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"A Tale of Two Parades," by Claire & Zachary Helton


Mark 11:1-11

A reading from the Gospel of Mark:

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Rabbi needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

This is one of our sacred stories,

Thanks be to God.


Sermon

Claire: It was an early spring day in the year 30. Not a hint of a cloud appeared in the sky as the sun shone down on the city of Jerusalem. The gates of the walled city opened onto many roads, all of which led to Rome, of course, because Rome controlled everything for miles around.

Zach: At the western gate, a child was drawing in the dirt but noticed with fear that the pebbles around him were beginning to tremor. He looked up, and from the distance there came a mighty trumpet, heralding the coming of a great procession.

Claire: At the eastern gate, some had gathered in small groups awaiting the arrival of their kin from Galilee; they anticipated a large group of travelers would be arriving that morning. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. As the waiting party strained their eyes toward the Mount of Olives, they could hear the noise of the crowd before it even reached the summit.

Zach: Two processions would enter the ancient city of Jerusalem that day, one through the eastern gate, the other from the west, their opposing approaches to the city as different as their opposing approaches to everything from justice to power to violence.

Claire: One was a procession of peasants…

Zach: …the other, a grand imperial affair.

Claire: On the eastern front, Jesus crested the hill and came down the Mount of Olives riding on a donkey, not the noblest of creatures, cheered on by his followers. A poor man from the poor village of Nazareth, he, like so many others, had journeyed from Galilee – a hundred miles to the north – to Jerusalem to celebrate the holy week.

Zach: On the western front, Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem riding a great steed, heading up a battalion of imperial cavalry and soldiers. They had marched sixty miles from the coastal palace at Caesarea by the Sea, where they lived in want of nothing.

Pilate, you see, was the Roman governor of Judea and its surrounding territories. His procession proclaimed the power of the empire…

Claire: …while Jesus’ proclaimed the kingdom of God.

Two processions. Two approaches to power. In the week that lay ahead, their clash would define history for ages to come.

Zach: Aside from the splendor of it all, there was nothing all that remarkable about the pageantry of Pilate’s entry. It was standard practice, after all, for the Roman governor to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals, especially dangerous festivals involving the overthrow of empires and the liberation of slaves. He rode into Jerusalem not out of reverence, but out of fear. A preemptive show of force seemed the easiest way to prevent any trouble.

Claire: The Passover was not a passive routine of liturgy, far from it. To a people still living under the boot of a Pharoah, to whom the lines between Egypt and Rome were inconsequential, Passover was a lightning rod for revolution, and Rome took notice.

Zach: A legion of troops already surrounded the fortress, looking down at the Jewish Temple and bearing down with unyielding authority, but the incoming procession would add even more to their number. Into the city filed calvary on their horses, foot soldiers with their spears, each clad in leather and iron, the sun glinting off metal and gold.

Claire: Road-weary Galileans already surrounded the road, watching with excitement as Jesus made his way, slowly and steadily, towards them, the braying of his donkey growing louder as he approached. There was a hum in the air, a hopefulness they dared not speak aloud, that this year, with this man, the tides would change.

Zach: At the western gate, sounds of intimidation filled the air: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles and shields, the beating of the drums of war. Dust swirled and meek citizens of Judea looked on. Some felt awe. Most felt resentment.

“Hail,” they were expected to say, though they did so without enthusiasm. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Emperor. Blessed is the Emperor, the Son of God.” Those last words were bitter in their mouth.

For years, since the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Emperors had declared themselves “divine.” “Son of God,” the inscriptions declared. “Lord,” “Savior!” Pronouncing himself the son of the god Apollo, the Emperors were said to have brought “peace on earth.” On their death, it was said they would ascend into heaven to sit among the gods.

Claire: At the eastern gate, sounds of jubilant greeting fill the air. “Hosanna! Save us!” the crowd cried – and it was clear who they wanted saving from. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It was a seditious chant, they knew this, and still they laid down their cloaks on the path before him.

The manner of Jesus’ arrival was no coincidence, no accident. It was an act of protest. It was a counter procession, an act of political, social, and theological defiance. There was only one God, and it was not Apollo. One Son of God, and it was not the Emperor.

They moves had been planned in advance; Jesus had sent two disciples ahead as he neared the city, to bring back a young donkey, a colt he could ride down the Mount of Olives. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Not the Emperor.

Zach: At the western gate, the steady drumbeat seems to drone on and on. The soldiers file in, some with hands on their weapons, others raising high their banners and idols of eagles with golden wings. With every footfall of a soldier’s boot, the spirits of the people fall just a little further, which is, of course, precisely Pilate wants.

Claire: At the eastern gate, the chanting grows louder and louder. The disciples encourage it, passing out palm branches harvested from the nearby fields. As the palms wave in the air, surrounding this peaceful king who rides in on a colt, the meaning is clear to everyone present…

Zach: …but won’t be to the eyes of Rome. Pilate, when he hears word of the demonstration later that day, will not hear in his mind the words of the prophet Zechariah, who preached, “Tell the daughter of Zion: look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey; on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Your king is coming.

Claire: But even the scribes of Israel may not be familiar enough with the passage to know exactly what Jesus is evoking. So blinded by violence and domination, they may not have eyes to see the one who will, as Zechariah says, “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem…” the one who will “command peace to the nations.”

This king, riding on a donkey, will not only defeat his enemies, but will defeat war itself – no more chariots, no more war-horses, no more room for a bloody empire in the Peaceable Kingdom of God.

Zach: The imperial procession continues until Pilate has reached his destination. He dismounts his mighty horse, waves a regal and disinterested hand toward the crowd, and enters his fortress. His troops continue their march toward the armory.

Pilate will be glad when this week is over. He’s done what he came here to do, cast enough doubt in the hearts of zealots to keep them docile. Now he will pass the week in peace… or so he thinks.

Claire: Jesus’ triumphal procession continues through the gates of the city, winding through the narrow streets until he reaches his destination: The Temple. He lowers himself off the colt, and a handful of disgruntled religious leaders, fresh from the imperial procession at the western gate, rush to accost him.

“Are you out of your mind?!” they demand. “Rabbi, call this off! Send your people home! Keep them silent!”

“Friends,” he tells them with an even smile, “if these people were silenced, the very stones of these Temple walls would cry out for justice. The time is at hand. There is no going back.”

Zach: From the veranda of Fortress Antonia, Pilate looks down over the city. His gaze settles on the scene outside the Temple courts where a crowd has gathered. With curiosity, he watches as a man lowers himself off a donkey. Despite those trying to crowd around him, he makes his way up the Temple steps. He appears to stop just inside the outer court, glancing around, and then turning just as quickly as he’d come, he disappears into the crowd.

What was that about? he wonders.

In a few days’ time, he’ll find out.

Claire: Friends, the story is old, but it is also ever new. Here we are, watching the scene unfold again, like it does every year, from our seats across the sea of time. From our high vantage point, we are in full view of both processions, both ideas of power, both sons of both gods. We can see the outcomes as well, how both parties will meet their end.

The scene lies before us, dated, of course, but still oddly familiar.

We can see the clash, the tension, the risk, and we too must choose to which banner we will pledge our allegiance.

We, too, must choose for which Kingdom we will struggle, whether picking up the instruments of war, or the instruments of peace.

As we move into the rhythm of this ancient, holy week once more, the question is, once again, ours to decide. If we do not, the very stones themselves may cry out.

Amen.

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