A Sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

 Year B – 29 March 2015

 John Edward Miller, Rector

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.           – Mark 11:1-11

The Collect

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

People love a parade. I remember the many times I stood on the median of Broad Street in the midst of eager crowds of children and parents awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, who would always breeze past us on a festive float replete with sled and reindeer and elves, and of course, the Snow Queen. There were also fall parades promoting the Tobacco Bowl, and featuring the cadet corps and marching bands from VMI and VPI, as well as Benedictine, John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson High Schools.

Those parades were fun, but the one that really fired up my youthful imagination took place on Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation’s capital. That’s when astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., came triumphantly to Washington, D.C. on May 8, 1961 after having been launched and recovered safely as America’s first man in space. Knowing that I was a total space nut, my mother got my brother and me excused from school and drove us to the capital to see our hero pass by as he left a meeting from President Kennedy at the White House.

A few days before, I, like many an American youth, had been glued to a black and white television to see his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule lift off for a suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral. His spacecraft reached an apogee of 116 miles and a velocity of just over 5000 miles per hour before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean and being retrieved by Navy frogmen and helicopters. The whole flight lasted about 15 minutes, but it was an historic event for NASA and the New Frontier generation. Alan Shepard was the vanguard for U.S. manned space flight program. Tom Wolfe described those courageous pioneers as having “the right stuff,” and he was right. The Mercury Seven astronauts, like their cosmonaut counterparts in the Soviet Union, were on the cutting edge of space exploration.

For a 13-year-old like me, this was the stuff that dreams are made of. I could hardly contain myself on the trip to Washington, and was so full of enthusiasm as I stood on tiptoes to see Alan Shepherd pass by that I was near lift-off myself. He and his wife were perched like superstars on the top of the back seat of a white Lincoln Continental convertible. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the White House liaison to NASA, was seated below them, while other officials of the Secret Service occupied the front seats. The car was preceded and followed by patrolmen on motorcycles, their roaring engines and sirens splitting the air.

It was so cool. I remember Alan Shepard’s smile, his crew cut, and his benevolent wave in my direction. It felt as though I were connected to the scientists and astronauts who were building a stairway to the heavens. I had already built and painted a scale model of his space capsule atop a Redstone missile, and now I had seen America’s hero no farther than 20 feet from my vantage point. The atmosphere was crackling with energy and hope. I can still get gooseflesh thinking about it.

I’d like to think I’d have been that excited if I’d been on Jesus’ parade route into Jerusalem. More than that, I pray that I would have remained as thrilled about that moment as I continue to be about my brief encounter with Commander Shepard.

That’s a pretty scary thing to contemplate. Hosannas that day were fleeting; excitement left the crowd like air escaping a balloon. The messiah the people expected had not shown up. Jesus was clearly no superstar. His “parade” was a triumphal procession turned inside out. Unlike the Caesars and generals of Rome, who staged extravagant parades designed to highlight their own heroic status and world-shaking achievements, Jesus of Nazareth entered the gates of Jerusalem in as humble a manner as we could imagine. He did not ride a chariot pulled by mighty steeds; he wore no armor, and had no weapons; and there were no legionnaires marching with him. Instead, he rode into town on a donkey’s back, with his ragtag entourage trailing along behind him, glancing this way and that, probably fearful of an ambush by the authorities.

As the crowds waved their palms, and lay their modest garments on the road to welcome their would-be liberator, they recognized his overt weakness as soon as he passed them. There was nothing formidable about this messiah from the hills of Galilee. He was meek and gentle, and he brandished no earthly power. Measured against their messianic ideal, the legendary King David, Jesus looked puny and pathetic. He was obviously not the strong man they expected, and thought they needed.

That’s why his own people turned against him. That’s why their hosannas were so soon replaced by the blood-chilling chant, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Those who lined the roadway in welcome that Sunday would become a snarling mob by the following Friday. High anticipation and excitement would soon morph into disappointment and anger. The people did not get what they wanted; instead, they got what God gave them – a messiah whose strength consisted in emptying himself, and taking the form of a servant.

Their dissatisfaction brought about a sort of blindness. The people’s lack of vision hid the truth from them; they could not see the power that Jesus represented, and was freely offering to them. He was so much the reverse of their dreams that his inauspicious presence was an offense to them. The world’s glory is what they longed for, and he was not plugged into that kind of power source.

In 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice produced a rock opera called “Jesus Christ Superstar.”[1] A year later it was produced as a Broadway musical, and it has been on stage in revival ever since. “Superstar” is the story of the last week of Jesus’ life. It is a purely secular story – one that is told from the perspective of Judas. It makes no pretense of proclaiming the Messiah of faith; rather, it looks at Jesus as a social reformer, a man who leads a quest for justice for the oppressed and redemption for the poor. Judas loves Jesus, and supports him as long as he pursues that agenda. However, as Jesus is affected by popular adulation, he is tempted to believe that he is a kingly superstar instead of a revolutionary. Judas is alarmed by this trend, and betrays him to keep the “Jesus movement” on track. The betrayer is afraid that Jesus is getting so big that the Romans and the Jewish authorities will be compelled to destroy all the good that he and the disciples had done.

