A Parade, a Protest March, & a Funeral Procession

+In the Name of God who was, and is, and is to come.

They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Mark 11:7-9

The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus made a conscious decision to go to the Holy City. Luke says that Jesus “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He decided to go even though Jerusalem was a place where more than one prophet had met an untimely end. Predictably it was a place where Jesus faced fierce opposition from the religious and political leadership.  

The disciples had followed Jesus for a long time. True to the diverse make up of the group, they reacted to the proposed trip in different ways. Two of them, James and John, felt sure that Jesus would usher in the kingdom when he reached the city. So, they asked to sit, one at his right hand and the other at his left, in his kingdom. Little did they know that the Messiah would be enthroned on a cross.

On the other hand, at least one of them – doubting Thomas – seems to have had a pretty good idea of the dangers they would be facing. When Jesus announced that he was going to Jerusalem, Thomas turned to the others and said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”  It took massive courage to go with Jesus. The record says that some of the disciples opted out of the journey, choosing not to follow him any longer.

I find myself wondering what I would have thought, and what I would have done, if I had been in their shoes

Today on Palm Sunday – and throughout the rest of this Holy Week – the story of Jesus comes rapidly to its climax. More than half of Mark’s gospel is devoted to an account of this week. It’s a sober reminder that the events of this week are central to our understanding of how costly God’s love for us really is.

 After Jesus left Galilee on foot for his final journey with his disciples, Mark described what the trip was like: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

You can drive from Galilee to Jerusalem in about two hours these days, depending on the route you take. If Jesus and his disciples had taken the direct route from Capernaum to the capitol city, they could have walked the distance in about four days. However, Jesus did not go by the direct route – the one parallel to the Jordan River. Instead, he went across the river through the hill country on the other side.

The trip ended up taking Jesus almost six weeks. He stopped all along the way to tell people about the kingdom of God and to show them what the kingdom was like. He talked to children even though the disciples thought that children shouldn’t bother him and tried to keep them away. He spent time with young men who asked him serious questions, even though they didn’t have very serious intentions. And he even took the time to deal with blind beggars who wanted and needed his help.

Even though he was facing the greatest challenge of his life, Jesus ministered all along just the way he had from the beginning of his public ministry. He remained compassionate, reaching out to anyone who was hurting or in need. Whatever internal wrestling he may have been doing, his focus of attention remained the same. He offered healing and peace to people who were sick, or broken, or worn out from carrying the heavy burdens of their lives

The story of the first Holy Week began when Jesus and his followers reached the outskirts of the Holy City. It was the Passover – the great holiday season of the year for the Jewish people. All the roads leading to Jerusalem would have been crowded with pilgrims coming from the north and the south and the east – the uphill route Jesus traveled from Jericho. The road climbs more than three thousand feet in seventeen miles from the Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth. 

As they climbed, pilgrims sang the songs their forebears had sung before them – the ones known as the Songs of Ascents – fifteen psalms that contain some of the most familiar and beautiful words in all of Holy Scripture: “I was glad when they said to me, we will go to the house of the Lord.” “I will lift up my eyes to the hills from where is my help to come. My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Jesus climbed the road on foot with the others until they approached the villages of Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives. Then he did a dramatic thing. Instead of walking into the city, he rode on a colt that had never been ridden before. Matthew’s Gospel says that there was a serious reason behind what Jesus did. Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah – the prophecy we read as our first lesson today: “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”. 

Matthew was telling his readers that Jesus rode into the city the way he did to fulfill a prediction. The long-expected Messiah would come that way. It was a sign – the same kind of sign other prophets had used in the past to make a point. The message was this, “Here is a symbol that tells you everything you need to know about me. If there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, let me dispel it. You were expecting the Messiah to enter Jerusalem riding on a colt. Here I am!”

The reaction to his entry into Jerusalem was mixed. Mark, whose story about the entry is the most restrained of the four gospels, says that many people spread their cloaks on the road or spread branches that they had cut in the fields. Matthew makes a much bigger deal out of it. The whole city was in turmoil, he reports. Huge crowds were going ahead of Jesus while others were following him. They were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the Name of the Lord!”

Who knows exactly what transpired that day?  It’s impossible to know precisely.  What we do know is that major events often elicit different reactions from people.  Some people are active participants and are completely engaged. Others stop whatever they’re doing long enough to see what the commotion is about and then go on with their day. And still others go home that evening complaining about the traffic and the inconvenience. “You can’t imagine what happened on the way home today. There was some fool on a donkey who drew a big crowd on Michigan Avenue. I was a half an hour late for my appointment. Parades, protests, funeral processions – there’s always something clogging up downtown. And then the Kennedy and the Edens were jammed – it was a godawful commute.

I wonder whose day was thrown off that first Palm Sunday, who was inconvenienced by the lone figure riding the donkey. I wonder what they thought of the Galileans – those who knew Jesus, and loved him, and held out great hope for him and for themselves, who were shouting, “Hosanna! God save us! Blessed is the one who comes. Hosanna in the highest!”

I wonder how they understood what was happening . . . I wonder how we understand what happened that day.  And what the story means to us now.

On one level, Jesus’ entry was a parade – a great celebration – a time of joy. People turned Jesus’ entry into a triumphal procession. They covered the road with the garments as though they were making a way for a king to travel.

In other years, we would have had a parade here at All Saints – with jugglers in the Parish Hall, people riding unicycles, drums sounding and streamers waving. From the photos it seems not even a heavy snowfall can dampen this parish’s enthusiasm for a parade.

On another level Jesus’ entry was a protest march. Although there is only a hint of protest in the Gospel reading today—he entered the temple, looked around and left—the larger pattern of his life justifies the term. While he was still in Galilee, Jesus had engaged the Pharisees and scribes in serious disagreement over the interpretation of scripture and tradition. There was the running debate over table fellowship, and sharp differences over fasting and Sabbath observance. Jesus protested the subordination of human need and welfare to the unfeeling application of law. And, of course, once Jesus was in Jerusalem, protest followed protest, beginning with his interference with temple practices.

On Palm Sunday three years ago, All Saints’ parishioners took long bus rides to Washington to protest the lack of congressional action following the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After the recent back-to-back mass murders in Georgia and Colorado, it’s time once again to protest the subordination of human need and welfare to the unfeeling application of the Second Amendment. I encourage you to learn more about United Power’s “Do Not Stand Idly By” campaign to create safer guns and more sensible gun laws. I encourage you as well to join efforts to build 1,000 affordable homes in southwest Chicago. Even Crain’s Chicago Business recognizes that building affordable housing is one of the keys to ending gun violence in this city. All Saints’ knows how to protest in the spirit of Jesus. And we know how to build power and to act.

Finally, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a funeral procession. Jesus certainly knew this. The Twelve should have known this as well. On three separate occasions Jesus had told them of his approaching death in Jerusalem. Their response after each prediction made it clear, however, that they did not comprehend his words. And who can blame them? Why would anyone want to snuff out the life of anyone who loved the way Jesus that did?

When Jesus spoke to his disciples about what was going to happen to him, he said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

This week we are invited to follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. It’s a parade, a protest, and a funeral procession all rolled into one. By the end of the week, we’ll celebrate the fact that the procession leads beyond death to life – that God’s love always rolls the stone away.

But for now, let’s walk the way of the cross together, following Jesus.

Please pray with me. 

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace. Amen.