Palm Sunday 2014

Palm Sunday
The Reverend Philip Tierney
April 13, 2014

What a week of extremes—what a week of reversals that was! Jesus came into Jerusalem with the people shouting, “Hosanna—Save us!” He left that same city only a few days later with people shouting, “Crucify him!” He came to town carried on a donkey. He left treated like one—driven to carry the beam of wood on which he’d be put to death. At the beginning of the week all of his followers jostled to get as close to him as they could. At the end of the week most of them scattered and couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and him. At the beginning of the week people waived palm branches. At the end of the week they beat Him with reeds and whips. At the beginning of the week He entered Jerusalem and wept with compassion for its people. At the end of the week those same people laughed at His humiliation and pain. At the beginning of the week they wanted to hoist Him on their shoulders to make Him their king. In the end they hoisted Him on a cross to kill him as a false king.

The whole thing must have seemed like a parody to the casual observer—say to a Roman soldier standing guard at his post by the gates of the city. He’d seen what real parades were like—back in Rome—where they knew how to do things right. In Rome a real king or conquering hero would ride through the streets on a gilded chariot, pulled by mighty stallions. Before him, marched his entourage. They carried symbols of their conquered enemies. Then came the spoils of war and the tattered officers of defeated armies—bound in chains. He’d step from his chariot to ascend the marble steps to the throne where he’d take his rightful seat or be crowned with the laurels of victory—all to the cheers of Rome’s citizens.

The two parades in our readings for today were nothing like that. At the beginning of the week that soldier would have witnessed the citizens of Jerusalem cheer at the arrival of their hero or king or whatever he was. But the object of their attention waddled through the gates of the city on a jackass—surrounded and followed by a motley rabble of peasants, the crippled and the poor. At the end of the week, that same guard would have seen their hero staggering out with a crown of thorns on his head—beaten, bruised, and bleeding. “What a joke! What a tragic joke!” he must have thought—perhaps even chuckling and shaking his head. // Medieval Christians caught the parody of Holy Week. That’s why it was common, back then, to portray Jesus as a clown—as the clown of God. And that’s also why 20th-century rock operas like Godspell portrayed Jesus as a clown, smiling through tears, like Emmett Kelly.

John the Evangelist called Jesus “The Word of God by whom all things were made.” If true, just imagine, the Creator of the universe chose to become one of us, incognito, and made Himself completely vulnerable to us—allowing His creatures to do with Him whatever they wished. In Christ, God made a clown of Himself for us. How foolish was that? Why in the world would the Supreme Being do something like that? We’re told it was done for the sake of love; that God, in Christ, became a fool for love of us. That’s why he subjected Himself to those parodies of triumph and tragedy. He allowed humanity to do whatever we wanted to Him out of love for us; all to show us that He loved us; all to undergo what we undergo in life; all to come alongside us to bond with us. Apparently, God seemed to think that we need or would be more receptive to a kindred savior instead of just another ruler. I suppose God had another goal in mind than the history of human motivation seems to suggest. Instead of people, driven by fear, submitting to control to get what we want or think we need. Christ modeled a different way—driven by love, giving service to others to meet their needs.

I think those parades of Holy Week were demonstrations—not political demonstrations, but motivational demonstrations. It was a way of modeling servanthood. Christ was a clown because, though master, he chose to serve instead. I believe God invites us to join Christ in that parade—to put aside our aspirations for personal survival, gain and control; and instead, to follow the clown king by becoming clowns, who serve others, ourselves, as he did.

St. Paul, in what’s been called the kenotic hymn—from the Greek word kenosis, which meant emptying oneself of power—wrote this: “Have the mind of Christ, who thought equality with God not to be something to be grasped, but emptied Himself to take the form of a servant.” Christ, our king, became a clown by becoming our servant for the sake of love. Following Him means acting in ways that may seem foolish, by serving others out of loving devotion.

And so as we take these palm fronds with us today to our homes—when we look at them—let’s remember what they stand for. They stand for a God who became a fool for love of this world. They stand for the Creator of the universe, who used His powers to serve His creatures. They remind us that following Christ involves putting aside our own aspirations for personal gain, power and pride—to act foolishly—fools for the love of God—fools who declare Christ our king—fools who make ourselves servants of those who need our help, as we need His.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!


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