One of my fondest memories of childhood was the annual Christmas parade in Wichita, Kansas. Like most small Midwestern cities, the downtown would be all dressed up in greenery and garlands, banners and lights; and the Christmas shopping season would officially open with a grand procession down Douglas Avenue.
We’d get all bundled up, take a thermos of hot cocoa, find a place in the curbside crowd, and watch our breath freeze while we waited for the parade to start. When it finally did, I would climb up on my Dad’s shoulders and watch as gloriously adorned plywood floats, high school marching bands, and local civic dignitaries would process by; until, at last, the grand finale when Santa Claus would roll by in a makeshift sleigh or a brand new 1958 Bel Air convertible. (You can always tell who is most important in a parade according to who brings up the rear). Everyone would applaud, the children would cheer, and all the older kids would file in behind Santa, marching along down the street.
What I was not aware of, at the age of five, was that there were other kinds of marches going on in Wichita, Kansas at that time.
On a hot summer evening earlier that same year (July 19, 1958), a group of young African American students quietly marched into Dockum’s Drug Store in Wichita – located at the same corner where crowds gathered to watch the Christmas parade – and sat down at a `whites-only’ lunch counter.
They would sit at that counter all day until the store closed, ignoring the taunts and derision of those who opposed them. This `sit-in’ was one of the first organized protests of the civil rights movement; one which would continue for three weeks until finally, the owner relented and agreed to serve black patrons.
I can still remember my grandmother Della taking me to Dockum’s Drugstore for lunch when I accompanied her for downtown Christmas shopping. And I can’t help but wonder today why I’d never heard about any of these other kinds of `marches’ as a child.
We love all the pomp and circumstance of Palm Sunday. We love to see the children of the church parade into the sanctuary, waving palm branches and – together with those ancient Jerusalemites – shout “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Yet, there is a stunning paradox inherent in this particular circumstance that we dare not overlook. For today is not the first time we have seen palm branches this year.
There is a rather eloquent tradition, which some churches preserve each year. It’s an ancient custom long upheld mostly in Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal homes through generations. Some of us Presbyterians do it too, but often without really understanding what it means.
When we are through with these palms, one can faithfully keep them for another whole year, while they slowly get more and more yellow and brittle. And then, according to the custom, the branches collected from the previous year, are burned and those ashes of Palm Sunday are then used to smudge the sign of the cross on the forehead of believers on that following Ash Wednesday.
It’s a good tradition.
It’s done as a reminder to us: from palms to ashes to cross. (Buchanan)
The late William Stringfellow, one of the most articulate theologians of the past century, worried a lot about us forgetting that paradoxical connection between the palms and the passion. We all too often miss the power, the tragedy, and the drama of the day.
So many Christians like to fast forward right from the happy parade of Palm Sunday to the joyful proclamation of Easter Sunday without any stops along the way.
In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lemott writes, “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb, everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking.”[i]
The late Peter Gomes (prolific author and former Minister of Memorial Church at Harvard) said that he, too, was brought up in the “let’s have a parade theory of Palm Sunday, that discreet form of Protestantism that doesn’t much care for the embarrassment and indignity of the cross.”
`We remove the Passion from Palm Sunday,’ Gomes said, `and turn the occasion into a festive rehearsal for Easter,’ “saving the suffering for the faithful few who will come to church on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday.”[ii]
Jesus’ triumphal entry was an overt political action. He came into the city on the back of a colt, which was the ceremonial animal princes rode to signify – not war – but rather peaceful intentions. Nevertheless, in that symbolic act, Jesus was making a statement about who he was, which was a direct affront to the authority of both the religious leaders and – even more dangerously – the Roman officials.
But there was another parade going on that day; one which often gets overlooked.
It was the Passover celebration. The Passover commemorates the tenth and final plague rained down upon the Egyptians; a horrendous plague that took the life of the first born of every household in Egypt. Every household, that is, except for those of the Hebrews. Moses gave them specific instructions for what they could do to avoid the bloodshed coming to every door.
On the night before the plague came knocking, the Hebrew people were instructed to choose a perfect (paschal) lamb – that is one without blemish. And they were to sacrifice that lamb and the lamb’s blood was to be `painted’ with a hyssop branch on the door posts of their home; thus marking it as a place of faith in the One God. Wherever the angel of death saw the blood-splattered doorposts, the home was “passed over,” and the firstborn spared. These paschal lambs were very carefully, very lovingly, raised. Like a beloved pet, they became one of the family, so that the subsequent sacrifice would be a significant one to those making it. These directives given by God to Moses for the people were a `perpetual ordinance.’ The Passover was to be observed by every Jew every year forever.
