The Trouble with Palm Sunday... Or, On Being Careful of Crowds

Ancient Testimony - Matthew 21:1-3a, 6-11; Matthew 27:15, 21-23

April 17, 2011

by James W. Fraser

I was at a dinner party, and our host was determined that her very diverse group of guests were going to discuss the place of religion in modern society—and she was equally determined that we were going to consume a rather large amount of wine while doing so.  And late into the evening, I was continuing to defend a sort of liberal Christian/Judsonesque approach to the issues.  I quoted Cheri Kroon’s wonderful ordination discussion, where she said, “It is so odd, we know that the parables of Jesus are made-up stories, powerful stories with an important point, but not necessarily, indeed in many cases certainly not, things that actually happened historically.  Why do we have so much trouble assuming that many of the OT stories, from Creation on, are not of the same sort?”  And one of the other guests snorted and said, “Well, I’ll bet you have a really good time with Easter.”

Easter is, of course, for many people, the making or breaking point of the Christian faith: either you are with it on Easter or you are not, and that settles everything else.  Well… I both agree and disagree.  I agree that we need to engage with Easter, and I will get there this morning, but I also believe that the way we engage with Easter may get it all wrong—and before we engage with Easter we need to start with Palm Sunday and try to get that right.

Today is, indeed, Palm Sunday, and this year we started our celebration of Palm Sunday just as, I am sure, a thousand other churches all over the country did, by singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and distributing palm branches.  I love having palm branches.  Once I even learned how to shape them into a cross to keep for the following year; though I always seem to forget how to do it.

But while I like Palm Sunday (I even volunteered to preach on it), I also have a problem, or several problems, with the way Palm Sunday normally gets celebrated in church.  So since I am celebrating Palm Sunday with you, let me also tell you some of what worries me about Palm Sunday.

The first thing that worries me about Palm Sunday is at the core of the story: the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.  Matthew describes Jesus riding into Jerusalem and being greeted by crowds, cheering crowds, waving palm branches.  I wonder about the crowds: perhaps celebrating, perhaps mocking (as a general rule, kings don’t ride donkeys), perhaps unsure… but more or less with Jesus, glad to see him, happy for him and about him; hopeful that this teacher’s arrival in Jerusalem could mean the beginning of better days.  But then, only a little later in the same week, there is the Good Friday crowd, yelling with equal passion to have Jesus killed.  One year, preparing a Palm Sunday sermon, I suddenly had a revelation: it’s the same crowd.  There is not a good crowd and a bad crowd in Jerusalem.  There is not a Palm Sunday crowd cheering Jesus in Jerusalem and a Good Friday crowd jeering him.  They are the same people.

We know the members of this crowd all too well.  If we are honest, we recognize ourselves in them.  The disappointed idealist who, when things do not turn out just right, turns into the murderous cynic.  The one who says, “I had high hopes for him—or her—or them—that leader, that new kid in town, the movement that promised to set things right—but things did not work out, and now I hate them.” Or, “I give up.”  And in the “I give up,” there is lashing out and hate or there is turning inward and cynical withdrawal from everything.

I think about some of today’s crowds: which way will the crowds in Egypt or Tunisia or Yemen or Syria or Manhattan and Washington eventually turn?  There are a lot of people in the U.S. who, out of anger and frustration, voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and the Tea Party in 2010.  Crowds, like all of us, are fickle.  But it is not just the crowds.  It is us!

I love the Maya Angelou reading from this morning because it is a reminder I always need.  I confess, I have an occasional tendency to self-righteousness (and I suspect I am not alone).  We are the “good guy,” and those reactionary/nasty/un-cool people over there are not like us.  Angelou reminds us: “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”Even Republicans!  Even people who really bug me!  We are all, in the end, in the same crowd—on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday.

And I also think about the deep hatreds that have become embedded in these texts.  I think we are cheating if we skip over the use that has been made of the very words from Matthew that I asked Mary to read for us this morning.  If there is a core theological doctrine to Christian anti-Semitism, it is the charge of being “Christ killers,” the people who yelled for his execution (though, of course, it was Romans who actually conducted it). 

