Earlier as I was watching the children process into the sanctuary waving their palm branches I was reminded of a story told to me by a colleague. At his church one Palm Sunday they did something similar, with children waving their palm branches and marching around the sanctuary. As they all came forward one little boy remained in the back, holding his palm branch and looking very unsure of himself. One of the ushers leaned down to him and asked if he was okay, at which point the boy replied, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this leaf.”
Palm Sunday is a kind of like that, leaving us all a little but unsure of what it is exactly that we’re supposed to be doing. Jesus is, after all, entering the city in triumphant fashion, being hailed by his followers and greeted as a Savior. So on the one hand, we should be cheering along with them. On the other hand, we know that when Jesus goes to Jerusalem, he’s going there to die. This is where he will be arrested, tried, and put to death on a cross. There are dark clouds on the horizon, so maybe we should be hiding out of fear. Palm Sunday can be a confusing clash of emotions.
It can also be a clash of ideals. New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have written together about Palm Sunday, and they suggest that there was not one triumphal entry into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday; there were two. There was Jesus, of course, riding into the city on his donkey, and his disciples cheering and waving their palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Save us now! That’s one procession.
At the same time, there would have been a second procession entering the city on the opposite side. This second procession would have been led by the governor, Pontius Pilate, leading the centurions and Roman troops into the city in order to put down any disturbances that might arise during the Jewish Passover celebration. Borg and Crossan describe this procession as “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.” Through that western gate came “the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”
These two different processions symbolize two different understandings of humanity and the way of the world. Pilate and the Romans symbolize what’s known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, which is the peace that exists through show of power and subjugation. It’s the kind of peace that comes when people see the emperor’s armies and decide not to disturb the peace because they’re afraid of what might happen to them.
The other procession – the one led by the poor carpenter on his donkey – symbolizes the Pax Christi, or the peace of Christ. This is the kind of peace that is rooted and grounded in self-giving love. This is the peace that passes our understanding. It’s ultimate peace, and the promise of God’s kingdom in the community of faith.
Make no mistake about Palm Sunday: these two different worldviews will clash. There is a tension about Palm Sunday, and here we are in the midst of it, caught between two dueling notions of peace and power. And it may be that those two forces will clash over, and over, and over again every single day for the rest of our lives.
A few weeks ago I was listening to my two sons, A.J. and Alex, play in another room. They were having a light saber duel, and after several minutes of grunts and the sound of clashing plastic I hear Alex say to his big brother, “Strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you can imagine.” It was one of those parenting moments when you aren’t sure whether you should be proud or horrified. Being a huge Star Wars fan myself, I’m leaning toward proud.
That wasn’t the first time that the notion of “power” has figured into my children’s imaginative play. My two boys will frequently ask me questions like, “Daddy, who’s more powerful: Darth Maul or Emperor Palpatine?” or “Who’s more powerful: Batman or Spiderman?” I think they are asking questions like these because if you’re pretending to be someone when you’re playing with you brother, you want to pick someone really skilled and very powerful so that you can beat your brother at whatever you’re pretending to do. Beneath that, however, is a childlike fascination with power that I’ve seen in my two little boys. I think a lot of boys are drawn towards power, and they seem to always want to play with the biggest trucks, or the fastest cars, or whatever they can turn into a sword. For the past two years I’m convinced that my boys choose their Halloween costumes based on which one comes with the coolest weapon. And yes, in our house that means lots of Darth Vader, and Storm Troopers, and Jedi Knights. A.J. and Alex both have a light saber night light attached to the corner of their bed, so when the lights go out and darkness turns their bedroom into something scary, they can have a little bit of light, and reminder that there are powerful allies out there who will fight against the terrors of nighttime.
Deep down inside each of us, that’s who we are. We may not like to admit it, but even as adults there are times when we are the scared child alone in the dark, reaching out for something to give us just a bit of light, or some reassurance that something incredibly powerful is on our side, fighting away the terror. The truth of the world in which we live is that there are plenty of things to be afraid of. Daily we hear of violence and terrorism, conflict between nations, and on and on and on. In our denomination, there are concerns over changes to the Book of Order, there are concerns over not changing the Book of Order, there is fear and regret over declining membership and missed opportunities. In our own church we each have our own list of fears and anxieties and concerns related to employment, and health, or the loss of a loved one. There is much of which to be afraid. In many ways, we live life with the recurring feeling that there are dark clouds on the horizon.
