Palm Sunday/Lent 6A — April 13, 2014

“A View From the Cheap Seats”

Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Scholars are becoming more convinced that there were, in fact, two processions that day in Jerusalem.  There was the Roman procession, which consisted of a full battalion, marching through the Damascus Gate on the Syrian Road.  Pilate was sending his men into Jerusalem en masse because the Jewish Feast Days were beginning and that was always a dangerous time in the city.  The population of the city doubled or tripled with pilgrims arriving for the observance of Passover the holiday that celebrate the release of the Jewish people from the bondage of slavery, It did not escape the Romans’ notice that a theme revolving freedom from bondage around might stir up trouble among the people held firmly under their control.  So backup forces arrived a few days before the festival to begin a major clamp down on the city.  The awesome stallions, the gleaming metal swords, the polished armor, the helmets and the steady drumbeat accompanying the procession all were carefully chosen and choreographed to send a very specific message to anyone who might think of causing a ruckus.  If there was even a hint of trouble, those responsible for it would not just be stopped but utterly crushed by overwhelming military force.  Caesar’s peace would be mercilessly enforced at all costs. 
And on the other side of town, not so very far away from the parading Romans, there was another procession.  This parade featured just one solitary man with no armed guards or imposing weapons. Jesus rode in alone and unarmed, and the writer of Matthew insists that Jesus was straddling not one but two donkeys.  He rode in through an olive grove, sitting on a donkey with one leg draped over the donkey’s colt, some dusty borrowed coats underneath him.  By this point in the story, Jesus had attracted quite a few followers who ran ahead of him and followed behind.  As he traveled toward the city, others became attracted by the sheer foolishness of it all and reacted by cheerfully throwing palms and branches onto Jesus’ path.  It is difficult to know how many people in the crowd actually made the Old Testament connection between this procession and the one that Matthew so diligently points out to his readers.  The whole scene is right out of Zechariah 9: 9 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.  Perhaps the fulfillment of prophecy didn’t mean all that much to the people who watched Jesus approach Jerusalem that day.  The stark contrast between Jesus’ parade and the parade of the Romans was probably sufficient to attract a significant crowd of good-natured gawkers.
This was the entrance Jesus so carefully planned: a parade so strange, awkward, and incredibly humble that it seemed deliberately designed to mock the Roman procession going on across town. 
Nobody can really say what people knew or didn’t know about Jesus, but what is clear from Matthew’s account is that the crowd saw something that gave them a feeling that resembled hope.  Enough hope that they cried out to Jesus to save them.  Not “saved” as in a promise of a future heavenly home, but saved as in the right here and right now.  Hosanna!  Save us!  Maybe they were hoping for a powerful Jewish leader, a different kind of strong man but strong just the same, perhaps employing slightly less brutal tactics than Pilate. Maybe some were dreaming of a Jewish empire run by a new Elijah or a new Solomon or a new king just like David.  Maybe some of the people crying Hosanna had no idea what kind of saving they wanted from Jesus.  Often we don’t exactly know what kind of saving we want from Jesus.  I suspect that most of the people shouting out that day are a lot like we are:  we don’t know exactly what we want, but we do want things to be different.  We want the world to be different.  Even the disciples still seemed confused by what was happening as they moved closer to Jerusalem with Jesus.
One thing is for sure though.  Jesus’ parade created an incredible moment of light and laughter, and filled the people with ridiculous hope that maybe, this time, the Messiah had arrived to save them.  Perhaps they were to be freed in the same way Moses had freed their ancestors from Pharaoh.  Perhaps the new Davidic king had arrived.  Perhaps their lives were about to get better.  For a moment, they were filled with hope that the world was about to change, despite all evidence to the contrary being played out in the Roman parade just over their shoulders. 
Many scholars believe that it was this moment as Jesus is riding into Jerusalem that provokes all that will follow.  That it was Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that got him killed.  Whatever trouble he caused later on in the Temple with the money changers and the arguments with the Pharisees and the Sadducees was a religious problem, not a political problem.  It was Jesus’ seemingly deliberate mocking of Pilate and Rome, and the laughing, celebrating crowd his parade encouraged, that was intolerable.  Powerful leaders are used to being either worshipped or feared,  preferably both.  Powerful leaders will not abide being made to look foolish.
By the time Jesus enters the city, Matthew tells us that the scene has fully blossomed into utter chaos.  “Who is this man?” the Jerusalem insiders shout out in roaring voices.  Who is this man who dares to mock the powers that be?  Who is this man who would challenge Pilate and his Roman overlords?  The people with the front row seats to power are filled with nothing but contempt for this man who would dare to challenge their authority by making fun of them. 
But the people in the cheap seats get it.  They always get it.  They took one look at the sad and smiling man with no sword and no drums, riding on the two borrowed donkeys, and in that humble scene, they saw the power of Jesus.  A power doesn’t come from the authority of Rome. A power that doesn’t depend upon armies or emperors.   The power the people responded to in Jesus is the power of the soul.  The power of God.  It is the power of love which empowers people to believe that change is possible despite all evidence to the contrary.  The people in the cheap seats know the answer to “Who is this man?”  They shout it out with joy: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 
Seeing all this, it becomes crystal clear to the Roman authority that Jesus is dangerous.  Despite the ridiculous portrait of him we see riding into Jerusalem, Jesus is a true threat to the power currently at work in locking down Jerusalem.   Jesus is dangerous in a “We Shall Overcome” kind of way.  A “Life Every Voice and Sing” kind of way.  It’s no longer a question of if Jesus will be executed.  It’s simply a matter of when..
