From Palms to Protest
Think back, if you will, to January 20, 2009. It was a notable day, as the United States inaugurated the 44th president of the United States and our first black president, Barack Obama. I think most anywhere in the world with a satellite signal you would know that something big was going on, but friends! Some of us were here! In the middle of it all.
As you know, Calvary is right here in the thick of things, and as such we had lots of folks from out of town asking if they could bring in sleeping bags and stay in our building. The city was full of people from all over the world, the streets so crowded that you could barely walk. The excitement in the air was palpable, security details filled the sidewalks, lines in restaurants stretched around the blocks.
When I think back to that day, one of the things I most vividly remember was the divide on the church staff about the best way to participate in the inauguration. In addition to wanting to experience this historic moment in this city ourselves, we had the added responsibility for our building and the visitors in it. As such, the staff broke down into three distinct and opinionated groups (don’t let this shock you). One group said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I want to be there, on the National Mall, taking it all in.” A second group steadily stocked up on snacks, dragged in blow up mattresses, put black fabric up on the interior office windows to make it dark enough to sleep, and rigged elaborate wiring to the Sunday School television set. They approached the day like a grand adventure, planning menus, supervising visitors in the building, walking outside to feel the energy of the crowds, then coming back in to the warmth of the building. A third group, which I may or may not have been a part of, wanted nothing of the actual crazy. Those staff members stayed home, warm and peaceful, curled up on the couch with hot chocolate and a blanket, watching the festivities on CNN.
We, each of us, staked our claim that day, and because of that, each of us has a different story to tell. Mine involves hot chocolate on the couch. Paul Rosstead might tell you what it’s really like to sleep in the church office. Pastor Leah would tell you stories about icy hands and shivering with out-of-town friends, waiting in line to get through security check points, and straining to see the swearing-in from a far-off spot on the National Mall. Each of us has a different memory of that day, each from a totally different perspective. Same day, different experiences. It seems to me that how these big, world-changing events happen for each of us depends a lot on our perspective.
Today the writer of Matthew recounts a story many of us know well, the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s where we begin, where the rubber, or the donkey, meets the road. In this story Matthew’s writer shines; it’s a culminating point in his memoir, because he has always seen Jesus as a monarch, a king, coming to declare God’s kingdom on this earth. The other gospel writers tell this story, too, and it’s hard for us to know where prophecies from Zechariah, Isaiah, the Psalms, influenced their recounting of the story and where actual events lined up with ancient prophecy.
Regardless, this is what we know: today, it begins. The long, sad and scary journey into a week where Jesus faced the darkest parts of human experience. In the days ahead we follow him through tender moments with his friends, shame-filled humiliation by powers that seem unassailable, pain—so much pain, heart-wrenching goodbyes, doubt and bone-chilling fear, death, and—worst of all: aching, empty hopelessness.
Jesus felt it all. And there were others who did, too. We need to see this story through their eyes so we can begin to remember that we are part of the story, too. That we live it, too. And that our far-off perspective compels response.
What did I know? I was just a kid.
I remember that all of us were so excited. It was Passover and all the regular things we did everyday changed. While father was in the temple and mother was making preparation for Passover Seder, the kids in the neighborhood ran through the streets, playing games and getting into all sorts of mischief.
(Not me, though. I am always well-behaved!)
We were having a great time when we began to notice the street filling with people. Something was happening, but we couldn’t see over the heads of the grown-ups to tell what it was. We figured it was probably something the Romans were up to; our parents wouldn’t want us anywhere near that. But we would never pass up an opportunity to see their shiny armor and huge chariots up close, that’s for sure!
So we wiggled our way to the front of the crowd, standing along the side of the street. The dust was billowing, stinging our eyes. I squinted in the bright sun to try to see what was happening.
A grown-up handed me a palm branch and I joined everybody else waving it as high and as long as I could until I saw a man riding a donkey making his way through the gates, into the city. I didn’t know who he was, but I waved my palm and shouted along with everybody else, then I ran home to tell my mother what I’d seen.
She said, “Stay away from that sort of thing. It’s dangerous.”
A few days later, her words were still ringing in my ears when my friends and I noticed another crowd gathering. Some of them were the same people, but they weren’t waving palms this time. They were lined up along the streets spitting and yelling insults at a man carrying a cross. He was bloody and weak, but when he got close I could see: it was the same man who had been riding the donkey just a few days before.
A tall man standing next to me pushed me to the front of the crowd and handed me a rock. “Throw it, boy! Throw it hard! He’s saying things that are going to get us in trouble. We need to get rid of him.”
They yelled “Crucify him!” just as loud as they’d yelled hosanna only a few days before. I was confused, and I thought to myself, “Who is this man? I want to know!”
The crowd was loud and overpowering.
I was so scared.
The rock got really, really heavy in my hand.
I threw it.
It was a busy, busy week. You know how the holidays are, especially when you’re the one in charge of pulling off the festivities. I was rushing around, making preparations for dinner. My in-laws were coming that year, which always ramps up the pressure. I think it was that year I decided: my matzoh will never taste as good as my mother-in-law’s. I was sick of trying, so I’d just decided to officially give up.
Annoyed, I realized we’d run out of water in the house, so I grabbed the bucket by the door and set out through the city streets toward the well. My annoyance grew as I pushed my way through the crowds. So many were in town for the holiday; the crowds just added to an already stressful few days.
Our family home is in the north of the city, near the Lion’s Gate, and as I made my way toward the well I noticed people—many of them my neighbors—lined up along the road, waiting for a processional to come through the gate into the city.
I’m sure I was thinking something like, “Don’t these people have anything better to do with their time? Those Romans are up to their ridiculous displays of power, prancing around the city in their fancy armor, reminding us (as if we could forget!) that they rule us; we live at their mercy.”
