“Palm Sunday” by Marjory Bankson

March 24, 2024

Text: Mark 11:1-11

I’ve always been bothered by the hoopla and Hosannas of Palm Sunday. It didn’t seem like the appropriate response to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but I assumed that was because we knew the rest of the story and they did not.   And yet…   His followers knew what the Romans did to any signs of rebellion, and they knew the Temple authorities reported to Rome. Any rebellion would be brutally crushed. If Mark was an accurate account of Jesus’ final week, waving palms and shouting for joy seemed oddly out of place.

But recently, we’ve seen this same story play out in the news, as Alexi Navalny returned to Russia from a safe place in Germany, knowing he would surely be arrested — and probably murdered. It was no secret that the state had tried to poison him, and yet he went, saying that he needed to BE THERE in order to lead the movement for greater freedom in Russia. He felt called to go. We saw the crowds on TV, cheering in the streets, registering their support for his leadership of the freedom movement in Russia. His return was surely a Palm Sunday event!

After Navalny was killed, and his mother bravely demanded his body to be buried in Moscow and not in some anonymous grave at the arctic prison camp where he died, we also saw people laying flowers at memorial sites all over Russia — even though it was forbidden by the state authorities. And just last week, we saw his followers line up to vote at a particular time, noon on Sunday, in silent protest against the Russian autocracy – and some brave souls burning their ballots in public or pouring ink into a ballot box, where they would surely be identified and punished. But they did it anyway.

I kept seeing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as I watched the news and remembered other times when we have witnessed such courage. Martin Luther King Jr. surely knew that he was going to be killed for his civil rights leadership. Bobby Kennedy also knew he was at risk. I prayed safety for Barack Obama and his family every day while he was President. And now we see leaders like Liz Cheney and Nancy Pelosi who dare to speak out for truth in our political sphere — who are then threatened, hunted and harassed. The biblical story is not so far from us afterall.

Stepping into the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where would I have been? Where would you be? What would we be doing? Waving palms with excitement and expectation? Hanging back in the shadows, hoping not to be seen? Looking around for the Roman soldiers? Or would we be hiding from the violence that was surely coming?

Seasonal Theme Our theme for this Lenten season has been “Liberating Christianity,” and I think the subtext has been liberating Christianity from White supremacy. In both the liturgy and sermons, I’ve appreciated the honest questions and personal stories from the Racial and Ethnic Justice Team. Each week, I’ve been pondering the altar, the gospel text, and the kind of Christianity that different people have spoken about. For me though, not being aware of “whiteness” has been surprising. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, shaped by stories of cowboys and Indians, and I knew from an early age that I was a “paleface” or one of the “White men” who invaded the coastal waters of well-established Native communities. I felt embarrassed and ashamed even then, along with being angry at the way women were left out of the picture.

That very background drew me to Church of the Saviour back in 1965, when we lived at Ft Benning in Columbus, Georgia. The Army post was integrated and the city was still segregated. Teens from the Army post went to high-school in town as it began a reluctant integration, ten years after Brown vs. Board of Education. We were hosting a weekly inter-racial sharing group in our home at the time, and helping with the youth group at the chapel. Peter and I knew we needed help and guidance for how to deepen our practice of faith.

An article by Elizabeth O’Connor in Faith At Work magazine described the rather monastic-sounding practices of belonging to a mission group at Church of the Saviour. I was intrigued because it sounded so doable: listening for God’s guidance with meditation and prayer, accountability and forgiveness in a small group that was committed to a common task or mission. The element of belonging to such a chosen family appealed to me as we began moving around from place to place with Peter’s military assignments, so we started a small group wherever we went, but we missed the element of a common task.

Like breadcrumbs on a mountain path, O’Connor’s article led us to her books as they were published, and, when we moved to Washington DC, we found Seekers – where Fred Taylor was the regular preacher and Sonya Dyer was the regular liturgist. I recommend Paul Holmes’ description of Fred’s life and ministry in this issue of CALLINGS, but I want to highlight his servant leadership here. It’s not a story of dismantling white supremacy, but it IS a story of giving away power on behalf of social justice.

Fred had all the right credentials: a solid Southern family, graduate of Vanderbilt, and then Yale Divinity School. As the civil rights movement picked up steam, Fred left his Baptist pulpit and became the first director of FLOC (For Love of Children) in 1966. His office was in the Church of the Saviour building at 2025 Mass. Avenue, where he interacted regularly with Gordon Cosby and Elizabeth O’Connor as the church sought to practice radical commitment to Jesus’ way of being in the world.

Fred’s background and White privilege gave him access to people and power-structures that others did not have at the time.  He became a champion for change in child-welfare policies as well as broadening the role of FLOC beyond closing Junior Village, which was its first goal. In the 1980s and 90s, FLOC expanded with volunteers from many different DC churches to help with a variety of programs, from family coaching and companionship to the wilderness school at Rolling Ridge. With Fred’s singular leadership, FLOC became a model for other programs designed to heal the wounds of racism in this city.

