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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

Palm Sunday

Some years ago, a book was written by Gene Smith, a noted American historian. The title was "When The Cheering Stopped." It was the story of President Woodrow Wilson and the events leading up to and following WWI. When that war was over Wilson was an international hero. There was a great spirit of optimism abroad, and people believed that the last war had been fought and the world had been made safe for democracy.


On his first visit to Paris after the war Wilson was greeted by cheering mobs

The same thing was true in England and Italy. The cheering lasted about a year. Then it gradually began to stop. At home, Woodrow Wilson ran into opposition in the United States Senate and his League of Nations was not ratified. Under the strain of it all the President's health began to break. In the next election his party was defeated. So it was that Woodrow Wilson, a man who barely a year or two earlier had been heralded as the new world Messiah, came to the end of his days a broken and defeated man.


It's a sad story, but one that is not altogether unfamiliar. The ultimate reward for someone who tries to translate ideals into reality is apt to be frustration and defeat. There are some exceptions, of course, but not too many.


It happened that way to Jesus....


In the year 30 AD, a grand procession entered the city of Jerusalem to pay tribute to an important Roman leader. Drums and trumpets and a thousand soldiers preceded him as he strode into the city wearing a coat of silver armor and sitting in on a pure white stallion. It was an exhibition of military power, not unlike what Germany witnessed in the late 1930’s.


Three years later, in the spring of 33 AD, there would be another procession in Jerusalem. It was quite a different scene. An unemployed, homeless young Rabbi would enter on a donkey accompanied by a group of his scruffy, country bumpkin followers and greeted by folks waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” It is Jesus of Nazareth.


What should Palm Sunday mean for us? Getting back to that ostentatious procession of the Roman governor in 30 AD, we find there a Jerusalem that is rife with conflict and tension. There were religious factions within the Jewish community, Roman authorities tried to impose their culture on the people, Caesar levied taxes on them. The political rhetoric was fierce and oppressive. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Marginalized people were demonized by the mainstream religious community.  


The elite members of the Jewish community wanted a king, a powerful leader to free them from the tyranny of Roman oppression and the common folk wanted a savior to get them from under the dominance of the religious authorities. They probably expected that he would arrive on a white horse instead of a donkey and be led by a formidable army rather than a dozen bedraggled disciples.


Instead, they got an unemployed, homeless, young rabbi who taught them to forgive one another, make peace with one another, care for the poor, and love one another as he loved us. The Messiah, the king, who entered Jerusalem that day was not one they expected.


These are rather trying times, often cruel times, not unlike the political and emotional climate in which Jesus lived so long ago. It is a polarized and scary time in our country and in the world. Some people feel that the only solution to deep, complex problems is to react to others with hatred, blame and violence. Our world today is not very different from the world in which Jesus lived and died.


What about us? What are we looking for in Jesus, our Messiah and Savior, the Son of God? Would we have him ride into town on a white horse, in a parade that demonstrates our military prowess?  That’s not who the people in first century Palestine got on that first Palm Sunday and it’s not who we get today. God expresses power in ways that are totally beyond our comprehension.


Yes, we still get an unemployed, homeless, young rabbi riding on a jackass but who happens to be the very face of God, a God who embraces us just as we are, weeps for us when we are hurting and forgives us when we do wrong.


I read a story years ago about someone who ran a clinic in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Trained at one of the finest medical schools in the country, she chose instead to work among the indigent who were inadequately served by our health care system.


By the time she sees most of her patients, they are so ill and malnourished that they are terminal. She works ten hour days and has been assaulted twice during her twenty years as a doctor. Why does she do it? Because she actually believes that the unemployed, unarmed, homeless young rabbi who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is none other than the truth about God.


Jesus walked through that toxic environment in which he lived as a peace maker and reconciler with a message of love and compassion for one another rather than one of mistrust and hate. He came to lift up those around him, making whole what was broken, healing the sick, comforting the broken hearted, bringing others to know God’s mercy and all-embracing, unconditional love. It's a sad story, but one that is not altogether unfamiliar. The ultimate reward for someone who tried to translate ideals into reality ended in betrayal and death by crucifixion.


I do wonder if Jesus were to enter some churches or walk into a supermarket or walk among any large gathering of those who call themselves  Christians and ask them if they were reluctant to forgive one another, make peace with one another, care for the poor, and love one another as he loved us, welcome the marginalized and if Jesus were to set them straight about what the Gospel is all about,  would the Hosannas turn silent? Would the cheering stop?


It happened that way to Jesus…

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