“What Are We Celebrating?”
Palm Sunday - April 2nd, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
We here in West Orange know what it is like to throw a parade. There is long history of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in West Orange. We know that the downtown main street will be closed off. We know that there will be balloon trucks, and souvenir carts. We know that the bars will be open early and will stay open late. We know that there will be people, lots of people, who crowd the parade route, jockeying to get a good place to see the bands, the community groups, the marshals and everyone else who is marching. We know that there will be excited children and older folk who have brought chairs. It’s a parade after all. A great day.
The people of Jerusalem knew about parades as well. For they were an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. And when the Roman governor, the person tasked with overseeing this portion of the vast Roman holdings, came into town, there was always a parade. A forced parade. There the Roman governor would be, perched on a stately steed, probably a war horse, garbed in his dress uniform, showing off all the might, the glamor, the power that he embodied. He would have been flanked by soldiers and chariots and important people. And there would be swarms of spectators—maybe they didn’t like being there, but they were there nonetheless because that was what was expected of them—to show how happy they were, how grateful they were, to this occupying force. Yes, the people of Jerusalem were accustomed to such parades—as they had to, once again, do what they were told to do, submit to the Roman authorities, to the men of Caesar.
I’m sure it had an impressive aspect to it, this parade. It was intended to show off who Rome was—the people who ruled most of the known world at that point. Look at their armor and their finery. Look at their beautiful horses and decked out chariots. Look at all those soldiers, riding and marching.
It was the empire flexing its muscles. And the message was clear—don’t step out of line, don’t even think about doing anything other than what we tell you, because if you do, this is who you are up against. It instilled fear. It garnered awe. Jerusalem knew this was part of paying to Caesar what they owed Caesar every time the governor came to town.
So you can imagine that when an unknown man, obviously not royalty, or even rich, came riding into town along with crowds shouting “Hosanna,” there was confusion and turmoil. “Who is this?” the citizens asked one another. Who is this who rides into town not on a beautiful horse, a war horse, a steed, but a donkey? Who is this who is surrounded not by soldiers and chariots and important people, but by other ordinary people, people without fine clothes, people who laid down their cloaks in front of him, people who cut off or tore off branches to wave at him, people who are shouting something about him being a savior, being one of God?
It must have been quite a contrast. The “normal” parade of Rome and this motley parade of Palm Sunday. I’m sure Rome marched down the main thoroughfare while this jumble of people probably converged from all over. You would have known about the Roman parade, it would have been advertised, you would have put it on your calendars, and known you were expected to attend. This Palm Sunday parade erupted from nowhere. From some small gathering in the outskirts of the city, up in the hills, at the Mount of Olives.
It seems so spur of the moment. There they are at Bethpage, with those who were following Jesus, and he sends some disciples into the nearest village to find a donkey and a colt (were they pre-positioned? Or were they just there to be found, since there were always donkeys and colts tied up in town?). The crowds use what they have, what is around them to create the atmosphere—their own clothing, low-hanging branches that can be ripped to create waving palms. And of course, the staple of any true community march—the mantras shouted together, putting out your message.
“Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. It can feel like a celebration—it is a parade after all. You can feel the infectious excitement as the crowds gather, and people say, “Who is this?” and others respond, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” And maybe they joined in, curious to know who this man was, this Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
Certainly, we in the church, are ready for a celebration. We’ve been concentrating on Lent for weeks now. It seems a good time to break out the new clothes (or at least the clothes that are brighter, even if the weather isn’t cooperating). We are ready to shrug off the darkness of winter and enter into lengthening days and warmer breezes of spring. We are ready to join with those crowds in Jerusalem and shout Hosanna and wave our palms and be hopeful that this celebration, this real, unforced celebration, could bring change to our existence.
