Today, on Palm Sunday, Christian congregations all across the world will re-enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during the festival of Passover and at the beginning of what we now celebrate as Holy Week. For some of us, it is a time to joyfully and loudly proclaim our Hosannas, wave our palms, and to praise the name of the Anointed One for whom and in whom we gather. For some of us, it is a time to lift up the children and youth who took to the streets yesterday in cities around the world to demand change in our society and in our laws. For some, it is a time to welcome the official arrival of Spring and new life, a time to pull out of storage our Easter baskets and our Easter hopes to see if they will indeed suffice. For some, this day is a time of personal piety: to remember the powerful gift of life that Jesus gave in death to reconcile others to God through his broken and tortured body.
And this year there is poignancy, as there is most years, when we consider the many who suffer and die because of empire and because of the entwining of unholy power, corruption, greed, and violence. Today, some Christians will be spared a sermon by their pastors because they will hear the entire passion read from one of our gospels. We, unfortunately, will not. We have not heard the entire Passion, but instead, we hear very specific piece of the story. And if we come back on Maundy Thursday, we will get to hear some other parts of the story, Christ’s story, and our story. “But what do you mean ‘our story?’” you ask. What could this moment some two thousand and odd years ago have to do with little ‘ol me? “I wasn’t there,” we might say.
When Michael Battle was a child, he says that he looked forward to the congregation’s yearly dramatic reading of Christ’s passion. The excitement of the procession into the city, the sharing of the last supper, the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, and the trial of Jesus before the religious authorities—all of this must have been captivating to the child’s ears. But Michael confessed that he was both terrified and puzzled when the whole congregation was required to yell, “Crucify him!” No matter how loudly those around him would shout, little Michael would barely mumble these blasphemous words for fear that lightening would pour out from the heavens and strike him dead.
But as little Michael grew up, he came to understand why the same person that waved palms one minute could yell “Crucify” the next. Experience does this. He says, “Even though I would like to avoid awareness of how I make others suffer—especially how I make God suffer—deeper theological reflection always makes us face the truth.” Facing the truth about ourselves is part of our reenactment of the events of Holy Week. It is also, sadly, part of our avoidance.
Today and throughout Holy Week, we are called to enter into Jesus’ story in such a way that the mystery of why Jesus died becomes less of a mystery than an understood human misery—one that might have never happened had different choices been made, but a misery that still gives us fresh insight into both the human heart and the heart of God. Jesus’ death by the powers and principalities is a human misery that stands in solidarity with the children who have lost their lives at the hands of the NRA and at the foot of our individual freedom to purchase and own military-style weaponry. Jesus’ death by cross is similar to the death sentence that plagues the immigrant, the refugee, or the black father shot while holding a white cell phone in his grandmother’s backyard.
Do you remember the beloved spiritual, “Were You There?” We’re asked if we were there when the nails were hammered in, and were we there when they laid him in the tomb. When we sing “were you there?” during Holy Week we are not just imagining the predicament of Jesus, but we contemplating our involvement. Yes, we imagine his suffering, his tears, and his death. This is bound to make our hearts “tremble…tremble…tremble” as the song goes. Yet, we are also to tremble at the thought that we, too, have been participants and players in the events that led to the cross.
So, let’s imagine for a moment, shall we?
He was your friend, your Savior. You swore you would follow him anywhere. You gave up everything—your livelihood—your former life to learn from him. But then he was arrested. Your association, your relationship with him, could easily land you on a cross too. So you pretend that you don’t know him; you never knew him. Were you there, like Peter?
Jesus promised a new kingdom—God’s reign on earth. You had such high hopes, everyone did. But things were taking longer than you expected. Why couldn’t he act like a proper military Messiah, the proper revolutionary? This was his moment, and he was blowing it for everyone. He encouraged that woman to dump expensive perfume all over his feet. What a spectacle! It was time to force his hand. To get him angry, like that time in the temple with the money changers. It’s time to sell out, to talk to the ones who promised connection, influence. You will make a profit by telling what you know to the right people. Were you there, like Judas?
And then there were the others:
What about that strange man, the nameless one, who—upon being discovered– ran away in such a hurry that even his loincloth, his underwear, was left behind? Was that you? Were you there?
