March 25, Shout Hosanna

Shout Hosanna

Mark 11:1-11

More than ten years ago, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan collaborated on a book about the events surrounding the last week of Jesus’ life, the week before he was crucified. It was in fact titled “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem.”

The book begins with an account of Palm Sunday and this paragraph: Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week.

 The authors go on then to describe these two processions entering into the city. They tell their readers that from one end of city, from the east, comes a peasant procession. Jesus rides a young colt down the Mount of Olives, with his followers from the peasant class surrounding him, celebrating him with shouts of Hosanna and laying a pathway of palm branches. His message is about the kingdom of God.

On the opposite end of the city, from the west, comes Pontius Pilate, who is the Roman governor. He enters the city at the head of a procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers. His procession proclaims the power of the Roman empire.

From the East, a peasant procession, a proclamation of the kingdom of God; from the west, a military procession, a proclamation of the power of empire.

Mark, chapter 11, our scripture text for today, makes no mention of the imperial procession – just the peasant one, the one with Jesus on a young colt, but Borg and Crossan make the case that both processions were happening that day. We know about the peasant procession, the one promoting the kingdom of God, because we have the account in scripture, but we know about the imperial procession, the one promoting the power of the Roman Empire, because historians tell us that it was the standard practice at the time.

You see, whenever there was a major Jewish religious festival, especially one like the Passover, (which you will remember celebrated Jewish liberation from the Egyptian empire), the Roman authorities would show up in force, just to remind the Jews in Jerusalem who was in charge.

There was of course a Roman military garrison in Jerusalem, but Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem. He lived about sixty miles to the west on the coast, at the more modern, cosmopolitan city of Caesarea. But for a festival like the Passover, you can be sure he would show up in Jerusalem, and along with him, enough soldiers to intimidate the population and to quell any potential uprising.

Borg and Crossan also point out something else that is interesting about the imperial procession. It’s not just a military exercise. It’s also a demonstration of Roman imperial theology.

According to Rome, the Emperor was not just the ruler, but the Son of God, the Savior, the Lord. And according to their belief system, upon the emperor’s death, he would ascend to heaven. (Interesting language isn’t it, when we are so used to such language being applied to Jesus.) So, the Roman representatives showed up to assert their military dominance and to assert their belief system as well.

And, I want to mention that Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan make a case that Jesus does not just happen to wander into the city from the east, coincidentally, at the same time as the Romans are marching in from the west. No, this was planned.

Jesus decides to ride in at the same time from the opposite direction because it says something important symbolically about how his message runs counter to the message of empire.

And he has his disciples go and get a colt that’s never been ridden because it matches the prophecy of the Zechariah who said, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It looks, say the two theologians, like this is a “planned political demonstration,” a “pre-arranged counter-procession” that is meant to be interpreted then as a fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecy.

And that’s the key to the whole thing, I think: that Jesus’ procession is a counter-procession that is meant to affirm, and indeed fulfill, God’s ancient prophecy about what God wants for God’s people; what kind of Savior God intends.

Where Pilate intimidates, Jesus invites; where Pilate has an army of soldiers, Jesus has a crowd of sympathizers; where Pilate has the tools of war, Jesus has the commitment to peace. Everything is the opposite; everything about Jesus is the complete counter to everything about Pilate. The kingdom of heaven does not look like the empire of Caesar.

And the two theologians also remind their readers that the prophet Zechariah doesn’t just say, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” but in the very next verse, the prophet says this: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:10)

What does this mean? The two theologians answer: “This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land – no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace.” (p.4)

Okay, so the Jesus-way is the counter to the imperial way; they are power, he is peace; they are violence, he is compassion; they are strength through force, he is strength through integrity; they are war horses, he is a young colt. They have a vision of domination, he has a vision of the fulfillment of God’s prophecies, the fulfillment of God’s vision of peace. They are the power of empire, he is the kingdom of God.

Contrasting understandings of salvation, right?  In some ways it would seem that it couldn’t be more clear – this contrast. But do the people understand? Do the peasant followers, the crowds, the ones waving palms and laying down cloaks – do they understand? Do they realize that what Jesus is bringing is not a clash, but a counter-vision? When they shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” are they celebrating a prince of peace or are they anticipating the overthrow of Rome by force?

Certainly, they were tired of being dominated. They were tired of cultural and economic oppression, of being forced to pay tributes to the powerful and being cut off from economic opportunity by the wealthy. They were tired of being ruled by a few elites. Peasants were pushed off their land, or else they had their property confiscated and were allowed only to be tenant farmers. The priorities of the empire did not grant them justice. They were sick to death of it.

Borg and Crossan point out that all of this was not (and still today is not) uncommon: “The wealthy and powerful,” they write, “justify their position by saying, “This is the way it is.” Whether done by religious or non-religious authorities, the effect is the same. (It is made to look as if) God – or the way things work – has set it up this way.”

So, of course the common people yearned for freedom, and with that freedom, a life of opportunity, a life of peace. But how to get from here to there?

And then…along comes Jesus, who challenges the status-quo, who gives a counter argument for what exactly God’s will is, who reminds people that government power or “normal” social patterns or religious rationalization does not necessarily equate with holiness or deservedness; along comes Jesus who meets and interacts with those on margins of society, who teaches rather than intimidates, who heals rather than oppresses.

