Courage or Despair?

Rev. Seth Patterson
March 24, 2024, Palm Sunday

Scripture: Mark 11:7–11

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Welcome to this festive day! We are here together—how fortunate we are to be here together!—and like the crowds gathering a few millennia ago, we get to say ‘Hosanna!’ and wave our palms in the air. How excited Jesus must have been to be received by this crowd with such enthusiasm!

Voice: So…what makes you think he was excited?

Well, it was a parade. People spread their clothing on the road to welcome Jesus. They waved palms which seems celebratory. Plus, they were shouting ‘Hosanna!’

Voice: What does Hosanna mean?

In a Christian context, Hosanna is an exclamation of celebration. Like saying woo-hoo or hooray.

Voice: But were those people Christian? Was Jesus Christian?

No, no they were not. He was not. They would have been part of our Jewish sibling faith. Maybe a few curious Romans sprinkled in, but likely mostly Jewish folk.

Voice: Does Hosanna mean the same thing in Judaism? Is it celebratory?

Well, not really. In Judaism it is a cry expressing an appeal for divine help. Hosanna in Hebrew or Aramaic means “help” or “save us!” I guess that depending on the viewpoint, Jesus could have been welcomed into Jerusalem with joy or desperation, celebration or lament.

Voice: So, was it a celebration or a lament? Were the people celebrating Jesus’s arrival or begging him to help them?

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I guess it depends on the context. If we are asking about a likely real crowd, then they would have been Jewish and under the oppressive thumb of the Roman occupiers. They would have been speaking Hebrew or Aramaic in which Hosanna is a plea to be saved. If we are asking about the writers of the story, then they were early followers of Jesus and they were forming a narrative in which this entrance is part of a larger celebration that culminates in the death of Jesus and, depending on the Gospel, some sort of resurrection story.

Voice: Again, was it a celebration or a plea for help?

Can it not be both? Lament and joy can be two sides of the same coin. Laughter and tears often spill out of us at the same time.

Voice: Are you avoiding answering the question, Mr. Reverand Master of Divinity?

Ugh. Fine. Both are plausible. And yet likely not simply one or the other. There is a theory that the entrance narrative into Jerusalem is a satire of Roman military parades. Instead of a horse and chariot, he rides in on a lowly donkey that he returns later, something the Romans would not have done. This version of the parade was mocking their oppressors and there certainly can be amusement in that reversal of power dynamics. And the people were being badly hurt by this Roman occupation, so Jewish people shouting Hosanna as a plea for help feels true also. That is how I make meaning out of this story, but there are certainly other ways. What do you think?

Voice: Am I not the one asking questions here?

Yes, but asking questions is my goal in sermons. All of my titles are questions, I ask the questions I am curious about but am careful to not answer them definitively so that the folks here can try to make meaning on their own. There is rarely any singular or absolute answer in these matters.

Voice: So, you ask questions to avoid making any definitive claims?

I am not avoiding it…I don’t think I’m avoiding it.

No, I am not avoiding making claims. I would rather rest in questions and not answers. I like to think that one of the ways that this pulpit can be meaningful is by publicly wrestling with questions together.

Voice: Together? But aren’t you the only one talking?

Sometimes. Apparently not today…

Voice: What are you afraid of?

This isn’t about me.

Voice: Isn’t it?

Come on! Ask me a real question.

Voice: What are you afraid of?

Not about me!

Voice: Do you think Jesus was afraid?

Afraid? Maybe of being bucked off the donkey or being hit in the eye by a palm branch…

Voice: Do you think Jesus was afraid?

I don’t read anything in this story that indicates he was afraid. In fact, the story says very little about him.

Voice: What happens before this in the Book of Mark?

Do you mean the part in Chapter Ten when he says, “how difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God?” I mean that should scare all of us, but probably didn’t scare Jesus.

Voice: Do you always need to try to be funny?

Ok, disembodied sermon question voice. I let you out of my head for one celebratory Sunday and….

Voice: What happens before this in the Book of Mark?

Ok. Right after that wealth part and before the entrance to Jerusalem comes this:

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32–34)

Voice: Do you think Jesus was afraid?

