Most years when Palm Sunday arrives, I’m ready for the parades and the hosannas and the choice the day implies. There’s no need for the stones to cry out; I’m there. This year? Not so much. Sunday’s parades seem like they are far off and maybe Pilate’s war horses and shiny armor will overpower Jesus’ colt and cloaks. Who’s really paying attention this year? Who has palm branches at the ready and hosannas to spare?
When I talk about suicide prevention and the steady rise in suicide rates, people always ask why are so many dying by suicide? The answer to that is complex, of course. But there is no denying that there is a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Many people feel trapped in lives that seem not to have much of a future with poverty and racism and injustice all around. Others feel isolated and alone without a place where they are known and have a sense of belonging. Every day there are more reports of immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable people being mistreated with fear and ignorance fanning the flames of dehumanization.
It’s no coincidence that a rise in hopelessness, a continuing increase in suicidality and suicide, is happening at the same time faith and involvement in faith communities is declining. Jesus didn’t ride a donkey through the back streets of Jerusalem to preserve the status quo. Jesus rode to demonstrate that true power comes with humility and a willingness to serve others. He also rode to invite people to change, to recognize that God calls us to new things, new understandings, new practices – then and now.
Jesus dared to oppose the powers of his day with his words, his actions, his life. He did not sit back and allow the ways of the Roman Empire to separate, isolate, and disempower people. He did not remain silent when the Temple Authorities sought to maintain peace by serving Rome and silencing the people, particularly those without resources. Jesus spoke truth to power. He challenged the emptiness of religious practices by those who cared more about accumulating Roman money than serving God. He actively reached out and re-membered people who lived on the margins. He restored life to those who had been cast out. He spoke hard words of hope to a people accustomed to oppression.
Miraculously, some heard Jesus’ words. Some recognized him. Some dedicated their lives to following him, learning from him, trying to live as he lived. I wish I knew how many people witnessed his humble parade on that first Palm Sunday. I’ll bet more chose to pay homage to Rome, enamored by the display of power and the promise of safety implied by war horses, armor, and spears. I’ll bet even more stayed home to avoid the chaos all together. It is easier to stay home, not make an active choice, and pretend that it is someone else’s problem than it is to decisively attend one parade or another.
Some would choose Rome simply because they were afraid, and the Roman armies had power. Others chose Jesus because he spoke of love and freedom and made them feel hopeful under the weight of Roman oppression. The rest who stayed home, these are the ones that capture my attention today. The large numbers of people who didn’t believe their lives, their actions, counted for anything. The ones whose hope had long been extinguished by the oppressive weight of empire have me wondering if they ever made a different decision. Their decision not to choose was a decision in support of Rome, whether they knew it or not. Inaction preserves the status quo and sustains the oppressors.
That’s where we are today. There is so much ambivalence and apathy that comes from hopeless and isolation. The empire of any age will seek to divide, dehumanize, and disempower. The more we give in to our fears and remain inactive, the more despair and hopelessness thrives. People are literally dying for want of human connection, human care, a place to belong.
Church, we have a choice to make. We can continue as we are and support the oppressive empire that seeks to divide, dehumanize, and disempower by valuing our traditions more than the people outside our doors. Or we can choose the way of humility and acknowledge that in order to live the Good News, we need to re-member, re-connect, and serve the vulnerable among us, those who have been cast out.
God is still inviting us to a new thing. No matter how tired we are or how ill-prepared we feel, the day of choosing is close. May we all make a choice for new life, renewed hope, and re-membered community as we journey through Holy Week. Let’s not give the stones a reason to cry out.
RCL – Year C – Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29