Palm Sunday 2018
Spiritual Geography: The Landscape of our Faith: The Road
Philippians 2:1-8, Luke 19:29-40 Pastor Marty Raths
Landscapes of Our Faith: The Road
During Lent we have been visiting places of geographical importance in the scriptures, and we have come to the last of our places, and this may well be the richest metaphor of all in the scriptures: the metaphor of the road, or the way, or the path.
The scripture references are many. “Teach me your ways, O Lord,” the psalmist prays, “and lead me in your paths.” The prophets speak of two ways, the one leading to justice and peace in the land, and the other to ruin. Jesus tells a parable about a Samaritan who stops to help a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and about himself he proclaims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” At the end of the road to Emmaus Jesus reveals himself to two of his followers in the breaking of the bread. On the road to Gaza Philip shares the gospel with an Ethiopian, and on the road to Damascus Paul has an encounter with the Risen Christ. And the first followers of Jesus were called “the people of the way.”
In the scriptures the road is what God wills for us. It is the way we are called to live. It is the path along which our faith is formed, our character revealed, our resolve tested. For Paul it is taking the more excellent way of love, and for John it is walking in the way of truth. For Jesus it is the way that leads to life.
And the metaphor of the road is a suggestive one for life and the life of faith. With roads there are ups and downs. There are times when we can see far ahead, and other times when we cannot see around the next bend. There are detours and dead ends. There are times to speed up and slow down, times to yield and stop. There are open roads, roads home, and roads not taken.
And for Jesus and his followers there was the road to the cross. In a sense Jesus spent his whole life on that road, but he took it in earnest on the day we are celebrating today. Palm Sunday. This is a story familiar to all of us, maybe a little too familiar, because it makes it hard for us to hear it in a fresh way. It might help for us to see Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession as a contrast between two roads. You see there were two processions into Jerusalem that week.
For some time Roman governors had made their presence felt in Jerusalem during the Passover. Now this was not out of respect for this holiest of Jewish celebrations. The Jewish people got restive during Passover. It commemorated God’s act of deliverance from the Egyptian oppressor, and it did not take much of an imaginative leap to go from Egyptian to Roman oppressor. So the governors came into the city every year, and their reason for being there was clear enough for all to see: they were there to display imperial presence and power, and to remind the people that Rome was in charge here.
So one of the processions that week came in from the west, a military show of force with soldiers and horses, led by the Roman governor at that time, whose name was Pontius Pilate. This was an imperial procession.
The other procession came in from the east, by way of the Mount of Olives, and it was a peoples’ procession, led by Jesus riding on a donkey. Now Jesus did a lot by way of contrast. He would often preface his teachings by saying, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” And there were those who thought his table fellowship and his healings were not appropriate behavior for rabbis, which provoked responses from the religious leaders like “Who does he think he is eating with sinners, and how dare he presume to forgive the sins of others.”
And this peoples’ procession was no exception. Jesus intended for it to stand in contrast to the other one. He chose this particular week to enter Jerusalem, timed it to coincide with Passover, and with Pilate’s own entry. He chose to enter riding upon a donkey, evoking the words of the prophet Zechariah. And he chose the road in from the east, all by way of contrast; and he knew full well that these two roads were going to run into each other at some point, that there was going to be a confrontation, and a clash of powers, between the power of empire and the power of incarnate love.
These are two very different roads, and they are as far apart as east is from west, though they often intersect in our world, as they did in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. And these two roads are still very much with us, and as individuals and as communities, they take us along two very different paths, one characterized by threat and force and violence, and the other by justice and righteousness and peace.
The imperial way is not limited to empires because it is an attitude, a spirit, a way of being in the world. I collect tee shirt wisdom, and I once saw a tee shirt that read, “When I want your opinion, I will give it to you.” That is the imperial way.
More seriously, the imperial way is ideological. It cannot be bothered with differing perspectives, with the varied experiences of others, and with voices of dissent. It is dictatorial. It assumes privilege, condemns difference, and demands uniformity. And it can make its way into our homes, classrooms, churches, corporate boardrooms, and political offices . . .
The king was in need of a personal servant, so his closest advisors conducted a kingdom wide search. Eventually, they narrowed it down to 2 young men, and they brought these 2 men to the castle for a final interview.
“What is 2 plus 2?” they were asked.
Now the 2 young men hesitated to answer, each one waiting for the other to say something first. Finally, the one answered, “2 plus 2 equals 4.”
When this got no response, the other one answered, “2 plus 2 equals whatever the king wants it to equal.” And this was the one who was taken on as the king’s personal servant.
