Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
Tomorrow, as we begin Holy Week, Jews across the world will be sitting down for the Jewish holiday of a Passover “Seder”, which is actually a dinner. Who here has heard of Seder before? Does anyone know what it is?
Jews celebrate Passover to as a remembrance of liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. In ancient times, Passover was one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals in Judaism, where people gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings. There are also some commandments that must be followed during that time, which include ceremonial hand-washing, eating only un-leavened bread – which is more like a tasteless cracker and called the bread of affliction - and bitter herbs, to signify the bitterness of the time Jews spent in slavery. Most of this is accomplished in the dinner on the first night of Passover, which is called a Seder. The word seder literally means ‘order’; the Passover has 15 separate steps in its traditional order which help tell the Jewish Story.
Has anyone ever been to a Passover Seder?
When I was a kid, I remember that our youth group went to Passover at a nearby Synagogue to do a little interfaith education. I don’t remember much about that experience except that it happened. The one I do remember is my first Passover as an adult in Chicago, hosted by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. This was a non-profit and the invitation went out to partnering organizations, so I took the opportunity to go, by myself. When I got there, people were invited to sit at these large circular tables, like our Grabill Hall. The table was set with some very specific things – a shank bone, lettuce, an egg, parsley, horseradish as a bitter herb, wine, and matzah bread, which is like a dry salt-less cracker… actually a bit like cardboard… (there are a lot of jokes about the unappetizing qualities of Matzah bread… like, “What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the bread of affliction? A matzochist.”)
Now we all had a glass for wine, and someone came by with a bottle of kosher wine for the table and set it near me. Trying to be polite, I picked it up and asked if I could pour wine for someone sitting next to me. She said yes, and I poured her a glass of wine, as you do, and then poured mine. I barely caught the look on her face, which seemed a bit sour.
Then she said to me, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” No, I said, wondering why it was that obvious.
Then we started the meal. The leader, knowing they had a mixture of attendees, Jewish and non-Jewish, gave instructions. It begins with the first blessing of Sanctification said over the wine, and then the wine is drunk. All the wine. The whole glass, so that we can pour another for the second blessing.
This second glass she did not let me pour.
In our readings this week, Jesus has entered the gates of Jerusalem a few days before the celebration of Passover. Passover, in this day and age, seems like a charming recitation of Jewish history – a nice excuse to get together with family and educate young ones. But in biblical times, it was a different kind of celebration – it was a celebration of Israel’s independence day.
Passover is a retelling of the story of God liberating the Israelite slaves from Pharoah. It is acelebration of overthrowing the ultra-powerful Pharoah, of Pharoah’s horses and riders being thrown into the sea by God. It is the story of God always being on their side, of God leading them to land that was promised. Story of faith and hope that God will not abandon them. It is the recitation of the identity of the people. The Passover was an ultra nationalistic celebration …done here in the midst of occupied Rome. It was a celebration of Jewish freedom in a time and place when Jews were not free. Jews were living under the boot of the Roman occupation.
And since this is a pilgrimage festival, a festival that has to be celebrated in Jerusalem where the Temple is located, the city is packed with people. Biblical scholars estimate that Jerusalem had a population of about 20 to 30,000 people, like the size of Hastings. But at Passover the Holy city’s population might have added another 150,000 people. Imagine every room filled, with campsites popping up on every available hillside and open space, inhabited by people who had traveled, sometimes for weeks, to be there.
Imagine living in a town under tense oppression from the authorities. Imagine a town under martial law. Now imagine that town swelling to 6 times its normal size. Military patrol is walking up and down the streets, looking for reasons to keep order. Perhaps looking for any reason to show how they keep order.
There could very well have been many people in Jerusalem during Passover that were looking toward this time as an opportunity for revolution. There could very well have been many in the crowd thinking this ‘messiah’ was the guy to lead the revolution. In fact, that’s what they were shouting. The word ‘Hosanna’ seems like a word of praise, like “Hurray” or “Praise God!” I’m not sure why this word is left in Hebrew, rather than be translated into it’s actual definition, which is “Save Us”. The crowds were literally shouting, “Save Us, Son of David” – King David being their last great ruler. In a fit of ethnic pride and patriotic determination that they would someday have self-rule, these people were calling on one they believed to be descended from a great warrior to free them from yet another near-slave situation.
In the time of the national celebration and calls for freedom, in an extra-crowded city, it’s pretty likely that Pilate would be coming into town with an extra show of force, lest anyone get the idea of overthrowing the current ruling regime. It was likely he rode in atop a warhorse, flanked by armed soldiers and whatever else he needed to be intimidating.
In the midst of this, Jesus goes into Jerusalem. Knowing it was dangerous, knowing it was deadly even – he does it anyway. He set his face like flint and volunteered himself to his enemies. Last week, in the story of Lazarus’ Resurrection, we see that even Thomas knows it is a death sentence. That’s because Jesus has already committed a crime against the state. Jesus may be completely innocent as a man. But when Jesus began proclaiming the kingdom of God – rather than the kingdom of Caesar – he was committing a subversive act against Rome. Those proclamations about the Kingdom of God may even be empowering to the zealots in Jerusalem who are eager for a revolution, a violent overthrow of Rome. Some may see his proclamations as evidence that God is just about to return them to the seat of power, through force.
It’s a common human trait to think of force as the easy solution. We are fed this in our films and fiction all the time – movies like Die Hard, or the Bourne Identity series, or authors like James Patterson or Clive Connelly. The good guys come with force, knock out all the bad guys, and the day is saved. And it’s very seductive to think that all we have to do is take power. All we have to do is show overwhelming force.
But God shows us that this is not the way.
Jesus enacts his plan to enter Jerusalem, and prescribes where and when to find his preferred method of entry. Now, it’s hard to imagine in the era of books and the internet, Jesus lives in a time when all the stories of the culture were passed down in words. And people knew them by heart. So, when Jesus commands the disciple to find a foal and a donkey, he intentionally chooses some imagery that people will recognize. He chooses the messianic story from the prophet Zechariah, when the humble king, a lowly servant, rides in on a donkey. But it’s not a conquering king coming with an army on a war chariot. It is a peace-bringing king, arriving on a lowly donkey. In the midst of this, Jesus coming into Town on the humble donkey; on the other side of town, Pilate comes in as the Governor.
It’s almost comic.
With this first step towards the cross, Jesus is telling us that lordship, even messianic lordship, is defined in terms of servanthood, not force. Jesus will turn people’s expectations on their ear. Rather than help bring violent revolution, with his actions this coming week, he will show gentleness, humility, peaceableness, mercy, and self-giving acts of generosity and compassion are marks of God’s domain.
The Jesus who enters Jerusalem was and always is a challenge to this world’s powers and sense of order – not merely a spiritual challenge but a political challenge as well. His cause is not the same as that of the zealots or any violent insurrectionists. He didn’t come to shepherd in a return to Jewish domination of Jerusalem, to take power or give power to a chosen people. He didn’t show up with overwhelming force, and make things easy for us. ‘King Jesus’ is a threat to both the power elite and the fickle multitude, those who would like things to be easy. Jesus did notintend to leave the ways of the worlds as they were. He came to change our mindset.
Force does not endure. What endures is the love God has for us. What endures is that God stays with us, suffers with us, in solidarity with us, even when it requires facing inevitable violence. What endures is God’s love that Jesus shows by entering Jerusalem. What endures is the radical, unbelievable, counterintuitive action of God. What endures is the cornerstone that the builders had rejected, because the builders didn’t understand the sticking power of love.