Sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Trinity Episcopal Church
Mt. Airy, NC
March 25, 2018
ὁ δὲ Πιλᾶτος πάλιν ἀποκριθεὶς ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς· τί οὖν °[θέλετε] ποιήσω ⸂[ὃν λέγετε]⸃ τὸν βασιλέα τῶν Ἰουδαίων*; οἱ δὲ πάλιν ἔκραξαν· σταύρωσον αὐτόν.
Then Pilate once more answered and said to them, “So what do you want me to do with the fellow you call King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him!”
The same people came to both demonstrations.
On the first work day of the week, they left their jobs to climb up the Mount of Olives to participate in a mass rally for the fellow they wanted to be their new king, the new messiah, the blessed one who would ride into Jerusalem humble and mounted on an ass and on a colt, the foal of an ass, the way the legendary king-messiahs had entered the holy city when Jerusalem when Jews had a real capital and a real state, a real king and a real army. Jebusites and Perrizites, Arameans and Edomites had trembled at the splendid sight, and so the members of that palm-leaf-armed crowd felt, perhaps, that they could lose a day’s pay in honor of the new king who would make them great again, who would fulfill their hopes, who would present them to the world as chosen of the LORD and precious.
It took less than a week for the same people to realize that the Romans had arrested the great savior Jesus, beaten him to a pulp, and put him on public display on the Pavement near the temple. Now They found it easy to hate the captive messiah, for in him all their hopes once more stood captive. Rome had no intention of letting a two-bit political agitator from the Galilee upset their well-oiled pax romana in the holy land or anywhere else for that matter. Their dreams lay as brown and crushed on Gabbatha that Friday morning as Sunday’s palm branched lay on the road down from the Mount of Olives. If their hopes had to die at the hands of the Romans, then this Jesus, this pretender, this would-be messiah ought to die the same way: “Crucify him!” They may have lost a second day’s wages that week to political futility, but at least they knew finally and for sure that their oppressors had conquered them again and that they would just have to accept reality. Maybe some overtime next week could restore some of their lost wages.
This Sunday really is all about us. From the heights of political hope and religious fervor to the anguished and angry depths of repression and resentment, today’s message echoes our lives in uncomfortable ways. Palm Sunday to Good Friday amounts to a downward spiral staircase whose dark, shadowed walls mock our greatest hopes and most fervent beliefs and we wonder at the foot of the stairwell how we ever stood at the top, how we ever believed, how we ever hoped and trusted. Each step down had its own failed too-good-to-be-true promise and its own puny political or moral or religious champion, enticing us to believe again. We’ve seen the ayatollahs, the presidents-for-life, and the plastic gurus of fake prosperity. We’ve thrown our palms before more than one donkey on Mount Olivet, and we’ve gotten only fatigue and disappointment as our reward. Finally, we throw up our hands and cry, “Enough! Crucify him!”
Does it strike you as odd, that this particular messiah standing on the Pavement that Friday chose the exhausted, angry crowd over the well-read scholars of the Pharisees and the oily politicians among the Sadducees? He could have always had their friendship. He spoke their language, he argued brilliantly as one of them, he led a school of high-achieving students, who could have made his name legend in Israel’s history for their brilliance. Or like the historian and former general Josephus, he could have chosen Pilate, chosen Rome, chosen to accept his people’s slavery under the Caesars as a tragic history and courted the favor of the Greek and Roman elite. But he didn’t choose any of them. He stood mute, listening to poor people, working people, oppressed people giving voice to their oppression and poverty with their angry cry: “Crucify him!” He died at their demand, but he also died for them. He died, choosing their shouts, their disappointments, and their lives over anything that Pilate the Governor or Claudius the Emperor, President Putin or President Trump, could give him. He could have chosen honor and respect, but accepted instead insult, beating, and execution at the hands of disappointed, angry people—the people we ourselves can be, the people who will crown him with many crowns until he disappoints us and then will substitute a crown of thorns and a Roman cross.
We walk that shadowed staircase again this Holy Week, coming face-to-face—if we do it well—with ourselves, holding a palm branch in one hand and raising the other in an angry fist, understanding that the messiah on the Pavement cannot love us any more for our palms or love us any less for our fists but stands there to love us completely, fully, with a depth that will allow him to leave Pilate’s tortured presence, climb the merciless path of Golgotha and spread his arms wide to receive all of the anger, all of the bitterness, all of the hatred we can manage and accept all of it for our sake. For he could not redeem us by becoming a prince or by raising an army. His fame and wisdom could never save us from our fear and anger. But he could love us. He could die for us. He could commend himself and us into God’s hands and in those awful hours on that dark Friday could present us to God wholly beloved by him, worthy of him, and free through him.