A Big Bang of Betterment

A sermon based on Mark 11:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 29, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

One Palm Sunday because of a sore throat, 5 year old Sammy stayed home from church with a babysitter.  When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds.  Sammy asked what the cool green leaves were for. “People held them over Jesus’ head and tossed them at his feet as he walked by,” his father responded. “ Wouldn’t you just know it?” Sammy complained, “the one Sunday I don’t go and Jesus shows up.”

I love Palm Sunday because actually Jesus does show up. Now I’d argue he’s here every Sunday, but on Palm Sunday the presence of Christ always seems to me a bit more palpable. There’s a sense of love and excitement.  One theory I have is that anything with “Hosannas!’ tends to get people stoked.  Even if we don’t know what it means, it just sends our hearts to pumping–like a sorta verbal caffeine.

“Hosanna!” the palm waving crowds shouts. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Really, really upbeat stuff.  Hosanna is a Hebrew word. It  means “O save now!” So the folks in the parade are yelling out “O Save now.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It’s not said sorrowfully in our retelling, it’s said with great joy.

And although a lot of Christians hear this as a reference to saving us from our personal sins, that’s not what it would have likely meant the day Jesus hopped on a donkey and road over what was the equivalent of a red carpet welcome, a coat and palm covered street.

This is a story about a Holy man on a mission to save the oppressed– which was a great deal of the population. Which is why folks cheered him on with the instruction to “Save us now!” And he – Jesus– is given blessings and acclamation as a Holy man.

“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” What’s the mission that’s got folks all stoked? A mission to “save us!”  And when is it taking place? Now! And who is the one bringing that salvation about? “One who comes in the name of the Lord.”

How is a poor, homeless, bearded, peasant, Rabbi riding on a donkey into Jerusalem over an honor carpet of palms and coats to the great cheers of people, one who comes in the name of the Lord? Let alone one who’s going to save us or anybody now?

Last year on Palm Sunday I mentioned Jesus having a sense of humor as I explained how Palm Sunday was a  protest, a clever parody parade of a parade that took place on the other side of Jerusalem.  In that other parade Pilate promenaded into town with pageantry and pomp showing off Rome’s might which was sent in to put down protests and threats. Pilate was there with his men to crush any unrest during Passover.   The threat alone was meant to dam up and stop any disruptions, any challenge to Roman rule or authority.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago –when we talked about Jesus causing a disruption in the Temple, how Palm Sunday was part one of a two part protest staged by Jesus. Palm Sunday’s parade by Jesus was to protest Pilate coming in with violent forces to quell unrest over the injustices of Rome’s oppression of virtually an entire population.   The Disruption of the Temple was how Jesus protested God’s people letting their unrest over injustices be quelled by Rome.

In both part one and part two of these protests Jesus offered the hope of salvation from injustice, by trying to break down the Roman dams that were holding back the reservoirs of the waters of justice and the streams righteousness that the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus’ Scriptures, our Scriptures call humanity to.

At the first protest – Palm Sunday– the people want, they hope to see Jesus cause the Romans to, as the prophet Amos put it, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Part one of the protest – Palm Sunday– gets pulled off without a hitch.  It’s the kind of protest everyone prays for, the points made, some fun is had, no one gets injured–and it is aimed at the government. All these years later there’s a deep resonating positive vibe still vibrates strongly in the retelling. We cannot sing Hosanna without being uplifted and reminded of the day Jesus humbly strode into town astride a donkey to the cheers of the people.  That protest demonstration got a lot of bang for the buck over the years.  Indeed from a Christian standpoint it can even be said to have created a big bang of betterment to begin in the world.

Until that donkey ride amidst the cheers of supporters– beneath the waving branches, above the sea of palms and coats– Jesus had not yet demonstrated openly against Rome in his efforts to help (as he put it in his first sermon in Luke): the oppressed to go free.   Before that first Palm Sunday Jesus had, of course, helped the oppressed. He taught others to help the oppressed. He even gathered crowds in the countryside and villages to help and teach. But until Palm Sunday, Jesus had not challenged Rome’s authority in a staged, very public, very out in the open, big city protest. On Palm Sunday he moved into a whole new arena and the crowds loved the opening gambit.

As Christians staring into the abyss of time, looking back to that fateful day we can see a huge flashpoint of amazing proportions. Palm Sunday was the day the fuse to a big bang of betterment was lit.  We tend to look at Christmas as the glorious starting point and that is fine, but the day of ignition of cosmic dimensions seems to have been Palm Sunday. Jesus’ birth and teachings and acts of love were powder that filled the casings of the tightly wrapped whole, but they did not get worldwide traction and efficacious affect until Rome responded.

And Rome did respond to Jesus’ two public protests, the Palm Sunday Parade and the Temple Protest where Jesus explosively challenged the awful un-Godly way things were. In the Palm Sunday Parade Jesus non-violently took on Rome, the bully. In the Temple Protest he takes on local leaders and worshipers for letting Rome bully them into submission, they’ve got no God gumption going and he calls them on it.

The Temple Protest does not seem to have gotten the kinda crowd support Palm Sunday does, probably because it hit a little closer to home. That day at the Temple, the government was not the target of criticism, so much as the local leadership and people not helping end the oppression– not letting justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

But Jesus’ double dynamite Sunday and Monday protests, plus his long history of non-violently rebelling against the system of oppression with nothing but love finally gets Rome’s ire up.

