Coming to Jerusalem:
As the majority of Unitarian Universalists, I was born neither Unitarian nor Universalist nor UU. My personal roots, like our UU roots, lie within the Christian church, in my case the Episcopal Church, even though I no longer consider myself Christian. But every so often I revisit my roots, especially around Christmas and Easter. I enjoy it because when I look deeply at the stories I always find some meaning in them that transcends their time and place, and transcends the doctrine I do not believe in. So it is with Palm Sunday and I am grateful that I was asked to take it up today. As a child in Sunday School I remember carrying around palm branches on the Sunday before Easter and never really understanding why or what Palm Sunday was all about. What is it about and what might it have to say to us today?
Palm Sunday is the start of an intense week, the final week of Jesus’ life, called Holy Week by Christians. In many ways this week represents the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. All four of the gospels give an account of it, although each one differs slightly from the others. This is an aside, but you may not know that my PhD is in Greek and so when I went to seminary I particularly loved New Testament studies because it’s language is Greek. In my years as a parish minister in Kingston I led bible study for many years and we pored over the history and the context with a critical UU eye. So a part of me would love to examine how the gospels differ, and the meaning of those differences. But I won’t. . . . You’re probably breathing a sigh of relief. But in order to give you the story, I’ve put together a composite (from the NRSV, New Revised Standard Version) of what the gospel writers say about what we now call Palm Sunday.
(Mark 11:1-7) “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 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. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. (Matthew 21:4-5) This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Luke 19:36-38) As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, (John 12:12) . . . the great crowd that had come to the festival (of Passover) heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. (Luke 19:38) . . . the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, (Mark 11:8-10) Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38-40) saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Matthew 21:10-11) When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mark 11:11) 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. (John 12:16) His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
What’s going on here? Many people would have crowded into Jerusalem from the countryside to celebrate Passover, which was a reason for Jesus also to head for Jerusalem. He rode a colt, foal of a donkey, a symbol of peace, as prophesied in the Hebrew Bible by Zechariah (9:9-10). Spreading cloaks and palm branches before him was a token both of honor and of rejoicing. The people thought Jesus was coming as a king who would restore their power and freedom, as in the time of King David. They cried hosanna, which was a Hebrew invocation to God meaning “save us, help us.” Only later did hosanna become a cry of joyful acclamation. So the people expected in Jesus a king for this world. Even the disciples didn’t understand what was going on. As we will see, in the week that followed Jesus did claim the title Messiah, did offer peace and salvation, but not according to anyone’s expectations or desires, which is why by the end of the week he would be crucified.
And here is a lesson. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but we must live it forward.” There are times in the lives of individuals and of communities when important changes occur but in the midst of them we do not understand the full extent of what is happening. Perhaps you are in such a time right now. Important changes have and are occurring. You might have hopes, expectations, desires. That’s only natural. And . . . and could you remain open to the idea that you do not, you cannot, know all that will come down the line and what you expect and want may or may not happen. As you look back on this time, you might understand it better than you do now. Can any of us hold our hopes, our expectations and at the same time also hold the possibility of something very different happening? I know that can feel unsettling. It was unsettling to the people hanging around Jesus, who knew something important was happening but they did not know quite what to do with it. It’s a time of living in the question mark.
Jesus spent the next days in Jerusalem in the temple. The first thing he did was throw out the merchants and money lenders, calling them thieves and robbers. Instead, he used the temple for teaching and healing. And here’s a lesson. By his actions Jesus modeled what a religious community could be, even should be. As I mentioned, a lot of people would have come to Jerusalem and the practice was to sacrifice an animal for the Passover. Those traveling long distances would not have brought an animal along with them, so merchants set up shop in the temple, selling the people what they needed. Prices were inflated and some were making good money at the expense of the pilgrims. That’s what Jesus called theft. That’s what Jesus found objectionable and unfair. So he overturned their tables and threw them out. What did he put in their place: teaching and healing. A religious community is a place where people explore and learn together. It is a place of healing. What might that mean here, in this place? Taking care of one another so that you get through this time of living in the question mark and emerge stronger and together.