Was that you, who cannot yet see Jesus, getting a chuckle over the weak guy, taking a cheap shot at what you think is beneath you, and mocking what you do not yet grasp or understand? Were you there?
Were you there when they fashioned the cross, not really caring who would use it and how– because you needed the work and you felt it wasn’t any of your business once it left your hands?
What about when our open palms close into fists, when cheering turns to jeering, when intimacy evaporates into silent distance, and when harmless skepticism turns to angry spitefulness? Were you there, then?
One of the things that I love about our faith is that we worship a God before whom all of our pretensions and masks are called into question and challenged. Our faith encourages us to think reflectively about our own religion, our own motives, our own capacity to do harm. On Palm Sunday, we step into the biblical story to find out who we have been, what we are capable of becoming, and just how we often respond in just the same way as our ancestors.
Today we have a glimpse of Jesus standing before Pilate, the Roman prefect or governor of Judea. The parade has ended, the palms have already begun to wilt, and Jesus has been arrested and tried before the chief religious leaders, elders and scribes. It is the next morning after this nighttime trial and he is taken to Pontius Pilate to be examined because only Rome had the power to inflict the death penalty. Pilate was responsible for keeping the peace—he was in Jerusalem with his soldiers and guards because of the Jewish celebration of Passover, during which pilgrims would come from all the surrounding communities. There had already been one too many riots from the Jews who had actively resisted the harsh and oppressive Roman rule. It is morning, and now Pilate has another potential riot on his hands.
Could we have been as Pilate was? We are told that he could supposedly see that it was “out of jealousy” or “self-interest” that Jesus’ own people had handed him over. We are told that Pilate supposedly questioned what Jesus had done to merit both torture and death. And yet we know that empire is merciless towards those whom they consider to be problematic or inconvenient to their power. We are told that Pilate gives the order to crucify an innocent man in order to please the crowd. Really? This powerful man wanting to please the crowd? Pilate makes a public example of Jesus. For Rome, Jesus was just another agitator. To understand the passion of Jesus is to understand the various fears and motivations of those who handed Jesus over to be killed.
In what ways do spitefulness, jealousy, and an unthinking “mob mentality” continue to crucify the tremendous good that resides in us? A husband is jealous of his former wife’s new life and tries to make things more difficult than they need to be. An employee resents a colleague’s promotion so much that she undermines or sabotages her new boss at every opportunity. A neighbor maliciously spreads gossip about someone she barely knows because it makes her seem like she is “in the know.” A teen carefully plans and executes revenge on a classmate because she doesn’t do what he wants. An older worker badmouths the latest hire because he is jealous of the younger person’s energy and drive. Someone decides that somebody has gotten “too big for their britches” and personally, quietly, decides to take the person down a peg or two.
And what of unjust and unscrupulous of those who claim to be religious adherents and lovers of God? Jesus wasn’t part of the so-called “establishment”; he had no other authority than that of God alone, and he had created a following by exposing some of the hypocrisy of his time while welcoming those who had been told that they were beyond God’s care and who resided on the fringes of polite society.
The lessons of Palm Sunday are there for learning within the characters of this human drama. We are these characters. Yet we also have this hope: we are capable of being more like Jesus.
The Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, said that “some people are molded by their admirations, others by their hostilities.” In the Palm Sunday crowd that day, there were those who admired Jesus, those who were hostile to Jesus, those whose admiration turned to hostility, and those—like the Centurion– whose hostility turned to admiration.
Which has shaped you: your admirations or your hostilities?
And what difference has it made for your family? What difference has it made for your relationship with God?
Friends, let it be said that we are capable of the same nobility and the very same betrayal of God’s love.
Let it be said that we understand that this moment, this suffering of God, has a lot to do with us.
Then let it be said that we were there when the children marched and demanded fish instead of snakes, life instead of death,
and when our people demanded more integrity of their leaders than Pilate’s crowd-pleasing platitudes and politics as usual.
Let it be said that you were there when the long arc of the moral universe bent toward justice and when the stars began to fall.
 Michael Battle, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide. Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 178.
 Ibid, 180.