Sunday, March 16, 2008

Everybody Loves a Parade--a sermon for Palm Sunday A

Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
Everybody Loves A Parade
Matthew 21.1-11
March 16 2008, Palm Sunday A

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

When I was growing up, going to a parade was one of the most exciting events I could imagine. I lived about an hour away from Portland, Oregon, and so the Portland Rose Festival was always a highlight of our year. Since 1907, Portland has been putting on a festival that includes, of course, floats made entirely from roses, along with the standard marching bands and horses and shriners in their funny little cars. Millions of people line the streets to watch.

There were smaller parades too—closer to home we had a strawberry festival, plus parades to kick off the state and county fairs. I loved parades so much that the year I got my first camera I took pictures of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which I was watching on TV.

When I read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I want to imagine it as a parade like the ones I went to growing up, where people tossed butterscotch or strawberry candies off of fire trucks and marching bands actually marched (none of this walking that’s fashionable these days) and the flags of city, state, and country were carried by men in uniforms. I want there to have been a grand marshal and maybe even some cheerleaders. In my imagination, it’s an old-fashioned, kid friendly, family fun kind of experience.

But that’s probably not terribly likely. In Jesus’ time, only one type of person was in a parade—the military type. Parades are for the emperor, the governor, the army. And they serve one purpose: to show power. The Roman empire was particularly known for its victory parades—to process through the streets of a conquered city, and then later through the streets of Rome, with the full army, with the former rulers in chains, with the empty chariot of the old king or governor, with fabulously big animals like lions and tigers, was to show who was in charge. It’s a reminder to all who see it that there is one empire and it is ruled by a man who would be god.

This is the kind of procession Pilate would likely have been in. He would have come from his palace on the seaside to stay in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. Passover was the biggest festival of the year—people would come from all over the land to celebrate in Jerusalem. The city population swelled to several times its usual size, full of pilgrims and zealots and revelers, celebrating God’s power to liberate the chosen people from oppression. It’s the perfect time for an uprising, so it was important to increase the Roman presence as well. Pilate’s parade would have included the marching army and his own officials and household mounted on horses or pulled in chariots. His parade would have been welcomed by Herod and by the Temple priests. It was a big deal, a spectacle not to be missed. I imagine it might have looked something like this parade… (show clip from Alexander: 49.54-51.30 (chapter 13))

This parade sends a pretty clear message about power—it’s rooted in violence and money, and he has it, the people on the sidelines don’t. Their choice is to cheer or to be noticed as a dissenter.

I don’t think this is what Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem looked like. I think this is what some of his followers were hoping for—that at last, he’d be recognized for who he was, that people would finally realize who was in their midst and they would all bow down and worship him, and he would come into Jerusalem as its rightful king, taking the power that belonged to him and overthrowing the Roman oppressors.

But by this point in the story we know that’s not really who Jesus is. Jesus is about healing, about wholeness, about compassion, about love—not about military might or the perks of royalty. And from where we sit, looking back on the story, we know that Jesus wasn’t about overthrowing one oppressive power just to make way for another—he was about suffering and humility and love conquering once and for all.

So when Jesus sets up his parade, it looks strikingly different from Pilate’s. He knows Zechariah’s prophesy about the true king, and he remembers that the prophets often acted out their messages when words failed. So instead of a mighty steed Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, a beast of burden, a lowly and stubborn animal that no man would ever ride and even some women would shun. He is surrounded by his disciples, who may recall the prophesy but certainly don’t understand what’s happening. Peasants and pilgrims swarm around him, trying to get into the city gates to visit the Temple before nightfall. There are no marching bands, no armies with helmets and spears, no wild animals, no trappings of power at all—not even a horse. Just a man who preaches about love, riding on a donkey surrounded by rabble from the little villages of an occupied nation. Perhaps it looked like this: (show clip from Pasolini 1.22.25-1.24.15).

Jesus knew what he was doing that day when he rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. He knew what kind of message he was sending with his action. He invited those who were familiar with scripture to take notice—he declared himself to any who had eyes to see and ears to hear. But this parade doesn’t end at the palace, greeted by the king and the priests. This parade stops on a barren hillside, on a cross, surrounded by mockery and shame and humility. This parade leads to pain, to love that suffers for the beloved, to death and grief and fear. Those who crowd around the donkey, waving their tree branches, have no idea what’s on the other side of the tomb—they don’t even know what’s coming at the end of the week, though Jesus knows and he trusts that God’s grace will be enough to open their eyes and ears to good news.

I wonder, if we had a choice, which parade we would choose? Marcus Borg imagines both parades happening on the same day—Pilate entering the city from the west and Jesus entering from the east. If we were in Jerusalem that day, which parade would we rather be in? The spectacular one with pomp and circumstance, where we stand lining the streets to watch? Or the small, villager one with tree branches and a donkey, where everyone joins in and there are no bystanders? Borg writes, “Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central to the story of Jesus and of Christianity.”

This contrast is central to our story as well as to Jesus’ story. As we enter this holy week, perhaps we can wonder together about which parade we are in, which story we are telling, which kind of power we are embracing. Do we want to watch a parade that conveys strength, wealth, and triumph and ends at the palace? Or are we willing to be in a parade of the poor and outcast, a parade filled with good news and love but also with suffering and a power made perfect in weakness? The road to the cross holds both parades—how will we choose walk it?

May God’s grace and love go ahead of us and behind us into this holy week, to the cross and all the way to an empty tomb.

(1) Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, p. 4.


  1. Nicely done.
    Isn't it funny how much we can agonize over this, and somehow the Spirit brings something wonderful out of our hard work?

  2. Tell you year I'll use yours, and give you mine!
    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Teri - thanks for the sermon. I missed a Palm Sunday sermon - we has Faure's REQUIEM with prayers/scripture interspersed. Was an OK way to straddle the parade and passion I guess - but your sermon made me thing and imagine.
    as a friend of mine wrote - As Lent's shadows lengthen, I'm glad I'm not alone on the road. Rumor has it there's an empty tomb at the end of the trail."
    Peace, friend. Preach on.