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The Road Ahead

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Mar 20

Text: Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday is weird. I’m just going to say it. Palm Sunday is fraught with contrasts and contradictions. It is deeply ambiguous. On one hand, cheering crowds surround Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem. They shout “hosanna!” which means, in Hebrew, “save us!” They wave palms, and lay down their cloaks in the street before him. This is a “triumphal entry” that mirrors the arrival of a king. It’s an exciting moment: the healer, prophet—perhaps even the messiah—is coming into town.

But this is a different kind of messiah than the people have been expecting. Jesus comes riding, not a powerful war horse, but a young colt. He will wear a crown of thorns, not crown jewels. And his power is not of this world. The dizzying excitement of the moment is overshadowed by the cross that awaits him. Even if we didn’t know the end of the story—even if we had never heard it told—we would know by chapter 19 of Luke’s gospel. Luke tells us over and over again that Jesus is going to his death. And Luke slams the door on the idea that Jesus doesn’t know what he’s getting into. Jesus knows exactly what’s up.

Palm Sunday is bewildering. Are you with me on that? It’s full of emotional contradictions: excitement and foreboding. A salvation history is being played out, and powers are about to clash. I think Palm Sunday is about at least three things (but I’ll stick with three today!) First, it is about Jesus’ courage and commitment as he walks toward Jerusalem. We will tell that full story later this week—on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But today we see Jesus walking the path into the city. We have laid stones in front of the chancel to symbolize that path. Take some time to imagine walking that path with Jesus, or welcoming him as he walks along.

Second, Palm Sunday is about the clash between worldly empires and the power of God’s kingdom. Marc Borg and Dominic Crossan claim that there were literally two processions going on that Palm Sunday—the day Jesus came to Jerusalem. One, a peasant procession from the east, down from the Mount of Olives, with Jesus riding on a colt. They write,

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the power of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of the Roman Empire.

Palm Sunday is about the contrast between the power of empire and God’s power. They are so very different—worlds apart. Yet we may lose sight of that, living, as we do, in the wake of Christendom. How easy it is to be nominally Christian in this time and place! How little we have to risk by walking into church.

It’s easier than being Muslim, for sure—with the backlash against extremism that has our peaceful Muslim neighbors on watch lists. We, as Christians, have a duty to speak out. It’s easier than being Jewish. You only need to open up a recent issue of the Boston Globe to read about the latest anti-Semitic incident that took place at a basketball game between Newton North and Catholic Memorial last week, where students from the Catholic school started calling their opponents “Jesus killers.” Painful stuff, given the history of Christian complicity in pogroms and genocide against the Jews. Something we are acutely aware of a we step across the threshold into Holy Week. It was the Romans who executed Jesus. (Later today—not now—take a look at the statement printed at the back of your bulletin.)

The dominant “Christian” culture sometimes looks a little bit too much like empire. The majority culture is not going to tell you it takes guts to follow Jesus. It will tell you it’s easy to hide in the crowd, to be caught up in shouts of “hosanna!” and to remain invisible.

Perhaps at this historical moment we are faced with both an opportunity and an urgent need to reclaim the radical message of Jesus. To live and embody his way of life in the face of empire: a way of peace, humility, compassion and justice. A way of faith and courage.

This brings me to my third (and final!) point about Palm Sunday. This, I believe, is true to the gospel. The way of faith is not supposed to be easy. No one with any credibility has ever said so, and if we think it is, we have lost sight of something crucial.

Jesus dared. He dared to speak out, dared to touch people, to break with convention. He dared to challenge oppression and injustice. And he did it with his body—with spittle and mud. With breath and healing touch, by sharing bread, and by planting his feet firmly on the path to Jerusalem.

One summer in my teens I went rock climbing a couple of times. One climb was a true technical climb. I don’t remember what it was rated, but it was a serious climb—up a chimney—the crevice where two vertical slabs of rock meet. I went with a friend, whose brother was an accomplished technical climber and guide. I learned from him what the lead climber does. He or she goes ahead and secures the way for those who are to follow. He finds a route with handholds and footholds, places pitons in the rock face, secures ropes or cables, and establishes the course. The whole expedition relies on the expertise of the lead climber.

We could see Jesus as our lead climber—someone who opens the way and bids us to follow. Someone familiar with the whole territory of being human, someone who knows the way, and understands what kind of equipment we will need. Knows what we may need to hold onto and when we need to let go. Jesus is courageous as he heads into Jerusalem. A masterful teacher who shows us strength in vulnerability, willingness to act in the face of uncertainty. He shows us what faith is.

But if it’s challenging to follow Jesus, catch this! Have you ever noticed that, in the Palm Sunday story, some of the crowd is actually out in front of Jesus? Jesus sends two disciples to fetch the colt. He doesn’t send them back to a familiar place they’ve seen before, to a town they’ve already been through, or a household of friends. No. He sends them to the village up ahead—into unknown territory. It’s a bold move. Jesus is asking a lot of these disciples. They have no guarantee that they will find what he says—a colt tied up. No guarantee that they won’t be mistaken for thieves, or—if they’re seen taking the colt—that they’ll be able to talk themselves out of a bad situation. Following Jesus’ instructions is a risk.

The people along the route to Jerusalem throw down their coats in front of Jesus. They are on the road ahead of him. Perhaps we hear echoes of John the Baptist’s cry to “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Finally, they get it. This path-walking is a group effort.

If “it takes faith to follow Jesus. It takes very deep faith to go ahead of him into unknown territory.”

I think this is why Palm Sunday is so blessedly uncomfortable. We sense that the path of faith will require much of us. We cannot know whether what we hope for, dream of, and work towards will ever come to pass. The road ahead is always unknown territory. To walk this way will take faith and courage.

If you fear there are no handholds or footholds, look around. We have scripture and prayer, study and spiritual practice, music and worship, covenant and hospitality. We have each other. We have a path. Do we dare to linger for an hour or a day with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem? In this uncomfortable and unknown territory between the cheering crowds and the cross?

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in
Jerusalem, (San Francisco: Harper, 2006) p. 2.

MaryAnn McKibben, “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, March 2, 2016, p. 19.

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