Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

A Tale of Two Marches

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
Palm Sunday (March 25, 2018)
John 12:12-16 – “A Tale of Two Marches”

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him. They shouted,

Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessings on the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,

Don’t be afraid, Daughter Zion.
Look! Your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt.

His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

How exhilarating that must have been! That crowd was so big that it seemed like everybody in town was there. And the energy in the air… positively electric! It was charged with equal parts exuberance and anger. Such a festive spirit—people marching in the streets, buoyed by being a part of something greater than themselves, waving things high in the air, chanting til their voices went hoarse, young and old walking side-by-side. And there was that undercurrent of anger, too. Irked by the status quo. Fed up with the violence. Weary from the weight of oppression. The feeling that, for heaven’s sakes, we’ve been here before… but maybe something’s different this time around? The leadership was inspiring in a new, hope-filled, gutsy, and even edgy sort of way. Change was a comin’!

“Hosanna!” they yelled from the top of their lungs, “Save us! Save us! Save us…”

Wasn’t yesterday great?

Maybe you marched with us under our banner with the weekly charge on it (“Go out into the world in peace, have courage…”). Maybe you watched the March For Our Lives happening in Washington a and around the country. Maybe you read about it in the paper this morning. Maybe you didn’t, but you’re going to hear about it! Those speeches! Naomi Wadler, age 11 from Alexandria, Virginia. Edna Chavez, age 17 from South Los Angeles, California. Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg from Parkland, Florida, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Just… wow!

As someone who is young by most standards, someone who straddles the line between a couple of generational cohorts, I was thinking, “This next generation is on fire!” Some call them Generation Z, by the way. The backbone these young people have. the courage and presence, to stand up in front of international audiences (and who knows how many replays on the internet and social media) to demand that political leaders do their duty and act on behalf of public safety. And not only that, but the first two speakers I mentioned were young women of color who fearlessly told their stories, naming the violent realities their communities have been living with for generations. And the fourth student, a young white man, who was not only a powerful speaker in his own right but used his voices to uplift the experience of his classmates of color who weren’t getting equal media coverage. They’re re-writing the playbook.

“Hosanna, save us!”

And speaking of generational things, I saw a young woman registering people to vote. “Go you!” I thought, “Because policy isn’t going to change until the policy makers are scared of you, scared of us as a voting bloc.” This woman, in what appeared to be her 70s, praised the young woman with the clipboard, “I’m so glad you’re leading us now. You’re the hope for the future.” And I wanted to say, “Ma’am, that’s encouraging, but you’re not off the hook just yet!” That young woman, these young people are not the hope for the future, their the hope for the now. None of us are done in the struggle for God’s shalom until we draw our last breath.

As a preacher, I’d like to thank the organizers for planning a march the day before Palm Sunday. Timely sermon fodder! Two marches on the same weekend: one on the secular calendar for March 24, one on the liturgical calendar at the beginning of Holy Week; one on the streets of 800 cities in the US and places like London and Sydney; one on the streets of Jerusalem. Jan Edmiston, one of the co-moderators of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), posted a picture on Facebook of a 19th Century French painting entitled, “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” with the words “Another March for Our Lives Circa 30 CE” pasted on it.

This weekend give us a fresh look at Palm Sunday. Consider this: what Jesus did in this event, which all four gospel writers retell, was an act of protest.

The first Palm Sunday was a political demonstration—not partisan—but political, as in dealing with the polis, or the community. Jesus processed over the Mount of Olives to the gates of Jerusalem in order to make a point. This action was strategically timed (on Passover). It was boldy public (in the capital city). It employed provocative theological and scriptural symbolism (the donkey). It enlisted the participation of the crowd (“Hosanna! Save us!”), filled with common folk. And it had targets (the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious authorities).

We will skip the history lesson, but it suffices to say that things were not good in Judea. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few elite, who were colluding with the Romans. Taxes were ridiculously high. The Jewish people, who had been exiled before, were under the imperial thumb. They longed for deliverance for deliverance and for a restoration of David’s kingdom to Israel. “Hosanna! Save us!”

To understand Jesus’ march, you’d have to know about another march. In their book The Last Week, Borg and Crossan tell the story this way:

Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year…

One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee…

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor… entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.

Jesus is marching into Jerusalem and to the cross, the culmination of his movement called the “reign of God.” This reign of God was in direct contrast with the reign of Caesar, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, and the rest. God’s reign would be unlike the reign of these others, Jesus would say; it will be a radical reversal, even an undoing of them. The poor will have enough, the hungry will be fed, the outcast will return. There will be justice and righteousness. And there will be peace.

Simply put: in those two marches, Pilate’s and Jesus’, there was a stark contrast between the love of power and the power of love. Two different ways of ruling the world.

Borg and Crossan again:

“Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in?” [2]

These processions continue still. Their paths cut through our streets, our homes, our hearts.

To be a disciple of the One whose final week we rehearse this week is to practice and pursue a different of living. It is a way of justice, a way of mercy, a way of peace. It is a way that seeks and serves the image of the Creator in each person, not the exploitation of others for personal gain. It is way that stands for life, not death; for non-violence, not coercion; for love, not hate.

This way is not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. It is challenging. It is countercultural, even. Jesus is walking to a cross, after all…

But it is the only way that leads to new, abundant life. It’s the only way to create enduring change.

As our Lenten journey draws to a close, we have to ask ourselves…

Which march are we in?

Which march do we want to be in?

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

[2] Borg and Cross, p. 30.

Featured Image: Jan Edmiston’s Facebook post.