Scriptures for today are here.
I have never been fond of roller coaster rides. The slow chug up to the top, looking out at the crowds and the amusement park below, the hesitation as the car reaches the top, the fear that wells up as you realize what is about to happen, the sudden swoosh as the car leaps over the peak and hurls you straight down at the ground, the dizzying whirls and loops as your stomach leaps up into your chest. All these are things I can live without.
Well, if you don’t like roller coaster rides, then Palm Sunday may not be your favorite day at church – because this liturgy is like nothing so much as a huge, dizzying roller coaster ride, hurling us from jubilant high to stomach-churning low with barely a pause for breath. It is a day of polar extremes – from the beginning of joy and jubilation, as we hail Jesus as our king and shout Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! – to the dizzying drop into darkness and sorrow as we watch Jesus die, slowly and painfully, on the cross, with helpless loved ones looking on.
This is a day so bipolar that we have to give it two names: the official name of this day is Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. And if you want to ask, why is the Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday liturgy so strange, why couldn’t they adopt one theme – either Palm or Passion – and stick with it– there are several excellent practical answers: the foremost being the fact that you truly cannot experience Easter as a day of resurrection, unless you have also experienced the death that preceded resurrection – you can’t have Easter without Good Friday. If you try, you will end up with celebration that involves pastel colors, eggs, bunnies, visits from grandma, but you will not have Easter. Since many people will not or cannot worship on Good Friday, our calendar is set up so that we all experience some of Good Friday today.
Fair enough–but there is more to this roller-coaster day than that. Because when I read the gospel, I think Jesus set this whole thing up knowing that it would come out exactly as it did.
To give you some context, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (two writers whose theology I don’t agree with, but who give interesting historical context), in their book “The Last Week,” describe two processions arriving in Jerusalem that day. From the west arrives a column of Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate at their head; though they live and prefer to stay in Caesarea Maritima, the new Roman capital of Judea on the coast 60 miles to the west, once a year at Passover, they make the journey to Jerusalem. They come, not out of any reverence for the Jewish festival, but in order to keep an eye on the population and the 200,000 pilgrims who swell a town of 40,000 to celebrate the Jews’ deliverance from an earlier empire that held them as slaves, and to squelch any trouble that might arise.
So imagine the Roman procession, say Borg & Crossan: “a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
The Roman procession demonstrates not only Rome’s power, but also Rome’s theology: Caesar was called Son of God, Lord, Savior – he was considered divine.
On the other end of town, from the east, an entirely different kind of procession is occurring, almost as a parody of the first, certainly as a challenge. A ragged prophet from a no-account town in the northern countryside, has found a donkey to ride into Jerusalem; his crowd of followers follow him, proclaiming him king, and curious onlookers who are avoiding Roman procession on other end of town flood into the streets to join in the mayhem – not necessarily understanding what the fuss was about or even knowing about Jesus and his mission, but enjoying the insult to Rome.
Jesus has chosen this mode of entry to not only proclaim himself king, a king of peace, but also deliberately to set up a contrast and a challenge to Rome. If the Roman procession describes the world as it is, a world ruled by power and brutality, Jesus’ procession describes the world as it should be: a world that recognizes and hails the Son of God when he comes, bringing healing and forgiveness.
Jesus does this knowing that Rome’s answer will be swift, unhesitating and brutal – knowing that the fate of anyone who challenged Rome was slow death on a cross.
And Luke, our gospel writer, of all the four gospel writers the one who writes most from the heart, catalogs the emotions of the week with precision: the shouting; the exultation so fierce that the very stones might cry out; the betrayal; the arrest in the garden; the armed defense that Jesus stops by healing the ear of the servant; the denial and then the bitter weeping of Peter; the trial; the complicity of God’s Temple in the death of God’s Son; the contempt of Herod and the soldiers; the sudden friendship of two incompetent tyrants, Herod and Pilate; the release of an insurgent terrorist while the king of peace is put to death; the weeping of the daughters of Jerusalem; the crucifixion; the prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”; the women watching from afar. The darkness. The death.
It is a roller coaster ride from jubilation to agony, this Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday. And why would Jesus set us up for this? Why take us on this ride, why go to Jerusalem at all, why not hide out till all the fuss blows over and live to minister another day? Why come riding into Jerusalem in a way guaranteed to get him killed? Why celebrate this colossal disaster in this liturgy of Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday?
Jesus is determined to get himself killed, because he believes that dying is his mission. That somehow, the brutal death that he dies will display a kind of kingship that puts the paltry human kingship of Herod and Pilate to shame. That his death will somehow open a path for all of us of reconciliation with God.
How does his death help us? Luke, our gospel writer, gives us a clue, a new understanding. The executioners nail Jesus to the cross, and he responds, incredibly, with love: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
The Son of God is in physical agony – and yet the love of God looks at people who are doing this terrible thing, sees that the violence they are doing, the violence that has become their way of life, has de-humanized them, has left them ignorant people who hurt others without thought. And the sight of a human being de-humanized by the sin he is committing is so horrifying to the Son of God that it outweighs even the pain of crucifixion. Jesus loves his executioners so much he wants them forgiven, reconciled, restored – as the centurion will be restored, praising God by the end of this story.
Jesus loved the centurion, his head executioner. And Jesus loves us too –every bit as much. Even though we sometimes don’t know what we’re doing, even though we are sometimes de-humanized by our own sins.
The great poet W.H. Auden was asked once why he was a Christian, instead of a Buddhist or a Confucian, since all these religions share similar ethical values. And Auden said, “Because nothing in the figure of Buddha or Confucius fills me with the overwhelming desire to scream, “’crucify him’.”
Like the crowds in Jerusalem who one day shouted Hosanna, and days later shouted out for him to be crucified, we are not innocent bystanders. We are the same people shouting Hosanna and Crucify him. As the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge says, “The liturgy of Palm Sunday is set up to show you how you can say one thing one minute and its opposite the next. This is the nature of the sinful human being.” It’s the nature of each one of us.
On the cross we see Jesus identifying with the innocent victims of the world, those put to death, mired in poverty, stuck in hopelessness, homelessness, or despair, those who watch as their loved ones suffer, those who have lost their way and those who have nothing left – we see Jesus giving his life for them.
But it is not only the suffering victims Jesus identifies with on the cross, it is the other extreme too: the torturers and perpetrators, the arrogant and the guilty. When Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” he is taking on the burden of the innocent and the guilty. And as we shout the words Hosanna and Crucify him, we recognize that we are both of these things – the victims who need to be rescued, and the sinners who are causing their suffering.
As Rutledge says: “he makes himself one, not only with my pain but with my sin–because I myself, and you yourselves, and all of us ourselves, are sometimes victims of others and sometimes torturers of others and sometimes both, and when we recognize this we are, as Jesus says to the scribe, ‘not far from the kingdom.’”
So here we are, on this dizzying roller coaster of a day, hovering on the brink of disaster, careening madly downhill into Holy Week. And yet here we are, not far from the kingdom of God. As we veer downhill, there is one still point in this turning, churning world: the Son of God is motionless, suspended on the cross – fixed there by his love for you and for me.