The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
When I was growing up, I always looked forward to Palm Sunday weekend because in the little Episcopal Church community—that was the church of my childhood—on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the entire community would gather together to prepare ourselves and our church for Holy Week. We’d all gather in the parish house and begin our preparations together as community. We would start with my parents teaching all the kids how to make those wonderful little palm crosses out of the single palm frond. I always thought that was really pretty magical. And my father, who is eighty-eight, was at the parish house yesterday making palm crosses. The altar guild would’ve brought all of the brass and the silver and the communion vessels over from the church to the parish house. And we would take turns polishing them to the highest possible sheen because nothing—no little detail—was too little to be considered in preparing ourselves. And I can remember as a child handling these holy things and the mystery and how thrilling it was—which is probably certifiable evidence that I was a church nerd even then. But it was a great time and we would look through the week to come and make sure we’d done the preparations—not just for Palm Sunday but for Maundy Thursday, for Good Friday, and ultimately, of course, for the joy of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. It was a foreshadowing; it was a looking ahead of the entire week that was to unfold.
And in some ways, our service this morning—as both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday—tends to conflate the story. We begin with the procession but then move into the very dramatic and heart wrenching Passion narrative that you just heard. It’s important to set this week in context and so I invite you to step back with me to the Mount of Olives for that first gospel lesson you heard at the beginning of this service. Jesus and the disciples are making their way from Galilee to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. It was the most sacred week in Judaism. Jews from all over the region would have been coming together to converge in Jerusalem for those high holy days. And it was in that time a tense moment and week in Jerusalem. And that’s one of the reasons why the Roman authorities were a little bit on pins and needles. They would send in extra soldiers and everything else to ensure that there wouldn’t be a disturbance and that the Roman authority and power remained intact. If you look at the Lukan account of that procession, it’s very simple; it’s very humble. There’s not even a word in that particular gospel story of palm fronds, palm branches, olive branches. The disciples merely laid their cloaks on the donkey and in Jesus’ path. Now lest you be confused, these were peasants—the followers of Jesus—so they wouldn’t have been laying fancy cloaks like the ones that we’re vested in this morning. These would’ve been dirty, dusty, sweat-stained cloaks of working-class peasants. It was a very humble procession—joyful, but humble.
And thinking about that procession and thinking about the week that we’ve experienced across the world, there have been two other rather substantial processions this week. And I was reflecting on those, starting with the investiture of Pope Francis and what a glorious occasion that was with 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and all the pomp and the ceremony and the circumstance surrounding that, appropriate for this holy man and the role that he was assuming. Yet even in that moment, Pope Francis, I believe, set the tone for his papacy. Because part of what he preached that day was, “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.” Two days later the Archbishop of Canterbury was enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral—the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion of which the Episcopal Church and this Cathedral is a part. Two thousand people crammed into Canterbury Cathedral to witness this great enthronement. Once again, plenty of pomp and circumstance; at least ten processions; I counted. But, Archbishop Justin again, I think, set the tone for his archepiscopate. After knocking on the doors of Canterbury Cathedral and the doors coming open, the person who greeted him was a seventeen-year-old girl, part of Canterbury’s community, who greeted him in the name of Jesus Christ and then said, “Who are you and why do you request entry?” To which he responded, “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God and to travel with you in his service together.” Service following Christ.
In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about Palm Sunday and they make the point in the book that on that day there were actually two processions taking place: one that they characterize as the peasant procession that Jesus was leading, coming down the Mount of Olives, making their way into Jerusalem for Passover; coming from the west was what they characterize as the imperial procession. That was led by Pontius Pilate, Roman governor, leading a column of cavalry and soldiers. Two very different processions—not just coming from different directions—but about different in every way imaginable. The peasant procession, Jesus-led procession, was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The imperial procession was proclaiming the power of the Empire. They couldn’t have been more different. And it was those two processions converging on the holy city of Jerusalem that set the context for the conflict that would ultimately ensue and result in Jesus being crucified.
As we continue to make our way to Jerusalem, which procession do you intend to be a part of? Archbishop Justin, in his sermon, said that, “Uniquely in human history, Jesus Christ as the Son of God is the one who as living love liberates holy courage.” On the face of it, that ragtag procession led by Jesus didn’t look very powerful, didn’t look as if they would ultimately triumph. Coming from the west, with horses, cavalry, and soldiers and everything that would indicate to us power and real power. We know that looks can be deceiving. So as we enter this holy week we continue to make our way to Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the cross, the question for us is: which procession will you join and not just this holy week but every week of your life? Amen.