For as I thought about today, Palm Sunday, and the celebration that it commemorates, I wondered, What are we celebrating? We might not be the subjects of a vast empire, but our world doesn’t seem much better. Just in the last week, we have had to contend: --with deadly tornadoes in MI and AL
--with the latest deadly school shooting at a Christian School run by the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Tennessee
--with the on-going destruction and war in Ukraine
--with the arrest of a reporter from the Wall Street Journal in Russia (because of supposed espionage)
--with the obvious impact that the phasing out of extra food stamps during the pandemic is having on families in our area—since the numbers at WO Food Pantry have soared
--with the continued pressure of inflation being felt by all of us
--with the rattling of the banking sector
--with the indictment of a former President of the United States (the end of only one of several ongoing investigations)
--and that doesn’t include any of our own personal struggles or calamities or griefs
You can understand why as I contemplated this text I wondered, “What exactly are we celebrating?” What does Palm Sunday even mean? It is just the celebration book end to Holy Week (Palm Sunday on one side, and Easter on the other)? Is it intended to show the reach that Jesus had during his life? Is it meant to be in tension with the shouts of crucify that will come from the crowds later in the week? Should we even be celebrating since we know what is coming in just a few days—goodbyes, betrayal, torture, execution, tomb?
In thinking about these questions, I heard the words of the hymn from Philippians about Jesus as a servant, his humbleness, his willingness to brave the very human experience of life and death. And I heard Matthew quoting the prophet Zechariah who imagined the king, the one of God, the one who would rescue them, showing up “humble and mounted on a donkey.” In the original verse, found in Zechariah 9:9 the king might be humble, might be found riding on a donkey, but he is also “righteous and victorious” or “just and having salvation” (depending on the translation). In other words, Jesus might look one way to the world, but “the truth” is a whole other ballgame.
This is a message you bump into no matter which gospel you read from. That the things of this world which seem so important might not be in God’s eyes. And the things that seem lowly, humble, insignificant in the world’s eyes might actually be the most important of all. We see it in Jesus’ parables where everyday situations become glimpses of a world as seen by God. We see it in the way Jesus argues with the religious leaders of his day, pushing against the “law” as they knew it, if it didn’t put you on the path of loving the Lord your God with everything you had, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
We see it in the way Jesus often seeks out those who are on the periphery, those who are pushed aside, those who are considered unclean, insane, not of any worth, not of any import, and says that “to such belongs the kin-dom of heaven.”
This is what it means to be “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Not the one who comes in the name of Caesar. This is what it means to find salvation (for Hosanna means save us)—not in someone who rides above you, and asks you to grovel, but in someone who rides with you, on an animal like yours, asking only that you listen, you contemplate, you be touched by the closeness of God. It is a striking message, this good news of the gospel. It is a shocking message, still, that God would want to be with us, be one of us, be involved in all the muck and mire of human life, all the messiness and imperfection, as well as all the possibilities of grace and goodness.
We still like to have our heroes who are going to show up and save us—sweeping in with their capes, and their superhuman powers, and their very cool gadgets, and their total otherness. It relieves us of doing much, other than crying out for help, and then turning up for the parade. Jesus’ parade asks more. It asks us to participate. It asks us to think about what it is that we have that we are willing to contribute to the cause (be it cloak or time or arms to wave). It asks us to be in the crowd, be willing to answer the question of others “What’s going on here?” It asks us to celebrate the turning upside down of the status quo. To be willing to laugh and shout and jump for joy that God’s way is to become our way. To be willing to take that step from the sidelines to the road way—to get on the path, following Jesus, no matter where it leads. To embrace salvation that also means embracing a different life, a different focus, a different us.
I was struck by the comments of the Chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, who said he had to go rogue this week, when asked to pray following the Tennessee shooting.
He had written a prayer, but felt moved to push against his usual non-partisan, non-political, non-sectarian words. He urged legislators to “move beyond thoughts and prayers.” He reminded the lawmakers of the words of British statesman Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” And he exhorted his “flock”—“Lord, deliver our senators from the paralysis of analysis that waits for the miraculous. Use them to battle the demonic forces that seek to engulf us.”
I don’t think Rev. Black was going rogue. I think the Spirit was leading him to be prophetic. Stepping into the parade route of Jesus can be scary. Making a choice about which parade you are going to attend can have consequences. Part of the good news is that there is a choice. The world, symbolized by Rome in Jesus’ time, will always see power and wealth and fancy things as the markers of God’s blessings. But our God pushes all that away. Our God looks into hearts. Our God rubs elbows with the masses, that is, us. Our God cares enough to weep with us. Our God will take the time to sit down and have in depth conversations about wind and night, about living water, about sight, about resurrection. Our God invites us not just to stand by the parade route—no, Our God invites us to join the parade. That is what we are celebrating, this day, and every day. Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
May it be so, Amen and Amen.