Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
April 14, 2019 -- "Palm" Sunday
Philippians 2:1-13; Luke 19:28-44
We probably all know the Hans Christian Andersen fable called “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or some version of it. A vain, gluttonous, greedy, privileged, oppressive ruler – possibly even “weak” and “fearful” and “angry” – all of those things that we have been talking about during Lent that we would rather not admit, hired two tailors to make him the finest wardrobe ever known. The tailors announced that only the most intelligent and discerning could actually see their work, it was so very fine and exclusive. They were scammers, con-artists, “pretenders” of the highest order. They spent weeks and demanded exorbitant funds in their process. When the ruler could see no evidence of their labors, in fact could see nothing at all, and suspected their duplicity, he brought in expert after expert. All of the experts were too afraid to confirm that there were no fine robes being made. Finally, the tailors announced the robes were ready, and the ruler called for a grand parade to display his finery. Of course, he paraded through the town nearly naked, and only a little child was unafraid to declare the truth – that the king was a fool.
We could probably wring many meanings out of this fable. But what comes to mind for me today is that admitting the things about ourselves that embarrass us is a little like parading around like the ruler. And in some way, this is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ. We are called to admit before God and each other that we are not perfect, and to know that we are beloved of God, nonetheless. Even the robes of finest earthly value cannot conceal who we really are before God.
The word “parade” comes from the Latin parare – to prepare or to furnish. It appeared first in English in the mid-seventeenth century from the French “parade” meaning ostentatious display. Literally it means a demonstration. Parades are meant to show something – or “show up” for something. Military parades are meant to demonstrate both to allies and to enemies how strong the military forces are. You might think an Easter parade was intended to demonstrate what fine Christians we are – but instead were more a way to demonstrate what successful and worldly Christians we are – to display how attractive and affluent we are.
In 2006, two leading scholars of the “Jesus Seminar” – Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan – published a book called The Last Week: A Day by Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. I would guess that you’ve heard it referred to often by your Palm Sunday preachers. One of the main points they illustrate in the book is that on the “first” Palm Sunday, there were two parades entering Jerusalem from opposite directions – both of them claiming in some way authority over the children of God. From the west – from the direction of Rome and the Mediterranean – came the Roman Legion. They were riding into Jerusalem in order to quell any insurrection that might arise among the more zealous Judeans, reminded in their celebration of Passover that the Lord God was a liberator from oppression. They were looking for a military leader who could lead them back to sovereignty by overthrowing the Roman occupation. The Legion was coming to be sure that could not happen.
From the other side of town, from the eastern hills of Bethany and Bethphage, there came a different kind of parade – a different kind of showing up. It did not display military prowess, although it seems that Jesus’ followers may still have been hoping that he had some kind of trick up his sleeve – that in the final confrontation he would whip out a secret weapon or unleash the power of the most high upon their oppressors. What Jesus did demonstrate was a deep commitment to the prophetic messages of Zechariah and Micah – of kindness and justice and humility – motivated by deep, abiding, unconditional love.
Each of the Gospel accounts of the day that we have come to call “Palm Sunday” differs in its details. We notice a few significant things about Luke’s account from even a casual reading. First, we noticed that it is a hallmark of Jesus’ disciples to do what he says – they are obedient, at least when his directions are simple and clear. He tells them to go to a certain place and do a certain thing. He prepares them for the resistance they will meet. They go. They obey. They show up. Their preparation is adequate. They return having completed their task. Again, it is a hallmark of Jesus disciples to do as he says. It is also true that sometimes they just don’t get it.
He loves them anyway – because Jesus’ love for them came first – their obedience was merely their response.
The next thing we noticed about Luke’s version is the language of peace. “Blessed is the ruler who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” This mirrors almost exactly the chorus of the heavenly messengers that announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds at the beginning of Luke’s version of the good news. The whole of Jesus’ life is bookended by a heavenly call and earthly response for what? For peace! You can tell a book by its cover, and the cover of this book says peace all over it. Between his entry into the flesh and his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus has been all about peace. His life has been a parade – a demonstration of peace– a showing up. And it is not the pax romana – the peace imposed and maintained by the authorities for the benefit of the privileged few. It is the pax communitas – the peace of the beloved community constructed and maintained by all for the benefit of all.
Again, Jesus’ desire for the pax communitas was motivated by the originating cause – unconditional love.
