This sermon is based on the Gospel Reading for Palm Sunday,Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Hanging on a cross is a terrible and agonizing way to die. Nails driven, not through the palms of the hand, where they would just rip out from between your fingers, but driven through your wrists, and nails driven through your feet, crucified, hanging in the hot sun, your full body weight pulling against those nails. Between the blood loss, the dehydration, the exhaustion and the pain your diaphragm stops working and the only way that you can breathe is to push down against the nails in your feet, raising yourself up to inflate your lungs and lowering yourself to exhale. When that becomes too painful, or you are just too exhausted to continue your lungs begin to fill up with fluid and you literally drown, hanging there on a cross.
This is how Rome put its enemies to death. You may think, now that I’ve sent a chill through the room describing that awful death, that the Roman Empire really hated the people that it crucified. But all of that pain, all of that agony, all of that terror that was inflicted through crucifixion wasn’t actually aimed at the person who hung there on the cross. The roads in and out of Jerusalem, in fact the roads throughout all of occupied Palestine were lined with crosses where people had been crucified and where their bodies had been left. The real victims of crucifixion were the people who had been left behind, alive, to see this symbol of terror and death. Crucifixion was a tool that Rome used to keep the subjugated people in line. It was merely a way to keep order and to show people what would happen to those who dared to defy Rome’s rules, laws and requirements.
Another symbol of Rome’s power and the way that Rome maintained control was evident on the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. On that very day when Jesus rides in on a colt, being hailed as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, as people were strewing his path with palm branches, Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Judea, is returning to Jerusalem from his summer palace at Caesarea Philippi where he has gone to be by the water at the hottest part of the year. It is the festival of the Passover and people are streaming in to Jerusalem from all over the country. Rome knows that nationalism and a sense of outrage will be grow stronger among the people of Israel as they attempt to celebrate their most holy of feasts under Roman occupation. So Pilate has left his comfortable summer residence to keep the peace by bringing a company of soldiers to stand in the streets and remind the people of the power of Rome and what happens to those who dare to defy its power.
On this morning as Jesus rides into Jerusalem and we wave our palm branches and we lay them on the road we dare to hope. We hope that at long last we might be freed from this terrible tyranny and that this awful display of murderous rage might finally end, that the world might be put right and that God might come to reign in the land of Israel again, that we would know that we are God’s beloved people, and that these scenes of death might vanish from the land. We dare to hope and dream and we focus all of this on Jesus as he rides into town and we celebrate with a festive parade. And then something almost unbelievable happens. The one upon whom we place our hopes and dreams is handed over to the ones whom we seek to escape and we are the ones who hand him over! We hand Jesus over to Pilate, the symbol of that world that oppresses and dominates, the world that destroys and crucifies, the world that finds its power in manipulation, oppression and death. The one that we had hoped would save us from these horrors is left in the hands of that terrible power and is abandoned by all who knew him and loved him.
We don’t get much information in this short reading today to explain how it is that this change is effected. We know that the scribes and the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have been plotting to have Jesus arrested and killed and they have been looking for a way to do that. We know that it is Judas Iscariot that gives them the information they need to finally arrest Jesus in a place without a large crowd of Jesus’ supporters who might have tried to save him. But that same crowd that the chief priests, scribes and elders feared, when Jesus is brought before Pilate, turns against him and we stand and shout, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” How did this happen? How could we have turned so quickly? It may well be that Judas, the zealot, was hoping to force Jesus’ hand, to force him to finally come out in all of his power and glory and take charge of the situation and do away with their Roman adversaries. It may well be that the people there in the crowd looked at Jesus beaten and bloodied bound there in the temple and thought “This isn’t what we thought! He obviously isn’t going to save us from Rome. Look, he’s not even carrying a sword!” So in that moment of disappointment and anger at hopes raised in vain we yell, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And send him to his death. But how could we do this? How could we betray him like this?
As I read this passage and I ponder all of these possibilities I keep coming back to the same conclusions. It’s not that we are disappointed; it’s not that we are impatient, it’s not that we have been influenced by people who have been planted in the crowd to create this frenzy and lead us to call for Jesus’ death. I think that the reason that we turn so quickly against the one that has come to love us is that we are much more comfortable with power that is asserted with force, that we are much more comfortable with power that is taken and assumed. We are much more comfortable with power that comes by imposing the will of the stronger upon the will of the weaker. We know how that kind of power works. We have seen it in action. It has been used against us and we know it works. And we know that if we are lucky enough to be in a position of influence or authority we can wield this kind of power and get results right away.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem and declares that power comes in a different way. Not through forcing people to obey, not through imposing penalties and sanctions not through demanding that people toe the line or die for daring to disobey. Jesus comes and says to us that power comes through vulnerability, and being willing to offer yourself to those with whom you disagree, to those with whom you struggle, even to those who seem to hate you. Jesus comes to teach us a different form of power, the power that guides and exists in kingdom of heaven. But that is a power that is scarier to us even than the rows and rows of bodies that hang from crosses along the roads going in and out of the towns where we live and move and have our being. It is a scary thing to follow Jesus on the way to the cross and believe that this is the way that we should behave towards one another, even if that other hasn’t adopted our methodology yet. We have seen the fire hoses turned on our brothers and sisters. We have seen the dogs loosed and we have seen the damage that a Billy club can do. We know that people are imprisoned, that in some parts of this world they just disappear. We know what it looks like when people attempt to change things in a non violent way. A lot of people end up hanging from crosses. So it is a scary thing to say that in a time of threat I will put down my weapons, that I will set aside the sharp sword that my tongue can become, I will lay aside my rhetorical tricks and my wit, my ability to talk my way around and through anything that you might say. It is a hard thing to listen, and to invite you into a conversation, and to maybe give up some of the points that I hold dear so that we can find common ground where we might live and stand together.
It is a scary thing to stand with Jesus before Pilate and not become the very thing that we abhor. On this day we see the result of giving in to that fear. And in the week to come as we complete this journey moving ever closer to the cross and Good Friday we are called to examine our own lives and to look for the places where we may have become or conformed to that scary power wielding, death giving, world which we abhor. What kind of power are we exercising? Is it God’s power or is it our own? When you get right down to it, it isn’t hard to tell the difference. One looks like this (a raised and clenched fist) and the other looks like this (an open hand stretched out in love and compassion.)