And Rome does what Rome did to all protesters. They summarily arrest,  try, torture and execute Jesus. This was Rome’s constant lesson to others as they mowed trouble makers down and tossed them into the dark shadows of obscurity. That’s Rome’s M.O. That’s Rome’s Modus Operandi.

The ugliness of the arrest, trial, torture and execution of Jesus are what looms for us over the next week, called Holy Week. On Thursday we will have a Tenebrae service of darkness, where we face the reality of the last supper and the passion of Christ and remember that after Palm Sunday and before Easter Jesus suffered, and that God was there in the mix miraculously creating light in that deep darkness. A light no one expected. A light unprecedented in the history of humankind. A light so big it begins a whole series of large scale betterment in the world.

On that first Palm Sunday it was a much crueler world. Governments listened only to the voices of the elite. Slavery was an accepted part of the culture. Women were considered lesser human beings.  Children had no rights. The very poor and sick were considered expendable– virtual toss-a-ways. Genocide and other forms of annihilation of enemies including civilian men, women and children was commonplace and accepted practices of war. All of the things I just listed are in a word, unloving.  They do not promote or consider the well being of any but the elite, those with power. And so they are un-Godly.

Jesus’ message boiled down was that everyone is loved and matters much,  and that his followers ought to love everyone and act like everybody does in fact matter. Neighbors and enemies (ENEMIES!) are to be loved.  That simple message of love was heard by only a relatively few followers back in Jesus’ day before that first Palm Sunday. It  resonated with a relatively small band of followers.  But then after Palm Sunday when the fuse was lit Rome could not put it out, Rome’s monstrous conduct only fueled what was to be the start of a big bang of betterment for us all.  Because from that day forward Jesus’ simple message of love has spread and caused action world-wide and the darkness of the awful things I mentioned have had the light of Christ’s love shined on them so that they have not just diminished in existence, but many governments – power– even work now to end them.

Governments may still listen to the voices of the elite, but in many countries they also must now weigh in the voices of the non-elite, people without means matter and have influence. The darkness of dictatorships and elite only run world is slowly but surely being replaced with the light of democracies.

Slavery is no longer an accepted part of our culture, but abhorred here and in principle by most countries. The ugly shadows of enslavement are being chased out of the mainstream marketplaces of the world by Christ’s light of love. And that light continues to shine and expose its back alley existence– as an article in our local paper last week evidences. The light give us the ability to truly hope that one day it will no longer exist. An unthinkable hope to have less than 200 years ago, but now it’s real. Love has made all the difference.

We are also making slow but steady headway in getting rid of the ridiculous notion that women are lesser human beings and not entitled to equal treatment.  Love has taken aim at misogamy and it diminishes more and more each day. We have a long way to go, but we have come a long way.  In much of the world there is a huge difference between the patriarchy of Bible times and its vestiges left today.

And children have also gone from almost total disregard of their worth to having rights to health and education and non-abuse at home, in schools and in the workplace. Love’s done and is doing amazing work in this area as well.

The very poor and sick are no longer uniformly considered expendable and tossed away by most societies, but now matter in general in many cultures. Safety nets for health and food and shelter are created and provided by faith communities and foundations and even governments.  This town is a shining example, every day of the week volunteers and churches and foundations make sure there is a hot meal for anyone who wants one.  I’ve lived in a number of towns and I have not seen a better place for feeding the poor. It’s beautiful.  It is love in action– I pray that one day all the world will follow the example of Mount Vernon, Ohio in this regard. Feed the hungry – every day– no questions asked.

There was a time when genocide and other forms of annihilation of enemies including civilian men, women and children was the norm. Conquerors killed as if it was a matter of right.  That practice is now actually abhorred and prohibited by agreement of many nations and punished when it occurs.  We, nations and its people, actually care about how we treat our enemies and we strive to hold others accountable for it too. What an amazing change!

Now, for sure, the world could be a much better place than it is. But it is a much better place than it was.   Yes there are many things that still threaten the welfare or all of creation and that humankind has it’s hand on the trigger of such things. And yes, lots and lots of work remains to be done to end evil.   But from the first Palm Sunday onward we can trace a two-thousand-year-old trend of humans actually learning to love and care and acting on it, doing something about it.

And we can see over time that that love and care and that doing of something have been efficacious– quelling evil with the waters of justice and steams of righteousness. We have incrementally moved toward betterment and those increments have added up to monumental changes over time. A great many people now have a voice in government where they once had no say.   Slavery’s abhorred and has been extinguished in many, many places. Misogyny is being tamped down and halted if not yet stopped.  Children are not seen as chattel, but as precious beings with rights in much of the world. The poor are being tended to more and more and more. And genocide is no longer considered a right that conquerors can exercise without dire consequences and the ire of much of th world.

All of this may seem like way-to-slow gradual betterment taking over two thousand years, but in geological terms it’s barely a clock tick–and there is promise of the trend to betterment continuing. There is so much hope in that.

Like the big bang that caused the universe to start expanding, Palm Sunday can be understood as the moment the a big bang of betterment was primed and begun, a big bang that started us expanding love in a way that has created a remarkable record of achievement set off by Jesus.

We can understand it as proof that love has a good firm grip on humankind and is winning.  There is so much hope in that.  There is so much good news.

God’s winning.  God’s winning through humankind slowly but surely learning to love, and to be loving .   “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” has proven true.

May love continue to prevail.

May we continue to help it win.