But as I looked, I could see it wasn’t the Romans at all. It was that man—what’s his name again? Jesus of Nazareth? I’d heard of him. I’d heard he’s been performing miracles, causing quite a buzz. But I wasn’t sure who he was.
I’m not one to get carried away by the latest craze; I just wanted to fill my bucket and get back to my work, to keep my head down and do my work and stay out of trouble. But then I saw my friend Mary. She was cheering, her eyes trained on the road as Jesus and his disciples made their way—he was riding a donkey, of all things.
While I tried to go on my way, but Mary grabbed my arm. “Come closer,” she called over the noise of the crowd. “And hand me your cloak!”
I meant to just go on, but the energy of the crowd made my heart surge with…what was it? Excitement, hope maybe? I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking or even IF I was thinking, but I gave Mary my cloak and she laid it down on the dusty road to make a path for the procession.
I watched her. I watched her eyes, glowing and fixed on Jesus of Nazareth as he made his way toward us. And I wondered, “Who is this man, really?” I wanted to know. I really wanted to know.
After the crowd passed by, I hugged Mary. I felt her hope; I could see it in her eyes.
But I had to get back to my work, so I picked up my cloak and shook it out, then hurried to the well and back to my busy life.
A few days later I was out again—on some errand on the eternal list of jobs that running a household demands—I passed by the palace. It was very early in the morning, too early for the crowd that was gathered there. I could tell something was going on.
As I got closer I could hear the voices of community leaders, asking the Roman governor Pilate for something…what was it? As I strained to hear, suddenly I caught the sound of a whip cracking in the early morning air, then a scream. I saw my friend Mary—the same friend I’d seen just a few days before—sobbing. She covered her mouth with her hands, tears streaming down her face, and I rushed to her side.
Then I saw him. Jesus of Nazareth, again. He was tied to a post in the courtyard, a crown of thorns on his head.
A solider raised the whip again.
The crowd yelled “Crucify him!” just as loud as they’d yelled “hosanna” only a few days before. I thought again, “Who is this man, really?”
The crowd was loud and overpowering.
The whip cut the cool morning air and landed with another crack.
I caught her.
Looking back, either I thought it a brilliant career move, or I was looking out over a lifetime of fishing and desperately wishing for a change. It wasn’t conviction. Or belief in anything Jesus was saying. I tell you, I didn’t even know who he was, really.
But following him felt like an adventure, so I went. I dropped everything and left. And by the time we reached the Mount of Olives that day, I think all of us could feel the anticipation—or was it tension?—in the air.
Jesus told me to go into the city and get a donkey—with her colt—and bring it back to him. We knew by then not to really ask questions—he was always up to something that seemed strange. So I went and did exactly as he asked, and brought both animals back to the Mount. When I did, I realized Jesus was getting ready to ride the donkey. Into the city. In a procession.
My heart almost stopped when I figured that out; I felt cold as the mid-day sun beat down on me. I’m not an educated man, but I knew the message Jesus was sending by pulling a stunt like that. And I knew it was going to cause a stir. I don’t think I could even have predicted what was about to unfold.
As we got closer to the city, a crowd gathered. They chanted and yelled, frenzied excitement—supporting Jesus and all of us, his disciples. They waved palm branches and yelled “Hosanna!”—they cheered like he was a king, and I wondered—not for the first time—who is this man? Who is he, really?
It was impossible not to feel the excitement of the crowd. For once in my life I felt like I’d made it—I’d taken the right turn, I was on my way. I had the passing thought that my father would be proud of me. Finally.
And I smiled and waved as I walked beside the colt and tried to keep her calm in the noise of the crowds.
Later that night we were tired and dusty, sunburned but exultant. What a day! We gathered around dinner that night, rehashing every moment. Secretly we were thinking…I was thinking…”The sky’s the limit for me now!” Jesus passed around bread and wine and mentioned something about betrayal, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention. My mind raced with all the possibilities of the future.
It was later that night, though, that things took a different turn.
As the darkness fell we followed Jesus out to the Mount of Olives again. He asked us to pray with him; he clearly was upset. I personally couldn’t think what he had to be upset about, and for the life of me, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I kept nodding off. Until I heard the shouts.
In my sleep-fogged state I couldn’t make sense of why they were coming, but as they got closer I could hear shouts and urgency, I could smell the fire of their torches and I knew: this was bad.
How could it have gone from good to bad so quickly? Who was this Jesus, really? Was he the kid I grew up with on the shores of Galilee? Was he the kind healer and teacher I’d seen? Was he the next king, as I’d suspected? Who is he?
As it approached I could feel the crowd: loud and overpowering.
I heard them yell, “Arrest him!”
Jesus turned and looked at us. I could see the fear and panic in his eyes.
I turned…and ran.
Today, it begins, Jesus’ long, sad and scary journey into the darkness of a week where he faced the hardest parts of human experience. We’re watching it happen, a far-off 2000 years away, but even our perspective compels our response. We are part of the story, too, and in the days ahead we follow him through tender moments with his friends, shame-filled humiliation by powers that seem unassailable, pain—so much pain, heart-wrenching goodbyes, doubt and bone-chilling fear, death, and, yes: aching, empty hopelessness.
Like all those who walked with him through those days we will—in our own ways—move from palms to protest. We will lash out, we will feel the desperation, we might even run away.
This week, heaven and earth collide. We will be asked to challenge the powers of darkness, along with Jesus. For ourselves, we’re going to have to ask, along with everyone else: who is he, really?
I wonder if we can…I wonder if we will…have the courage to stay around long enough to have our question answered…or whether we will betray.