And yet, under those same dark clouds comes Jesus and his processional into Jerusalem. Instead of looking like a king, the Jesus who comes to confront the darkness looked very much like a carpenter’s son. Instead of royal banners his followers waved palm branches. Instead of a stately warhorse, he came in on a donkey. Honestly Jesus’ processional wasn’t all that impressive. He was a poor Jewish Rabbi riding on a lowly service animal, and when he came into the city, he came there in order to die. It was the very opposite of what we what we would regard as powerful, but maybe that was the point. Through one gate came Pilate, attended by his soldiers and royal banners. It was the love of power. Through another gate came Jesus on a donkey, the Jesus who had eaten with sinners, welcomed outcasts, and preached the forgiveness of sins. Instead of the love of power, Jesus modeled the power of love.
We don’t often see that kind of power at work in the world around us. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about giving one’s self in love, and a life lived out of love can be very, very difficult. I’m reminded of an episode of House of Cards in which Frank Underwood, who is a scheming politician played by Kevin Spacey, visits a local priest in order to ask his thoughts on justice. Frank claims that the laws that govern humanity are clear, but the priest corrects him. The only two laws that matter, the priest tells him, are to love God and love your neighbor.
Naturally Frank struggles with that. He cannot fathom the notion that something like love could be a governing principle. God is a lawful and vengeful God, he says. True power is absolute, he says, and those who govern justly must govern through fear. The priest challenges him again, saying, “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end. Using fear will get you nowhere. It’s not your job to determine what’s just. It’s not your place to choose the version of God you like best. It’s not your duty to serve this country alone, and it better not be your goal to simply serve yourself.”
Frank then asks to be left alone to pray. Instead of praying he sneers up at the figure of the crucified Jesus hanging in the sanctuary and says, “Love. That’s what you’re selling? Well, I don’t buy it.”
That’s the clash of ideals that happens every Palm Sunday, and indeed every single day of our lives. Every single day we have a choice between the love of power and the power of love, and every single day we work that choice out in a variety of ways. It may be the suggestion that the way to peace is paved with violence, or the idea that those who are strong have earned the right to step on those who are weak. It comes in the way that we treat our children, and our husbands or wives, or the stranger we meet in the parking lot. That’s not my problem, we tell ourselves. I don’t have to show them kindness – it’s my right! It’s my house, my job, my business, my way or the highway, and the point of it all is to win at all costs, we say. And through all of that, day after day after day, Jesus comes, riding his donkey, preaching mercy, and forgiveness and love. He was a different kind of king wielding a different kind of power. And no, it might not be what we’re used to or even what we ask for, but it might be just what we need, even in the darkness, even in the midst of our terror and fear, even when there are dark clouds on the horizon.
I once heard the story of a little girl who was tucked into her bed one night and was sound asleep until the sound of thunder woke her up. The house was dark. The power had gone out and as the thunder rolled and shook the windows and the lightning flashed behind the curtains she waited, and waited, and waited as long as she could. The pulled the covers up tight but it didn’t do any good. She was terrified. Finally she called out to her mother. After a few moments, the girl’s mother came pacing sleepily into her room. “It’s okay, sweetie,” she said.
“But Mommy, I’m scared,” the little girl said. “It’s so dark.” The mother quieted and reassured the little girl as best she could, and then said, “You’re safe. Remember that God loves you and God is with you even in the dark.” The mother then returned to her bed but after just a few moments thunder crashed again and the girl called out. Her mother came back to her bed and said, “Sweetie, I told you to remember that God loves you and is always with you.” After several seconds of silence the little girl replied, “Mommy I know that God loves me, but when it’s dark like this what I really want is someone with skin.”
Today on Palm Sunday we remember the tremendous clash of forces in the world, the powers that are greater than we are, and the dark clouds on the horizon. Yet we also remember that into that darkness rode Jesus. In the life of Jesus Christ God put on skin so that God could walk with us, and laugh with us and cry with us, rejoice with us and wipe away our tears, love us, and ultimately die for us out of love, that we might have hope and joy and peace. How powerful is that?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, p. 3.