Yes.

Voice: Why?

Because he knew that he would die.

Voice: Don’t we all know we are going to die?

Yes, but we don’t always know it is imminent and how it will occur. Plus, it is rare to have the whole thing get kicked off with a celebration and/or lament parade.

Voice: If he was afraid, why did he show up?

Why did he show up? Instead of staying away? Or hiding?

Voice: ————

He was being courageous, I think.

Voice: You think?

Yes. He was being courageous. He was walking—or, I guess, riding a donkey—into a period of extreme humiliation and pain. Crucifixion was a torturous way to die. It was a powerful and highly visible Roman form of capital punishment often for those who were political dissidents. The process could take hours or days and often drew a crowd. It was excruciating and was used to make an example out of people to scare others into toeing the line. Knowing that was the likely conclusion and still parading into Jerusalem was an incredibly brave act.

Voice: Why did he do it?

What choice did he have?

Voice: Could he have instead run away and chosen despair?

Despair?

Voice: Sure? Was despair not an option?

Yes. I suppose he could have chosen despair which might have caused him to flee and avoid this awfulness. But then what? I guess he could have continued preaching and healing and spreading his message of the love of God, self and other. Eventually, though, he would probably have been caught and brought into the same situation. Could he have maintained his counter-cultural ministry and not eventually run afoul of the authorities? Was this inevitable?

Maybe it felt inevitable, like the only way out was to go through it? Maybe he knew they would get him anyway, so at least this way he could do it on his own terms. I suppose this is the only way he’d get a parade!

Voice: So, Jesus chose courage instead of despair?

Courage instead of despair? Yeah, I guess so. His actions on that day we now call Palm Sunday were incredibly courageous.

Voice: Are courage and despair opposites?

I don’t think they are opposites. They seem to have some play with each other. One cannot have courage if they are not afraid, otherwise there would be nothing to be courageous for. The etymology of the word despair indicates moving away from hope. The root of the word courage means to lead with your heart. If despair has one moving away from hope, then courage is the heart, one’s source of love, leading back to hope.

To stop moving away from hope can be difficult and it takes courage, one needs the energy from the source of love. It takes courage to make hope once again. It takes practice. Maybe it was easier for Jesus to choose courage because he had been practicing it and leading with his heart for so long. For his whole ministry he had been continuously using his energy to move towards hope and not away from it.

Voice: What was the source of Jesus’s courage?

The love of God and the love of others. Jesus paraded into Jerusalem because of love. Love was the source of his courage, of him leading with his heart. Whether the people were shouting celebration or lament, he heard them. He saw them and he was with them. Neither he nor they were alone. He was there to help even if it wasn’t in the way the people expected. He was there to be a source of hope and celebration. He was there to be a model of courage in a world full of hurt. He was there to show what it looked like to face despair, to be pulled away from hope and instead choose to follow love and act with courage.

Voice: What should we all make of this? What does this mean for us today?

I guess, like always we get to put ourselves into the story. We are like the folks on that parade route long ago, we have shown up here, we have palm leaves to wave, hosannas in our throats and so many things to celebrate and for which we ask for help.

As a community we are called to follow Jesus and this would require us to do like Jesus did. He showed up for those in pain, how can we be present in this world of hurt? He lived in that soft middle ground between joy and lament, how can we also? He acted humbly, how can we follow God with humility? He held himself in an expansive and boundless community, how can we make our community continue to be one that welcomes and loves all? He kept going even when he knew it could be awful. How do we model love in the face of fear? Jesus faced despair and turned away from its pull and chose courage. How can we do the same?

Sometimes the walk through life can feel less like a parade and more like a long dark road. We cannot make it so the walk is less dark, we cannot make it so the walk needn’t happen at all. What we can do is walk together along the road, none of us need do this alone. We can seek help or celebrate together. We can wave palms and rest our loads on the humble donkey. This Palm Sunday may we remember the courage of being together and loving all the others, even when the outcome may be incredibly scary.

So, friends, palms up for courage! Palms up to turn away from despair! Palms up for love and our ability to lead from our hearts with the unrelenting and ceaseless love of God! May we carry this out of this building and into the world!

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service

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