What does it mean to Live?

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
Palm Sunday, 2015
Mark 11:1-11

What does it mean to live?

That was one of the many, many insightful questions from last week’s sermon seminar, a practice of this congregation that I have come to love.

Last Sunday I argued that our salvation derives less from the death of Jesus and more from his life. If this is true, then what does it mean for him – and for us – to live?

It is the right question for this Palm Sunday, when our opening prayer asks God to help us “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby you have given us life”

So what are those mighty acts of life?

We could turn, of course, to the passion and death of Jesus — the final moments of his life, the completion of God’s en-fleshed revelation. But we will have more time to hear and struggle with those words in the coming days.

We can be so quick to turn our gaze to the cross that we miss the significance of the first mighty act, the first spectacle of salvation – the shouts of Hosanna, the so-called Triumphal Entry.

Look back with me again at the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11.

There are so many curious details. So many odd facts that we are prone to skip over – tuning them out – as we do with so much of the Bible.

We turn the page quickly on passages with confusing details –

Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Zephaniah, Zachariah, Nehemiah, and so much more … because these texts do not fit our shorthand version of Scripture, our simplified, and often simplistic telling of the story of God and God’s people.

The passion plays, the Christmas pageants, these neat, buttoned-up tales are not simply an insufficient statement of our faith. They are, quite often, a lie.

A lie of omission, for sure, but a lie no less; a mortal sin of theology, because they give us an atrophied version of our faith, a mockery of the good news. It is no wonder that so many of us struggle to believe, because the line we have been sold is not worthy of our devotion.

But if we will slow down and study, love God with our minds, read the Bible – and ask tough questions, we will find something more compelling. A faith for which we can, and should, give our lives.

And so what about this so-called Triumphal Entry? If we read the text closely, we will see it is neither triumphal, nor even an entry.

Jesus and his friends are on the Mount of Olives, a scrappy hilltop overlooking the Temple. Jesus sends his disciples for a colt, with the promise that he will bring it right back.

“Ah….Jesus needs to borrow it, just for a second” – you can imagine them stammering to a crowd giving them weird looks.

Jesus did not need this colt for any practical reason. The walk down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem’s temple mount would take you all of 10 minutes, tops.

And Jesus did not need the colt to ride through Jerusalem, in some kind of massive, messianic procession. Because – at least in Mark – he does not ride into Jerusalem at all.

If you read the text closely, you see that he enters Jerusalem after the crowds have stopped their Hosanna-shouting and palm-waving.   Then he looks around, checks out the temple, and heads back up the Mount of Olives, where this whole thing started.

It is a not-really-triumphal almost-entry into Jerusalem, at best.  So what really is going on here?

Jesus is staging a spectacle. An enactment of prophecy, a political statement, a bold challenge to the leaders of his day with a message – watch out, I’m here.

The inspiration for this spectacle is prophet Zechariah, who casts a vision for Jerusalem’s restoration at the end of the Babylonian exile.

Expecting the messiah to come soon, Zechariah offers this image in chapter 9: “See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt … and he shall speak peace to you, and his dominion shall be from sea to sea.”

And so we have Jesus, the new kind of Lord, not a warrior king, but the prince of peace, riding into town, as Zechariah predicted. But that’s the easy part.

Because all throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is telling his followers not to tell anyone else that he is the Messiah. Some scholars refer to this as the Messianic secret. So why come out now? Why step into the fray?

I have no idea. What was in the heart and mind of Jesus?

As another person in sermon seminar reminded me last week, it can be difficult to connect with Jesus, however human he may be.

Instead, we might look to the disciples, and the much more human crowds, to get a clue about faithfulness from there.

So let’s look at another curious detail – some spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the field. Had cut. Past perfect tense.

Why had they cut the branches already in the field? Just for fun? Or because Jesus had given them a heads up? We don’t know for sure.

But somehow, these crowds, the “many people” were prepared for this spectacle of salvation.

If you have not read it, I recommend to you a book by John Dominic Crossin and Marcus Borg called The Last Week. It is a fresh read on the final days of Jesus.

And one important point they make is this:
There was another Triumphal Entry that week in Jerusalem.

Each year, the Roman Governor would march from his seaside villa up to Jerusalem, to be on hand in case any riots broke out, as they often did during this volatile Passover feast. A Passover that recalls the Exodus from Egypt and brings with it hope for deliverance once again.

And so we have none other than Pontius Pilot himself, riding on a massive stallion, with the drumbeats and footsteps of the Roman legions inspiring fear in the crowds along their way.

But not only fear. Stirring deep in the soul of the crowds is a rebellious longing, a hope, a confidence that this oppressive regime, like Egypt, too, would have its end.

With his spectacle on the Mount of Olives, Jesus not only sets up a clash between two kingdoms – the kingdom of violence and the kingdom of peace; but he also re-activates the hope of his people … he energizes, with the very life of God, that Passover longing for freedom.

And this, my friends, is what it means to live.

In this donkey-ride outside the city, Jesus speaks to those on the margins, mobilizes the neglected, inspires the oppressed – those who had long-ago cut their palm branches, hoping against hope that someone would come to deliver them.

They needed, more than anything, to shout Hosanna – Literally, “God, save us!”

They needed, more than anything, to let loose their cry, to release their hope, to dare to dream again – to dream that life could be different – that the kingdom of God might rule this world, at last, that love and peace and joy and justice can reign. And they found in Jesus the embodiment of that hope, the messenger of life.

Today we, too, must shout Hosanna. For the good of our souls. For the good of the world.

However crazy and violent and Good-Friday-like this world may be, we cannot let our spirits be crushed. We cannot lose hope.

For this hope is the first mighty act of salvation.

That is what it means to live, and for this hope, we give everything.

Hosanna, in the highest heaven. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

For more on Palm Sunday: http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/07/holy-week-two-different-meanings/