During this celebration, the population of Jerusalem swelled to more than ten times the norm; whole clans of people made their way to the place where they could offer their annual sacrifice to God. In so doing, they remembered the gift of deliverance from slavery that God had made possible. Hundreds – even thousands – of `paschal’ lambs were herded into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. As the procession made its way to the Sheep Gate, the chief priests and scribes watched very carefully for the most perfect of the perfect lambs; for that would be the one they would pick for the symbolic sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, which would be the last one slain, bringing Passover to a close.
Jesus rode into the city in the wake of this `lamb parade.’ By doing so he was presenting himself as the true Paschal Lamb, the one who would take away the sins of the world. But Jesus would become the lamb rejected, as his approach on the colt of a donkey belied the hails and hosannas of the crowd; a crowd that was watching for a king, and not a servant. Jesus rode into the city after the lambs, not before them, appearing more as a final sacrifice than a triumphant king.[iii] It was the parade the people were unaware of, though it appeared right before their eyes.
“How are we to contrast Jesus’ vision of things and the people’s expectations?” William Sloane Coffin once asked on such a day as this.
“Are we to say he was a spiritual Messiah as opposed to a political one? Heaven forbid!” Sloane Coffin declares. “That’s the great Palm Sunday `copout’ that will be proclaimed from pulpits all over the land today.
“Had Jesus been as nonpolitical as these pulpiteers, you can be sure the nails would never have grazed his palms. In the best prophetic tradition Jesus stood for the relief and protection of the poor and persecuted; for such use of the riches of creation that the world might be freed from famine, poverty, and disaster. And in the best prophetic tradition, he saw that the real troublemakers were not the ignorant and cruel, but the intelligent and corrupt. In contrast to so many of today’s pulpiteers, Jesus knew that “Love your enemies” didn’t mean “Don’t make any!”[iv]
Today we march into this sanctuary in the wake of the sacrifice of Jesus’ – the Paschal Lamb – on our behalf.
But there are other marches going on in the world today.
Yesterday (Saturday, March 24, 2018) another kind of `march’ was happening in cities all across this nation. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans were `marching for their lives.’ Speaking out against gun violence. Speaking up about the complacency which has led to a devastating plague that is killing our children.
Standing up to shout, “Never again!”
Growing up in the idyllic 1950s, school shootings were almost unheard of. But today’s violent world is the only world these young people who were marching yesterday have ever known. And that thought makes me heartsick.
Since the massacre of the Columbine High School shooting (on April 20, 1999), which claimed the lives of 15 people (including thirteen students, one teacher and the two teenage perpetrators); 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school. There have been 17 school shootings in the first three months of this year alone.
And I can’t help but wonder today how many more young people are going to be sacrificed to empower big-money lobbyists in Washington? How much more blood must be splattered on the doorposts of the Capital before the need for significant change is seen? How long will we justify complacency as protecting a Constitutional Amendment made by Founding Fathers who could have never imagined the destructive force of weaponry (like the AR-15) which are used to commit these kinds of atrocities?
But I do have hope. The young people who organized, led and participated in the march yesterday give me hope for the future of a country that, frankly, it sometimes seems that we older generations have made such a mess of. Yesterday’s young marchers were impressive, impassioned, articulate and determined.
They gathered – by the hundreds of thousands – not as republicans or democrats, nor as black or white, nor as rich or poor; but rather as those united in fierce advocacy for the cause of peace and security and harmony and national unity.
And I believe that we have something essential to learn from them. A lesson which perhaps begins by reflecting on something environmental activist Wendell Berry once said: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” We, as a nation, must learn how to be better stewards of the most precious resource we have.
“What is faith?” William Sloane Coffin reflected. “Faith is being grasped by the power of love. Faith is recognizing that what makes God `God’ is infinite mercy, not infinite control; not power, but love unending. Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so that, in the wake of Easter, we might become more like him.”[v]
On this day we do indeed celebrate a parade of sorts. But let’s be very clear about what sort of parade it really is. The life-cycle of the palm branch does not end here. And while the parade may begin in this place, let us not allow it to end at the front doors of the church. For Jesus Christ rode down into the city.
He rode down into the poverty, the violence, the tragedy, and the despair.
He rode down to overturn the temple, and trample upon the grave.
He rode down to change cold, hard stone into hearts filled with compassion.
He rode down to show us that the true nature of divine power is to be found, not in the politics of power and control, but in the sacrifice of the cross.
Jesus Christ rode down from his high and holy place into a beleaguered city to transform it with the power of his love.
So, let us gather today to celebrate with each other the real triumph of Christ.
Let us gather to praise our Lord and to pray for the city.
Yes, let us gather even to weep for the city when it is necessary.
And finally, when we know the truth of his love and sacrifice – and what response it requires of us – then we can truly go out proclaiming: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
[i] Lamott, Anne, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Penguin Pub. 2006, p.140.
[ii] Gnomes, Peter, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, pp. 68-69.
[iv] Sloane Coffin, William, Credo, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.
(Grateful acknowledgement to John Buchanan for inspiration and some content.)