The imperial way says, “Do not tell me the truth, or what you believe to be true from your own experience. Tell me what I want to hear, even if it means that 2 plus 2 does not equal 4.” There was no listening to the people that week, at least not on the part of Pilate. There was no wondering why Jesus had such widespread popularity among the people, and why they had welcomed him into the city like a king. There was no interest in hearing the voices of the people, their grievances and frustrations and hopes. All this fell on deaf ears. All that mattered to Pilate was keeping his power and position and keeping the peace, Roman style. So instead of listening he conspired with the religious authorities to do away with Jesus.
That is the imperial way. It does not listen. It silences. It does not open itself to the experiences of others. It denigrates and denies that experience. All in an effort to keep control. And again, as a way of being, this can happen in relation to our own family, to our fellow citizens, to people of other nations and faiths. In our world, and in our lives, empires, large and small and petty, abound.
Even in churches. This is what was going on in the church in Philippi. There were those who were trying to set up their own little empires in the church, trying to elevate themselves above the others in the congregation. It happens. So Paul wrote, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. . . and consider the interests of others as well as your own.”
Paul was trying to show them a different way. In attitude and spirit, they were following Pilate, taking the road in from the west, and Paul was showing them the road in from the east, putting before them the example of Christ. Let this mind be in you, Paul wrote, the mind of Christ, who did not regard even equality with God as something to be exploited, using it for his own advantage.
But my how we can exploit our differences, using them to elevate ourselves by setting up hierarchies and pecking orders. It begins at least as early as the elementary school playground, this game of who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down. And then we can set up these elaborate structures, whole empires of rules and roles and rewards and punishments, to maintain these arrangements, just to keep some out, and others down.
And all this Paul contrasts with the way of Jesus, who took the road of servant leadership, living not for his sake but for the sake of others, and not for his own selfish purposes but for the purposes of life. “I came that you may have life,” Jesus said, “and have it in abundance.” And there are many stories of people having the mind of Christ, and following him on that road, and giving of themselves to better the lives of others, and this is one of the most poignant that I know.
There was an eight-year-old boy who had a younger sister who was very sick with leukemia, and one day his parents told him that without a blood transfusion she might die. They explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could give her his blood. So they asked him if they could test his blood. “Yes,” he said. When they did this, they found that it was a match. Then they asked if he would be willing to give his blood because it might be his sister’s only chance of living. He hesitated for a moment, and then he asked, “Can I think about it?” Now this puzzled his parents a little, but they said sure he could think about it. There was time.
The next morning the little boy came and told his parents that he was willing to give his blood to his sister. So they went to the hospital where they put him on a gurney beside his younger sister. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which she then began to give to his sister. Now the boy continued to lie quietly on the gurney while the blood dripped into his sister’s arm, until a doctor came over to see how the boy was doing. “Are you alright?” the doctor asked.
And the boy opened his eyes, lifted up his head a little, and then asked the doctor, “How long will it be before I die?”
And the doctor’s eyes welled up with tears. It had never occurred to the doctor, nor to the nurses, nor even to the little boy’s parents, that the boy might think that they were asking him to give far more than just some blood, that they were asking him to give his life for his sister’s. But after a night’s thought the boy was willing to do even that./
There were two processions into Jerusalem that first Holy Week, taking two very different roads, but only the one led to life, and that is the one that Jesus and Paul and that little boy and many others have shown us to take. Now it can be a difficult road to take sometimes. The other road is more traveled, and we will have a lot more company on it. So it is an easier way to go, and it can seem like the more fruitful way. It can get results, in the short run. Like Pilate on that first Good Friday.
If I may use a gambling metaphor, Pilate seemed to hold all the cards that week, and on that Friday he played them, and it left no doubt in anyone’s mind, not even in the minds of Jesus’ closest friends, that Pilate won the hand. Pilate was still in power, and Jesus was dead. But . . . then came Easter Morn . . . And 2000 years later Pilate is a historical footnote, remembered only for his role in sentencing Jesus to death. But Jesus? He is still bidding us to follow him. This road I took, he says, you take it too. I know it led to the cross, but trust me, it is no dead end road because out beyond the cross, there is life, true life and abundant life and eternal life.
So we are at a crossroads of sorts. This holiest of weeks is before us again, and it is time for us to be going. Jesus has already gone on ahead, and we have a choice to make as we always do. This never changes. Truth be told, they are always before us: these two roads. And Jesus’ life and death and resurrection puts before us the question: which road are we going to take? The one in from the west, or the one in from the east. Pilate’s way, or Jesus’?