers were sent to clear the plaza and to drive away the clergy and laity who were doing ministry in the courtyard of their own church. In the context of pondering that travesty, Matthew’s version of the Palm Sunday story came to me.
In Matthew’s gospel,
Jesus enters Jerusalem, he goes to the courtyard of the temple, he overturns the tables of the moneychangers, he reconsecrates the Temple as holy ground, and then the people come to him, there in the courtyard where he teaches them and heals them, signs of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven.
So when I read the story in that context, it helped me realize what was upsetting me so deeply about that photo op. It was Palm Sunday in reverse.
So context matters,
and today we come to the this story in yet a different context.
In case you noticed, it’s not Palm Sunday today.
It’s the first Sunday in Lent.
This year, during Lent, Epworth is following a worship series developed by Marcia McFee
based on the very fine New Testament scholarship of Amy-Jill Levine.
During Lent, we will focus on six moments from the story of Holy Week, six snapshots from the last seven days of Jesus’ life.
We as a congregation will be challenged to imagine ourselves in those moments, the first of which is Palm Sunday.
Let’s start with Marcia McFee’s insight, “We would much rather move from the seemingly joyful Palm Sunday parade [straight] to Easter morning and skip the hard part.”
She’s exactly right!
We do prefer to gloss over the hard part. That’s human nature.
But she’s urging us to take the story more seriously. Palm Sunday is more than celebrating a happy parade.
Palm Sunday is more than waving palm branches, then bringing them home after church as souvenirs. Palm Sunday is more than singing happy songs about the little children welcoming Jesus. Palm Sunday is more than a triumphal entry, if that’s what it even is in the first place. Palm Sunday is more than a day to anticipate the victory of Easter. If that’s as far as we go when we hear this story, then we’ve missed its true power.
Marcia McFee is helping us see Holy Week as a succession of risky moments in Jesus’ last week. How, in each of those moments, can we imagine ourselves taking on that risk?
Of Palm Sunday, she asks,
Will we join the parade, risking our reputation along with Jesus? Or will we play it safe?
That’s a good question, but I want to ramp it up by an order of magnitude.
I want to ask the question in yet another context:
I want to consider the context of Jesus’ life and ministry.
In that context, I want to ask,
“What does the story mean? What was the risk that Jesus was taking on?”
Think back with me:
He spent his first thirty years in Nazareth. He grew up there; he followed in the footsteps of his father Joseph; he became a carpenter.
When you’re a carpenter, if you make a mistake, it’s easy to fix.
If you cut a board too long, you can cut off another piece and make it the right length. If the nail goes in crooked, you can pull it out and hammer it in straight.
But as Mark begins his gospel,
Jesus has just turned thirty, and he has gone to the Jordan to be baptized by John,
and as he comes up out of the water,
Jesus hears a call, and he follows that call.
and it changes his life. He becomes a rabbi, a teacher, a healer. He is given a message. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
For three years he follows this call, he preaches this message. But at any moment during those three years, he could have changed his mind and gone back to Nazareth, gone back to being a carpenter.
But then came Palm Sunday.
You know, there are moments in each of our lives when we face critical decisions, when we have to choose whether to go this way or that, when we know that if we make the hard decision to go in that direction, that once we take the first step, there’s no turning back.
No turning back: that’s what Palm Sunday was.
That’s what the parade meant. Once Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, with everything that entry symbolized, he had proclaimed himself to the people of Jerusalem to be their Messiah, and the people were receiving him as their Messiah.
That’s why I changed the text of this sermon from Matthew to Mark.
Listen to what the crowds were saying in Mark’s telling of the story:
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
That line is found only in Mark, but that line reveals why this moment is so risky, so dangerous. The crowd is explicitly receiving him as their long-expected Messiah.
The crowd is applauding the coming kingdom of God which will replace the kingdom of Rome. All this is all happening in full public view, and it’s risky business.
Jesus enters Jerusalem, and the die is cast.
There is no going back.
Jesus has confronted Rome. Jesus has defied Roman authority.
Jesus has committed an act of civil disobedience, totally aware of the consequences,
totally aware what the Empire will do.
Palm Sunday is beyond risky.
I can’t imagine how frightening it was to take that step.
I can’t imagine Jesus’ courage.
I can’t imagine Jesus’ faith, believing this was God’s will for him and doing it.
I can’t imagine the power of Jesus’ hope,
that this would turn out to be gospel, good news,
that this parade would somehow bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice,
that the Kingdom of God was truly at hand, and that this was the time.
so much more than a happy interlude seven days before Easter. Palm Sunday was the day when Jesus sat on that donkey