Four years ago, when my wife asked me to preach on Palm Sunday, I based my sermon on Marcus Borg's book The Last Week of Jesus, in which he argues that Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem during Holy Week was making a political statement--a rejection of the Roman empire and its militaristic notion of peace. Only later did I discover that the Mennonites organize an annual peace parade on Palm Sunday in Pasadena with the same intention--to reject the militarism of the American empire and to affirm Jesus' pacifist teachings. This year the speaker will be James Loney, who was one of the Christian Peace Team members who was taken hostage in Iraq along with the Quaker Tom Fox (who was martyred). To find out more, see:
Here's what I said in my sermon:
I’d like to begin by sharing with you some history of Bible times provided by theologian Marcus Borg’s insightful new book, The Last Week of Jesus.
The day which Christians celebrate as Palm Sunday, the first day of the Jewish festival of Passover. Borg informs us that there were actually two processions entering Jerusalem on that day. Christians celebrate each year Jesus’ parade with palm branches. However, most of us don’t know that there was a second procession -- Pontius Pilate’s parade.
You may be surprised to learn that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea/Palestine, did not usually stay in Jerusalem. He lived in the governor's residence in Caesarea. Caesarea was an important port city about 70 miles northwest of Jerusalem, on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. Besides being a seaport, Caesarea was also a tourist haven, with modern Roman architecture and all the advantages of civilization.
Only during important Jewish festivals, like Passover, did Pilate reluctantly leave his plush governor’s mansion. He always took a contingent of well-armed soldiers to march to Jerusalem. He did this for security reasons. During the Jewish holidays, Jews were especially hostile to the Roman empire. The vast majority of Jews were angry with Roman occupation of their country and stir up riots. Pilate’s army came to insure stability and to let the Jews know who was in charge.
The Jewish common people had good reason to be hostile to the Roman Empire. Both the Romans, and their wealthy Jewish collaborators, taxed the common people almost to death. To pay these exorbitant taxes, poor people had to sell their lands and become day laborers. That’s why Jesus told parables about workers without land. The workers in Judea/Palestine lived as precariously as day laborers, homeless folk, and migrant workers do today.
These landless workers resented their Roman overlords. They were like the insurgents in today’s Middle East. Groups of angry Jews, called the Zealots, formed “cells” and engaged in acts of terrorism against the occupying imperial army.
Now, Pilate did not see himself as an oppressor, but as a bringer of peace. Peace was the official policy of the Roman empire. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, it was called. Whether people wanted it or not, the Pax Romana brought the advantages of civilization—beautiful buildings, roads, trade, and prosperity. Of course these perks were only for those who were smart enough or powerful enough to seize advantage of these opportunities Rome provided. Pilate, like most Romans, felt that he represented a superior civilization, just as Americans do today. Pilate looked down on religious Jews as ignorant and superstitious. Why couldn’t they be just like other nations and accept Roman rule?
Because Pilate was concerned about security and peace, I think you can see why Pilate would not have been pleased with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Pilate had no doubt heard about this upstart prophet/trouble maker from Galilee. His spies would have told him that everywhere Jesus went, crowds of poor people hailed them as a great prophet. Some even called him the Messiah, the King of the Jews. Jesus was a dangerous man who needed to be kept under surveillance. He might even be a terrorist, or someone giving material support to terrorism. That was the purpose of Pilate’s security parade.
Now, what about Jesus? What kind of parade was he sponsoring?
We know from the Gospels that Jesus planned his arrival in Jerusalem very carefully. As Marcus Borg notes, what Jesus did had the earmarks of a planned political demonstration.
Take, for instance, the fact that he rode into the city on a donkey. This was political symbolism which every Jew in Jerusalem would immediately have understood.
For a Jewish religious leader to ride a donkey into Jerusalem was the fulfillment a well-known prophesy. According to the prophet Zechariah (9:9-11), the Messiah would come to Jerusalem riding humbly on a donkey, just like the great King David. Those who shouted “hosannah” to Jesus expected him to act like King David and drive out the Roman Goliaths and restore Jewish independence.
No one knew how Jesus would do this. But Jesus had a reputation as a miracle worker. So many people were willing to believe that somehow he might be able to bring about the social transformation they yearned for.
During the rest of this Passover week, Jesus’ dramatic actions suggested that he was, in fact, about to bring in a powerful transformation of society. He challenged the religious authorities at the Temple. He challenged Roman tax collection policy. When he said, “Give to Caesar what he Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” this could be interpreted to mean, “Give God everything, and give Caesar nothing.” After all, the book of Job tells us that the whole world and its riches belong to God (Job 41;11) . Jesus’ radical words made him very popular with the common people but very unpopular with the ruling authorities.
