A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Palm/Passion Sunday April 9, 2017
Palm Sunday is such an enigmatic day. It feels, on the one hand, like a festival. There is mirth and jubilation, the waving of palm fronds. The crowds greeting Jesus are hopeful, expectant. “Hosanna!” they shout. They remember the 118th Psalm: they cry, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” As I said, it feels on the one hand like a festival. So, a great day for wrapping up our Legacy Campaign, right? Indeed, I hope we will do so with a flourish.
On the other hand, there is something in this day that is like the calm before a storm, like the eerie and dramatic receding of the tide before a tsunami crashes in. This is not just any Sunday; it is Palm Sunday, and we know that in just a few days the waves of Christ’s passion will engulf us. So, maybe we could have picked a better day for making our campaign commitments.
Any way you look at it, Jesus’ ride atop a borrowed donkey is an ironic scene. Brian Blount likens Jesus’s situation here to that of the character Sean Penn played in the film, “Dead Man Walking.” Remember that story? Penn played a man on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The movie highlighted the angst of someone condemned to die, waiting out his time incarcerated, losing more and more of his humanity as each day passed and the moment of his killing drew near. The last and perhaps the saddest ritual [of those days] was that final walk from his prison cell to the death chamber that would host the forfeiture of his life. They had a name for a man on this short walk…. Since his end was already foreordained, since it was now only a matter of timing, even though he walked and breathed, his life had, for all intents and purposes, come to an end. He was a dead man walking. [In a similar way, says Blount] Jesus was a dead man riding.
It’s not hard for us to see that truth now, knowing what we know about Holy Week, but it does take some of the exuberance out of our palm waving, doesn’t it? It is part of that ironic, enigmatic character of this day. Here he comes, riding that donkey… a dead man riding. But the crowds didn’t see that irony. Says Blount:
The scene that surrounds [Jesus’] entrance into Jerusalem on the back of that [donkey] is one of the most electrifying and affirming in the Gospel. Whether they were gathered by Jesus, whether they gathered spontaneously when they saw him coming, whether they were gathered for the Passover and Jesus just happened to wander fortuitously into their mix, the fact remains that in this moment he looks every bit the Messianic Son of God Peter had proclaimed him to be…. The crowd knows it. That’s why they sing out with those acclamations of praise, “Hosanna.” “Save now, God.” “Save, now that the one who comes in your name comes to reestablish the glory of our people as when David was our king.”[We] have heard the adulation of crowds. [We saw them in the wake of that ugly, beautiful game Monday night in the pure joy both in Phoenix and on Franklin Street.] [We] have been a part of them at grand events of worship [and moments of sheer] awe…. [We] know that at such a moment there is no greater feeling of being alive, of being an important part of some measure of human living. Odd, then, that at just such a moment, we see the foreboding narrative shadow. We know that Jesus is already dead.
This is a festival day, this Palm Sunday – indeed, a great festival day for us here – but it also comes with its portentous receding of the tide. It is both, and that is why we call this day Palm/Passion Sunday. For all its celebratory air, this day also marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life. Celebration…and sacrifice. Okay, maybe a good combination for considering our own commitments, including the campaign commitments we make this day.
John Calvin once said of that procession into Jerusalem that it was all a little ridiculous. Jesus was riding not on a royal steed but on a little donkey. It was not even his own donkey, but had to be borrowed. He had no saddle, so that people had to throw their cloaks on the little donkey’s back. Those following him must have been a rag-tag group of the poor and forgotten people of his time.
And yet the crowds shouted, “Hosanna.” “Hosanna,” they said. It’s a Semitic word, and not a word we use readily any other day but today. We don’t really know exactly what it means. Our best guess is that the people were crying out to God to save them, to restore the kingdom of their forbear David. Such irony here! The late theologian Bill Placher described the tension between Jesus “looking rather foolish on his donkey and the astonishingly bold claims implicitly made for him.” Of course, in the end, the claims and pleas of the crowds turned out to be well-placed and rightly voiced, but even they couldn’t have understood that possibility or how it would play out at the time.
What the people wanted, of course, was something immediate, something powerful, something that would turn their fortunes around. They wanted to make Israel great again, no longer a Roman provincial state. They wanted freedom from oppression. They wanted economic renewal and an overturning of the corrupt power structure that kept them poor and voiceless. Think ahead to the two disciples we’ll encounter in the weeks ahead who were on their way to Emmaus after Jesus’ crucifixion; what was it they said as they walked along? “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” That’s what the crowds wanted. That’s what the disciples wanted. They wanted things to be better in the land of Israel, because things were pretty desperate in those days.
It’s not so different from the aspirations and hopes we always have for our leaders. Some years ago, then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired the chancellor of the city schools after she had spent barely three months on the job. At Cathie Black’s appointment, the mayor and three of his predecessors had lauded her as just the right person for the job, but apparently that was not true. The reasons for her swift departure from the job were well-documented at the time. But what grabbed my attention was an opinion piece in response to her firing written for the New York Times by Timothy Hacsi, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts. In an op-ed column entitled “Stop Waiting for a Savior,” Hacsi noted that Cathie Black had lasted only three months in the job, instead of the customary three years, but then said this: “[T]he real issue is not the superintendent’s or chancellor’s background, but the excessive emphasis that politicians, educators and parents place on the notion of leadership rather than on empirical evidence about what improves education…. The problem is all the time we spend talking about how the last leader failed, how the current leader is struggling, and how the next leader must succeed.”
