Palm Sunday 2018

“Jesus as Revolutionary,” Bob Ryder

Mark 11:1-11, 15-19 (NRSV – excerpted/paraphrased)
When they were approaching Jerusalem near the Mount of Olives, Jesus said to two of his disciples, ‘Go into the village ahead, and immediately as you enter it you will find there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me. They went and found the colt tied near a door outside in the street. They brought it to Jesus and covered it with their cloaks; and he sat upon it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others waved leafy branches they had cut from the nearby fields. Then they formed a procession around Jesus shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’

Then they came into Jerusalem. Jesus went to the temple and at once began to drive out the merchants. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and would not allow anyone to trade within the temple. He decried them, saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of thieves.’  The whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when the chief priests and the scribes heard of it, they conspired to kill him; for they were threatened by his preaching. When evening came, Jesus and his disciples left the city.

I spent last weekend in St. Louis at an event called Clicker Expo, a terrific annual conference for animal trainers. I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of the profession’s most accomplished and insightful people in the world were there. I attended at least a dozen lectures and laboratory classes and wow, did I learn a lot – easily as much about the spirituality of relationships and teaching as about the practicality of learning theory and various training techniques. The conference is built around a philosophy of kindness and respect as the foundation for training, and practicing that approach over many years has shaped most of the presenters into excellent role models and mentors for humans as well as being skilled animal trainers.

Mark “all of the above” and you’ll have picked the answer that best describes Ken Ramirez, a brilliant trainer and teacher who served for 25 years as vice-president of Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, consults for animal conservation groups around the world, and who in 2015 was part of a project that trained 10,000 butterflies to move in formation across a field in time to symphony music. Ken is one of the inspirations woh moved animal training toward being consistently friendly and gentle. He is deeply respectful of every animal in his care, as well as every human who works with and for him. In keeping with that philosophy, he opened the conference with a story about a recent adventure in Africa. Ken was hired recently to consult with a national park to train a large heard of elephants to adjust their migration route. Part of their normal trek from one seasonal feeding area to another takes the herd across a national border and outside the park through terrain hunted by poachers. The government of the neighboring country is not willing to create or enforce laws to protect wildlife, so Ken was asked to help design a plan to teach the elephants a more circuitous route to keep them within the protected sanctuary. Last year during a scouting trip to watch the animals and identify the route they were to develop, Ken’s group was attacked by poachers with machine guns and a rocket launcher. Their jeeps were blown up and the crew sent flying across a field where they crashed into a grove of trees and lay dazed and badly hurt. I won’t go into the very rich and enthralling details of their survival at the moment, but suffice to say they did survive despite numerous bullet wounds and other grave injuries and a very slow evacuation by small helicopter that could only accommodate 2 people at a time. Last weekend Ken was at the conference in person with his usual good-natured demeanor and gargantuan knowledge, surprisingly none-the-worse for wear and quite determined not to let the poachers win. Very nearly being killed did not diminished Ken’s resolve, he plans to return to Africa next year and continue the work, confident that the project can succeed to save the heard. Hold that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Stay with me meanwhile as I transition to the occasion of the first Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The way I think about Holy Week changed for good around 15 years ago following visits from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg spoke here on separate occasions and offered their thoughts about what probably happened historically to inspire the gospel stories about Jesus’ passion and death. All I knew from earlier in my Christian education was the traditional Christian interpretation, in which Jesus goes to Jerusalem with the explicit if reluctant intention to offer himself to be crucified for the sins of the world. At the risk of oversimplifying, the gist of Borg’s and Crossan’s thinking is that the historical Jesus was actiually in Jerusalem to stage an intelligent, strategic, daring protest against the oppression perpetuated upon common people by the Temple priests in collusion with Rome. It was far from a suicide mission. While he certainly would have understood he was risking his life by provoking the authorities, the idea of offering himself as a blood sacrifice likely never occurred to him. That interpretation was developed over the next 40 to 70 years after his death. What happened in real time – and why it happened – was almost certainly quite different.

