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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'

crucifixion."(p. 2).

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 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?


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