By the end of the week, Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, and sentenced to be executed in a tortuous, humiliating way. From a worldly point of view, Jesus’ plan failed. He didn’t have sufficient power or clout to be a worldly king of the Jews. From a worldly standpoint, what Jesus did was very foolish.
That’s why the people and many of his followers turned on him. Clearly this Jesus guy was no miracle worker. He was just another foolish would-be Messiah.
Jesus’ death should have been the end of the story. Many charismatic leaders had come to Jerusalem just like Jesus did, and were killed by the Roman authorities. But Jesus’ death was different. His death on the cross changed the world.
What made it different is what happened to his followers after his death. That will be the theme of next Sunday’s sermon.
I’d like to conclude by talking about what the Palm Sunday procession means to us today.
I gained new insight into Palm Sunday in March 1992 when I went to the nuclear test site in Nevada to protest the testing of nuclear bombs. I went during Holy Week and the theme for that year was taken from the the Gospel of Luke. In that Gospel, the religious authorities complain about how the crowds are cheering Jesus. And Jesus answered them, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out." (Luke 19:37-40, ESV).
Those of us who went to the protest were not only deeply concerned about the wisdom of ever using powerful nuclear bombs. We were also affirming the power of God and the wisdom of Jesus.
By the world’s standards, we were being very foolish. But we were in good company. Many religious people, of every faith tradition, have been arrested at this test site, including members of our church, and our bishop, Mary Ann Swenson. We haven’t yet persuaded our nation to end its addiction to violence, but as Christians we would be foolish not to try.
The rulers of our country believe that they are wise, and those of us who oppose them are foolish and naive. They spend billions on the military, and mere peanuts on what is called “soft power”—the power of diplomacy and negotiation. The results of violence have been disastrous, yet they still call us fools!
Looking back, we see parallels with what happened to the Roman Empire. As Rome grew more and more rich and powerful, it grew more and more corrupt. When the empire was teetering on the brink of disaster, the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. Sad to say, he missed the whole point of Jesus’ message – the power of compassion. Instead, Constantine put crosses on the ensign of the Roman army and sent them out to conquer the world in the name of Christ. This was a sick perversion of Jesus’ message. Today, many people still believe that you can fight wars for Christ. What’s worse, many believe that the US is engaged in a holy war to bring Christ to the Middle East.
What is Jesus’ real message? It’s so simple every child knows it and can recite it. Love God. Love your enemy. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
“Loving your enemy” means talking with them, listening to them, trying to figure out why they are angry with you, and trying to find ways to make peace. As a nation, loving your enemy does not mean letting them walk all over you. It does mean diplomacy. It means giving food to the poor instead of selling them weapons. It means supporting international law and treating every nation with respect.
Imagine how things would improve if we applied these Christian principles to our foreign policy!
Foolish as it may seem to those who are fans of Caesar and the empire, Jesus’ wisdom of compassion can actually work in the real world. We know from the example of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These men were able to transform India and the US without resorting to violence.
But to make compassion work, you need to be willing to take risks, to put your life on the line for what you believe in as much as any soldier on a battlefield. Forty years ago, almost to this day, Martin Luther King stood in the pulpit at Riverside Church in New York City and announced that he was opposed to the Vietnam War. Among other things, King called for a revolution, a revolution of values:
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just."…. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
In the face of this spiritual death and destruction, King challenged the religious community to speak out: “Silence is betrayal. We can’t be silent any longer about the evils of war and economic exploitation.”
These prophetic words aroused the anger of many in power who had supported King’s Civil Rights work. A year after King gave this message at Riverside Church, on April 4, 1968, he was shot down in a motel in Memphis, TN. United Methodist pastor Rev Jim Lawson, and many others, see King’s death not as a political assassination, but as a kind of crucifixion.
Like King, Jesus also did not mince words when he went to Jerusalem and confronted the worldly powers. When he went to the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, he said:
“My house was supposed to be house of prayer for the nations. You’ve turned it into a den of thieves.”
These prophetic words infuriated the religious authorities who profited from their collaboration with the Romans. That’s why the chief priest went to Pontius Pilate and told him that this trouble maker had to be stopped.
The Romans killed Jesus’ body, but they could not kill his spirit. This spirit lives today among those who boldly say, “Religious communities must not bless war.”
Jesus was the Prince of Peace, but he was no fool. Like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, Jesus knew that peace came with a price and he was willing to pay that price.
The question facing all of us today is: Whose parade will you join, Caesar’s or Christ’s?
I hope that as we lift up our palms today and celebrate the Prince of Peace, we will say “No” to the power of empire and “Yes” to power of God.