But while Matthew is the pre-text, the text for anti-Semitism, as for racism or homophobia or sexism or every other hatred that we humans manage, is always the same:  We want someone else to blame.  Some “evil” person over there who’s very “evilness” makes us able to define ourselves as “good.”  But it seems to me that if we really take the story of Palm Sunday seriously then it is a story that means there are no “evil” people over there pointing out our goodness.  Indeed, there is no “over there,” no Friday crowd as opposed to the Sunday crowd.  And we always have to reject such dichotomies. Because they are unjust.  Because such divisions are evil.  But also because they just are not ever real.

We are the good.  And we are the bad.  And we are obliged to try to treat even the person we can’t stand as a child of God.

The second thing that worries me about Palm Sunday is that it is usually treated as a sort of “little Easter.”  You know, a small scale celebration, with palm branches, and next week we will get to the “real Easter,” with all sorts of  flowers and eggs and celebrations.

Palm Sunday is the start of “Holy Week,” the week in the Christian calendar when we walk, with Jesus, toward Easter.  But here is the problem: you can’t skip Good Friday and get to anything that is real about Easter.  You can’t go from celebration to celebration without stopping for the terrible hurt and pain of Good Friday.  You can’t get to the hope of Easter without finding a way to experience the utter despair of Good Friday.

If Easter is ultimately about hope, then we need to remember that real hope only comes when we have the courage to look despair full in the face; and then, having done so, make the equally courageous decision to leave despair behind rather than getting stuck there.  Or as the Catholic feminist Elizabeth Johnson has written, “Hope happens when the bottom drops out, when the situation is desperate.”  Or as Elie Wiesel says of Auschwitz, we have to maintain the “dangerous memory” of humanity’s worst if we are ever to see the potential for humanity’s best.  Hope requires the courage to be part of a big Palm Sunday parade when you know what is coming next, and it requires the grit to keeping moving beyond despair even when the despair seems overwhelming. 

This is real hope won through the encounter with despair, Easter through Good Friday…  Is not Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism or the “power of positive thinking.”  It is also—and this is important—not a fascination with despair,nor is it plain old cynicismthat is at the heart of a lot of “sophisticated” and safe current thought.  It is something quite different and much more solid.   It is, indeed, looking at the very worst, so that we can get to the very best.

So, back to my dinner companions guffaw about Easter.

The point about Easter is not, I don’t think, exactly what we think happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  Indeed, I also think that there are many people—conservative Christians and liberal Christians and not-sure-about-Christianity Christians, and non-believers and believers in quite different traditions—who are, in the end, Easter people because they have decided to take the awful risk of placing their bets on hope in spite of all the despair life can throw at them.

And I also think that there are many people—conservative Christians and liberal Christians and not-sure-about-Christianity Christians, and non-believers and believers in quite different traditions—who are, in the end, not Easter people; who deny the very core of Easter, because they refuse, in the end, to take the terrible risk of hope.

And the difference is not what one thinks literally happened on that Sunday morning; the difference is how one lives, what one’s stance is, in this world, 2,000 years later.

Easter offers a choice between hope that has fully faced despair and looked beyond a sunny optimism that skims over the surface or an easy pessimism that plays it safe by always expecting the worst.  To “believe” in Easter is to make the choice for hope.  And to not “believe” in Easter is to retreat into a thoughtless optimism or a comfortable cynicism.

Considering that choice is what, in the end, Palm Sunday and Good Friday and Easter are all about.  And I hope it is a blessed one for us this year.




Modern Testimony

“In the Spirit”
from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now
by Maya Angelou

While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.  This is particularly difficult for me when my mind falls upon the cruel person, the batterer, and the bigot.  I would like to think that the mean-spirited were created by another force and under the aegis and direction of something other than my God.  But since I believe that God created all things, I am not only constrained to know that the oppressor is a child of God, but also obliged to try to treat him or her as a child of God.


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