Today is Palm / Passion Sunday. From the gospels, we heard about the final suffering and death of Jesus. Today also happens to be the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.
I brought this icon to church and set it upright on the Communion Table as I preached.
Instead of my own sermon, I preached Archbishop Romero’s final homily: the one he was preaching when he was gunned down in a hospital chapel on March 24, 1980… one week to the day before I was born.
I have tears in my eyes to think that I was able to bring his words to life again this morning. One of the little old ladies at my church commented on her way out that what he said is even more relevant today than when he first preached it.
It is as the good Archbishop himself said: “If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Not only Salvadoran…
By some amazing coincidence, the gospel text for Romero’s last homily was John 12:23-26:
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.
It probably feels a little strange to see your pastor preaching in a hoodie on Sunday. Half of you are probably wondering if I’m trying to make some kind of point. The other half of you are probably wondering if maybe we need to turn up the heat in here. Both groups would be right (in a manner of speaking).
It all got started earlier this year when I realized that Palm Sunday would fall on April Fools’ Day this year. I said to myself then, “Oh man, that’s too good. I’ve got to have some fun with this!” And the beauty is that it doesn’t even take that much work to find a connection between these two days.
The setting of the scene, as we already know, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Jesus and his disciples were joining crowds of their fellow Jews as they made their way on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holiday. Passover is an annual celebration of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. They get together each year and tell the story of how God set them free from foreign oppressors. The message of Passover was particularly powerful to Jews in Jesus’ day as they survived under Roman occupation.
In order to halt any bright ideas about rebellion during this festival, the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate) made a point of marching his troops through the city as a display of Imperial dominance. He wanted to send a clear message that Rome was in charge. The troops marched through town with their banners proudly waving. At the head of the line, Pilate sat mounted on his mighty steed.
Contrast this image with the image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by his usual riffraff as they waved palm branches and made a scene. It was a deliberate mockery of Pilate’s procession. Jesus was making fun of it! It was like an April Fools’ prank, but with a point.
Jesus’ parody of Pilate’s pride was actually a brilliant and prophetic display of political and spiritual theater. I call it prophetic, not because it was predicting the future, but because, in that moment, Jesus was engaged in the exercise of “speaking truth to power.” People have this funny idea that prophecy is all about predicting the future or the end of the world. In reality, the job of a prophet is to reinterpret the present from a spiritual point of view. They present us with a vision of reality as it could be, if we would only open our hearts to what God is doing in our lives at this moment, or a warning of reality as it might become if we remain closed.
Jesus was hardly the first or last person in history to “speak truth to power” as a prophet. We can all think of others who, through their words or actions, presented us with a vision of reality as it could be. I have my own litany of saints who have affected me like that: Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gene Robinson, and many others. Maybe you know of others.
Jesus had his favorites as well. One of them was an ancient Jewish prophet by the name of Zechariah. Zechariah had this crazy vision in his day that Jesus decided to make come true. Jesus knew that people wanted him to become king of the Jews. So, he decided to show them the kind of king he would be. You might call this his “royal mission statement.” He borrowed this donkey-riding image from the mind of Zechariah. Zechariah said,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Jesus would be a humble king and a peacemaker, not a guerilla fighter or imperial overlord. And his reign of peace would include all the nations of the earth, not just his own ethnic group. This, by the way, was also another slight against the Roman Empire. They prided themselves on their large and (relatively) stable territory. They rejoiced in what they called the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that would one day spread to the ends of the earth through the imposition of military order. Jesus shook his head at this idea and laughed. He used the words of the prophet Zechariah to introduce another vision of world peace.
In this hilarious lampoon of Rome’s arrogance, Jesus is reminding his followers (and everyone else) where true power lies. It doesn’t rest in the hands of the privileged few who happen to wield the death-dealing resources of an international superpower. True power comes from God. And it is not on display in the exercise of intimidation, but inspiration. True power, as God sees it, doesn’t come from dealing death, but giving life. It’s not about exclusion, but inclusion. Real power, according to Jesus, doesn’t come from our ability to condemn, but to forgive. This is the upside down vision of reality that Jesus is proclaiming to us on this Palm Sunday.
This leads me back to the hoodie that I’m wearing. Most of you are probably aware of certain events that took place in Florida over a month ago. An African-American teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin was on his way back from the store with a bag of skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea when a vigilante neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, who has a documented history of aggressive and violent behavior, called 911 about a young black male in his gated community. The 911 operators specifically told him to leave Trayvon alone, but Zimmerman picked up a gun and went after him anyway. The facts of what happened next have not yet been established (it appears that there was some kind of fight), but we know that it ended with George Zimmerman shooting an unarmed minor in the chest and killing him.
Over a month later, George Zimmerman is still free. He has not been arrested or charged with a crime. The state of Florida has not even suspended his license to carry a concealed firearm. In theory, this means there would be no legal barrier to prevent this same person from walking into this room with a gun right now. If this had happened to one of our kids in Boonville, would we be satisfied to wait a full month before the authorities investigated deeply enough to make an arrest? How safe would we feel if it was a student from Adirondack High School lying on the ground with a hole in his chest while the person who pulled the trigger was happily mowing his lawn a month later? Wouldn’t we, in the very least, be passionately asking questions about the truth of what happened that night? Of course we would.
