Sermon. Palm Sunday. March 28, 2021
by Rev. John Steitz
This is our second Palm Sunday during the pandemic. We will not be marching through the heart of town carrying a cross and waving palms.
I want to look at the event on which Palm Sunday is based. There is a deep politically subversive quality to what takes place in the Biblical text. We might miss this subversive aspect when we focus on waving palms. Since we aren’t waving palms this year we can hopefully look at the text with news eyes and an open heart and mind.
The entry into Jerusalem is one of the most politically explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is engaging in an act that calls for a revolutionary nonviolent disruption of the domination system.
Jesus was a “good guy.” Being a good guy doesn’t lead to the cross. Jesus was inclusive and accepting of all people.
This inclusion and acceptance made some people uncomfortable, but in itself, inclusive acceptance does not lead to the cross. Jesus challenged and disrupts the domination system. Disrupting the domination system, challenging the “powers that be,” now that does lead to the cross.
In the context of his time and place Jesus’ ministry is very political. This passage highlights the political quality of Christian praise.
Jesus lampoons those in the dominant position, those with power and control over the most vulnerable with a carefully planned carnival that mocks imperial military processions. He also challenges those who hope for and expect a military liberation of captive Jerusalem from Roman occupation.
Jesus’ revolution is nonviolent. The entry into Jerusalem has the marks of a carefully planned nonviolent action. One that sets in motion events that lead to the cross.
Jesus invites his disciples to worship him rather than serving the ways of empire. In the context of a time when only the emperor was to be hailed as the savior of the world, what Jesus is doing is profoundly political and subversive.
The Gospel text covers the actual entry by Jesus into Jerusalem in few verses. Most of the action in this passage takes place before the actual entry event. The main focus of the passage is on the careful planning behind the entry event.
Anyone who has been part of planning a nonviolent action quickly realizes that perhaps 90% of the work takes place beforehand. In the planning and in the nonviolence training. The actual action can happen fairly quickly.
Sort of like some weddings. Months of planning and preparation. Maybe pre-marriage counseling and a rehearsal. Then the wedding day itself seems to fly by.
From the perspective of the dynamics of nonviolence the entire Gospel is a nonviolence training program lead by Jesus to prepare his disciples for nonviolent action and revolutionary nonviolence that subverts the domination system. The way that early Christian communities gather to love and care for one another, as seen in the Book of Acts, is blooming of this nonviolence training and preparation. That the Roman Empire tried to suppress these early Christian communities tells us how subversive they were to the domination system.
I am reminded of the care and attention James Lawson took in planning and leading the Nashville Workshops in 1959 and 1960. The people in these workshops didn’t just bring about the nonviolent integration of Nashville. That actually happened fairly quickly once they acted. The people in Lawson’s nonviolence training program included John Lewis, Diana Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and Marion Washington. These young people became the heart and soul of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They became key leaders of the Black Freedom Movement, and were prepared and willing to put their lives on the line to advance civil rights.
Most of the Palm Sunday Gospel story is concerned with the care Jesus takes to arrange for the entry event. He has planned this in detail, in advance. The colt has been arranged. Signals for his disciples to use with those watching the colt have been arranged and probably even practiced.
Jesus is orchestrating a carefully planned nonviolent street theatre action that seeks to subvert the hold the domination system has over people’s hearts and minds.
Jesus’ carnival parody of empire and imperial power is no military threat to the might of the Roman Empire. However, a comically subversive act can move people to free their hearts and minds of the psychological control a domination system has over them.
In our time, about twenty years ago, there was a successful nonviolent civil resistance campaign that brought down a dictator that used many humorous and subversive nonviolent acts as a key strategy.
One humorous subversive act involved a barrel, a stick, and a picture of the dictator glued to the barrel. People were encouraged to take the stick and give the barrel a few whacks. Many would gladly do so.
The authorities were upset over the “beatings” people were symbolically given to the dictator. But hitting a barrel with a stick wasn’t a crime. They couldn’t arrest someone for participating in this act of “beating the Dear Leader.”
The authorities had no choice but to “rescue” the barrels that symbolized the dictator from being beaten in public by the people. People found it very funny to watch as several police would carry away each barrel. The absurdity of so powerful dictator needing to be rescued made the protestors point.
Hitting the barrel was a psychologically freeing act for people. Laughing while police rescued and carried the barrels away liberated people from seeing this dictator as being all-powerful and beyond challenge.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is an action designed to free the hearts and minds of the people from the domination system. And also to free them from the understanding that the only way to be liberated from Roman power was military action.
The entry into Jerusalem uses symbols of imperial power and control – waving branches, spreading cloaks, praising Jesus with hosannas. It was a way of beating a barrel with the emperor’s head glued to it. It was an act of treason to the empire.
Jesus lampoons the pretensions of glory and domination that imperial “powers that be” have over the hearts and minds of people. He enacts an alternative to liberate people psychologically from this domination.
Jesus acts as a jester to disorient and deconstruct the ways imperial power and control trap people spiritually, and mentally. Refusing to rely on violence, he invites people to see and live a new way. His act of lampooning the empire unmasks and resists the psychic control violence has over people.
This politically subversive carnival that parodies the empire leads to the cross. But it also leads to the liberation people will find in the early Christian communities that will be formed after the Resurrection of Jesus.
In the short run this nonviolent carnival might seem like a failure. A few days later Jesus is arrested and then crucified on a cross. People who cheer him during the carnival turn on him in his hour of need. But the seeds of the nonviolent revolution of the early Church, guided by the Holy Spirit are sown. After his Resurrection the subversive act Jesus enacts here does help to liberate his disciples from the psychological hold the empire has over them. Love subverts. Love wins.