What Happened? A Sermon for Palm Sunday in a Time of War (2003)


–Associated Press

Ah, Palm Sunday! There’s nothing like a good all-church breakfast, a funky parade on the street to signal to the sophisticates in Harvard Square out for a morning latte that it’s cool to love Jesus; nothing like a lusty rendition of “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” and a dramatic gospel reading that gets all the kids into the act and makes the choir play the role of the donkey. Palm Sunday — the joyous bridge into the saddest week of the Christian calendar,  the day Jesus gets his glorious due in public, at least for a few hours, before things turn ugly.

I hate to spoil the triumphant mood, but I wonder if any of you is having even the smallest trouble celebrating Palm Sunday today? I ask because misery loves company — it has not been an easy morning for me. I am too painfully aware that the scene our gospel offers us is a triumphal entry of a conquering hero into a capital city in need of liberation from a long and brutal oppression.

Every time I have tried to meditate on this episode of triumph, my mind has wandered to a news clip I saw on CNN last week, the day Baghdad fell, the day that an excited crowd toppled the first big statue of Saddam Hussein. The camera showed what appeared to be a huge crowd of men dancing in the streets, jumping up and down and waving, of all things, palm fronds above their heads while reaching to shake the hands of the U.S. soldiers who were in the Square. I would not have been surprised to hear those palm-waving citizens of the great ancient city cry out, “Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Now, I know the difference between the Story of Jesus and CNN. I know that Jesus isn’t that kind of conquering hero. His entry into Jerusalem was a pilgrimage, not an assault — he went there to celebrate the high holy days with throngs of the faithful from all over the world. He had no troops, although the way some of the gospel authors write about that day, you’d think he was a great general with an army of millions. “The whole world is running after him!”, one of the city’s leaders is reported to have complained, alarmed at the uproar.

But Jesus had no army. He entered the city on a donkey, not a Bradley fighting vehicle. His disciples did not squelch the great claims about him running like sparks through the crowds (Messiah? Liberator? King?), nor did he himself try to quiet their praise, which was a mysterious departure from his usual modesty. But if you don’t count the palms and the shouting, the rest of the symbolism in the story points to humility, relinquishment and service. If this is a triumphant king, as our hymns declare, he is a king with a difference.

Jesus spent his entire ministry arduously redefining kingship, power, authority. He refused to win people’s hearts and minds by using the forces of warrior angels that the gospels imagine were secretly at his disposal. He turned aside attempts to lure him into taking up the kind of coercive authority associated with domination and empire; he took on instead the burden of our suffering and our sins. I know all this, and yet I can’t help it — today’s triumphant scene makes me uneasy. It is ripe for misunderstanding, and over the centuries there’s been no shortage of it.

The Christian community has struggled with the non-imperialist bent of its Savior from the moment Judas sold him out, disillusioned perhaps with Jesus’ meekness and lack of commitment to nationalistic purposes, right down to our own debate over the morality of this war. The history of the church is full of terrors perpetrated in the name of the Messiah-King. The fact that he redefined kingship as servanthood and authority as humble self-gift has never seemed to deter us from acting as if he had instead perfected the customs of conquest and the arts of dominance and duress. Full of the arrogance of the truth, the church has thrown its flag over the face of many a statue of fallen idols, only to demand from liberated peoples a new kind of submission.

U. S. soldiers have been propelled into the war by something closely-akin to this old Christian crusading spirit, and they have done the duty set before them with the loftiest of intentions, the best of courage, and, of course, with the deadliest of results. Whatever one’s views on the justice of the war, it cannot be denied that the rhetoric and symbolism of its prosecution has borrowed heavily from this shameful heritage.

