- The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
Procession, Parade or Protest? - A sermon for Palm Sunday 2023
It was the 4th of July, and I lived on Deepwood Lane. That’s the street where I spent
much of my childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was ten years old that day.
When I woke up, I remembered: We're having a parade today! I was so excited, I don't
know if I ate breakfast. I do know I took out my trumpet, which I was learning to play. I blew
some air through it, to warm it up. Then, I went outside.
Excited and just a bit apprehensive, I stepped onto our dead-end street and put the
trumpet to my lips. While I began to march, I tried to play the National Anthem. At first, I was
a shameless parade of one, until a neighborhood kid found an American flag and fell in behind
me. A couple of other kids joined us. I had hoped more of them would follow me - the good old,
Fourth of July pied piper. I’m sure I thought of church, where we choir kids always followed the
leader in our Sunday morning parades.
This Wednesday, Jews all over the world will observe Passover, the beginning of their
own Holy Week. In our Gospel story, read outdoors, Jesus the Jew enters the holy city of
Jerusalem for the beginning of Passover. On that holy day, there was...a parade.
In The Last Week, a groundbreaking book published in 2006, Bible scholars Dom
Crossan and Marcus Borg offered what was then a startling revelation. There wasn’t just one
parade, they said. There were actually two parades in Jerusalem on that Passover.
Today, we remembered - and we re-enacted - one of those parades. It was a parade - and a
procession - of peasants. They were students of Jesus' teaching and witnesses to his miracles.
They were the wounded and the healed, and they followed him. From Nazareth, a peasant
village, came Jesus, riding on a donkey, down the Mount of Olives. He was cheered on by his
followers, some of whom had journeyed as much as a hundred miles to be there. They all
approached Jerusalem from the East.
What is not in our Palm Sunday Gospel text is a description of the other parade. On that
same day - from the other side of the city, from the West - Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor,
also approached Jerusalem. He led a column of imperial cavalry on horseback, accompanied by
armored foot soldiers. They carried weapons, not palms.
Although the existence of this other, imperial parade is still unknown to many Christians
today, it was well known then. Roman governors and their officers came to Jerusalem for all
major Jewish festivals. They didn’t show up out of religious reverence or respect for the Jews.
They came, just in case there was trouble. Sound familiar?
Pilate's parade was all about the Roman Empire, about Roman imperial theology. The
emperor was not just the ruler of Rome. Going back to Caesar Augustus, who ruled when Jesus
was born, the emperor was also seen as the son of Roman gods. For the Romans, this new,
peasant procession was not just another parade. It revealed a rival theology, an understanding
of God that was threatening. Borg and Crossan, the Bible scholars, put it this way: "Jesus'
procession proclaimed the kingdom, (the reign) of God; Pilates' (procession) proclaimed the
power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus'
That central conflict has continued, even to this day. It’s about the reign of earthly
emperors in opposition to the kingdom, the reign of God. An earthly emperor’s reign - and the
power of institutional imperialism - has taken many forms throughout human history: Roman
rule. Persian rule. Byzantine rule. Mongolian rule. Spanish rule. Russian rule. And let’s not
forget the former British Empire.
Jesus had arranged for a counter-processional, anti-imperial parade. When he entered
Jerusalem, Jesus brought a large, loud, adoring crowd. He planned things out in advance,
complete with a donkey, as had been foretold in Jewish scripture. We could even call it political
theater, because it was more than a procession or a parade. It was also a protest. For Pilate
and the Romans, it was even more. It was a revolution.
Our Palm Sunday story says the crowd journeying with Jesus cut down branches from
trees - probably palm trees - and spread them on the road. In ancient near-eastern tradition, the
palm branch was associated with triumph. It symbolized military victory.
In Judaism, riding on a donkey was also a sign of royal rule. But Jesus riding on a
donkey was also an emblem of humility. St. Paul surely had Jesus’ ride in mind when he wrote
years later to the church in Philippi those other words we’ve heard today: "He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (2:8). When Jesus entered
Jerusalem that day, it was a parade, a procession, and a protest - all three. But for Jesus, it was,
first and foremost, an act of humility.
In our Presiding Bishop’s book, Love Is The Way, Michael Curry writes about humility
and suggests that “if love is your purpose...it was and still is the time to double down on
prayer....” Bishop Curry surely has in mind another verse from Philippians: “Every knee should
bend...and every tongue...confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10). Bishop Curry continues:
“Quietly, we (can) pray for a president. But then, there’s the active side of prayer...working for a
good, just, humane, and loving society. That means getting on our knees for the president.
Praying,” he says, “can also mean standing on our feet and marching in the streets.”
Then, Bishop Curry challenges us: “(Praying means)...participation in the life of our
government and society. (Praying means) working for policies and laws that reflect Jesus’ call to
love our neighbor, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Praying means)
fashioning a civic order that reflects goodness, justice, and compassion, and the very heart and
dream of God for all God’s children and God’s creation” (p. 206).
Praying means trying to kneel or sit or stand. Praying may also mean all of these: to
kneel and to sit and to stand up - each one, as needed. It’s about offering different kinds of
prayer for God’s will, God’s reign - for a little more heaven here on earth.
In five days, on Good Friday, people in churches all over the world will hear the story of
Jesus' death, once again. We will hear how “the adoring throng becomes the jeering mob,” how
“Jesus is not installed on (an imperial) throne but nailed to a cross” (Katherine Willis Pershey,
The Christian Century, 3/10/21, p. 21).
And so…as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, as we prepare for the Triduum, the
three holy days that begin Maundy Thursday evening and crescendo into Easter, let us consider
the question posed by those Bible scholars, Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan: "Two processions
entered Jerusalem on that (Palm Sunday). The same question, the same alternative, faces those
who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we
want to be in?: (ibid., p. 30).
My friends, Palm Sunday is not a death march. It’s a procession, a parade, a protest of
prayer, in which we learn how to march and to stay put, how to stand, sit and kneel - sometimes
praying in all those ways. But we will be praying and doing it all with Jesus. Which
procession, parade, or protest is God calling us at All Saints’ to join - now?