Journey to Wholeness – Palm Sunday

“Palms and Protests,” Bob Ryder

This morning we take still another step forward on our Lenten “Journey to Wholeness,” looking today at the experience of integrity. It occurs to me those words are virtually synonymous – “wholeness” and “integrity.”  Integrity suggests a unity achieved between individual parts that combine to make up a greater singular reality, things working together for a higher purpose.  We might think of a clock as an example of separate parts integrated into a single whole. The earth is sometimes thought of as an integrated whole, the smaller entities such as living creatures and tectonic plates, ocean currents and volcanism all combining into one living system. For our part, we approach this morning as an opportunity to cultivate personal integrity, our intellect and imagination, our compassion and talents and interests all drawn together in service of some greater good.  I remember the words of a colleague who once described his pursuit of integrity as striving to be the same person when leading a worship service as he is in the grocery store – an intention not to put on airs but to be mindful his limitations and failings and responsibilities as well as his desires and insights and aspirations.  Susan shared a definition she found for the word integrity that says – “integrity is when our thoughts, our words, and our actions are congruent, when our values, our ideals and our practices all match.”  This being Palm Sunday, it’s an easy connection to look at Jesus’ integrity as example to live up to in the pursuit for our own.

There’s that phrase Susan and I use often when our reflections interpret biblical stories that are likely fictional.  You’ll recognize it.  “I don’t know whether it really happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” The obvious point is that a story doesn’t necessarily need to be historically factual in order to teach us something worth knowing, worth understanding. Think of “The Little Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf!’”  Historical? Probably not – doesn’t matter. True?  Clearly!

Today moves in the other direction.  Two iconic scenes from the gospel stories of Holy Week make much more sense to me since I’ve come to understand what probably did happen historically.  The phrase that comes to my mind in this case is more like, “It probably went something like this, and it’s well worth knowing.”  The way I think about Holy Week changed back in the late 90s and early 2000s when our congregation hosted visits from Jesus Seminar scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  They came on separate occasions – though fairly close together – and offered their well educated ideas about what probably happened historically to inspire the gospel stories about Jesus’ passion and death as we know them today. Prior to my learning about their research, all I was aware of from earlier in my education was the traditional interpretation about Holy Week in which Jesus goes to Jerusalem with the explicit albeit reluctant intention to offer himself to be crucified for the sins of the world.  I don’t think of it that way anymore.  The way I see it, Holy Week originated an expression of integrity.

The gist of the Jesus Seminar project was and is to make an educated guess as to what we’d know about Jesus if we had recordings of his words and actions.  Scholars of the project work with meticulous care to sort through the layers of tradition and translation, the language and history and culture of nations from the time, the archaeological record, the literary analysis of various different gospel writers’ agendas and on and on to find out what we can know about the actual Jesus of Nazareth.  Well, I refer to it as an educated guess because Marcus Borg himself talks about the historical Jesus as a “shadowy figure.”  The closest we can come to knowing about his life and ministry is like watching video on a TV screen getting a very weak signal off a rabbit-ear antenna.  You’d see images from other transmissions, the signal would fade in and out and the screen would be too staticky to see more than silhouettes with only occasional tantalizing glimpses of clarity.  Or it might be like listening to his lessons and speeches on tapes that were recorded from a distance surrounded by a noisy crowd, and then recorded over several times with interviews of people who were impressed with him and sharing their own recollections and interpretations of his ministry.  The restoration would be – at best – fragmented and faint, making it extremely difficult to decipher Jesus’ own words from what was added or revised along the way.  Yet with all of those challenges to contend with, professors Borg and Crossan offer a compelling sketch about the likely thrust of what happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry.  For me, the result ever since has been that I take Jesus much more seriously than I ever did prior, whether I want to or not.

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 out in the street near a door. 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!’

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.

If we want to understand Jesus’ integrity, we need to see Palm Sunday beyond the quaint Sunday School images that come reflexively to mind, and acknowledge why he did what he did knowing the very real risk he was taking.  A mild-mannered martyr obediently and bravely proceeding to a sacrificial death for the purpose of sparing believers from the consequences of their sins Jesus was not.  He most assuredly was courageous.  He was anything but mild-mannered.

