“Journey to Hope: Celebration and Sorrow”
Byron First United Methodist Church
April 1, 2012
One Sunday a pastor told his congregation that the church needed some extra money and asked the people to prayerfully consider giving a little extra in the offering plate. He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns.
After the offering plates were passed, the pastor glanced down and noticed that someone had placed 3 $100 bills in offering. He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with his congregation and said he’d like to personally thank the person who placed the money in the plate.
A very quiet, elderly, saintly lady all the way in the back shyly raised her hand. The pastor asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way to the pastor. He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and in thanksgiving asked her to pick out three hymns.
Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation, pointed to the three best looking men in the building and said, “I’ll take him and him and him.”
Today is sort of a strange Sunday in the life of the church where one major religious day, Palm Sunday, falls on a significant secular one, April Fool’s Day. What I didn’t realize until this week is that the celebration of April Fool’s is almost as old as Palm Sunday, and possibly even older. There is a tradition in ancient Persian history of a day devoted to pranks and jokes celebrated around this time of year that dates back to 536 B.C. In Rome, they celebrated the festival day of Halaria – a day of laughter and joy – on March 25, and in the book Canterbury Tales, which dates back to the 1300s, there is a possible reference to April Fool’s day, and there are fake tickets inviting people to come and see the “washing of the Lions” at the Tower of London that date back to April 1, 1686.
And while a couple months ago I had no plans to even refer to this being April Fool’s Day – my plan was to keep this day “dignified” and “serious” since it is the beginning of Holy Week, by the end of this past week I’ve come to realize that there is no real way to avoid it. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:10, “we are fools for the sake of Christ,” and as Christians I think it is good to embrace that foolishness.
I’ve never been one who has really gotten into April Fool’s Day – I’ve never been one who got into putting salt into the sugar bowl, or Saran Wrap on the toilet, and most of the time I’m not even that good at remembering jokes… but I think there is something important, maybe even holy in laughter. Because, humor, when it is done well has the ability to speak truth to power, in ways that sometimes aren’t always possible directly; it also has the ability to humble us, remind us that we aren’t perfect, and helps us acknowledge our faulty assumptions and the mistakes we make. Humor, at it’s very best, is about challenging our expectations and the very way we see the world around us.
And, really, I think that is what is happening in today’s Scripture. Think about what really in happening here. First, Jesus tells two disciples to go into a village and ‘borrow’ a colt that has never been ridden, and in case anyone questions why they are taking the animal, all they need to say is, “The master needs it, and he will send it back right away.”
Think about that for a moment. As Leonard Sweet notes, “Borrowing” a valuable animal, a pristine, unbroken young colt, was frowned upon and punished in first century Palestine as seriously as horse-thieving was in the Old West. If you were in the disciples’ position, even if you knew and loved Jesus and had seen the miracles, how would you react if he told you to go into town – you’ll find a 2012 Ford Mustang there with the keys in the ignition, bring it to me and if anyone asks just say, “The Master needs it.” Would you do it, or would you think, maybe just a little, that this sounds like a crazy request – would you expect Jesus to say, “Just kidding!” or “April Fool!”
It seems unbelievable, but the disciples do as Jesus requests – they go into town, find the colt, are questioned by some people, offer their explanation, and bring the colt to Jesus.
Then listen to what happens next. Verses 7 and 8 say, “They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat upon it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields.”
Now often we think of this act of people removing their cloaks as a sign of honor and respect, which is it. But think of what is happening in a more practical and person sense – these people are removing their outer garments of clothing to welcome Jesus. Listen to how Leonard Sweet explains it. He says, “To remove one’s cloak in public was a more revealing, humbling action than simply taking off a coat. A cloak, whether fine or simple, revealed much about one’s social status and wealth. Among the poor a cloak was a daytime garment and a nighttime bedroll.” In Exodus 22 it talks about a person’s cloak as being acceptable collateral for a loan. So a cloak is valuable, it protects, it tells who we are, and for people to remove their cloaks when Jesus comes into Jerusalem is probably a much bigger deal than we realize. This didn’t leave the people naked, but close to it. Going back to Sweet, he says, “The garments worn under one’s cloak were simple and unadorned, skimpy even. In effect those who spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus were more or less standing around in their underwear.”
Do you get what’s happening here? It’s almost a reversal of that old story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – the people welcome Jesus by taking off their symbols of status and wealth, and come close to “bearing it all” – being completely vulnerable, standing outside in their underwear, to honor him. It seems so foolish, but at the same time it is so beautiful. Such a powerful witness to who Jesus was, and is, when you really stop to consider it.
Today when a politician or church leader comes into town we’re more likely to complain about how they are stealing the shirts off our backs through taxes and apportionments and policies we don’t like; only a crazy person would actually take their sweater or shirt off and stand around in their underwear to welcome someone like that. But with Jesus, maybe it’s different. Maybe we need to be a little crazy, maybe we need to be a little vulnerable to welcome him into our lives. Maybe we will look foolish, but I know it will be worth it. (Now having said all that, I am speaking metaphorically and I do expect everyone to keep all their clothes on this morning, you can welcome Jesus in your underwear, but I don’t need to see it).
