March 24, 2024 - Sixth Sunday of Lent

"Breaking Up is Hard to Do”

Rev. Gary Percesepe

Mark 11: 1-11

Last week we heard Jesus rebuke the kosmos, which we defined as the world as it organizes itself in opposition to God’s good purposes in creation. We learned that the best English word used to translate the Greek word kosmos is the word System. We recalled that the System works through domination, which means the exercise of power over others. We listened to Jesus announce that his hour has come, that he has cast out the ruler of this Domination System. We learned from John’s gospel that the crucifixion should be understood as an exorcism, a casting down of all the false principalities and powers that pretend to be in control of the kosmos, wreaking havoc on the world, twisting and distorting right and wrong, good and evil, distorting the true way of the gospel into the false obscenities of The System. I even sang a bit in church, that lovely spiritual, I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, as we meditated on the Lenten theme of liberation from the powers that oppress us.

I’m not going to sing for you this morning, though if I were to sing this morning I suppose it would have to be that old syrupy Neil Sedaka love song, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

What is even harder is breaking up with the false gods of The System, letting go of the Domination System inside all of us. It’s like when the Israelites walked free from their slavery in Egypt, the whole glorious story of Liberation, where God delivers a message to Pharoah through the prophet Moses, to LET MY PEOPLE GO, and now they are all set up for entering the Land of milk & honey, but then the people wander for forty years in the wilderness, and what they discover is that it’s hard to let their inner Pharoah go, because they have internalized their domination, they don’t know how to be free, and Moses has to re-engineer his message to LET YOUR PHAROAH GO! Be done with domination.

Believing the gospel means believing the good news that God through Jesus Christ has empowered us to break up decisively with the Domination System—to call it off once and for all, a breakup which is signified by our Baptism, whereby we die to that old way of life and are reborn into another. Breaking Up is hard to do and in our own strength may be impossible, but Jesus has shown up the path to breaking up, right here in today’s text for Palm Sunday. To understand the meaning of Palm Sunday, we need to look deeper into what happened on that day.

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them would’ve been poor, like Jesus and his family, like 99 % of the ancient world. Throughout Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

“Hosanna!” they’d shout for Messiah, quoting Psalm 118, “Save us!” Save us now! Every Passover, the Roman forces of Occupation, who were hated by the Jews, would get nervous, fearful there would be a Jewish uprising. Every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pilate would flex his political muscles. Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, sitting on his high armored horse, escorted by a military triumph, a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared “Caesar is Lord.” A gaudy parade of Roman military might that even Putin might envy, to keep the people in line.

Only this year, at the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus comes from the east. And what has he done! He’s organized an alternate parade of his own, starting at the Mt of Olives, two miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over Israel’s enemies, thereby establishing peace. In a lovely bit of street theatre, Jesus rides in on a donkey, or rather, the foal of a pregnant donkey. Picture a grown man on this little foal, his legs dragging the ground, looking over at Pilate’s procession, a stunning visual display of imperial power: calvary on horses, foot soldiers, leather army helmets, golden eagles mounted on poles, the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.

According to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God. Pilate's procession was both a potent military threat and the embodiment of a rival theology. Armed heresy on horseback. The would be ruler of this world—oh, there are always Pilates, there are always Caesars, there are always Pharaohs, aren’t there, always Prime Ministers and Presidents?—but Jesus has already told us what he thinks of them. Jesus has already cast them down and refuses to recognize their divinity or their military might, for Jesus has a power uniquely his. He knows what we continue to fail to grasp: Domination power enrages people, stirs them up, makes them want to rebel, because it is power over, but Jesus has come to teach the world a better way, power with! Jesus became the most powerful person the world has ever known by giving power away!

Jesus is making a statement here. He rides in unarmed, on the "the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her." Jesus draws on the rich, prophetic symbolism of the Jewish Bible, for the prophet Zechariah predicted the ride of a king "on a colt, the foal of a donkey." He would be the nonviolent king who'd "command peace to the nations."

As Pilate clanged and crashed his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west, Jesus approached from the east, looking, by contrast, ragtag and absurd. His was the procession of the ridiculous, the powerless, and the vulnerable. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan remark, "What we often call the triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission."

I wonder if the crowd caught the parody of Jesus’ little bit of street theatre. The text tells us that the crowd laid their cloaks on the street but the Greek word for cloak doesn’t mean a coat, as we understand the term—these people were poor, and the word actually means their outer garments. But hey—if they throw their out garments onto the street to welcome Jesus, this means the only thing left on their bodies was…gulp—their underwear! Possibly, they are showing their fierce devotion to Jesus and his cause, but it's also possible that they are gleefully joining in as part of the parody of Roman pretension! Imagine the crowd forming ranks and files and parading along behind Jesus, hailing him as the Son of David, the anointed one, the Messiah. A bunch of guys in their underwear marching as if they were an army!

Which raises an interesting question. What did Jesus accomplish on Palm Sunday?

Jesus' street theatre hastens his crucifixion, as he knew it would. Jesus was no fool; he knew exactly what it would cost him to spit in Rome's face. Like all good comedians, he understood that real humor is in fact a serious business, for it points unflinchingly to truths we'd rather not see.

Jesus died because he didn’t flinch when summoned by God to his mission. He died because he exposed the pretension and shame at the heart of all human kingdoms, holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries at the deepest levels of their imaginations. Even when he knew that his vocation would cost him his life, he set his face "like flint" towards Jerusalem. Even when he knew who'd get the last laugh at Calvary, he mounted a donkey and took Rome for a ride.

The gospel is more than comfort for sinners; The gospel is more than moralism to support our preferred politics; The gospel is more than Jesus setting himself up as the Secretary of the Afterlife.

The gospel is a summons. To you. Two parades. Two kinds of power. Two leaders. Two destinies. We are summoned today and every day to choose wisely: Kosmos? Or Christ? The world or the cross? Will you come forward and join Jesus’ street theatre parade, knowing where it is going? At the start of Holy Week, Jesus’s donkey ride summons us to a breakup with the kosmos, to break with our hollow delusions and our false selves, with all the pretension that robs us of our joy.

Welcome to Holy Week. Come, friends. Don’t tarry, undecided. Whatever is false or broken in your lives can be healed at the cross, at the moment of truth. Come along, and say with me: Hosanna. Hosanna. Shout it out now: Hosanna. Save us now. Amen.

*Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem

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