Why wouldn’t the people cry out when he arrives at the gates of the city, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”?

A couple of months ago, the president of the United States, after seeing the Bastille Day military parade in France, declared that he would like a big military parade. Some people thought at first that it was just a joke. After all, military parades, with tanks and missiles on trailers and columns of marching soldiers are what military dictators seem to enjoy. Military parades, with all the hardware arrayed, are what North Korea likes to show off, or what you might see from the streets of Moscow or Beijing. But the president was serious. 

Then, two weeks ago, NPR reported that the requested military parade is now set for Veteran’s Day. Here’s what the report said:

The Pentagon says a military parade requested by (the President) will take place in Washington on Veterans Day to honor those who have served in the military from the Revolutionary War through today.

The document addressed to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provides "initial guidance," including assurances that the display will not include tanks, to minimize damage to the city streets…

The memo does not estimate the cost, but as NPR has reported, estimates have suggested (that it could cost as much as) $50 million.

Tamara Keith and Tom Bowman reported that holding it on Veterans Day, which also commemorates the end of World War I, could reduce complaints:"By potentially tying the parade to the 100th anniversary of the end of the 'War To End All Wars,' there may be an effort to associate with the tradition of celebrating war victories and avoid associations with countries like North Korea, China and Russia, which regularly hold military parades, in part for the propaganda value.

Their report continued: "Members of Congress from both parties have been critical of the idea of a military parade, questioning its cost and necessity."

The memo (from the Pentagon) says the parade will begin at the White House and proceed to the U.S. Capitol, with a "heavy air component at the end." It notes that (the president) will be surrounded by military heroes in the reviewing area at the Capitol.

That’s about the power of Empire, isn’t it? Not unlike Pilate and his forces marching into the city of Jerusalem from the west.

As many of you know, I just back got this morning from Washington DC. We arrived home about 3:00 a.m. I made the trip with 28 other people from our congregation – the majority of them junior high and high school students.

We left on Friday after school and drove the 10 plus hours to Oakton, Virginia, just outside the DC beltway, slept a short night’s sleep, then drove on to Vienna metro stop where we caught the orange line downtown.

We arrived in the city at 9:45 in the morning, for the “March for our Lives” event. We went first to the Washington City Church, a few blocks from the Capitol South metro stop, where we met up with other Brethren who had come to the city. We left the church at 10:30 am to walk eight or so blocks to the march area on Pennsylvania Avenue, where we gathered with a growing crowd facing in the direction of the capitol building.

As we walked to Pennsylvania Avenue and when we got there, we were part of a parade, I guess you could say. But there were no tanks and no marching columns of soldiers and no fighter jets overhead.

What there was instead were thousands, and then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of people. They were – we were – rallying for an end to gun violence. We were Marching for our Lives.

We did not see the president. We did not see a military reviewing stand. We did not see an array of military hardware, the mighty symbols of empire and wealth and power. Instead, we saw sea of people with passion, and commitment to ending gun violence,

We saw and heard from the student organizers and speakers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school – survivors of the shooting there, and from teenagers from Chicago, and survivors from Sandy Hook, and young people from many places around this country whose siblings and friends have been killed by guns.

We saw and heard the passion and commitment of these young people – passion for life, commitment to peace. We heard the music of hope. And we saw signs, hundreds of signs, that said things like, “The second amemdment is so 1791” and “guns don’t kill people, spineless politicians do,” and “One child is worth more than all the guns in the world,” and “I am stronger than fear,” and “we stand together,” and “do justice, love mercy, march proudly” and “my generation is speaking up for those who will never speak again” and “ the kingdom of god has no assault weapons.”

And then near the end of the three hour rally, one of the Parkland student survivors, Emma Gonzalez, after she read of the names of her classmates and teachers who died on February 14, and enumerated all the things they once did and will never do again, paused - not for just a few moments, but for 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the time it took for all those people to be killed in her school.

And as she was silent, we became silent - a crowd of hundreds of thousands and we all went silent. And that brief silence, that passionate, sad, strong, determined, holy silence...was powerful.

Not empire-powerful — but kingdom of God-powerful. Not powerful like Pilate and his procession coming from the west; but powerful like Jesus and his followers marching down the Mount of Olives from the east.

When the silence was finally broken, no one shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” but they could have, because in that space, first during those three hours and then during those six minutes, standing among those thousands, I would say that we caught an echo of the passion of the people who long ago joined the Jesus parade of palms, a passion for justice, for salvation, for change. and so I do believe we caught glimpse of the kingdom of God.  

Look, from our congregation, just twenty-nine of us went to this event in Washington. DC. And some of more of us went to a similar event in Fort Wayne, but all of us – in our desire to follow in the way of Jesus – all of us are invited to be part of some kind of empire-challenging Jesus counter-procession, because our Palm Sunday calling is this:

To march with the prophets – the ones of the past and the ones of today – that we might do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to march with the prophets of peace toward a kingdom of peace.

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!




Benediction: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Blessed are you! Amen.


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

March 25, 2018