Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Sunday, April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday, confirmation and return to Oconee Street
Matthew 21:1-11 and Philippians 2:3-11
This is such an important day for so many reasons. It is a day that many of us will remember for the rest of our lives. It is that important. We celebrate our return home after a year away – well, two days short of a year, but who’s counting? We celebrate the confirmation of six young people whom we have loved and watched grow over the years and who are blessings in our lives. And we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when the church remembers Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to shouts of “hosanna” and palm branches waving. Today also begins Holy Week, when we recall the events that changed so quickly from a day of victory, to death on a cross, and marvel at how many of those who shouted “hosanna” were also, by the end of the week, in the crowd who yelled “crucify him.”
Since today is such a special day, bringing together all of these elements, some once in a life-time elements, I want to speak most directly to our confirmation class. But, the rest of you are most welcome to listen in, and I hope you do, but what I say this morning is for Sam, Elizabeth, Lucy, Casey, Chandler, and Julie.
Sometimes a little history is helpful — and I hope not too boring. Did you know that when Jesus lived, Israel was a defeated country, occupied by foreign soldiers of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire covered a huge territory. It stretched from Britain, across Europe, into Asia Minor, and down into Israel to the border with Egypt. It had outposts in northern Africa as well. And the Romans governed all of that territory by allowing local people who promised loyalty to Rome to hold office. When there were rebellions, the Romans were cruel and violent and retaliated with overwhelming power. They found their enemies and they killed them. Crucifixion was a common form of punishment for political prisoners, for those who challenged the authority of Rome.
Jerusalem presented a special challenge to the Romans because Jews would gather there from all over the country once every year to celebrate the Passover. It was traditional to make a pilgrimage from the outlying areas to the big city and to celebrate the liberation of their ancestors from slavery and oppression under the Egyptians, to remember Moses, and to remember God’s angel of death passing over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt because they had marked their doors with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. That kind of remembrance was likely to incite rebellion, a desire to throw off the Romans and be free just as so long ago their ancestors freed themselves from the Egyptians.
Because Jerusalem could be such a dangerous place for rebellion during Passover, the Romans prepared for any eventuality during that time by strengthening their military presence and visibility. In the year 30, Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea and Jerusalem, and it was customary for him to come into the city with a large group of soldiers during Passover to prevent any potential uprising, for in fact, there had already been uprisings and many crucifixions.
Some historians think that Pilate and a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers would have entered Jerusalem in an impressive procession designed to intimidate people with a visual display of imperial power: soldiers on horseback and on foot, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.
But this particular Passover, on the other side of the city, another procession was forming. Down from the mount of Olives in the north came Jesus and his humble parade – what a contrast! No pomp, no ceremony, Jesus dressed in “civilian” clothes, riding on the back of a donkey, considered the lowliest of beasts, and followed by his disciples who had been drawn from the common people. And there were all kinds of people in the crowd that gathered there to welcome, maybe among them lepers he’d healed, blind who could now see; lame who finally could stand and walk along with him.
They greeted Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna wasn’t just any kind of word – like “hurray” It was a political and a religious word – it meant “save us”; it meant “You are the messiah!”
Now in the Roman Empire, the Romans believed that the Emperor was holy. And he was worshipped as the son of God and the savior of humankind. So Jesus rode into Jerusalem bringing a message of freedom, peace, justice, and welcome for all in the kingdom of God, while Pilate entered the city representing just the opposite – the oppression, violence, injustice, and exclusion that represented the kingdom of Rome.
This parade that we celebrate today set Jesus on a collision course with the powers that ruled Jerusalem and the world. It would cost him his life. It would change history forever. And we remember this week the dramatic events that took place – Jesus went into the temple and confronted the religious leaders who served the empire rather than God. He ate a meal with his disciples and instructed them to remember him whenever they broke break and drank wine together. He was betrayed by one of his own disciples. The others all ran away. He was arrested, quickly tried, and crucified. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem ended, not with a golden crown and a throne, but with a crown of thorns and death on a cross.
The question for all of us, but especially for you six who today will affirm your baptismal vows and take vows of membership in the church, is where are you in the crowd? Where do you see yourself? Which procession are you watching and celebrating?
Hopefully, we all find ourselves standing in Jesus’ parade, but simply standing here and watching doesn’t guarantee anything, because we have to be careful that we don’t confuse what we want with what Jesus wants. The crowd that day wanted a messiah who would forceably take power from the Romans, kick them out, and re-establish the throne of David. They thought Jesus was the man to do it. We might want Jesus to do something special for us too, to promise everything we think will make us happy – popularity, success, money, talent, brains, athletic ability, and we want it right here and right now. And then if we don’t get it, we can get really disappointed.
And that is when the other parade, the Emperor’s parade, becomes very attractive because it contains all those things that represent success to us – power, wealth, security popularity. They seem like the real thing; the things that matter the most; the things that the ideal life ought to contain. But in reality, Jesus said that when we grasp for these things, do everything we can to obtain those things, if we’re not careful, we can lose who we really are; we can lose ourselves. He told his disciples, “What good does it do you to gain the whole world and lose your soul!”
In those times of struggle when you’re not sure what you want or which parade is most attractive, then remember the first lines from the reading from Philippians that you shared with the congregation earlier. “Let that mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, think of yourselves the way Jesus thought of himself.” Jesus put others first. It was never all about him. He was able to let go of his ego and do what God wanted him to do. Some years ago it was popular to ask “what would Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus have me do?” And if you can stop and ask those questions, you will face your times of decision with touchstone – a reference point – that can make some of the choices clearer.
But take comfort from the fact that in the choices and decisions you make along life’s way, you are not alone. We have each other. You are not only being confirmed today, but you are joining the church. And our congregation will promise to be there for you. Listen when they promise to lead Christ-like lives themselves and to surround you with “steadfast love” as you continue on your faith journey with them. We are all in this together because following Jesus is not a solitary practice, and Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be present.
Today and in the days ahead, never forget that we have one another and we have Jesus, who sees and knows all of us – who knows our successes and our failures, our doubts and our affirmations. He sees us, forgives us, loves us, and blesses us. And so today we stand together, to sing hosannas to him; to follow his parade; to welcome all; and to watch in awe and humility as he rides in triumph towards the Cross, hoping that in all things in our own lives we might become more like him.
God bless you all on this once in a life-time day. Amen.