Is Palm Sunday an Act of Resistance?

April 14, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Luke 19:28-40; Mark 15:1-20

“All glory, laud, and honor, to Thee, Redeemer King,

To whom the lips of children, made sweet hosannas ring.”

We’re familiar with the hymn, most of us, and know well the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. So familiar, in fact, that most of us have an image of Jesus on that first Palm Sunday long ago, riding into the city as a meek and submissive man, heading toward certain death. In one gospel Jesus pauses and weeps over the city. Maybe it’s because we know what happens next, but we picture him entering Jerusalem in a pensive, melancholy mood, in spite of the hoopla and hosannas.

However, as with most stories, it all depends on how we look at it, or what we’re listening for. A closer reading of the text suggests something else may be going on here.

The events of this Week we call Holy could, in fact, mark the final days of a non-violent movement resisting an oppressive system. The text is full of hints, starting with the parade itself. Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey, an ancient sign of a king. It’s a provocative act signaling something to his followers – and to those who oppose him.

The language used in the noisy welcome would have aggravated the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem and their supporters. The Hebrew word hosanna – hoshiana – means, “Save us!” It’s a cry for rescue from the people along the road. It’s a freedom song, like those sung by people throughout history who have longed to be free. It’s a Freedom Song, like those sung by Black South Africans in the time of apartheid. A Freedom Song, calling for deliverance, along the road into Jerusalem.

Suddenly the procession looks quite different, and we wonder: is Palm Sunday an act of resistance?

The scene that day in Jerusalem is not particularly religious. The palm-waving is not the start of a worship service, as it was this morning. This welcome of a hoped-for liberator takes place in a secular setting. “Blessed is the king!” they shout. “Blessed is the king who comes.

We tend to spiritualize Jesus and keep him above the fray of real-world struggles, but that’s not the Savior we encounter in the gospels, from start to finish.

Think of it: Jesus comes into the world with the power of Rome in close pursuit. Wise men from the east ask about the “King of the Jews” and the murderous authority of empire is roused and unleashed. His parents barely manage to evade the soldiers when they come looking for them. While Herod slaughters the babies of Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, like a Central American family today, flee for their lives across the border. They hide in Egypt until it’s safe to return.

Jesus learns early how to resist an unjust system. His entire life plays out in the shadow of empire. All his teaching and story-telling, his healing and preaching, his praying and miracle-working – all of it takes place under that same shadow of the occupying power of Rome.

The Hebrew prophets of old would have understood what Jesus was up to in his palm-lined entrance to the city. Like him, they wanted to change the world they lived in. They proclaimed the reign of God and called for right and just relationships among the human family. That meant lifting up individuals and communities that had been pushed aside, trampled upon, and forgotten by those in power.

Isaiah was determined to recover the divine vision for humankind. He was fearless. “I gave my back to those who struck me,” he says, “And my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting…I did not turn backward.”

The prophet refuses to be intimidated. “Therefore I have set my face like flint,” Isaiah says, “And I know I shall not be put to shame.”

Finally he says, “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.”

The prophet’s words have an edge to them. They sound like a manifesto of non-violent resistance: I gave my back to those who struck meI did not hide my faceI did not turn back. Therefore I have set my face like flint…Let us stand up together.

Those words echo in the response Jesus makes to the Pharisees when they try to shut down the crowds shouting for freedom on that day: “You want them to be silent?” he says. “If they were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Jesus doesn’t come to start a new religion. He comes to fulfill the one already underway. Palm Sunday is an act of resistance, and it leads to his death on a cross, executed some thirty years after the empire’s first attempt to stop him. Jesus never allows the world to constrain his hopes or limit his vision. His life is undergirded by a love so profound that even death yields to it. This Week is made Holy by remembering his life, his death, and his refusal to be bound by the tomb.

Jesus enters the city on Palm Sunday at the opening of the final scene of the first act of the gospel drama. You and I and the Christian Church are still working out where this story goes in the second act. This week invites us to consider where we stand, where we stand with regard to Jesus and his resistance movement for justice and the fullness of life.

