Palm B, 2015
Mark 11: 1-11
A Liturgy is also available
PALM SUNDAY: NOT A RETREAT FROM LIFE...
Today is really a different kind of day.
Today, according to the shapers of the Revised Common Lectionary which we use,
is the only day in the church calendar
where we can celebrate two different events.
Today we are given a choice to celebrate either:
The Liturgy of the Branches (Palm Sunday), or
The Liturgy of the Passion (Passion Sunday).
On no other Sunday does a similar system of choice prevail.
Now, as we have already experienced, I have chosen
to once again celebrate the former - the Liturgy of the Branches, or Palm Sunday.
And so most of my comments will be in sympathy with that theme.
But I also want to toss in a suggestion or two about the second theme: the Liturgy of the Passion.
So here goes...
The story from our religious tradition called Palm Sunday is a remarkable one.
Because it's a fictional story full of contradictions.
It's a story about a moral hero without an ending.
It's a story set around a Jewish religious festival which celebrates liberation,
even as the people are prisoners of Roman imperialism.
It's today's gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark.
And either story - Branches or Passion - begins Holy Week.
Let me unpack some of those statements a bit.
There are the 'geographical' inconsistencies in this story.
The branches can hardly be palm branches
since palm trees are not common in Jerusalem.
If we use modern jargon from the media world,
there is the 'beat up' which the Jesus Movement gave this story.
Every devoted pilgrim who entered Jerusalem
during the main religious festivals, was greeted with a similar salutation,
as our tradition says, was given to Jesus.
The 'real' procession would have already happened
when the Roman Prefect who governed Palestine arrived
"to make sure that the celebration remained focused on the past, not the present or future" (Patterson 2004/28)
There is the ordinariness of the result.
The preparation for the so-called 'triumphal entry'
and the great enthusiasm of the people, came to nothing.
And there are the many differences about this story
as told by the other storytellers Matthew, Luke and John.
A problem for us is that we have heard these stories so often,
or been hoodwinked by the likes of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ,
that we now usually combine all of them together
into one big Palm Sunday story,
forgetting the uniqueness of each.
For instance, in Mark there is no weeping over Jerusalem.
That's in another story.
A story which Mark probably didn't even know.
Only Mark mentions the 'procession' going to the entrance of the city.
And only Mark says Jesus went alone into Jerusalem and into the temple,
not to occupy it,
not to cleanse it,
but to check it out.
And then to leave it and the city, retiring with the Twelve to Bethany.
Yet the early Jesus Movement in general, and Mark and his small group in particular,
saw something in this story which was important for them.
So I checked out some of the biblical commentators for clues and they suggest:
• Mark was hinting at bits of Hebrew teaching;
• Mark was suggesting Jesus was the promised Messiah;
• Jesus was not just a spectator or visitor, but was really in control of things.
All these things would probably 'ring bells', as we say,
will Mark's so-called branch of the Jesus Movement.
But I am not so sure they would 'ring bells' for us!
Stephen Patterson is a biblical scholar and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, whose book
Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus is, I reckon,
a really great book.
In it, Patterson suggests that to understand the stories around
the death of Jesus on what we call Good Friday,
the other bit of the bookend called Palm Sunday,
we must first have some realistic idea of what happened to Jesus.
And that can be difficult for Christians.
Because, as I have mentioned earlier,
we have heard the story read time and again from pulpit bibles
in the smallest of churches to the greatest of cathedrals.
And we have seen the events portrayed in Hollywood films,
Sunday School pageants and bedtime story books.
The story plot is similar in all:
• Jesus comes to Jerusalem to challenge his enemies,
• his enemies - the chief priests and scribes - have all along plotted his demise,
• Jesus deliberately plays right into their hands, because he knows his fate before hand,
• he is betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, crucified,
and after three days rises from the dead.
As Patterson reminds us, the common perception is:
"It is all part of God's plan to save us from our sins... Thus... in this mixture of text and tradition, the death of Jesus is not a calamity, or even a surprise. It is the result of a well-executed, successful plan to create what we know today as the Christian religion" (Patterson 2004: 5).
So developed a significant change in what we now call theology.
And that change was away from the events surrounding a particular person:
in whose company others came to experience God,
who said and did certain things, and
who stood for something so important, he was willing to give his life for...
Away from real human events, to an abstract mythic event
"connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life... (all part) of a great cosmic battle with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the evil one" (Patterson 2004:127-28).
Likewise, when later writers and storytellers told about the 'passion' of Jesus,
they always understood it as 'passion' equals 'suffering'.
And so, in the second set of readings in our Common Lectionary
also set down for today, the planners do just that.
But that particular understanding has now been seriously challenged.
From passion as 'suffering', to passion as
"consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment" (Borg & Crossan 2006).
And Jesus' passion as we have also heard many, many times, was
"the kingdom of God declared in terms of God's justice... and the fact that such declaration was seen, despite Jesus' nonviolence, as a threat to the system of domination by Rome and its wealthy Jewish collaborators, led to his suffering" (Olson 2006 ALA/Amazon review).
Palm Sunday at one end, and Good Friday at the other end,
reminds us life is not an escape from reality.
It draws us into the reality of this world.
Jesus, who is human as we are, and Jesus who is a ‘gateway to God’ (Spong),
confronts and submits to the worst human beings can do,
in order to remain faithful to a vision, a passion,
of what the best human beings can be.
This Palm Sunday may we once again reaffirm that religion is not a retreat from life
where we ponder the things not of this world...
Religion in general, and Palm Sunday in particular,
enables us, with insight and wisdom and power,
to meet courageously and creatively
the current issues of our ordinary, everyday living.
And to carry with us into that everyday living what is precious:
reverence for all life,
beauty that displays itself in love, and
deep, abiding peace.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minniapolis. Fortress Press.