On the Edge of Holy Week
A sermon based on Luke 19:28-40
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 20, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A circus came to town with a beautiful female lion tamer who in a very risky act stared into the eyes of an unleashed fierce and ferocious lion in the ring until he came to her meekly, put his paws around her and nuzzled her with affection. The crowd thundered its approval, all except one fellow who yelled out “What’s so great about that? Anybody can do it.” The ringmaster challenged him, “Would you like to try it, sir?” The man stood up and said: “Yes, but first get that lion out of there.” 1
I like Palm Sunday a lot! It’s a day we observe the wonderful celebration, the parade of people that triumphantly led Jesus into Jerusalem. It is fantastic and wonderful that so many were willing to cheer and literally show Jesus the way to his ministry in Jerusalem with a carpet of honor. Like our modern red carpet welcome, we are told in our reading that the crowd spread their coats over the dusty way to welcome to town Jesus and his ministry of love aimed at heavenly peace for all. In other Gospel accounts palm branches are also said to have been laid down on the road before him.
We can imagine that as Jesus trod over the welcome carpet of coats and palm branches that he and his ministry were greeted with whoops and hollers. We are told “ the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds and power they had seen.” They praised God with a loud voice. And they said “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!”
Some tried to get Jesus to stop it all, to silence the crowd. But Jesus answered “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” Jesus arrives in town on a decidedly non-regal borrowed beast of burden, and he is greeted with great honor and expectation by the throngs of everyday people who cry out at the promise his courageous ministry offers. As Jesus notes creation itself would cry out for such a promise. There remains so much hope in the story that there was so much hope and support for the ministry of Jesus and the ideas Jesus was bringing into the seat of power – to Jerusalem– where the Temple and fierce Roman elite resided.
We can understand from the Palm Sunday stories that Jesus’ call to love as God loves, to in essence do justice and love kindness, was fondly and excitedly received. Everyone has great intentions backing Jesus with “Woo-hoos!” and “Hosannas!” They’ve got this whole “You go Jesus!” thing going on. Jesus the man must have felt empowered and supported and backed by the welcoming celebration. Who wouldn’t have?
Christ, the incarnation of God, who was there in and with Jesus must have also experienced great joy at the awesome display of enthusiasm for God and the call God has given humankind since the beginning–the call to love ourselves and others so much that there is no longer violence and injustice; that all the world has well being . . . shalom, which is peace.
The people cheering that day got it. Love was the way, is the way and ought to be the way forever, every day so that God’s peace reigns and has the final say. And Jesus was there to push that very message into the seat of power, to Rome and its appointed Temple collaborators gathered in Jerusalem for Passover. Who doesn’t like that idea? Who doesn’t support the notion of love being the right way to be? Who doesn’t want it impressed on earthly authority, and the rest of the world, so that peace, God’s shalom can be attained? It’s a great concept that most people will agree with–even today. Maybe even more so today, given Jesus’ 2000 year influence in the world since that first donkey ride across the coat and palm leaf carpet.
The upside to Palm Sunday is awesome! People are stoked about what Jesus did and does and means to do still as the risen Christ in the world. Jesus’ call resonates so deeply that even the stones themselves would shout about it. We and all creation want the love Jesus taught and brought. We want peace, the well being of every one. All of creation does. The concept sits well and easy in our minds.
But here’s the rub, like the guy in the crowd at the circus in the joke people are willing to act out love when it is easy, but want the fierce and ferocious out of the way to make it so. Who doesn’t? I know I like it to be easy. But see the trouble is fierce and ferocious personal and cultural beasts have always been in the ring of life and have always been the reason God and creation’s strong desire for everyone’s well being is so dang slow in coming come about.
Even on the personal scale love and peace is hard. Love and peace for everyone, Pffffft! that’s a notion with a lot, lot a trouble built in. People and abusers of powers of beastly proportions resist and fight knocking down the barriers to shalom, God’s peace. So there is no way those barriers will come down, that justice will happen, unless the fierce and ferocious things within ourselves and the culture that block the way are faced. This necessarily means that Jesus’ ministry of love and peace is impossible to accomplish from the sidelines.
The hard truth, the down side to Palm Sunday is that it was and is relatively easy to whoop-it-up and desire well being of ourselves and everyone else in the abstract. How hard is a red carpet street party full of good cheer and wishes and dreams of love? It is not that difficult to do.
And it’s lovely to want love for every one . . . it really truly is . . .and it is a good thing to cheer the idea of that love on. But taking action to make it so that peace – well being– happens for us and others in the face of the fierce and the ferocious is a whole other arena. In fact, just getting in the ring to support the action to make Jesus’ Way of love happen is hard. The fierce and ferocious are a threat even before getting face-to-face with those beasts. That’s why there’s less and less of a crowd with Jesus as he puts into action his Way of justice and love . . . peace for all.
The lion, the beast, Rome’s got a lightening quick killer take down move and a deadly swipe and bite. It speedily crunches and kills those who oppose it, or appear to oppose it. That threat alone creates a situation where at the end of Jesus’ week in Jerusalem the supporting Palm Sunday crowd is nowhere to be found. Jesus is virtually alone in the ring, except for a small handful of brave women who dared to follow him on the way to cross and to stand beneath it as he died. But even they did not join him in the fracas for fear of tempting Rome to bounce again at them.