Any religion worth giving our lives to will introduce us to a God whose image may be found in every human being. Any religion worth giving our lives to will not accept denying the full humanity of anyone or of any community. And any religion worth giving our lives to will reframe the way we see the world, giving us what it takes to resist hatred and fear without falling into them ourselves.

A month ago David Hogg spoke here at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. He’s a survivor of the February 2018 Parkland High School shooting and part of the growing resistance movement among the youth of America to the culture of gun violence in this country.

Hogg is a remarkable 18-year old, wise beyond his years. He wants to change the way we think about guns in America. He told me he doesn’t use the phrase “gun control,” because that’s perceived as taking away freedom, but, rather, “stopping gun violence.”

Hogg refuses to give in to anger or hatred. He described an event in Dallas at which several Parkland students spoke. Texas is an open-carry state and as the students entered the building where they were to speak about 30 heavily-armed demonstrators confronted them and shouted obscenities, racial slurs, and threats.

Hogg, like a latter-day Isaiah, went back outside to talk to the demonstrators. He wrote his college essay about that experience and titled it, How to talk to people that want to kill you.

He walked up to one of the heavily-armed men who immediately challenged him, “Why do you want to take my guns away?”

“Are you a domestic abuser?” Hogg calmly asked – knowing that one of the most common traits of a mass shooter is a history of domestic abuse, and the likelihood of domestic abuse resulting in death is much higher if the abuser has a gun.

“No,” the man replied.

“Are you trying to kill yourself?” – knowing that more than 20,000 people die each year in America from suicide by gun.

“No,” he said.

“Are you a terrorist?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Then I don’t want to take your guns away,” Hogg said. “Can we agree that we need to keep guns out of the hands of those who might use them to kill themselves or others?” he asked the man.

Hogg then went on to tell him the story of what he and his classmates went through at Parkland. By the time they finished their conversation the armed man was weeping, and they hugged one another.

Resistance can take many forms.

We live in an enemy-making culture. Whites make enemies of Blacks. Citizens make enemies of immigrants. Left and right make enemies of each other. Christians make enemies of Jews and Muslims. Where do we begin?

The default position of retreating into our closed identities and seeing the worst in others, especially those who hate us or oppose us, robs both of us of our humanity. Jesus invites us to resist that impulse and reframe how we live with those we have judged to be outside our circle or beyond the pale, even with those who persecute us.

Several years ago we visited a small farm outside Bethlehem in the West Bank called the Tent of Nations. It’s owned by a Christian Palestinian family and is surrounded by Israeli settlements on all sides. The settlers occasionally come down onto the family’s property to cut their olive trees. They’ve blocked the road to the farm. To get there we had to cross the barrier on the road and walk about a mile. The family lives in caves because Israeli authorities will not give them building permits. Yet at the entrance to the farm there’s a hand-lettered sign that says, We refuse to be enemies.

If these were silent, Jesus says, the very stones would cry out.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem and invites his followers to join a non-violent movement that will stand up to the dehumanizing power of empire and privilege, of poverty and bigotry – and propose another way, a way that affirms the full humanity of every individual and rejects the fear and hatred rampant in our time.

The challenges we face may seem overwhelming, whether personal or local, national or global, and we’re tempted to lose hope. Surely many in Jerusalem felt that as the week unfolded. The palms had been swept away and the Hosannas had faded out. The plotting against Jesus was beyond their capacity to prevent. There was not much joy, not much confidence and courage by the end of the week, but, rather, a whole lot of anxiety and sorrow.

And yet, and yet, there was also the memory of Jesus refusing to give in, even at the end. Remember in the Garden when Jesus is arrested and one of his followers draws a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the guards? Jesus stops him and then reaches out and heals the man’s ear – his last act of healing is of those arresting him. His followers remember that.

And they remember Jesus on the cross asking God to forgive his tormentors. And they remember his witness to a love that cannot be defeated by anything, not even the grave. And they remember his trust in the ultimate goodness of humankind, because we all are made in the image of God.

On Palm Sunday Jesus enters like a king but within days he will exit like a common criminal.

During this Week we call Holy let us pay close attention to the Jesus story. It will invite us, give us courage, and embolden us, to resist and reframe, and to renew our commitment to a God whose hope for the human family knows no bounds.

Thanks be to God.


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