Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Philippians 2:5-11 and Matthew 21:1-11
I’ve been thinking about our Palm and Passion Stories about Jesus all my life. As a small child being raised in the church, it was one of the first stories I was ever told. And with the dead-certain faith of my believing church I was told this story as history, simply what happened, not as metaphor or myth to be understood and lived by.
And so I carried it, until as a young teenager entering the age of reason, I could make no sense of it and simply put it down. I didn’t understand yet that lots of people put it down. Lots of adults in my simple small town church had long ago put it down. They just picked up the myth of church instead, and Jesus became more like a mascot for those of us who lived churchy lives.
I get that. But I’ve come to think these stories about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth are powerful, symbolic stories about how we are to live if we want a world that works for everyone; about where power is and where it is not; about what happens to us in our lives.
Which is not to say Jesus’ story is not also history. But it is history with a Real and Present Power to completely upend how we’re living.
And our reading from Philippians, I’ll just tell you the truth; it used to scare me. Such a proclamation, combined with the power of the Christian Empire could just turn anybody from God.
But Paul, the man who first sang it, for it is certainly a hymn, was a man who had given away his power and privilege to follow the Christ he’d encountered. This is a love song sung from the margins. It is simply a love song to Christ. These are the words of an ardent lover, who, trying to teach his friends about the Risen Christ he’s met, can’t help but break into song.
There is, now that I think about it, a lot about the last week in the life of Jesus and how we remember it that is much less like a history book and more like a play or a musical.
Why do we tell this Palm Sunday/Passion Week Tale? Why did our faith ancestors keep telling this story? Why does it have the power to free us from the tyranny of fear? I have more questions than answers this week.
This Letter from our infuriating Brother Paul, written long before the gospel stories, was an attempt to teach his friends in the church at Philippi how to change their minds and their direction.
Paul’s genius (I have not forgiven him yet for the trouble his sexual hang-ups have caused me and the whole world) but his genius was in seeing that what could be actualized in the world was not a twenty year old story about Jesus, but God’s invitation to Christing.
Christ as a verb you might say. Christ as this living, moment calling you to Rise. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. For Paul, I think, it was that simple. Because he had the experience of being met and changed by Christ, he was certain we all could do it.
So Palm Sunday: I order the Palms every year knowing I am going to enjoy the somewhat abashed, uncertain way you wave them. The children are not uncertain though. Sometimes we have to follow them, to let their wisdom lead.
Palm Sunday celebrates the overturning of the world. It celebrates how a holy Rabbi and his crowd of followers met the Heart of Roman Empire in Jerusalem, and in love and powerlessness, overturned the world. Great story.
Here it is: It is Passover week in Jerusalem and thousands of Jewish people pour into the holy city to celebrate the feast. Remember it is a feast of liberation, a remembering and re-enacting their faith that God wants people liberated; God wants people free.
As thousands of Jews pour into the city to celebrate the Passover, thousands of Roman soldiers march in through the Damascus Gate to keep the Empire’s Peace. Pax Romana, they call it. Peace through violent subjugation, Peace always through war.
Meanwhile, across the city, through the Beautiful Gate, comes a nobody Galilean holy man riding on a donkey. A nobody man with no power at all who brings with him the full power of God. The power to transform people’s hearts and change their conditions; the transforming, liberating power of these people’s powerless God.
Powerless I say, because God does not swoop in to rescue Jesus from the results of his affront to Roman Power. God does not blast with lightning bolts the people who kill him. And yet the courageous man who rides into the center of Roman power already knowing his fate, the man who remains silent and passive through his Roman captivity, the man who, in love, gives his life for this world, keeps changing us, keeps changing me, keeps right on upending our world.
Too weird for you? It’s not a history we recite but a love song we burst out in. And we do not salute the mind of Christ: we enter it and take it on, and somehow we are changed.
Love is the most powerful force in the world, yet love is always powerlessness. This is the Mystery we don’t understand. We salute and bow down to wealth and political and social power, yet it is Love that keeps changing our world; it is love which evolves us all forward.
Jesus’ love for his people; Hannah Sohl’s love for this planet; our love for our children, our love for each other, the love that pours out from the Heart of it all keeps on creating the world. That is what we celebrate as arriving on Palm Sunday. That is what we watch struggle and lose against Imperial Power every holy week; that is what we celebrate as Risen and undefeated at Easter.
Until you know it in your own life it is just a troubling story. But at the moment you are powerless and emptied and completely poured out it becomes the Sacred Hymn that Sings the World.
The writer Paul Hawkin wrote a book called Blessed Unrest, about the millions of activists, projects, nonprofits, NGOs and local groups bubbling up around the world. His point is that while we are looking for leaders to lead in the face of climate crises, in a very organic, mysterious way, more like anti-bodies than armies, millions upon millions of human beings right now, are loving and creating a new world.
How will the people tell this story from the other side of this climate crisis? Will they tell of the powerlessness of rulers and world leaders and industrialists and corporations? Will they note the Blessed Unrest of the Nigerian grandmothers who took on Shell Oil, the people of the Rio Blanca River in Honduras and their frightened brave priests? Will they talk about Bidder 70, Tim DeChristopher, who bid to save public lands from the oil and gas companies, and who went to prison for love for this world? Will they remember projects like our Climate art projects here in Oregon, when they tell the story of how great Love saves the world?
What arrives through the Beautiful Gate on Palm Sunday is Love, Simple, Ordinary, Human Love: comical and powerless as a Rabbi on a donkey, and yet all the people need to heal the world.