Christians are not the only ones who make war, of course.; but we are the only ones making war who follow the Prince of Peace. We seem incapable of cleaning up our violent act — or even our liturgical language. How tricky it is in this wartime context, for example, to sing wholeheartedly about power and lordship; how complicated it is, at least for me, to hail the great victory even of this gracious, humble God. How many Christian congregations will sing lustily on Easter about battles won and conquest done, without reflecting seriously on these metaphors? My dear, wise colleague, Peter Sykes, took note the other day of one of my proposed hymn selections for Easter and asked me whether I was sure I wanted to have us all sing its militaristic words right now, in these wartime circumstances. The further question, of course, is whether we want to sing them under any circumstances.

mission_accomplishedOur tradition asserts that the Palm Sunday throng around Jesus was fickle: its mood quickly and ferociously changes; the cry for his execution replaces all the grateful songs of praise. The liturgy has long savored this bitter irony and offered it to generations of believers as a meditation on the psychology of sin and the behavior of crowds. Sadly, it is also a view of what happened to Jesus that is forever tinged with anti-semitism. The conviction that the same Jews who hailed him on Sunday lusted after his blood on Friday has fueled the Jew-Christ-killer myth and obscured the deeper point of the tale of the crowd’s behavior — namely, that “they is us.” The adoring faces of Sunday are ours, and so are the angry ones of Friday. If anyone is fickle it is you and it is me.

After seeing what I saw on CNN, however, I wonder if the crowd around Jesus on Palm Sunday might have been more conflicted and ambivalent than capricious or fickle. The episode we meditate on today is a scene of high jubilation, to be sure; but a powerful undertow of danger courses beneath it. At any moment the joyous jostling parade could get badly out of hand; at any moment, things could get (as Secretary Rumsfeld remarked with blood-chilling off-handedness) untidy. Might this not be, then, a crowd filled also with fear?  For when the camera pulled back from the other palm-waving crowd in a Baghdad city square, it revealed many other people standing on a sidewalk watching them. The faces of those bystanders were so sober and reserved that it did not surprise me to learn later that, when interviewed, they spoke of anxiety, fear, resentment, and profound humiliation as they watched that toppling of that statue.

Glad and grateful to be liberated from a tyrant, they asked nonetheless what they should make of liberators upon whom they must now depend, with or without their consent; what they should make of a principled war for their freedom that in the end is no less a war than wars of unabashed greed and conquest are — it is causing the same death and destruction, paving the way for the same pillaging and lawlessness, opening the same opportunities for the bloody settling of old scores. In their guarded, weary voices I tallied up the price of human violence — unfathomable and unending. In their somber faces I read the bitter truth that those who crush your crushers can, whenever they want to, crush you as well.

In the crowd that hailed Jesus; in the crowd that thrilled to his disciples’ heady claims that here was the promised liberator king; in the crowd that may well have taken up arms had Jesus roused himself and consented to it, had he galvanized them all in his cause and armed them for the glory of God; in that dizzy, chanting, cheering crowd, there must also have been a few who wondered whether stone would be left upon stone when that day was done, and who looked at him and his excited, fist-pumping, thumbs-up disciples with dread and resentment.

There was, we know, never anything to fear from Jesus, he was not into regime change or nation building; but within a week of all the hubbub, the powers crushed him anyway, just in case. His disciples betrayed him too, and ran away.

There is no explaining our love for violence. No explaining our choice of it again and again. And we do choose it, time after time. I am at a loss to know the reasons, the same as you. But now we have Holy Week ahead of us, and Holy Week asks us at least to stop and ponder the fact of this our most perverse human choice. Holy Week asks us at least not to hide our violence from ourselves any longer, but to stare it in the face. Holy Week asks us at least to look at it squarely, played out on the very body of God.

PalmSunday-01–Icon of the Entrance Into Jerusalem, Athanasios Clark

The husband of a seminary student* tells this story:

Last summer my three-year-old son and I stopped off at the seminary library to return a book for a friend. This was his first time inside the old stone building… As we stepped through the bright red doors into the darkened vestibule, he stopped in his tracks. There, on the wall to his right, hung a crucifix, about five feet tall.

I watched his young eyes study Jesus’ agonized face, the dying body hanging on a tree, the nails piercing his hands and feet. I knew the image was a new one to him. Although he’s been raised in the church, the crosses in our Baptist congregation are all clean and sanitized; their Jesuses all resurrected and ascended.

For a moment, I considered hustling him back out the door, trying to shield him from this holy horror in the same way that I “rewrite” the violent plots of his Batman comics when I read them aloud. But it was too late; he had already taken it all in.

I thought he might cry. Instead, without taking his eyes off the dying Jesus, he spoke words filled with sadness, mystery, and wonder: “Daddy, what happened?”

In this time or war, it’s the question for all of us.

What indeed?


*Doug Davidson, The Other Side, March 2002.