During the Jewish observance of Passover, Rome brought overwhelming military strength into Jerusalem as a blatant warning against even the slightest hint of insurrection.  Being the celebration of Israel’s deliverance from bondage to Egypt, Passover had an immediate relevance for Israel’s hope of vanquishing Rome.  Keenly aware of this, the regional governor Pontius Pilate made an annual trip from nearby Caesarea Maritima with a large infantry and cavalry meant to dissuade anyone from inciting 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 flying in the breeze, armor glistening in the sun.  It was every bit the intimidating display it was intended to be.  Those who violated the Pax Romana would be swiftly and brutally punished.  Crucifixion was an imminent threat, and centurions likely had permission to nail up perpetrators without needing permission from their superiors.  Non Roman citizens wouldn’t have had any right to a trial – it was strait to a cross.

Against that backdrop of intimidating imperial authority, 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.  Here we see the antithesis of what Rome professed as divine power.  The populist teacher and social critic – the witty and irreverent friend of lepers and prostitutes – approaching the city unarmed and mounted on a gentle donkey, likely a deliberately comical gesture in contrast with the impressive mount bearing the Roman governor nearby.  This was not the sort of occasion conceived by a benign savior disinterested in worldly matters.  It was a brash indictment of Rome’s oppressive imperial philosophy and the Temple priests who capitulated to it put forward by a confident provocateur.  This is the picture of integrity, having the imagination to mock Roman pageantry for the masquerade it was, having the intelligence to do it comically, and having the courage to do it openly.  This is just the sort of irreducible genius that made Jesus so compelling – he was witty, authentic, and daring.

This brings us to the so-called “cleansing of the Temple.”  Professor Crossan speculates that Jesus likely intended to stage a similar protest against the commercialization of the temple.  The episode is sometimes referred to as the “temple tantrum,” which I take to imply Jesus was overcome by righteous indignation. That’s certainly plausible.  But thinking about it all these years since learning from Crossan and Borg, it seems more likely that the episode in the Temple was meant to be another poignant and imaginative and disciplined protest, and it just got out of hand.  So much of the evidence suggests that Jesus was as disciplined as he was passionate.  Blowing up in public – politically correct as he would have been to do so – doesn’t fit. This was the sage who bested the Pharisees and scribes in debates about the law.  This was the audacious preacher who socialized openly with prostitutes and lepers and tax collectors.   It seems improbable that this exceptionally talented rabbi would have allowed himself to be provoked into losing his temper.  My guess is that Jesus’ confrontation with the money changers and vendors provoked a physical brawl.  Push came to shove.  Fists flew. Tables got knocked over.  Coins were scatted.  Animals panicked and ran amok in the fray.  It is easy to see how such a scene would have attracted a quick response by Roman centurions, and just as easy to see how the temple crowd would have blamed the whole episode on Jesus, partly in their anger at having their livelihood disrupted and partly to save their own necks.  Jesus was probably executed for the episode within minutes, likely with a handful of others involved in the scuffle.  Over the following decades, interpretations of Jesus’ life by Paul and others gave rise to the gospel stories we have now.  But likely in the original historical episode, Jesus was simply acting out of integrity.  His sense of compassion for the oppressed blended with his exasperation at the calloused cruelty of the Temple Priests and Roman rulers.  His values and imagination and courage were perfectly integrated. Tempers flared, chaos erupted, Rome cracked down, and Jesus paid for his integrity with his life.

I caught a glimpse of Jesus in a photograph that came across my news feed recently.  She was protesting against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when migrant families cross the border seeking asylum in the United States…

This is an example of witty, provocative, daring social protest.  It not as dramatic or immediately risky as the episode that inspired the gospel stories, but no matter.  It’s playing in the same key.  Palm Sunday happens whenever we summon the integrity to protest against injustice.  Palm Sunday happens when we protest voter suppression.  It happens when we protest sexual discrimination and violence. It happens when we protest against people being slaughtered by assault rifles. It happens when we volunteer for political campaigns and make financial contributions to causes that advocate for the abused and powerless.  It happens whenever we cultivate our integrity, striving for the discipline and wit and daring to become part of a greater good.  Let the journey to wholeness continue.  Blessed are she and he who come in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!  Amen.