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- The Rev. R. Justice Schunior
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Conquering Fear: Palm Sunday 2021
The day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey was no ordinary day. It was a time of celebration. A big crowd of people was on pilgrimage to the great city to visit the Temple and enjoy the Passover festivities. First-century scholars say that the movement of people from all over the Mediterranean can be equated to the Hajj, the pilgrimage of faithful Muslims to the holy city of Mecca.
Passover, or Pesach, which started at sundown yesterday, is one of the main Jewish feasts because it commemorates the beginning of the exodus of God’s people from Egypt. What is celebrated is the liberation of the people of Israel from the oppression they had suffered for generations at the hands of the rulers of Egypt, who had enslaved them.
Going to Jerusalem and visiting the Temple, which was the earthly residence of God, was the aspiration of every Jewish person in antiquity. It’s still the dream of many religious Jews. At the end of the last seder during Passover, the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” is used to reaffirm that sentiment to this day.
Let’s now take a look at the religious-political mood during that spring two thousand years ago. Judea was a Jewish province under Roman rule. The Romans tolerated the Jewish upper class and religious authorities, who were their clients, but were very leery of potential rebellions that could start among the lower classes. There was a history of rebellions, many of them coming from the Northern region of Galilee, which had been violently quashed, with the leaders being summarily executed, usually on the cross, which was the official and brutal method of execution of the Roman Empire.
Hence, Jerusalem would be heavily guarded during the Passover celebrations which brought so many Jewish people from outside Judea.
This is the setting where Jesus was preparing to make his triumphant entry on the back of a donkey. The fact that he rode a donkey may not mean much to us in the twenty-first century, but it would have been a remarkable event for the crowds descending on Jerusalem on this particular day in the first century. Common, poor people didn’t have access to any means of transportation other than their two feet. As we hear in the Gospels, everybody walked everywhere, beginning with Jesus. Fancier modes of transportation were reserved for the elites. So this must have been a deliberate decision. And quite a gutsy move!
The pilgrims entering Jerusalem must have been surprised to see Jesus on a donkey. Even if it was a humble burro, not a fancy steed, the symbolism was there: with this gesture, Jesus was reclaiming his royal right. Only kings rode into cities. He entered Jerusalem as a king.
This is the moment he had been building up to throughout his ministry in Galilee and some foreign territories. The option that he was offering to the oppressed people of Israel—the poor, the hungry, the lepers, the blind, even the foreigners, was the option called the Reign of God, the Kingdom of God. After many denials on his part, after many admonitions to keep silent about his identity, he was finally ready for the big reveal: Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the one that would be king and start a reign of peace throughout the world, for Jews and gentiles alike.
The people who came with him knew who Jesus was; many had accompanied him from Galilee. By the time they reached the outer limits of Jerusalem in Bethany and Bethpage, the numbers were staggering. The crowd that went ahead of him laid their cloaks on the ground as well as leafy branches that they cut as they walked. Both crowds, the one walking ahead and the one following, were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
One last point regarding the triumphal entry: it is traditionally believed that the crowd that shouted the Hosannas and hailed Jesus as king is the same one who then turned against him a few days later calling for him to be crucified. But this is not so. According to Biblical scholars, the crowds were different: there were the outsiders who had come with Jesus, himself an outsider, to celebrate Pesach; the other crowd were Judeans, people from Jerusalem who hadn’t even heard of Jesus before this fateful week. Even in Mark’s short reading it is plainly clear that the masses hailing Jesus were not inside Jerusalem but were those who had traveled alongside him.
At this point, I’d like to pause and reflect on what must have been going on in Jesus’ mind on his way to Jerusalem. Of course, we can never know exactly what thoughts and feelings people have when they do certain actions, but one could safely assume that Jesus must have planned his regal entry. It is also clear that he was no longer shushing the crowds, keeping them from revealing who he was. He seems to have made up his mind and finally be ready to come to Jerusalem, go to the Temple and say his peace, whatever the consequences. He must have been afraid; he must have felt alone; we know he prayed. And yet he did what he had set out to do.
As I prepared this sermon, I was drawn to talk about fear and how we respond to it; I thought of Jesus and how courageous he was to challenge not only the religious authorities of his day with his message of reform, but most importantly, the Roman Empire, known for its violence and short fuse. And as I was writing and pondering, my daughter learned about the noose that someone had hung from a tree in our courtyard on Friday. We immediately rushed to the church. We felt we needed to be there. It was sobering, this sight. My first reaction was how much grief this symbol of hatred and oppression would cause, especially to our African American brothers and sisters, who have already gone through so much. I just stood there in disbelief, somewhat stunned. The bishop and Michele were already there and also the police and a few others. It felt surreal. A while later, my daughter and I walked back home with a sense of unease and malaise.
When I eventually got back to my sermon-writing I kept thinking of the different ways in which we respond when faced with an act of hate against our community. There is denial and anger and grief, but there is also a big underlying sense of fear.
Yesterday morning during centering prayer we had a very poignant conversation about fear; some of us spoke about not being afraid and standing up for what we believe is right, while someone else offered a more nuanced response saying that he was always afraid and that he had to overcome his fear to be able to act.
Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid; angels told mortals not to be afraid when daunting situations appeared. We have to be encouraged not to be afraid because being afraid is the reasonable response to so many awful and scary things that happen in the world. Being afraid is the hallmark of being human. But it’s also the hallmark of courageous individuals to overcome their fear and offer themselves to a cause, to an ideal, to the greater good. I think that’s why when we say, I’m not afraid, the truth is that though full of dread inside, we create a mindset that allows us to act despite the fear.
In the last couple of weeks, terrible things have happened in our country: shootings in Atlanta and in Boulder. And there have been more. All of this with the backdrop of COVID-19. The world is a scary place; terrorism, either foreign or homegrown, seeks to terrify us, to make us cower in fear, to paralyze us into inaction. Pandemics isolate us and make us deathly afraid.
Terrorists and hate-mongers want to sow fear in our hearts. But the human spirit is resilient. Time and again we are able to come back from loss, from grief, from threats, from devastation, and show that we are not afraid to continue to do what we are called to do even if inside the fear still lurks and, at times, we would rather give up than go forth.
Jesus’ decision to enter Jerusalem as God’s anointed king was a fateful one. He knew in his heart of hearts that challenging the authorities would end up with his being executed by the Roman Empire, but he had to go through with it; he had to overcome his fear and do what was right for God. His mission was to bring in an era of peace and justice for all, where God would be in charge. That was his vision: a kingdom that was already here but yet to be fulfilled.
Jesus was executed, but as Christians we believe that he was raised by God and that his Spirit lives in us. We all have different ideas of what this really means, but one thing is true: Jesus, like king David in Zechariah’s scripture, was a peaceful and humble king who was vindicated and saved by God.
We still strive for the reign of God—one that is at once here and not-yet-realized. The world is a hard place, riddled with crime, disease, injustice, but also one where there is plenty of love, courage, strength and resilience. If we are to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the anointed one of God, we ought to check our fear like he did and confront the powers of hate and oppression that have existed and continue to exist in the world and stand for what’s right, bearing witness, fighting oppression in any form, and doing what God has called us to do with what we have been given.