It’s that time of year again in Jerusalem – the Passover – that celebration of God freeing the Jewish people generations ago from an Egyptian empire that was enslaving them. It happens every year, and for Roman politicians and police in particular – the current occupiers of the Jewish people during Jesus’ ministry – it’s a time when the Romans have always made sure to bulk up their shows of force to keep the resistance of the people at bay. Wouldn’t want the people they are oppressing remembering TOO much about the natural disasters God brought upon a past military occupier to release God’s people from oppression.
And so, to show the people who’s boss as this resistance celebration unfolds, the Romans conduct a military parade. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it as “a visual panoply of imperial power: calvary on horses, foot soldiers, men on horses, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold; the sounds of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums, the swirling of dust, the eyes of silent onlookers some curious, some awed, some fearful and some resentful.” (Crossan, John Dominic, and Borg, Marcus J. “The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem.” United States, HarperCollins, 2007. Quoted in enfleshed: Bringing what matters back to the gospel for justice, liberation, and delight – Liturgy that matters, April 5, 2020.)
Jesus, in response to this military parade of intimidation, plans a protest. A direct action that will be a parody, really a mocking of this aggressive display of Roman power. Instead of a war horse to ride on, he tells his fellow organizers to find him a mama donkey, whose baby is still with her. Instead of swords, they’ll encourage the crowd to cut branches to wave in the air. Instead of military banners, they’ll lay their cloaks on the ground before Jesus. Instead of the sound of battle drums, it will be the sound of the people chanting, “Hosanna [which means ‘Save now!’], blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” These are ancient words borrowed from a psalm traditionally used at Passover, the words of their ancestors calling upon their liberator to save them. (The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition – Fully Revised and Expanded, footnote, pg. 49.) Instead of the empire’s visual statement that weapons, violence, and social control keep us safe, Jesus plans this protest, surrounding himself by ordinary people banding together in resistance and solidarity, a counter-statement that we, common people united to care for each other, are the ones who keep us safe.
This Palm Sunday protest parade is one of only a handful of stories found in all four gospels. It happens right before Jesus is executed by the very same military might now on display to intimidate anyone trying to rebel. It feels to me like the last time Jesus and his fellow organizers can together make a clear, public statement about what the Kin-dom of God is all about. As the writers at enfleshed put it, in this direct action, “Jesus unveils what the empire intends to keep hidden – God alone saves, and God is among the people.” (enfleshed: Bringing what matters back to the gospel for justice, liberation, and delight – Liturgy that matters, April 5, 2020.)
To be a Christian – that strange word that means “a little Christ” – is to find our part in Palm Sunday protest parades wherever we go. And there are opportunities all around, every day. There’s a Palm Sunday protest parade happening today as folx in our presbytery go through prison security in Gig Harbor after being locked out for over a year to share with our siblings at Hagar’s Community Church the story of a rabbi whose first temple sermon was literally about setting prisoners free. There’s a Palm Sunday protest parade every time we stand in solidarity with trans kids who are fighting for the right to be seen and affirmed and safe in their schools. There’s a Palm Sunday protest parade every time we refuse to call 911 for the police to put one of our beloved siblings in a cage and instead commit to building communities where we take care of each other and freely share resources so that everyone has enough.
I love the question Rev. Anne Dunlap asks us about the crowd gathered around Jesus at this protest. “Consider:,” she asks, “Where are you in this story? Hiding a donkey? Shouting in the street? Asking what’s going on? Feeding everybody afterward? Nodding in approval at Pilate’s fine, shiny armor? Consider the crowds. And so let us be honest:” she says, “where we find ourselves today, is where we would have found ourselves then.” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, “Palm Sunday: Why Do We Tell This Story?”, The Word Is Resistance podcast, 4.9.17 Lent A Palm Sunday – Matthew 21: 1-11, pg. 9 of the transcript.)
Friends, who are you in this gathered crowd of people? Which parade will you choose? Maybe this story is in all four gospels to remind the earliest Christian communities – and to remind us – that there is no neutrality in the midst of empire. There are always two parades, one of the systemic violence of military might, force, and social control, and another, marked by humility, solidarity with the poor, and a long line of ancestors who worship a God who literally sets people free. This Palm Sunday parade asks each one of us: “Beloved, who’s side are you on?” Amen.