Jesus was the only human who stood and protested against Rome and for love. So the first Holy Week started with a crowd wonderfully and positively backing Jesus with a parade and words and an extravagant welcome. But as the week went on it turned out there was no spine to the support. When Jesus challenges the temple and Rome, when he takes on what needs to be taken on, he ends up left all alone in the ring. He is so abandoned at one point in a Gospel account Jesus even questions if God has forsaken him.
Judas is usually the first human who comes to mind as forsaking Jesus, but he was by no means the only one. Peter denies he knows Jesus and not one of the disciples has the gumption to publically stand with him. The Palm Sunday crowd and even his disciples pretty much abandon Jesus when push comes to shove that first Holy Week.Jesus alone challenges the Temple. He alone is arrested. He alone is tried. He alone is abused. He alone is crucified. In short, there are not pre-Easter stories about Jesus’ followers following him into the difficult places during Holy Week that needed to be gone into to accomplish what Jesus set off to accomplish. The loving actions that the crowd on Palm Sunday cheered him on to do, were not backed up by that crowd.
Even after Jesus is dead we find the followers hiding in a room behind locked doors. They are unwilling to endure the risk, the pain, the cost of love, of accomplishing God’s shalom.
That a whole bunch of Jesus Followers cheer Jesus on and celebrate him on the edge of the dark of Holy Week on Palm Sunday is good news in the sense that they, like we, want Jesus’ ministry to succeed and enthusiastically embrace the idea of justice for all and unconditional love . . . and root for those ideas.
Palm Sunday is very much about that. But there is a Palm Sunday lesson about staying on the edge of Holy Week, about being on the fringe but not getting in the mix, not actually doing the work of love, of working for our well being and others well being – what our secular culture calls liberty and justice for all. That’s shalom, God’s peace.
Gently loving Jesus, like loving a human lion tamer, is not the same as following him down in the dark to take on and tame the beasts that bite and scratch and even maim and kill. Holy Week can be understood as Jesus jumping into a dark pit with such beasts. He’s alone though.
On one side in the bright Light of Palm Sunday Christians cheer Jesus on before he jumps into to the foreboding lion’s den to challenge unGodly ways to God’s way first. Of course, we cheer and celebrate him again on the other side, out on the other edge in the Light at Easter where the fruit of his labor in the pit is lauded and we take comfort in his sacrifice for us and the salvation that his valiant heroic efforts provide to us and the world.
We love that God gave us hope, gives us hope, in providing a risen Christ to be with each generation through eternity– but the risen Christ calls us to be Christ’s presence on earth, to pick up where Jesus left off and battle the metaphoric and real fierce and ferocious when needed for justice, for kindness – for love, for Christ, for God, for the world, for others and for ourselves.
Easter’s true hope is that the miracle inspires us to be Christ’s presence. Christians as Church are now the Body of Christ on earth. We are the acting hands and feet and voice and presence of Christ.
But a part of the diminishing attendance at churches is because a lot of Christians seem to act like the Palm Sunday crowd, cheering the ideas on Palm Sunday and the Glory and promise of Easter, but not getting in the ring to take on the fierce and ferocious. On one hand, who can blame them? Even getting in the ring is scary and uncomfortable, actually challenging the beasts is downright risky. It is much safer on the edge looking in and cheering Christ from afar in safety. On the other hand, Christians are supposed to be Christ in the here and the now. We are supposed to get in the pit and tangle with the personal and cultural beasts, if need be to bring peace. In order to love others as we love our self we have to – to paraphrase Jesus– bring light into the darkness for us and for others.
We can do this in big ways and small ways, in spiritual ways and nurturing ways, in caring or championing for individuals, including ourselves, but also for others, creation . . . the whole world. We cannot do it all and we may need to pick and choose what to do and how best to do it. But our commission as Christians includes being willing to do justice and love kindness – to love our neighbor as our self– otherwise we end up on the edges celebrating the concepts not fully following Jesus’ model and answering the call to be the presence of Christ, to be the bridge that the courage and the cross and love made of Christ and make of us, the Body of Christ.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it like this in The Last Week, the book Adult Forum just finished:
To follow Jesus means to accept the cross to walk with him against imperial violence and religious collaboration, and to pass through death to the resurrection. Nothing is said about Jesus doing it alone to excuse everyone else from having to follow him . . .(p. 95).
It’s beautiful thing that this church community has a 181 year history of doing justice and loving kindness, of following Christ into the dark, of being Christ by bringing God’s Light in our individual lives and in the lives of others and the community and out to the world. It is impressive how much we and other churches in the area act as the presence of Christ in the community. As Christ’s hands and feet and voice and presence we long ago decided to face the fierce and ferocious when needed, to work to take down barriers to love and peace – whether they are personal or cultural impediments, whether they are metaphoric or real beasts.
We hope to bring light into the dark and to continue the tradition Jesus modeled during all of his ministry, and especially during Holy Week to tame the beasts that guard the hurtful, unjust and the unloving ways of the world. We may not always agree on what we can and should do, or even how to do it, but we must continue to always be a part of the Church – the Body of Christ– that goes off the edge of Palm Sunday and into the Holy Week-like places with the fierce and ferocious that Christ needs us to tame with love. We must do this in order for heaven to come to earth, that the world may have peace, God’s shalom.
1. Hodgin, Michael, 1001 Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p 95
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