My sense is that the same could be said about our own recurring search for national leaders. We attach ourselves to slogans – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” “It’s morning in America,” “A Kinder, Gentler Nation,” “Compassionate Conservatism,” “Change We Can Believe In,” “Make America Great Again”– and we remember the discouragement when those slogans were discarded, when the Etch-a-Sketch was shaken clean, within days of those leaders taking office. “The problem is all the time we spend talking about how the last leader failed, how the current leader is struggling, and how the next leader must succeed.” The problem is we’re all looking for a savior, but we want salvation only on our own terms…terms that cost us nothing.
As my pastor-friend Scott Black Johnston says, “The story of the unknown political figure who arrives with great expectations only to become a magnet for public scorn is not a new one.” It wasn’t new in Jerusalem, either.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as people shout their ecstatic hopes. “Son of David!” Then, he disappoints them. He offends them. He betrays their expectations. [He betrays their “hosannas.”] By Friday the exuberant crowds shouting “Messiah” are nowhere to be seen, and even his closest friends will not admit that they know him.
By Friday, the people’s “hosannas” will have been betrayed. And maybe that is it. Maybe Scott is right. But, then, maybe that’s the very way Jesus saves us. What Jesus offers – a way of peace, a way of forgiveness, a way of kindness and compassion and reconciliation, a way that gets its hands dirty in ministry to the poor, a way that lends value and importance to those commonly designated “the least of these” – is not an offer that many in Palestine wanted to embrace. It surely is not what our national leaders seem to want. If people are shouting “hosannas” at leaders today, what they seem to have in mind is rescue from those who think differently; they want to be saved from enemies, which are always those who look or think or act in ways they don’t like.
I watched some of the opening-day game between the Mets and the Braves online Monday, trying to ease the nervousness associated with the basketball game later that evening, but watching triggered a distasteful memory for this Braves fan. Does anyone here remember John Rocker? Rocker was the high-strung relief pitcher, the closer for the Atlanta Braves in the fall of 1999, when the Braves lost the World Series to the New York Yankees. A few months later he gave an interview to Sports Illustrated. It was awful. It was full of racist and xenophobic remarks, deeply embarrassing to those of us who were Braves fans. The reporter asked him if he would ever consider playing for the Mets or Yankees in New York. His response was abrasive and shocking.
I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-wracking city. Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing…The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. I’m not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English…. How … did [all these foreigners] get in this country?
It is a sad irony that today Rocker could probably run for public office on that very platform in many parts of the country, or enshrine his prejudices in a house bill. Not then: the fans in New York and in Atlanta were scathing in their criticisms of the young pitcher for his rude and angry characterizations.
My friend Scott Black Johnston remembers the story of Rocker’s fall from grace and his betrayal of expectations and also recalls an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Rocker’s interview, written by Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, one time United Nations ambassador, and veteran of the struggle for civil rights in this country. In his editorial Young acknowledged that he, too, had said some stupid things in interviews and understood the pressure of the media. He challenged Rocker to remember the taunts that black baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron had endured and encouraged Rocker to embrace a higher way, a way grounded in faith. He then charged the rest of us to extend a little Christian grace and mercy to John Rocker.
I remember being surprised and a bit disappointed with Andrew Young at the time. I wanted him, as someone with a very public voice, to be harder on Rocker. So did many of Young’s friends and followers; they took his olive-branch approach as a betrayal.
I suspect the same kind of thing happened that first Holy Week. When Jesus came into Jerusalem and didn’t rouse the people into rising up against their Roman oppressors and didn’t take steps to restore the fortunes of Israel, and thus didn’t meet the crowd’s expectations, they turned on him. Johnston says,
As far as Messiahs go, Jesus of Nazareth is a traitor. He betrays our expectations of what is right, and what is appropriate, of who deserves redemption and how it ought to be accomplished. [Yet this] is how God saves us – by betraying our self-serving ends and coming to be with us [so as to transform us]. God comes… God steps out of grandeur to stand with us in awkward places at awful times [not often giving us what we want, but always providing what we need]. Is there any better way to commence Holy Week [then] than with palms in our hands and “Hosannas” on our lips? Is there any more faithful way to embark on this sacred journey than to toss our expectations aside and to ask God, out of the deep, honest places inside us, to “Save us…please, save us”?
That is our prayer even today… that God will betray all our selfish wants and answer instead our deepest needs and our very best hopes. It may seem odd to say, but that kind of betrayal may well be what we need now more than ever… in these days when, by all the signs we see, the tide is starting ominously to recede.
 Brian K. Blount, “Dead Man Walking,” a sermon in Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Presas, 2002, 204, 206.
 Calvin, Harmony of the Evangelists, 2:447, as cited by William C. Placher, Mark: A Belief Commentary, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 156.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, Macon, GA, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2007, 371.
 Placher, 158.
 Timothy A. Hacsi, “Stop Waiting for a Savior,” New York Times, April 11, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/opinion/11hacsi.html?_r=1&ref=cathleenpblack, accessed March 29, 2012. Thanks for the reference to Scott Black Johnson and his paper on this text, presented to the January 2012 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Decatur, Georgia. This sermon draws heavily on Scott’s paper.
 Scott Black Johnston, op. cit.
 John Rocker, as cited in Scott Black Johnston’s paper and SI Online; http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/features/cover/news/1999/12/22/rocker/, accessed March 29, 2017.