So when we sing “All Glory Laud and Honor,” we have to remember who we are singing it to.  Not to a powerful emperor or king, but to a bedraggled man who is so sadly aware of human nature that he can already see how this will all play out, even if he didn’t have God whispering the script into his ear.  He knows what sort of monster he is up against and he knows that only way to defeat the monster is to resist what must have been an overwhelming urge to call down legions of God’s angels to destroy it.  But Jesus stuck to a Holy Logic.  He knew that the only way to destroy this monster is to expose its pathetic underbelly and the limits of its power.  In his humble obedience to God, and his willingness to empty himself of anything remotely resembling violence or resistance, Jesus will demonstrate the vast chasm between our own worldly hopes and expectations, and the way God works in the world. 
I spent the early part of this week in Boston with Rachel, and when I got off the plane early on Wednesday morning and turned my phone back on, there were a slew of text messages awaiting me.  The first message was from my friend Lara, cancelling our lunch date for later on and saying that Ethan was ok.  I wasn’t sure what that meant until I read the rest of my texts.  Have you heard?  Did you know?  A stabbing at Franklin Regional High School.  Nobody knows what’s happening.   It took me a couple minutes to make the connection, but then I finally got it and my heart sank.  Lara cancelled lunch because Lara’s oldest son Ethan is a student at Franklin Regional.  As soon as I got to the car at the airport, I called Lara.  Ethan was home, she told me. He had been at school, on the same floor where the stabbings took place, but on the other end of the hallway.  He saw the blood.  So much blood. He saw one of his friends had been hurt.  Lara said that everyone is in shock.  Nobody knows why it happened or who did it, but Ethan and his friends are saying it was another student.  The kid who pulled the fire alarm is a hero.  It could have been so much worse.  No, Susan, you can’t do anything.  Just pray.  Just pray.
After I got off the phone, I turned on local radio, which I hardly ever do, and listened to the callers on KDKA discussing the incident as I drove back to town.  What I heard made my stomach turn.  Teachers need guns.  I don’t care how old he is, the kid who did it should get the death penalty.  Every school should have a metal detector.  Kids should be wanded before they get on a school bus. The trouble is that parents don’t discipline their kids.  Remember the good old days when principals could paddle disobedient trouble-makers?  Who cares if the kid was bullied?  Kids gotta learn to fight back. 
Oh, and here is my favorite.  This is just the sort of thing that happens when you throw God out of the schools.  Don’t tell me that Jesus wasn’t present with those scared and bleeding kids.  Don’t you dare try to tell me that God abandons children when they enter a school building and they are beyond the reach of God’s love. Don’t you dare blame this on God being absent.  If God was anywhere than morning, God was with those frightened children, their frightened parents, and even the boy who was so filled with anger that he could do nothing but turn it against other children.  
All of this conversation on the radio and around the city happened when nobody knew anything for certain about anything.  Before every parent of every kid in that school knew that their child was either okay or being treated in the hospital for multiple stab wounds.  Before the blood had even been cleaned up in the hallways.  Cries for vengeance.  Cries for meeting violence with violence.  And it happened because every single one of us were scared out of our minds.  We were struck again – again – with the kind of fear that makes us believe there’s no safe place  and makes us want to lock up and lock down our children, our families, ourselves, even our hearts if that’s what it takes to make sure nothing bad ever happens to us or anyone we love.  It’s a fear that’s constantly fed to us to keep us on edge and under control and filled with enough anxiety that we will keep buying what the Pilates of the world are selling us.
The monster Jesus is riding to meet head-on in Jerusalem is bigger than the Roman army.  The monster Jesus is facing is human fear and human power that is not created by love.  The monster is a world not ruled by grace and peace, but by dollars and cynicism and bondage.  Jesus knew what he was up against from the very beginning and he told us exactly what he was going to do about it: 
“I came to bring good news to the poor, release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind.  To let the oppressed go free and to proclaim God’s favor.”  Jesus set out not with some ridiculous fantasy, but with certain knowledge of what God actually intends to shape our reality.
As we move through Holy Week, Jesus will reject violence at every step.  On Maundy Thursday, after Peter whips out his sword to slice off the ear of Caiaphas’ servant, Jesus will say: “No more of this!” In the gospel of Luke, Jesus will actually reach out and heal the ear of the servant. It’s as if in the healings, all of them, Jesus has been saying, “Reality isn’t supposed to be like this.  Let me show you what God’s reality looks like.” 
Who is this man? 
This man is the one who saves us.  From our fears.  From our awful tendencies to commit violence against ourselves and against one another.  This is the savior who died not to make it possible for God to love us again, but to show that God already does love us, and that love is our only hope.  We can choose the parade of fear and violence that leads to death.  Or the parade that leads to life — the Jesus parade.
Sara Miles writes: “The compassion, suffering with, that Jesus models through (Holy Week) is about (his) willingness to face and absorb the hard truths of human violence and pride and weakness – and to love and forgive and stay with us anyway so that sin and death will have no more power.  His passion is not sentimental but fierce.  It goes all the way.  Following Jesus on this path of new life means we have to stop pretending.  The truth is that…you can’t always prevent the pain of your family or friends.  That loved ones as well as strangers will betray you.  That you will hurt and fail others.  That’s the passion of humanity.”[1]
Even in our lousy seats wait up in the peanut gallery, we’ll be able to see how it ends.  The monster will be slain.  And the monster’s cave will be empty.  Fear and death will no longer have its hold on us.  And we will indeed be saved.  Hosanna in the highest. Thanks be to God. 
For a more extensive discussion of the two processions in Jersusalem, see The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

[1] Sara Miles, “Stop Pretending: From Lenten Ash to Easter Light,” April 10, 2011.  Download on 4/11/14 at