Palm Sunday is a curious day. We spread palm branches up and down the center aisle, turning the long stretch of carpet into a royal highway, and we sing with joyful exuberance, welcoming the Lord Jesus into the city. Today, the tall double doors of the front entrance are the city gates of Jerusalem, and the table in the great hall awaits the gathering of the guests who are coming from all the ends of the earth for the royal banquet. We sing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” because we do want him here, we do want him to rule and make all things right – but we also remember why we have come to call this particular week, Holy Week; because it’s not all royal welcome and hosanna. Our hopes and the promises of God are being fulfilled in ways no one could have imagined.
We do want Jesus to rule and to make all things right, but we are also beginning to understand that it is not just them who get in the way of Christ’s reign – them being the Jews, or the Romans, or the fickle crowds or whoever else we think we can blame – it is we ourselves who cannot let God’s love rule our lives. Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong, and we half know it, and so we feel a little awkward standing in the gate of the city and watching Jesus riding down Broadway on a donkey. He’s turning our world upside down, and we half know that that is what it takes to make things right, but we only half know it and the other half resists the pull of God’s love. We get power wrong. We see the donkey, but in our imagination it’s still the strong man in shining armor, riding high on a white stallion, who comes to save us. We see Jesus, but we still dream of Superman and Wonder Woman.
There is a city, not far from here, and it could be any city, in any state. In that city, there’s a hospital for men and women who are emotionally wounded and mentally ill. A few years ago, the medical staff and the board of that psychiatric hospital wanted to open halfway houses in the community, so that people who were on their way to full recovery could be supported while making the transition back into life outside. Rather than taking one giant step from the small world of the hospital to the big world of the city, they would be encouraged to take a number of small steps toward greater independence. Well, not everybody in the city was thrilled about the idea, and so there was a contentious city council meeting.
The place was packed. Hundreds of people squeezed into the meeting room, shouting their opposition to the halfway houses, “We don’t want these people in our neighborhood.” After a couple of brief presentations and a lot of yelling the city council said no to the proposal. Just then, the back doors of the auditorium opened, and in came this little woman with a white scarf over her head. Suddenly it was so quiet, even people up in the balcony could hear the hushed voices from below, “Is that Mother Teresa?” Indeed, it was her. She happened to be in town to dedicate a new Sisters of Charity program and she had heard about this meeting. She came down the center aisle and everybody gasped as she came to the front, turned around, got down on her knees in front of the city council, raised her arms and said, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you affirm them, you embrace Jesus.” With her arms up in the air, she pleaded, “Please, please, please, please, please, in the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! Make room for them in your neighborhoods.”
Now imagine for a moment you’re on the city council. There is Mother Teresa on her knees in front of you. Crews from several television stations have followed her into the auditorium, with cameras rolling. What are you going to do? Somebody say something; somebody do something.
One of the councilmen moved that the previous motion be reconsidered, there was a second, and then the city council did a complete 180 and voted unanimously in favor of opening those neighborhood halfway houses. There were hundreds of people packed into that auditorium, and not one of them uttered a word of opposition to the motion. Nobody shouted when it passed. Why? Because of the pleas of a little old woman who spoke with such authority? Everybody knew how Mother Teresa served God by serving the poor. Everybody knew that she wanted nothing but to live in the love and mercy of God. And seeing her there on her knees between the elected officials and the hushed crowd, everybody in that room wanted that life, the life her pleas represented, a life of love and mercy; and they wanted it more than any other life, for themselves and for everybody else, and together they moved one step closer to the kingdom where mercy reigns. They couldn’t say what made them change their minds, it was a strange power, it was a love stronger than all their fears.
Jesus doesn’t ride into town in front of an army. He doesn’t change the world by imposing his will on us. He turns the world upside down by refusing the path of coercion. He transforms the world by embracing the way of obedience, by doing what love of God and neighbor demand. That is the passion of his life to this final breath. We call this week holy because in the events we recall in prayer and ritual we enter the mystery of God’s power revealed in the life and death of Jesus.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul urges us. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). Such words were rare and foreign in a city like Philippi, which isn’t to say they aren’t rare and foreign in a city like Nashville. The citizens of Philippi valued their connections to the imperial household, their privileges, and their advantages as subjects of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking, and humility was not considered a virtue. The perfect career of a young Roman aristocrat followed the cursus honorum, or “course of honor.” It was a ladder that comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum age for election, and at each stage the upwardly mobile young man gained new responsibilities and new privileges. Lower classes of people developed their own sequence of offices that mimicked the upper classes. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher. But when everybody is only concerned about moving up the ladder, the only reason to look around is to check out the competition with a quick glance over the shoulder; others aren’t even seen.
We call this week holy because the final days of Jesus’ life on earth reveal to us the heart of reality, and it’s not relentless competition and survival, but rather relentless love and communion.
“You want to talk about status?” Paul seems to suggest. “OK, let’s talk about status.” Jesus had the highest status imaginable: equality with God. Only he did not regard that equality as something to be used for his own advantage. On the contrary. He emptied himself. He humbled himself. He “made himself of no reputation,” as the King James translation says it so beautifully. He climbed down the ladder, his mind on nothing but the will of God, loving us sinners with a passion and a vulnerability for which we have no words. On the cross, his career in reverse reached its end and he died the most cruel and degrading death, reserved for slaves and rebels against Rome’s rule.
And isn’t that just the way the world works? Isn’t that the way it has been since the dawn of humankind and will always be? Yes, that is part of the truth we must face when we look to the cross. This is what we are capable of doing to each other in the name of religion, in the name of justice, in the name of political convenience. But this dark Friday truth has a glorious, hopeful side: God vindicated the way of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him, the crucified servant, the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. We call this week holy, because the story of Jesus reveals who God is, and not despite the cross, but because of it. We look to the cross and we see love that goes all the way for the life of the world, for the sake of communion with us, for the sake of righteousness.
Today we sing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” because we do want him here, we do want him to rule and make all things right for all the children of God, especially the ones for whom no one wants to make room in their neighborhood. We sing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” because this humble one, riding on a donkey, comes with forgiveness, never tiring of showing us a world where all are neighbors and all are at home, never tiring of inviting us to live there.