The Scripture goes on to tell us that “Those in front of him and those following were shouting ‘Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”
The people are quoting, in part, Psalm 118, verse 25, and that Hebrew word, “Hosanna!” literally means “save, now” or “save, I pray” – they are calling out to Jesus for salvation, for the healing of the nation and the restoration of the kingdom.
Again, really try to get this picture in your mind, this group of people have stripped down to their undergarments, they are now wearing the simplest, humblest, of clothes – some are ahead, some are behind, and right in the middle is Jesus, an ordinary looking, humble, carpenter, riding in on a young donkey. Lemar Williamson writes in his commentary, “Jesus enters as the lowly one, hero only to a motley rabble, but ironically more of a king than they think.”
The scholar Marcus Borg speculates that this entry of Jesus into Jerusalem would have been in sharp contrast to another that would have been happening on the opposite side of the city around the same time. He says, “The meaning of Jesus’ mode of entry is amplified by the realization that two processions entered Jerusalem that Passover. The other procession was an imperial one. On or about that same day, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate rode into the city from the opposite side, the west, at the head of a very different kind of procession: imperial cavalry and foot soldiers arriving to reinforce the garrison on the Temple Mount. They did so each year at Passover, coming to Jerusalem from Caesarea Maritima, the city on the Mediterranean coast from which the Roman governor administered Judea and Samaria.
He says, “Imagine the scene as Pilate’s procession entered the city, a panoply of imperial power. Weapons, helmets, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. The pounding of horse hooves, the clinking of bridles, the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the beating of drums, the swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
“Jesus (as well as the authors of the gospels) would have known about Rome’s policy of sending reinforcements to the city at Passover. His decision to enter the city as he did was what we would call a planned political demonstration, a counterdemonstration. The juxtaposition of these two processions embodies the central conflict of Jesus’ last week: the kingdom of God or the kingdom of imperial domination. What Christians have often spoken of as Jesus’ triumphal entry was really an anti-imperial entry. What we call Palm Sunday featured a choice of two kingdoms, two visions of life on earth.” (From Marcus Borg Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary pg. 232)
Now sometimes I think Marcus Borg takes things a little too far, and turns Jesus into too much of a political radical, but I do think there might be something about this picture of vivid contrast Borg paints here. Two very distinct parades, happening at around the same time, maybe a day or two apart – one filled with might and wealth, weapons of destruction and all the markings of earthly power, and one filled with humility, simplicity, a guy on a donkey surrounded by a bunch of half-naked people, it’s such the opposite of what we expect it ought to make us laugh… and the joke is, we know who the real king is, we know which one really holds the power that matters. It’s foolish by all the world’s standards, but we know it to be true.
Verse 11 of today’s text ends simply with the declaration that “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.”
Of course, we know that’s not the end of the story. In the verses and chapters that follow, Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers, he teaches and gets into arguments with the religious leaders, he eats with a leper, is blessed by a woman who washes his feet with costly perfume, and celebrates the Passover with his friends. But then, he is betrayed by Judas, slandered by the religious scholars and leaders, denied by Peter, handed over to the Roman authorities, mocked, beaten and hung on a cross. See, even in the joy of this day, we must acknowledge the pain that is to come. And I’d strongly encourage you to read those sections of the Bible this week, and invite you to join us for the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services.
There is such a fine line between laughing and crying… and I’m sure you’ve experience both those tears of joy and tears of sorrow; maybe even times when your sorrow has turned into laughter, or your laughter has triggered some deep sorrow or pain. It’s part of what makes us human. If you’ve ever heard interviews with famous funny people, famous comics you’ll quickly learn that many of them came from very hard lives, and turning their pain and anger into laughter was a coping mechanism for them.
We need to acknowledge both those feelings and live into the whole range of feelings that are presented in the Gospel. So we move from the joy of this day into the darkness of Good Friday, until we at last arrive into the even greater joy, beauty and victory of Easter.
There is an old ancient custom, in the Orthodox Church, and even some of the Catholic churches from the middle ages where in the evening of Easter Sunday, or on the Monday after Easter, everyone would gather at the church to tell jokes and funny stories. And they did this to celebrate the fact that Lent was now over; that the time of fasting and repentance had come to an end, but they also did it, it is said, for a deeply theological reason. That in Jesus’ victory over the forces of wickedness and death, God played the greatest prank on the devil that has ever been accomplished. The resurrection is the celebration that God has the last laugh. St. Thomas More once said that “The devil… the proud spirit… can’t endure being mocked.” And so the people laugh because of the great reversal, because everything isn’t what it appear, because we are humbled and joy-filled in all that Christ is done.
Brothers and sisters, may you know this joy in your hearts, and on this Palm Sunday, may we all be fools for Christ. Amen.