Jesus healed in the temple and he taught. What did he teach? A lot. One of his themes was apocalyptic: what’s going to happen in the end times which he seemed to believe were coming sooner rather than later. He prophesied the demise of Jerusalem and the punishment of the scribes and those in high places. He talked about the resurrection after death and how believers would be with God. He foretold what would happen to him just a few days hence. So it was a week of concentrated ideas, many of which were at odds with what Jewish authorities taught about prayer, about purity (who you are with, what you could and could not do on the Sabbath), about life after death, and about paying taxes to their Roman rulers. When he rode that donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus rode toward trouble. He chose the hard and dangerous path for the sake of what was to him truth. Many of our Universalist and Unitarian forebears made the very same choice, for the sake of what was to them truth. There is a similarity in some of those truths, namely that all people are worthy and that valuing appearance over substance was hypocritical. In my opinion, Unitarian Universalism should not give up on Jesus, the human teacher, the young and fearless prophet. He could be a model for us.
Two important themes of the teaching that week were faith and love. When asked (Matthew 22:36-40) ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ And here’s a lesson. Our Universalist ancestors taught us that one way to show our love for God, however one understands that word, is by loving humanity and living that love. This is how a community living in the question mark is healed: by each person treating the others as he or she would like to be treated. This is a very challenging practice. If any of us were to look back, at the end of the day, on every exchange we had with other people, could we say that we had treated each of them as we ourselves would like to be treated? Or did we do to others that which we would not have wanted done to ourselves? It’s a human characteristic to go around with blinders on regarding everyone else’s concerns but ours. Which, I suppose, is why the “Golden Rule” of do unto others appears in so many religions.
Let’s continue the story. As the first night of Passover approached Jesus and his friends made arrangements to have their seder in an upper room. Christians call it the Last Supper. Before the meal Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, again modeling the humility and servant-hood that might exist in community. At table he spoke again of his coming death and foretold the betrayal by Judas. Afterwards, Jesus asked his friends to accompany him to the garden at Gethsemene, where he went off alone to pray. He asked them to keep watch. Upon his return Judas led in armed men to arrest Jesus. They brought him to the Jewish authorities, who questioned him and turned him over to the Roman authorities. His crime seems to have been that he was claiming to be that king of the Jews the people had hailed him as. The Jewish understanding of Messiah was as King Messiah, the anointed one. Jews did not expect a Messiah to be divine. So if Jesus was seeming to accept the title of King, the authorities and the people would understandably have expected a king for this world. And a king for this world would have threatened both the standing Jewish and Roman authorities. Jesus did not deny the title, but of course he was talking about a different kingdom. Under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, Jesus was crucified on what is now called Good Friday.
And his friends? Throughout this intense week they behaved as humans will behave in times of stress and trauma. They did not do what was asked of them. Rather than staying awake at Gethesemene, they fell asleep — twice. They were exhausted. Some of them bickered over who would be judged most worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven, engaging in a kind of power struggle. Some of them wanted all the details nailed down right then and there, including the hour and minute of the end time. It is anxiety producing to live with uncertainty. And Jesus did not provide the answers. He said, essentially, wait, watch and all will become clear in time. One of the disciples, Judas, became disillusioned and turned Jesus over to the authorities. When Jesus was arrested all of the disciples ran away and abandoned him. Peter even denied that he was associated with him. They were afraid. They felt powerless and confused. Other people seemingly emerged out of nowhere to offer help, such as the man who provided a tomb for Jesus. And some of his friends stayed the course and remained with him through death and beyond. Exhaustion, dropping the ball, power struggles, wanting all the details to be in place right away, disappointment, running away, staying put, offering help. And here’s a lesson. Some of this might sound familiar. That’s what people do in times of trouble, when living in the question mark. This was not the end of the story though. In time the disciples regrouped and came back together. They re-formed community. They transformed community. That’s also what people do in times of trouble.
So, this Sunday, Palm Sunday and the days that followed, have a lot to say. In many ways the story lives and even has new relevance. In times of great change, when we cannot fully understand what is happening and do not know what will happen, we have to live in a question mark. We have to be open to the unexpected. Living in the question mark brings out the best and the worst in people. It is particularly a time for religious communities to be places of healing, in which love resides and people take care of one another and treat one another with respect, acceptance and understanding.
The week came to a close with Jesus’ death on Good Friday. The new week began with a pause, the Sabbath. It seemed that all was lost. Then the resurrection occurred. The story did not end with Good Friday. Easter followed. So hold on and have faith that resurrection will come. It’s Palm Sunday and this is the start of a busy and intense time. Hold on. For as we know, the story does end well. It does end well. May it be so.