Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Palms, Passion, and Power" - Palm Sunday, March 24, 2018

Text: John 19:1-16a

Palm Sunday is one of the weirder Sundays of the year.  I mean, it is fun, to be sure.  We don’t get to have a parade in church just every week.  Waving the palm branches is pretty cool, and there is a kind of pageantry and drama that is missing on a lot of your “average” Sundays.  Of course, some years we gather outside in the warm spring sunshine for our Palm Procession and other years we have 6 inches of snow, like today, so you just never know how it will go.

So you’ve got the logistics of it, which can be both odd and challenging, but that is not what stands out to me the most about this day.  As far as worship goes, Palm Sunday is a day in which we can encounter a kind of emotional or spiritual whiplash.

Today is designated both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheers and adulation, but by the end of the service, he is heading to the executioner. 

Most of us like the parade part.  We like the anticipated triumph of Palm Sunday.  It is kind of a rehearsal for the really big celebration of Easter.  And of course we take some joy in knowing that the dark days of Lent are almost over.  The temptation, of course, is to go straight from the excitement of Palm Sunday right to the joy of Easter.  It is the same temptation we always face: to ignore or reduce or bypass the pain of life.  But somehow, on this Sunday, we try to hold up both the anticipation of victory and the reality of loss side by side, and it isn’t easy. 

We have been in John’s gospel since Christmas.  Nearly half of John, 10 of 21 chapters, report on the last week of Jesus’ life, the week we have come to call Holy Week.  We have been looking at events from that week for several Sundays now.  But today, we have started out with a kind of flashback, back to the beginning of the week, back to what is called the Triumphal Entry.

It was the beginning of Passover week, and the crowds heard that Jesus was on his way, approaching the city.  So people ran to greet him carrying palm branches, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It is interesting that here we are, on a day that has been long known as Palm Sunday, but John is the only gospel to report that people actually brought palms.  Matthew and Mark and Luke report that the crowd laid their cloaks or garments on the ground, and Matthew and Mark also say that the crowd laid leafy branches on the road.  But you know, Cloak Sunday or Garment on the Road Sunday or Leafy Branch Sunday just doesn’t cut it, it just doesn’t have the cachet of Palm Sunday.

There is a reason that the people brought palm branches.  This was not insignificant.  A palm was a symbol of victory.  To wave a palm was to make a statement.  It was kind of like waving a flag.  This was the way that one welcomed a king, welcomed a hero, welcomed a conquering general.  It was a way to announce Jesus’ coming triumph.

And it was also, in a sense, a form of protest.  It was political speech.  You might think of it as a parade, but you could just as well think of it as a protest, a demonstration.  Instead of signs and banners, the crowd carried palms.  The message wasn’t lost on anybody.  Jesus had come to town, but others were also coming into town. Roman soldiers entered on horses, armed in a display of power.  A conquering ruler would enter on a white stallion.  Jesus?  He sat on a donkey.  This was a different kind of king.  But the crowds welcomed him with symbols of triumph and really, a statement of defiance and resistance. 

Was it triumph?  Was it victory?  The crowd thought so.  They thought they understood.  But they had no idea.  The crowd actions said that Jesus was entering the city in triumph, as a king.  They were sort of right.  But they were deeply wrong.

We pick up the story several days later.  In last week’s scripture, Pilate has a conversation with Jesus that leads to him asking that question, “What is truth?”  Pilate announces to the crowd that he finds no reason to charge Jesus.  There was a tradition of releasing a prisoner at the time of Passover, and when Pilate offers to release Jesus, the crowd shouts, “We want Barabbas!” 

In our reading for today, we find that Pilate is still not eager to see Jesus killed.  Which is notable, because as we mentioned last week, in a world of brutal rulers, Pilate was known to be especially brutal.  He was the kind of guy who could have a handful of people killed before his morning coffee break and not give it a second thought.  But he sees no reason to have Jesus put to death.

So Jesus is flogged and mocked and brought out before the crowd with a crown of thorns and purple robe.  Again, Pilate announces that he finds no case against Jesus.  But the crowd shouts “crucify him!” and says that Jesus should die because he claims to be the Son of God.

Pilate takes notice of this.  “Son of God” was one of the titles of Caesar.  The crowd is making the point that Jesus is a threat to Rome, that he is directly challenging Caesar, and that as Caesar’s representative Pilate must act.  If Pilate does not have Jesus crucified, the crowd is saying, then Pilate himself is no friend of Caesar.  So Pilate has Jesus come back for another conversation.  “Why do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate asks.  “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  But Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” 

Pilate and Jesus have this conversation about power.  In a sense, this entire episode, the whole of Holy Week and for that matter, the whole of the gospel is about power.  For Rome, for Pilate, power really meant the ability to kill people.  Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence.  Throughout its vast empire, from Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery.  Just as Jesus had come into Jerusalem on a donkey, Roman soldiers had entered Jerusalem mounted on horses, Roman standards held high.  It was a show of the military power and might of Rome, which was not to be challenged.

Jesus represented an entirely different kind of power, and Pilate doesn’t know what to make of it.  It scares him, it threatens him, just as it threatened the Jewish religious leaders.

