Palm Sunday Sermon – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Why do we do what we do? Sorry…it’s a bit of an open question… Let’s be a little more specific…why do we do what we do in this building? Why do we gather here once or twice every Sunday? Why do we sing hymns, give money, say prayers, listen to an Englishman talk at you for 15 minutes? And why, this coming week, will some of us go to church every day? Why will we walk in silence through town, worship with other churches, eat wafers and drink wine with our sisters and brothers at St Catherine’s? What’s the point of it all?
Now it might sound like I’m already suffering from Easter fatigue…but this week I’ve been thinking a lot about why we are doing all this. After all, some churches don’t have any extra services during this period, believing that every week is holy week, every Sunday Easter Sunday. Others we know of have gone away for a fortnight and are using this time to engage in mission work overseas rather than observing holy week at their home church. And those of us who have been slightly incredulous to this are probably more forgiving to the members of our own church who will be away over this period. Well, it is the school holidays. So why arrange or attend all these services? After all, the planning of this week has involved a lot of time and energy from a number of people whilst others will be giving their time, perhaps after work, when attending the services. Time which might have otherwise been spent with family, doing good deeds or simply catching up with sleep. So why are we doing it? What do we hope to achieve by having so many services?
Let’s put it another way. When I was at Cambridge, each of the five major theological colleges were stereotyped one way or another…a bit like the houses at Hogwarts. There was Westcott – the ‘smells and bells’ Anglican college – where ordinands were stereotyped for their love of ritual and tradition (and yes, I did once see them bless some goalposts with a statue of the Madonna in the hope that it would help them win an inter-college football tournament. They lost 13-1!). At the other end of the Anglican scale was Ridley – the ‘Trevs’ – trendy evangelicals – a public school educated brotherhood known for their love of Alpha and corduroy trousers and their distrust of women, liberals and homosexuals. There was Margaret Beaufort – the feminist, lefty Catholic college; Wesley, the magnolia mudbloods…a little bit Anglican, a little bit non-conformist; and Westminster, where I trained.
On more than one occasion, I heard us referred to as ‘the ear-ticklers’. We were stereotyped as a sweet but dying breed who like to be nice, who enjoy hymn-sandwich services, who are uncontroversial and certainly not going to light the world on fire. And we all know that stereotypes are crude, sometimes unfair, but often carry a kernel of truth. So does the way we ‘do church’; does the way we’re planning to observe holy week, uphold such a view? Will our services be nice and uncontroversial; will they tickle the ears of those in the club, making little or no difference to those outside of it? Or are we hoping to awaken faith, enable spiritual renewal, gain new converts?
If I’m totally honest, I’m unsure…which sounds like a good time to turn to scripture. And it’s a story that we’re all familiar with, isn’t it? Jesus riding through Jerusalem on a donkey; the city’s inhabitants laying down palm leaves, shouting ‘hosanna’, welcoming Jesus as king, Only problem is, little of that is actually recorded in the gospel according to Mark. In his account, unspecified branches and cloaks are laid down on the road and Jesus isn’t called ‘king’ . However, more than these incidentals, what is interesting is the make-up of the crowds and the route of the parade. In Mark’s version of events, it is suggested that those crying out ‘hosanna’ and ‘Blessed is he coming in the name of the Lord’ were already with Jesus. That it was his followers and those whom he picked up on the way to the city that were offering their praise, rather than the inhabitants of the city. In fact, Mark’s march – or at least most of it – takes place outside the city walls, on the road from the Mount of Olives. Verses 7-10 tell us of the procession and then, in verse 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem alone and looks round the temple courts before retiring to Bethany. So, after the planning and organizing, after all the hoopla and hullabaloo of the parade, most of Jerusalem would have been completely oblivious to the actions of Jesus and his crew. Another group of pilgrims coming to the city a little overexcited, so what?! There was no insightful preaching or amazing miracle, no provision for the poor and no report of anyone coming to faith. Perhaps it tickled the ears of his ragtag band, perhaps it gave them something to do during this festive period, but for most others around them, the day carried on as normal. So why did Jesus and his disciples – why did the church – do what it did that day?
Well, perhaps we might get some insight into his actions by considering those of another leader at the time. You see, according to a number of Biblical scholars, around the time that Jesus was riding on a donkey, another procession was taking place nearby. A great, imperial procession carried the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, into the capital. And it would have been a grand affair. Think the opening of Parliament meets Kim Jong-Un’s Birthday parade. Drums would be beating and stallions neying; banners flying and helmets gleaming. Soldiers would have marched the streets, striking fear and awe into all who saw. This was a parade of power; a march of might. And it was a sight those in Jerusalem had grown accustomed to, having witnessed so many great world leaders – from King Solomon to Alexander the Great – do the same. This was how a true leader made their entrance. This was how to evoke pride from your supporters, fear from your enemies. And so this was how the messiah was expected to arrive – astride a great stallion, leading a vast army, liberating the city and its people by force.
So what Jesus did was a joke. Quite literally. In Mark’s account of things, Jesus’ parade to the gates of the city was lampooning the triumphal entries of Pilate, Alexander and all. For an ass took the place of a stallion; a gang of tax collectors, unemployed fishermen and women of ill repute were the army; a wandering pacifist from Nazareth, the mighty leader. It was odd, comical, disorientating. A perfect parody of earthly kingship in which power was shown through humility; where branches, not swords, were waved about; when joy and humour took the place of fear and resentment. In his parade, Jesus identified with the poor and challenged the expectations of his followers, he mocked the actions of the empire and disclosed more of his understanding of authority.
So why did Jesus do what he did? Why did he journey as he did, a parade of the prodigal and parodical, when it was to be seen by just a few? Why did he bother?
Well, perhaps it was simply a gesture, a way of revealing more about himself and his mission. Perhaps it was to remind his followers, those who spoke about calling down fire and who was the greatest, that his way was one of humility and peace. Perhaps it was an action through which little was achieved but much was revealed.
Could that be what we’re doing this coming week? Could that be why we give out palm crosses, come to services midweek, plan for breakfast here next Sunday? Perhaps it is. For it is possible that we will achieve little that is measurable this week. That no great works will be carried out; no new members attracted. But maybe, just maybe, the time we give and the gestures we make might point towards the God-man, might reveal something of Christ and his kingdom. In the words of Church of Scotland minister Lance Stone;
“I would suggest that in our situation today, where we as Christians in this part of the world are increasingly marginalised, increasingly powerless, increasingly lacking the kind of purchase we once had upon society, we need to rediscover what it means to live by gesture – by actions that may not achieve much, that may not change the world, but that disclose a world of meaning, the meaning of our faith.”
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to transform communities in Christ’s name – it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question what we do at church or how we can practically make a difference in the lives of our neighbours…for we must stand up for the oppressed, speak out for the voiceless, seek justice and peace…but there is also a time to pause and make gestures that reveal God’s glory, to retell stories that demonstrate God’s love, to retrace steps that lead to Golgotha.
Perhaps our services this week will tickle the ears of the faithful. Perhaps there are other ways that we can best live out our faith in holy week. And yet perhaps, in our worship and witness, in our observations and gestures, with God’s blessing, we might make known God’s way of peace, justice and ridiculous, scandalous love as we shout hosanna to the saviour on a donkey, stand silent before a criminal on a cross, and run breathlessly towards an empty tomb. Amen.