In the weeks following Trayvon’s shooting and death, members of the media have been weighing in on this. I realize you might be sick of hearing about it, but I’m following the advice of theologian Karl Barth this morning: “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.” Some pundits have tried to paint a mental picture of Trayvon Martin as a no-good thug by appealing to stereotypical images of young black men. Geraldo Rivera went so far as to blame this incident on the fact that Trayvon was wearing a hoodie (like this one) on the night of his death.
There has been a widespread response to Geraldo’s ignorant comment. Last Sunday, pastors in churches all around the country joined together in a prophetic display of political and spiritual theater, just like Jesus’ famous entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. They all preached in hoodies. Since then, folks in other public professions have followed suit. There have even been some of our elected officials who have worn hoodies into the halls of Congress. I’m a latecomer to this action, since I didn’t hear about it until after-the-fact, but that’s okay because it fits well with what we’re talking about today.
Geraldo Rivera implied (intentionally or unintentionally) that wearing a hoodie somehow makes a person eligible to be shot. If that’s really true, then I’m eligible to be shot right now and, as I already noted, there is nothing to legally stop George Zimmerman from walking into this room and doing so.
Now, you and I know that such an idea is ridiculous. No one out there really believes that hoodies justify murder. The importance of this symbol lies in its association. This style of dress is associated with the hip-hop subculture which, in turn, is associated with negative stereotypes of African-Americans. So really, underneath the surface, this is still a conversation about race. Geraldo used the word hoodie, but what he really meant to say was black. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was black. The only thing that disturbed George Zimmerman was the sight of a young black man walking down the street in a suburban gated community. Why? Because young black men aren’t supposed to live in gated communities, according to the racist subconscious assumptions of our society. We may have outlawed segregation on paper, but racism is still very much alive in reality. And that, brothers and sisters, is a gospel issue.
We agree with the apostle Paul when he says that, in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” We could easily add “black nor white.” When I and my fellow-pastors wear these hoodies into our pulpits, we are standing together to make a bold prophetic statement. We’re not doing it because we’re cold (although we are trying to “turn up the heat” on this issue). The prophetic statement we are making has to do with the equality of all people in the eyes of God. We’re saying that one black life, ended in violence, is no less disturbing or tragic than a white one. This prophetic action is shining the light on this truth, which we all hold dear.
In a few moments, we’ll all be participating together in another bold prophetic action as we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Around this table of Christ, we gather together and partake of one loaf and one cup. We remind ourselves that we are all members of one family. The same blood, the blood of Christ, flows through each of our veins. This is the truth we believe in that trumps any other division or distinction we try to make among ourselves. We are connected, through the mystery of this sacrament, to each other and to God.
On this Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ prophetic proclamation of the power of peace. Likewise, we are making our own prophetic proclamations as we wear hoodies and share Communion with each other. This celebration leads us into Holy Week, the final stage of our journey toward Easter. We will be reminded during the coming week that there is a price to pay for speaking about God’s vision so boldly. This willingness to confront is what ultimately got Jesus crucified. He spoke out against the dominant system of power in his day and the system pushed back. The system used all the terrible might at its disposal to silence his message. But Jesus wasn’t afraid of them. He didn’t keep quiet. He continued to proclaim the prophetic vision loud and clear, even though he knew it would get him killed. Why? Because Jesus believed that love is stronger than death. He believed that the prophetic vision of the kingdom of God was bigger than his own individual survival. He trusted in resurrection more than survival.
As Christians, we are called to do the same. We are called to be Easter people who believe in the power of resurrection more than survival. Jesus has handed this prophetic vision to us, so that we might continue to proclaim its truth in the midst of a world that doesn’t want to hear it, but needs to hear it. As a church, a household of faith, we are called to take chances. We are called upon to risk our very lives for the sake of truth. We are called to embody this truth in our words and actions at church, home, school, work, or play. We should make those uncomfortable observations and ask the hard questions that we would rather ignore. It will not make us popular or successful. If we’re doing it right, it will lead us, as it did Jesus, to our own crucifixion and death. But it will also lead us to experience the Easter-power of resurrection and eternal life, which will continue to stand firm long after the systems and the nations of this world have passed away.
Here is the Palm/Passion Sunday sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The texts are Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 27:11-54.
I’d like to paint a verbal picture for you. Think of how you would feel if you bore witness to an event such as this:
Imagine that Air Force One lands in town. The crowd goes wild as the President gets off the plane and walks down a red carpet, flanked by a crowd of people waving American flags. The TV news cameras are rolling as the band strikes up “Hail to the Chief”. The President is shaking hands and kissing babies as he goes by. After a moment, the band starts to play “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Everyone stops what they’re doing and turns to face the flag with hands over their hearts. Now, imagine that all of this is happening on the 4th of July.
