Palm Sunday: A Post-Modern Post Mortem

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

This is the sixth Palm Sunday I have been here as your minister. And it is the first time I have decided to say anything about Palm Sunday. The closest I have come was on April 4, 2004 when I talked about “Passover, Liberation and America.” My concluding remarks in that sermon asked that we “hold the lessons of the Passover legend in our hearts. Liberation is desirable, but difficult at times to accept, difficult to achieve. We are called to say yes to the journey for freedom for ourselves and for others. Many are struggling and need our help. Walking in freedom does not erase fear and uncertainty. For us, the challenge is to listen to the voices of the oppressed and those who are in danger of becoming oppressed and to bring hope and help. We cannot remain in captivity, but must risk the journey to freedom for all.”

These conclusions from my Passover sermon resonate with what my research has showed me about the message of Palm Sunday. For it is also about the journey of life, the journey of the self, and what we will give our lives for, what commitments we will choose. Palm Sunday and Passover will always be intertwined in the story of the season and their messages can inform us as Unitarian Universalists.

This morning I suffer from the disappointment that the lessons have been offered and that we humans learn much too slowly. We repeat patterns of the past. The news these days never really seems to be new, but rather a remake or rerun of the mistakes human societies have made over and over, demonstrating that we still haven’t learned much about human relationships. On many levels from the personal to the international, lessons that were available for the learning seem to have been either ignored or disregarded as inapplicable for our time.

While we look upon the stories of this season of the church year, it is especially important that we keep our fourth principle in mind. As we tease out the ancient messages from the past, we must remember that we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The sources of our liberal faith are listed on your order of service under the seven principles. Two of these are also important this morning. We draw on Jewish and Christian teachings. In addition we draw on the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

The story for all ages this morning was a version of the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of a child. We heard of people spreading pond fronds or branches in the path of Jesus as he and his disciples entered the city. Jesus rode a Donkey, or a colt, or a donkey and her foal, depending upon which gospel you read. Looking at this story with the lens of reason, we find several difficulties. First, the climatology of the city of Jerusalem two thousand years ago didn’t support Palm trees. If you read the four accounts in the gospels, you will find that only John speaks of Palm branches. They all speak of people throwing down their robes and other garments for the donkey or colt to walk over. It would probably make more sense to call this “Garment Sunday” but of course that doesn’t have the same ring. One wonders why Jesus would ride when so many of the other pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem were probably in need of aid. The Jesus of my understanding would have given his colt to the pregnant woman or the aged man walking with the help of a stick.

It is unlikely that any of the details of Jesus entering Jerusalem have historical veracity, but more likely that the writers of the gospels wanted to honor the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which has the Messiah entering on a donkey or a colt. In Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan writes: “This incident is not based on general Davidic or Mosaic models known to every Jew but on a very precise verse in one single prophecy. It seems more what scribes look backward to find rather than what people look forward to see. I do not think, in other words, that it ever actually happened, except as later symbolic retrojection.”

Crossan goes on to question the Last Supper tradition. He says that what Jesus left behind was not the creation of a new Passover meal celebrating his coming martyrdom, but rather that Jesus ate with everyone, even with the diseased and outcast. Crosson writes: “Neither the Gospel of Thomas nor the Q Gospel exhibits any awareness of a Last Supper tradition.” The implications of this view brings into question over a thousand years of communion celebrations and underlines how the Catholic and then Protestant church concentrated on the death of Jesus rather than on his life.

Another difference between orthodox religion and our liberal faith is the tradition of substitutional atonement. We believe that the Catholic church took a wrong turn here. Our emphasis is on Jesus the human being, the teacher, whose life was more instructive than his suffering or his death. Jesus taught love, acceptance, and the recognition of human failings.

The doctrine of substitutional atonement claims that as a result of Adam and Eve’s actions in the garden of Eden, we are all born in sin, hopelessly depraved, already fated to eternal suffering. In his book A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop John Shelby Spong writes that this doctrine is no longer believable for a modern world. Spong thinks that in a modern world of reasonable people, we need to take Darwin’s theory of evolution into account. Humans are newcomers on the scene so all the creation that is made after Adam and Eve hardly coincides with biological evidence. Spong says, “There never was a perfect man or perfect woman…Humans are emerging creatures. Neither perfect nor fallen, they are simply incomplete…a work in progress.” NCNW p. 124-Fox

What can we emerging creatures take from the Palm Sunday legends. It is not enough to reject the historical accuracy of the stories. It is not enough to question the motivations of the early church for creating a system of atonement that relied wholly on the power of the priests and the ritual of the mass. It is not enough to support the liberal principles of our faith and our belief in the inherent goodness of humanity.

The Palm Sunday story as it is presented involves risk. Jesus enters Jerusalem, how and when we don’t know. He knows he is in trouble with the authorities as any other rabblerousing prophet of the time would be. The Romans used a clearcut approach to those who spoke out against them. Get rid of them. Crucify them. Set an example for the public to let them know who was in charge and that no dissent was acceptable.

Jesus gave up security to enter the city and probably did make a show of it; but what kind of show we don’t really know. A man entering with a crowd of disciples, and probably a few were women, might cause a current of rumor. Jesus was known in the area as a teacher and healer, a rebel against the ruling class. Word gets around even without cell phones in a city with the populace on foot rubbing shoulders with each other. The people were hoping to be liberated from Rome. They were in the mood for a Messiah. The gospel writers want us to believe that the same crowds that asked Jesus to save them from Rome were the ones who later in the week were shouting for his crucifixion.

Looking at Jesus’ decision to enter Jerusalem from our perspective in the 21st century, we might ask how this story is best viewed. If Jesus’ life is important to us, what did he demonstrate for us, what can we emulate in our own lives. Jesus moved toward the journey of his life and set an example of living fearlessly. He gave us an opportunity to venerate the teacher, to risk the journey into Jerusalem.

While we may in fact get help on our way, the most important message is that each one of us must abandon the secure, comfortable and comforting to take our individual pilgrimages. Jesus’ message to us is not one that asks us to admire him from our easy chairs or even from our knees, but rather one that asks us to remain a pilgrim on the dusty roads to our holy cities. Each of us has a holy path, one we are already on. We are called during this pilgrimage season to reaffirm that path.

Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey” which I read earlier, says it well. “As you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do – determined to save the only life you could save.” We know that our lives will end, that we will experience trials and tribulations, challenges and successes. The Palm Sunday story calls us back to our true selves, and asks us “For what will you give your life?” To what are we committed? What tasks are we willing to take on? How can we overcome what keeps us from our deepest desires?

We each took a risk coming here this morning. It takes courage to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and drive off to enter a religious community. We don’t really know what will happen. Yet some of us keep coming back, and each of us has found our own way. We come for different reasons. Most of all, we hope to support each other on our individual journeys to self knowledge and living the lives we love. We seek a firm grounding in this life, and we seek guidance from those prophets and sages who have walked the earth and shown us one possible way to make the journey.

My conclusions in my 2004 Passover sermon included that “We are called to say yes to the journey for freedom for ourselves and for others…We cannot remain in captivity, but must risk the journey to freedom for all.” It isn’t much of a jump from these words to urging each of you to abandon the secure, comfortable and comforting to take your individual pilgrimages on dusty roads to your holy cities. Journey to those places where your heart lies, to those needs of our community where your gifts can bring forth new growth, to the inner peace found in self authenticity.