Two episodes, probably historic, are relevant for our consideration. The first is that iconic parade in which Jesus enters the city on a donkey. The actual event likley had two original meanings. The gesture may have been partly a satirical jab at the pomposity of the Roman governor, and partly a symbolic demonstration of Jesus’ alternative political vision in the name of Israel’s god. During Passover, Rome brought overwhelming military strength into Jerusalem as a blatant warning against insurrection.  A celebration of Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt, Passover had immediate relevance for Israel’s hope of vanquishing Rome from their land.  Understanding this, the regional governor Pontius Pilate made an annual trip from nearby Caesarea Maritima with a large regiment of infantry and cavalry to prevent an uprising while pilgrims swelled the population of Jerusalem to several times its normal census.  Roman soldiers entered the city in a long procession, banners of the empire waving in the breeze, armor glistening in the sunlight – it was surely the intimidating display it was intended to be.  Those who violated the Pax Romana would be swiftly and brutally punished. Crucifixion was the penalty for insurrection – it was at once excruciating for the victim both physically and psychologically and horrifying to the public before whom it took place in full view. The gruesome visage of a mangled body was left hanging in the weather for days as carrion for dogs and scavenger birds. For Jews who were careful to carry out burial on the same day a person died, this was an agonizing sacrilege. In a word, crucifixion was Rome’s way of saying, “Don’t!”  Standing orders would have been in place for centurions to execute anyone who stepped out of line.  There would be no requirement that an upstart be given a trial or that soldiers get permission before crucifying someone who wasn’t a Roman citizen. If you were caught disturbing the peace, it was a brutal death for you – no hesitation, no mercy.

So against that backdrop of brutal imperial authority, wherein the emperor was regarded to be the divine son of a Roman war god, the Palm Sunday parade Jesus choreographed in another part of the city tells us what he was about, and why he was reckoned as the son of a very different God.  In Jesus we see the antithesis of how Rome thought of divine power.  The populist teacher and social critic, the witty and irreverent friend of lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors approaches the city unarmed and mounted on a gentle donkey – a comic gesture in contrast with the impressive horse bearing the Roman governor.  And Jesus approached Jerusalem amid the voluntary adulation of crowds who admired his reputation.  This too was a parody of the intimidated reception Rome evoked.  I imagine onlookers witnessing Pilate’s parade watching in intimidated silence, not daring eye contact or audible remarks, except perhaps murmurs of “Hail Caesar!”  By contrast, I imagine onlookers to Jesus’ parade participating with an unlikely combination of reverence and relaxed humor.  I imagine Jesus grinning as he moved through the crowds on that donkey with his hands outstretched collecting high-fives.  Here was the clever teacher who regularly bested the Pharisees in debates about what made for authentic righteousness; who openly criticized the Priests and Scribes for their hypocrisy and corruption.  This was the guy who broke the rules that kept immigrants and sick people in isolation and misery. This was not the sort of occasion conceived by a meek spiritual savior disinterested in worldly matters. It was a brash indictment of Rome’s oppressive imperial philosophy and the Temple priests who colluded with it. This was the protest of a confident provocateur.

Which brings us to the so-called “cleansing of the Temple.” Borg and Crossan both speculate that Jesus likely did confront the money-changers for commercializing the temple. Perhaps Jesus disregarded the consequences, or maybehe just tragically miscalculated the immediate risk. In that highly charged religious/political/military atmosphere, Jesus’ protest ran the risk of inciting a riot, and it’s not difficult to see how such behavior would quickly attract the attention of centurions who executed him on the spot. Over the following decades, interpretations of Jesus’ life by Paul and others gave rise to the gospel stories we have now in which Jesus’ death was part of the eternal plan for salvation. But likely the original historical episode consisted of Jesus staging a demonstration and paying with his life.

This is one of those gestalt shifts – a change in perspective that stays with you once you understand it. It’s like that image of seemingly random blocks that frame the background into letters spelling out the word Jesus. At first you don’t see the word, then it emerges from the page and you can’t help but see it whenever you look going forward from then on.

The main idea I want to convey this morning is that if we think of occasions like Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the Temple and Holy Week itself as unique occasions from a remote time and place, we miss their importance completely. The important thing to understand isn’t that Palm Sunday happened, it’s that Palm Sunday ALWAYS happens. As I listened to Ken Ramirez share his experience of being nearly killed by elephant poachers yet remaining determined to continue working for the conservation of those elephants despite the risks, I understood that to be in the spirit of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday happened, and Palm Sunday always happens.

In the 1950s and 1960s Palm Sunday happened when the Freedom Riders rode and voter registration drives took place in the deep south despite the kortal danger they knew they were risking for equality and democracy. It was Palm Sunday when Rosa Parks kept her seat on the front of the bus in Montgomery, and it was Palm Sunday when John Lewis and his fellow civil rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma despite the near certainty they would be beaten and jaied. Jesus would have approved that we call it Bloody Sunday. The #metoo and #timesup movements happened last fall and this very winter on Palm Sunday. It’s Palm Sunday when Black Lives Matter meets and organizes and holds protests against police brutality. And yesterday was Palm Sunday as the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School inspired millions around the world to protest gun violence and demand that legislators take action to better regulate firearms. #MarchForOurLives happens on Palm Sunday.

It will always be Palm Sunday while the struggle to realize the justice and peace of God’s commonwealth continues.