Can you imagine how the people in this Independence Day crowd that day might feel? If so, then you can imagine how the people felt in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. It was a quintessentially Jewish moment. I mean this, not just in a religious sense, but in a national sense as well.
Let’s look at the details:
First, Jesus rides into town riding a donkey with her colt. This is exactly how the Jewish prophet Zechariah said that God’s Messiah would come. The Jews believed that the Messiah (“Anointed One” in Hebrew) would be a mighty king who would liberate Israel from foreign tyranny so the people could live and worship in freedom. Next, we learn that the people were making use of palm branches as they saw him coming. This is not a random choice. The palm tree was a national symbol for Jews in the first century. This would be like people waving all kinds of American flags as the President drove by. Also, people were shouting, “Hosanna!” This comes from a Hebrew word that literally means, “Save us, please!” It would be like people shouting “Liberty” or “Freedom Now” in our country. This phrase, along with “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, is part of Psalm 118, an old hymn for Jews. Finally, all of this was happening on the week before Passover, the greatest of holidays. Passover, for Jews, was not just a religious holiday; it was also a national holiday. During Passover, Jews told and retold the story of how they came to be who they are as a nation of God’s chosen people. It was like celebrating the 4th of July for Jews.
So, when all of this happened at once (donkey, palm branches, Hosanna, and Passover), this crowd of people got really excited. They thought that big changes were about to happen for them and their country! However, we know that this excitement didn’t last very long. Fast forward to five days later and the same people who were shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” had started shouting, “Crucify! Crucify!” about the exact same person. What could have gone so wrong during those five lousy days? Personally, it makes me glad that our elected officials get at least one full term in office before people want to hang them out to dry!
I think the answer to what went wrong that week lies in the excitement we see in the people at the beginning of the week. Excitement is great. It gets people motivated. It makes them feel good about themselves. But it has a dark side. Whenever people get super-excited about something, it usually means that they have some pretty big expectations to go with it. And people definitely had some serious expectations about Jesus as their Messiah.
They wanted their Messiah to be a military commander, a political administrator, and a spiritual guide (at the same time). That’s a lot to ask of one person, but it’s what they expected (and they weren’t going to budge on any of it). When Jesus showed up, they certainly had mixed feelings about him. On the one hand, he healed the sick, challenged the powers-that-be, and radically reinterpreted the Torah (their Bible). On the other hand, he refused to take up arms and talked instead about suffering and forgiveness. What kind of “Messiah” was this?
Their confusion lasted right up until the end of Jesus’ ministry. On Palm Sunday, it looked as if their dreams were about to come true: Jesus was acting exactly like a Messiah should. By Good Friday, it looked as if all their hopes were dashed: Jesus was acting nothing like a Messiah should. The great irony is that Jesus really was their Messiah (at least, that’s what we Christians believe), but his idea of Messiah was very different from theirs. He really did wear a crown, but it was a crown of thorns. He really was hailed as “King of the Jews”, but it was written on a sign posted above his cross. He really did gain victory over his enemies, but it was a victory of love and not a victory of violence.
It’s easy for us to look back and chuckle at the people’s flawed expectations of Jesus as Messiah. We have the luxury of knowing what comes next (on Easter Sunday). They didn’t.
But I think the question is worth asking: do we have flawed expectations of Jesus as our Messiah? Do we think we have all the answers about Jesus figured out? Have we put him in a safe little box that conforms to our own pre-conceived notions about the world? The tendency I’ve noticed is that, if you ask people to describe Jesus, they’ll probably describe someone who is simply a bigger and better version of themselves. For them, Jesus is American, Middle-class, Conservative/Liberal, Presbyterian, or Christian.
The challenge of Lent, as a season of penitence, is for us to realize that Jesus is none of those things. He is Holy (which means “different” or “special”). He rises above the categories and ideologies that we would impose on him.
But we, like the crowds on Palm Sunday, still come with our excitement and our expectations. But, as Jesus fails to live up to our expectations, our excitement turns to confusion, confusion to disappointment, and disappointment to anger. So that, by the end of the week, we too stand with that crowd, screaming, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Yes, the challenge of Lent is for us to let Jesus break out of the box that we have put him in. The challenge is to let go of those categories and those old ways of thinking. But the hard fact of the matter is that we have failed to do so. In spite of our best Lenten disciplines, in spite of the chocolate we didn’t eat or the TV we didn’t watch, in spite of our honest reflection and repentance during these forty days, in spite of all those things: we would still crucify him again. He would still shock and offend our expectations to the point where we would use any means necessary to shut him up. Our shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!” are no more lasting or genuine than the shouts of those people who lived in first-century Jerusalem.
That’s the harsh reality, but it’s not the end of the story. That part comes next week. If you want to hear it, I guess you’ll have to show up! But for now, I’ll just offer this as a foretaste of the Easter gospel:
Jesus knew what was in hearts of those people. He knew what they were going to do to him, but that didn’t stop him. He still drew close to them. He welcomed their praises, shallow as they were. He loved them, even though they would come to hate him.
As it was with that crowd so it is with us. As faithless as we are, Jesus still draws near to us… and loves us.