This sermon was delivered on April 1, 2012.
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"
They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
When Palm Sunday falls on April Fool’s Day, you just can’t ignore the significance—the similarities between Jesus’ ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem and this strange holiday meant for teasing and playing jokes. Jesus enters Jerusalem like a king, with followers singing his praises and waving branches much like we might wave flags at a parade. It is supposed to be a triumphant entry, and yet, he rides in on a donkey, not a majestic horse, and his followers sing his praises while at the same time begging him for help. It’s a bit ridiculous, just like the whole message of Jesus must have seemed ridiculous to many people who heard it in his day.
His parables never made any sense. He did things he wasn’t supposed to, like eating with tax collectors and defending adulterers. He was always telling his disciples to do ridiculous things, like feed 5,000 people with just a few fish and a bit of bread. He said that those who were poor, who suffered, and who were oppressed, were blessed. Ridiculous. Illogical. Foolish. That was Jesus. He came to turn the world on its head and shake things up…and he did a pretty good job of it, since here we are, 2,000 years later, acting out a day in his life, making fools of ourselves because we follow him.
There’s a passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul uses sarcasm to admonish the church leaders in Corinth for thinking they have all the answers and are the most faithful. He says he must just be a “fool for Christ,” if they are so wise and powerful. What he is really doing is admitting that the Gospel message does sound foolish in a world of greed and insatiable hunger for power, and we must embrace that foolishness—let go of the need to be right, the need to win—if we are to truly embrace what Jesus taught.
This concept has particular meaning for us in a place like Santa Cruz, I think, where being a Christian, attending a church, is seen by many people as strange, crazy, and yes, foolish. Especially as we enter into Holy Week and move towards Easter, some of the biggest mysteries of our faith are highlighted, and they may open us up to ridicule. Has anyone ever derisively asked you if you really believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? And you can tell by their tone of voice that no matter what your answer, it will only lead to more mockery? It’s certainly happened to me…and in those moments all I can do is smile politely, try not to get frustrated, and remind myself that we each have our own path.
Now, I’m certainly not saying that Christians are oppressed in our society. But, if we are truly walking the path that Jesus laid out for us, if we are following the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, focusing on justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God, then we are going against our dominant culture and perhaps even making fools of ourselves.
So, today is April Fool’s Day—not commonly thought of as a Christian holiday, but perhaps worthy of consideration. But today is also Palm Sunday, a day to remember a procession that was on the surface a celebration.—Jesus entering Jerusalem, his followers watching and joining him, praising him and celebrating his arrival. The procession was a celebration, but it was also a protest march. Jesus’ arrival countered the arrival of Pontius Pilate, who would have entered Jerusalem in a similar way, though likely on a fancy horse with soldiers flanking him.
You see, there was often trouble in Jerusalem around the Passover, since many Jews made a pilgrimage to the city for the holiday, and so Pilate would have come to make sure the celebrations didn’t get out of hand. This time of year was ripe for political unrest and protests against the oppressive empire, as the Jewish people remembered the Passover and their deliverance from Egypt.
So, Jesus’ arrival was clearly a protest march, in addition to being a celebration, but there was one more aspect to it. The procession we commemorate on Palm Sunday was also a funeral march. Perhaps his followers did not realize it, or want to think about it, but Jesus knew that he was heading into a political situation that he would not likely survive. He knew that his radical teachings and the movement he initiated were threatening to the empire, and that those in power would have no qualms about shutting him up for good. He went anyway, because he had a passion for God’s justice and a purpose to spread his message.
There’s a way in which, every year on Palm Sunday, I feel like I’m watching a horror movie. I want to scream, “No, Jesus! Don’t go into the city!” There’s something terrible about knowing how the story will play out and yet watching it again and again. So why do we do it? Why do we spend our time and energy, our spiritual practice, on remembering and reenacting this scary, sad, painful story? In some ways, I think that’s a question we all need to answer for ourselves…but here’s why I do it…
I do it because life is often scary and sad and painful, and ignoring those facts won’t make them go away. I do it because Jesus experienced this fullness of life as a human being, and it is good for us to remember that. I do it because I feel like, even, after 2,000 years, Jesus deserves a witness. He deserves for us to watch and remember and not look away in avoidance or shame. And I do it because without Good Friday, there can be no Easter.
I spoke a few weeks ago about coming back to Christianity in college, and how I prayed and prayed that Jesus would give me a sign or a reason to believe in him. I told you I didn’t get a concrete sign, but I came to a love and belief anyway. Well, the story doesn’t end there. That same year, after I had been on my Christian journey for several months, Holy Week came along, and I found myself at every service we had in the chapel, helping to lead them. We held our weekday services at noon, and something about Mandy Thursday and Good Friday services being done in the sunlight was not quite satisfying for me.
Growing up, Maundy Thursday had been one of my favorite services, because at my church it was a tennebrae service, combining remembrance of the last supper with the seven last words of Good Friday. Something about sitting in that dark sanctuary, watching as each candle was extinguished was so powerful, so sacred to me. And so, that first year, I went to a local church for another Maundy Thursday service in the evening. As I sat in the darkened church, listening to the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, I was overcome by grief.
All the anger I felt towards God for my own illness and suffering, all the loss I felt from the infertility that resulted from my cancer treatment, all my fears about the future…they all were condensed into an intense grief over what happened to Jesus, and I wept. I wept for him, and for me, and for all of us living in this broken, greedy, war-mongering world. And as I sat there in the dark, crying, I distinctly felt Jesus there beside me, his arm around my shoulder. He wasn’t comforting me, exactly; he wasn’t saying everything would be all right... He was sitting with me, being present with me in my grief, weeping with me, and letting me know I would never be alone. I felt him there so concretely, as a strong, loving presence, that in that moment, I knew I was having a mystical experience, and I knew, without a doubt, that Jesus was real.
And that is why I believe it’s so important to be present during all of Holy Week. It’s hard to take several evenings in one week to come to worship, I know. It can be uncomfortable—even seem foolish—to allow someone to wash your feet in church. It can feel too intense when you see others lamenting their own losses, or expressing their anger towards God on Good Friday, and you may not want to feel the emotions that can come up. And it can feel like you are way too busy on the Saturday night before Easter to take time to wait in peaceful vigil for the culmination of the story.
Holy Week takes us on a roller coaster of emotion, and that’s something most of us try to avoid in normal circumstances, so it’s understandable that many people will choose to only attend the high of Palm Sunday and the high of Easter Sunday. That’s OK. We are each on our own path. But, I guarantee that if you open yourself up to the fullness of experiences that are offered this week, Easter will have a much deeper, much greater meaning for you.
Jesus’ ultimate message was one of transformation—radical transformation of the world, of the self, and of human relationships with each other and with God. Unfortunately, transformation doesn’t happen by sitting idle. Transformation happens when we show up, when we open up, and when we are willing to let go of comfort, let go of ego, and let go of the need to be right. You may not be ready yet to be seen as a fool for Christ, but if you are, then you are in good company. AMEN.