Pilate represented coercive power – power over.  Power to threaten, power to harm, power to abuse.  Power used in the service of one’s own self.  In the temptation in the desert, Satan had tempted Jesus to use his power for his own purposes.  But Jesus rejected that kind of power and that use of power.

Jesus did not use power over, but power alongside others, power for the sake of others.  His was a power to heal, a power to build up.  He uses the power of story, or parable, to teach and inspire and convict and transform.  He uses social power, relational power to welcome outcasts and touch people on the margins.  And so he breaks bread with tax collectors and sinners and people of questionable reputations.  He uses the power of forgiveness and the power of acceptance to change lives.  

And there was a great power in knowing who he was and what he was about.  Pilate, the one who would seem to have all the power here, is the one who unsure, the one who is on the defensive.  Pilate is backed by the power of Rome, but Jesus embodies the power of God.

Now, we can give power a bad name.  Aspiring to power sounds un-Christian.  But I think that is because when we think of power, we think of Pilate’s kind of power, coercive kind of power, rather than Jesus’ kind of power, relational power.  Our church is a part of AMOS, a community organizing group.  To make changes in the community, you have to have power.  Power is not a bad thing in and of itself.  So AMOS focuses on building power through relationships with one another, with people in our community, and of bringing that power to bear in ways that build up the community.  Power is the way we get things done.

The fact is, we all have power, maybe more than we realize.  There are bumper stickers out there that say, “I’m a teacher - what’s your superpower?”  or “I’m a nurse – what’s your superpower?”

Maybe it’s a question worth asking.  “What’s your superpower?”  We all have power.  We all have influence, we all have capability to bring change, to make things happen to accomplish important things.

As parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, community members, neighbors, employees, supervisors, voters, teachers, students, church members—every one of us has some measure of power.  How do we claim that power, and how do we choose to use that power?

What is your superpower?  And, how are you using your power?

Often as not, the power we have is relational power – power we gain by virtue of relationships with others and especially power that comes from God.  Remember Jesus’ words to Pilate?  “You would have no power if it were not given from above.”

If you know me well at all, you won’t be surprised that I feel a need to comment on the NCAA basketball tournament this morning.  In fact, it would be just plain wrong for me not to.

I went to school at Evansville, and back in the day, one of our biggest rivals was Loyola.  Years later, both schools are now in the same conference again, the Missouri Valley, and both because of that connection and because of the fact Loyola had not made the tournament since 1985, I was rooting for them.

And I’ll be darned if the Loyola Ramblers don’t go out and win three games in a row in the final seconds, all against higher ranked opponents, before crushing K-State yesterday.  (And as we Cyclone fans know, beating Kansas State is always a good thing.) :-)  Amazingly, the big media star from Loyola is not their star player Clayton Custer, who transferred to Loyola from Iowa State, and not their coach Porter Moser, who has toiled for years and finally reached success.  The big story is Sister Jean.

If you have watched the games, you know who I’m talking about.  Sister Jean is a 98-year old nun who has been the team chaplain for the Loyola men’s basketball team for 25 years.  98 years old, and everybody wants to interview her.  She has a graciousness and honesty and humility and obvious love for these young men that is powerful.  And it has touched people.  Charles Barkley wants to hang out with her at the Final Four in San Antonio.  They have Sister Jean bobbleheads.  Who would have thought that a 98-year old nun would be the darling of the NCAA Tournament?

She’s not physically powerful.  It is not a coercive power.  It is not power for her own sake.  But hers is a powerful story.

The Apostle Paul had a weakness, something he described as a “thorn in the flesh,” and prayed for it to be taken away.  But the answer was, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”  Power in weakness is a completely different kind of power than the power Pilate was talking about.  But it is real.

Jesus was turned over to be crucified.  It appeared that the powers of this world had won.  But there was power found in weakness.  There was power in the cross.

Tony Campolo told about a week he spent as junior high camp counselor.  (I have to say here that I spent a week myself as a junior high camp counselor.  I did that once.)

At this particular camp, there was a boy named Billy who suffered from cerebral palsy.  Other kids were very cruel.  They picked on him.  As Billy walked across the camp the other kids would imitate him and make fun of him.  Tony was irate.

His anger at the kids reached a fever pitch on Thursday morning.  It was Billy’s cabin’s turn to give devotions.  Tony wondered what would happen, because they had chosen Billy to be their speaker.  Tony knew they just wanted to get Billy in front of everybody so they could make fun of him.  Billy made his way to the front and you could hear the giggles rolling through the crowd.  It seemed to take forever for Billy to give his devotion, all of seven words.  This is what he said:


When Billy finished, there was dead silence.  Tony looked over his shoulder and saw junior high boys bawling all over the place.  A revival broke out in that camp after Billy’s short testimony. 

Tony Campolo says that as he travels all over the world, he has met missionaries and preachers who say, “Remember me?  My life was changed at that junior high camp.”  The counselors had tried everything they could think of to get the kids interested in Jesus.  They even brought in baseball players who told the kids their batting averages had gone up since they started praying.

But God chose not to use the superstars.  God chose Billy.  And Billy’s honest and sincere faith was powerful.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus was turned over to be crucified.  The week that began with a parade of such high hopes ended with a march toward death.  The powers of this world had apparently won.  But there was another power.  You will have to come back next week to hear the rest of the story.

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