The third thing we noticed was that there are no palms even mentioned in Luke’s version of Palm Sunday! What? How can that be, you say. How can we have Palm Sunday without palms? Maybe we should not even call it Palm Sunday – but Cloak Sunday. Well, I’m being a little facetious. Of course it’s OK to celebrate the traditions that have come down to us. But I think we are missing an opportunity if we don’t acknowledge the differences in the Gospel accounts as well as their harmonies. The crowds that were following Jesus, that were calling for peace on earth as it is in heaven, were casting off their cloaks in order to pave Jesus’ way. Let’s think about that for a moment. In that time and place, it is unlikely that the common folk had more than one cloak. One’s cloak was an important garment that presented one’s identity to the world as well as keeping modesty and protecting one’s health. To cast off your cloak was a deeply sacrificial act. It was not like you could run down to Target and get another one, or even back to your closet to grab another one of your many seasonal cloaks. To take off your cloak and have it trampled by a colt and a throng of disciples was a way of demonstrating who you were and where your loyalties lay – of showing up with your whole self.
Sacrificial allegiance to the Way of Jesus is a response – a demonstration of gratitude for having been loved first.
So what about us? Are we disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we in his parade? Are we willing to shed our cloaks to pave Jesus’ way in the world? This is the last chance to turn aside, to say, “We don’t know this man.” Or, it is the perfect opportunity to show up and take the next step in the journey into the heart of God – to move from observer to actor. Jesus would say that if we don’t, even the stones will rise up.
What comes next may seem a little rough in more way than one. That is in part because it kept me awake much of the night, and I chose to discard the second half of what I was preparing to say for most of the week. Sometimes the Spirit just shows up that way. It’s because of my own fear and vulnerability that I can’t just get up here and wing it. I must write it out ahead of time.
Yesterday there were a couple more parades showing up here on our campus. I’m sure there were many more around town and around the world. These were just the ones that I showed up for. One of them was the parade of people showing up to laud Emma Amiad as she prepares to leave Vashon to find air that she can breathe. We all know she has been instrumental in responding to the parades of troubled and homeless and nearly homeless islanders for more than a decade. Emma has consistently shown up – and even though her religious heritage is Judaism, I would say Emma has been Christ in our midst. She has truly shown up.
Ironically, another parade was the showing up of those who have been residents of our campus for weeks or intermittently for years. Nobody likes the unsightly mess of the junky vehicles or the seeming inability for this parade to pick up after itself. I’m reminded of the little man at the end of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons who shows up with a broom to sweep up after the parade. Every parade leaves litter behind, and there needs to be someone willing to come along and sweep up in the end.
Last night, by my best count, there were five in the parade who showed up here seeking respite or safety or shelter. One, who has been here pretty much continuously since winter hit hard this year, swears that last night was his last. He has a job and an apartment waiting in Auburn. He’s been homeless for over a decade, couch surfing or living in the woods. He’s a good man who has recovered from some bad circumstances and bad decisions. I’ll be sorry he won’t be showing up any more. I won’t miss his neatly-piled, tarp-covered piles of belongings. I will miss his cheerful optimism and role he played in keeping the rest of my parking lot family safe and somewhat in community.
To the best of my knowledge, four women showed up to sleep on our campus last night – one of them with my permission. That one is someone most of you know quite well. She grew up in this congregation. Monday morning on my way to my 5:30 CrossFit session I encountered her there on the doorstep surrounded by deputies and EMTs. She called out to me and I held her hand as they asked her questions and took her vitals. Then they took her away. It turns out she’d had a small stroke. Later in the week sometime, during a confrontation with her daughter, she was shot in the face with a pellet gun. Last night she showed up needing a safe dry place to sleep and something warm to eat. She, too, has been Jesus to me. See, that’s why I have no choice. I must show up.
I know that you show up, too. In many ways – large and small. Obedient. Justice-seeking. Sacrificial. It’s not comfortable. It exposes us for what and who we really are. It’s my prayer that we do show up for the parade, and when we do, if our new clothes are like the emperor’s, and our true selves “show up” – that the child on the sidelines of the parade will smile, and point, and say right out loud, “Look! There goes Jesus!”
As we turn with Jesus to face Jerusalem, Golgotha, Hell, and beyond, on our journey into the heart of God, may our obedience, our justice, and our sacrifice be a true demonstration of the love we have been freely given. May we be so bold. Amen.