This is a very human view of the Passion of Jesus. It cannot see beyond this world, which places its bets on political power and coercive force. The rock opera’s Judas fears that Jesus is upsetting the status quo by becoming a religious superstar in the eyes of the people. So, he decides to help the Jewish authorities rid Jerusalem of this “dangerous” nuisance. Judas delivers his friend to the clutches of Caiaphas, who refuses to accept Jesus as anything but a troublemaker. And then, for “a more permanent solution” to their problem, the high priest sends him to Pontius Pilate for trial and execution on the charges of blasphemy and treason. Neither Judas, nor Caiaphas, nor Pilate can perceive anything godly about Jesus. To them he is a reformer deluded by fame, a would-be competitor in the realm of religion, and an insurrectionist, respectively. All three want him removed; and so he was – physically.

But the power incarnate in him was not. What survived is inextinguishable. “Love never ends,”[2] is the way Paul puts it, and we who have gathered here today echo his words, and bear witness to them in our liturgy. That, of course, is a Christian view. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is not a gospel story. The production ends abruptly with Jesus’ final words from the cross. And then the stage goes black, signaling to the audience that, in “Superstar” there is nothing more to be said or seen. From a strictly human standpoint, it is “the end.”

That dark finale, as well as many of the opera’s lyrics, angered a lot of conservative Christians back in the day. When I took a church youth group to see “Superstar” at the Richmond Coliseum, I had to lead them through picket lines of protesters who castigated the production for portraying Jesus as “just a man,” rather than a divine being. They also taunted ticket-holders for endorsing such a travesty, and me in particular for leading the youth in my care astray. I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so today. For us it was an entrée to the Jesus story; it proved to be quite useful as a launching pad for discussion. Moreover, it dovetails with the issue raised in the Passion narratives, namely the failure to grasp the light shining in the world’s darkness.

You’ll recall that the biblical story has the people wanting Jesus to be a political superstar, who will free them from Roman oppression and bring back the glory days of King David. By Holy Week’s end, they jeer him, and reject him, because he falls short of that mark. The jealous religious authorities cannot abide him, because any messiah (and especially Jesus, whose humility does not impress them) would render them obsolete. And the Romans, the superpower of the 1st century, found it easy to crush any folk king raised up by their oppressed subjects.

Both the biblical version and “Superstar” reveal the tragic condition of human myopia when evaluating types of power. The kind of strength that appears weak rode into Jerusalem on a little donkey. To all who view power as a tool to subjugate, to control, to force an outcome, or to destroy one’s opponent, the love that Jesus proclaimed seems preposterous, and laughable. It is notoriously short of missiles and bombs, it lacks the pomp and circumstance of the elite and the wealthy, it makes no promise of earthly rule or possessions, and it is not vying to be first in any hierarchy. Rather, it takes its place among the least and the last; it blesses giving over receiving; its status is poverty of spirit, compassion, kindness, and mercy; and its arsenal contains no weapons for protection. Love’s power surpasses human strength; it is the divine process of creation, transformation, and redemption.

Palm Sunday is an act of God. It is a power play, a dramatic presentation of the Word made flesh. And yet its central figure – Jesus of Nazareth – portrays the long-awaited messiah in a form that contrasts with popular expectations. Nevertheless, his lowliness beckons us to pay attention, and to watch the power of love enter the heart of darkness, endure all that evil brings to bear, remain faithful unto death, and rise to a living presence that cannot be overpowered by anything humankind can muster. The love that we see Jesus embody is strong in its vulnerability, and patient in its acceptance of pain, and trusting in the midst of its agony at the hands of brutal force. This power, which we see trotting along the road to Jerusalem, amid the fading hosannas and the mounting suspicions and doubts, is counterintuitive and alien to us. But this is God’s power, and it is mighty to save. It is stronger than death itself.

Jesus had no intention of achieving stardom or fame. He came among us to tell the truth, to show us a godly way to live, and to open to us the life that is eternal, and is not bound by mortal failings and limits. The risk he took on this day long ago still touches us, and convicts us with its power. What he did for the sake of love is the gift of God for the people of God. Thus our song of thanks shall ever be:

“Ride on, ride on, in majesty! Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh; he Father on his sapphire throne expects his own anointed Son. Ride on, ride on, in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die; bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take, 0 God, thy power and reign.”[3]

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] “Jesus Christ Superstar” is the 1970 rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. It was first staged as a Broadway musical in 1971, then in London’s West End in 1972, and in 1973 it was produced as a film.


[2] I Corinthians 13:13.

[3] “Ride on! Ride On, in Majesty!” (stanzas 4&5), by Henry H. Milman, 1791-1868, Hymn 156, The Hymnal 1982.