Palm Sunday: Jesus for the First Time
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Palm Sunday, April 1, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge
Let me begin today with a quote from Rumi about a caravan, a procession of a kind, of the journey of the soul to God.
"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come."
Does that not remind us of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon? Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times, 70 x 7 times, infinite times, it doesn't matter. The journey is what matters and staying on it no matter what is the only thing that matters. What kind of a Lord and God is this Jesus Christ who loves and forgives so magnanimously?
You may not know this, but there were two processions occurring on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem: the Lord’s entry in humility and lowliness on a donkey (a sign of peace) came from the eastern side of the city surrounded by a crowd of peasants and outcasts, the great “unwashed masses,” The other procession was of military might and imperial authority. Pontius Pilate led a brigade of soldiers from the west on horseback to strengthen the garrison already in place.
Thus the event of Palm Sunday appears as a kind of parable acted out for us, a juxtaposition of the broad way that leads to death and the narrow way that leads to life: Christ vulnerable and humble representing an alternative way of thinking and of life eternal, and Pilate the symbol of earthly power that eventually, and always, is devoured by moth and rust and corruption. All empires fall.
“What kind of world is it,” writes the theologian Marcus Borg, “in which riding a donkey can be a symbol of kingship, in which purity is a matter of the heart and not of external boundaries, in which the poor are blessed, the first last and the last first, the humble exalted and the exalted humbled.”
What kind of world is that? It is Heaven!
Think also of these unconventional and nontraditional teachings of Jesus.
He compares the kingdom of heaven to mustard and mustard in the time of Jesus was a weed. Not only that, the great and powerful kingdom is compared to a sliver of a mustard seed, something very tiny indeed. And that sliver of seed would grow into a great tree under which everyone could find shelter. The kingdom of heaven in Christ is all-inclusive.
Another example of how crazy this gets is that the kingdom is compared to impure things; to a woman (associated commonly with impurity in those days) who puts leaven (also impure) into flour! What then of the cult of purity that tortures humanity with its impossibly high standards?
And he says that the kingdom belongs to children, and in the time of Christ that meant to nobodies; for children were not highly regarded in the social structure. Innocence, vulnerability, curiosity, and openness are the characteristics of the inhabitants of God’s kingdom.
And what of this, “He who does not hate father or mother…is not worthy of me?” What kind of good teacher says such things? And for the intolerant religious of his day he makes a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables and priests and Levites the bad guys. Then he practically turns a sexually addicted Samaritan Woman into a confidante, theologian and mystic.
And to those in his day and in ours who believe that God more closely resembles Pilate and his procession, Jesus says things like this, “Blessed are the poor,” and “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate,” and “consider the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, and yet God feeds them all.” And “if God so clothes the grass of the field…how much more will he clothe you?” And “turn the other cheek,” “give and expect nothing in return,” “go the extra mile.” Love, tenderness, compassion are the picture that Jesus paints of his father and of himself. Are we ready to meet Christ again for the first time, to let go of our own conventional thinking, and listen attentively to his teachings again for the first time?
Clearly Jesus was offering an alternative vision! In fact, he was turning everything inside out and upside down. A vision that is practically Orwellian!
The way of conventional and traditional wisdom, of power, wealth, and domination is foolishness in the eyes of Christ, and the way of humility and compassion is wise. The Cross, writes St. Paul, is foolishness to the world and that the foolishness of God is far wiser than the wisdom of men. Jesus spoke against the way of conventional and traditional thinking and about something new and counter-intuitive. Are we ready to hear him again for the first time, to follow him and not just believe in him? Are we ready to adopt his alternative way of seeing?
He it is who rode into this world in abject humility, as a helpless child, and rode out again in abject humiliation, as a criminal dying on a cross, and who will come again in glory - this same One who looks with concern on each little sparrow that falls from its nest. It is He who will come again in Glory, not in anger, or judicial vengeance. There is no glory in that. He will come in the glory of Absolute, Unconditional, and fierce love for “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Every knee will bow because love is awesome and wondrous! It is not for nothing that the sign Orthodoxy places on its crucifixes over the tortured body of Jesus is, “The King of Glory!”
The road to the Cross is the supreme parable of our nontraditional God. His is the alternative Way and Christ, The True and Ultimate Radical. Come this week, my friends, and meet him again for the first time.