Then, as Fred began to turn over leadership to others, FLOC gradually simplified its mission to fit the gifts and needs of the next generation. Today, FLOC is run by a team of capable Black women. About 600 volunteers provide individual, in-person tutoring in reading and math for elementary students, but FLOC is no longer the leading voice for child-welfare reform in DC.

As a footnote to Fred’s story, I asked him one time why Seekers did not claim FLOC as our corporate mission the way other CofS communities formed around a single mission. Fred said simply “I think a single mission is too small for one church. We need to recognize God’s call comes in many different forms: family, work, and citizenship, as well as care for those at the margins.” Fred’s vision was always bigger than FLOC, but his inward and outward journey was grounded in the community of Seekers while he was here, and letting go of power was part of that work. It’s why we have an open pulpit today.

Letting go of power is also part of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus knew he was coming to the end of his ministry. Mark says that just before this climactic week in Jesus’ life, James and John were arguing about who would be at his right and left hand in the kingdom of God. It must have made Jesus worry about their understanding of his life’s work. Did they get it? Do we?

The gospel of Mark was written right around the time that there was an uprising in Jerusalem, between 65 and 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and expelled all Jews from Jerusalem. Some scholars call it a “wartime gospel,” fast-paced and terse. It’s the first written account of Jesus’ life and ministry and almost half of Mark’s gospel is focused on Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. 

If you’d like more detail about Mark’s background for Palm Sunday, I highly recommend the book by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan titled The Last Week. In it, Borg challenges some common misconceptions.

First, that Jesus was not political. In fact, Borg and Crossan say, Jesus entering Jerusalem on a young donkey was a dramatic non-violent challenge to the Roman soldiers, led by their Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, which would have been entering the city with a Legion of aggressive warriors by another gate. Extra soldiers came every year during Passover because they knew it was a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from their earlier bondage in Egypt – and so might spark another rebellion.

Romans legitimated their political dominance theologically  by worshiping their ruler as the Son of God. Although in Mark’s gospel, Jesus does not call himself the Messiah or the Son of God, others do.   And a voice from the spirit world names him as God’s beloved son as Mark describes his baptism and the Transfiguration, so Mark’s Jesus is challenging both the political and theological domination of Rome as he rides into Jerusalem, barely visible above the crowd on a young donkey – the opposite of Pilate’s grandiose parade. Clearly Jesus represents another kind of kingdom –an alternative threat to Roman rule.

The second misconception is that the temple authorities represented Judaism. In fact, the high priest and the temple authorities were appointed by Rome to collect a yearly “tribute” and to keep the peace. There was nothing abnormal about this domination system using local religious figures. It was enforced throughout the Roman Empire and has been widely used by political powers since then. It’s a power structure used by many, even in our own country. Christians who blame Jews for Jesus’ death simply do not know the history and that has been a tragic basis for waves of antisemitism in many countries.

A third misconception is that Jesus was unique in his critique of temple practices. In fact, when John the Baptist preached “repentance,” he was denying the role of the temple in proclaiming forgiveness apart from temple practice. That rebellion cost John his life too, but it quickened the faith of many who longed for a place at God’s table. That yearning is the same cry for freedom that we see among Navalny’s followers – and among immigrants seeking to cross our southern border.

Fourth is the misconception that the message of Jesus was about “getting saved” or avoiding hell. In fact, the message of Jesus’ life was about the presence of God’s realm, available to all who chose to follow his path of trust, faithfulness and forgiveness. Jesus invited people to “the way,” a way based on loving one another as he loved his disciples. That is, Jesus proclaimed a way of life that we would call the inward/outward journey in community.

In closing, let me go back to the Palm Sunday text. After all the hoopla and Hosannas of the crowd welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem, we find a glimpse of respite or retreat for Jesus and his disciples. It says, “as it was already late, [Jesus] went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

Do you remember who lived in Bethany? It was Martha, Mary and Lazarus – Jesus’ chosen family. It as a safe place for Jesus and the twelve to regather their courage for what was coming. A household also at risk because Lazarus was a living sign of resurrection. A home for Jesus’ heart, where Mary anointed his feet, sensing his impending death. All this packed into a few brief words at the end of a tumultuous day at the start of what we know as Holy Week.

At Seekers, we do not have services each day of Holy Week, but I urge you to take time this week to read the whole Gospel of Mark. It’s only 16 chapters long and about half of it details events of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. It would be wonderful preparation for our foot-washing service on Maundy Thursday, for the feelings of loss and betrayal that surround the crucifixion, and for whatever soul-stories we will bring to Easter morning next week.

May you have a blessed and holy week of walking with Jesus.  Amen.

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