(photo borrowed from this article)
Palm-Passion Sunday: where in a single hour service we try to cover the euphoria of Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem like a King, and Passion Sunday with all of the gruesome events leading up to the crucifixion. A service like this runs the risk of giving people emotional whiplash. The “Palm” hymns are full of majesty and exaltation. The “Passion” ones are full of bloody sacrifice and guilt. How do you transition between these seemingly disparate occasions? But that the more I looked at these texts…the less discordant they began to feel… in fact, they began to read like two sides of the same coin. Let me explain:
In our first text, read at the beginning of the service, Jesus and his disciples are planning his grand parade into Jerusalem. This was no casual entrance—but rather a calculated performance meant to rally the crowd and evoke certain emotions. Most of the inhabitants of the city, like Jesus, were Jewish and would have been very familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Bible. They would have understood the significance of Jesus processing through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey. You see, in Zechariah 9 verses 8-10 it says,
Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch…Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey… He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.
So, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and asked his disciples to bring him a donkey to ride upon into the gates of city, he was making an intentional statement. First he was claiming royal authority by playing the part of the King—which is an odd thing to do for a wandering teacher from the nowhere-town of Galilee. Second he was declaring that he was there to liberate the people from oppression. And for Jewish people living under the shadow of violently oppressive Roman rule, this symbolism would have been both strange and deeply evocative.
Upon entering the city we are told that the crowds shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” while carpeting his path with palm branches. The use of palms is also symbolic, as palms were a sign of victory and military achievement. Roman authorities used to give palms to the victors of competitions. And emperors gave palms to their subjects following a military conquest. Additionally, in 1 Maccabees the people waved palm branches to celebrate the newly established independence of Jerusalem and Judea. So our simple text of Jesus coming into town on a donkey as people waved palms is actually a HUGE deal symbolically. The people wanted a Messiah who could fulfill their desire for independence, and overthrow the violent oppressor. The crowd’s ecstatic response to Jesus’ arrival is evidence of both their hopefulness and their hunger for change.
However, we also know that in Zechariah 9 it says that the king comes in riding on a donkey rather than a warhorse to signal that he comes in peace. And Jesus, by entering like that, is declaring his pacifist stance. He claims a certain authority, but not in a way that was expected. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that some people are unnerved. Our text says, “The whole city was shaken by his entrance.” I imagine that on the one hand they want to believe that their liberator has arrived. But on the other hand, anyone paying attention can see that this young rabbi on a donkey is no match for the military might of Rome. Both their initial fervor and their discomfort foreshadow what is to come.
Which leads us into our second text. The crowd’s chant has changed dramatically. Now instead of shouting “Hosanna” they are crying out “Crucify Him!” That initial hope has soured upon realization that, not only can Jesus not over-power the enemy with might, but he has also been pissing off the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, and siding with him is a dangerous proposition.
Now we all know what happens next: Jesus is killed. But that is not the part of the text that troubled me the most this week as I read it again and again. What haunts me is that angry crowd. Even upon being reminded of Jesus’ innocence, they call out for his blood. And then, when told that his blood will be on their hands, they still press forward KNOWING FULLY that what they are asking is unjust. That initial hunger in the crowd during the parade with palms is present at this trial—only at this trial they are not hungering for salvation or change—but rather for a scapegoat on whom to pin their fear and disillusionment.
In addition, we can see an increase in emotional tension leading up to the violence of this text. The initial buzz that started with John baptizing folks in the river had been growing through word of mouth. And each healing, teaching and miracle that Jesus performed only added to that momentum. Rumors were spreading like wildfire. Some people were incredulous when they heard the stories, others skeptical, some were hopeful, and others were outraged at the audacity of this young teacher. And all of those BIG feelings converged at the trial. AND, from our text we also know that there were soldiers and religious authorities agitating the crowd, amping people up and getting them to ask for Barabbas’ pardon and Jesus’ death. By the time Pilate takes the stage, they have been whipped into a veritable frenzy.
Now perhaps we can’t identify with this exact scenario of demanding someone’s death in an execution trial, but many of us will know the feeling of being whipped into a frenzy. Just this past Monday, as you probably know, UConn’s men’s basketball team beat Kentucky in the final game of the season. The adrenaline was pumping and people had just spent hours chanting and screaming for their side to win. After the game, UConn students went crazy. They ripped down a lamppost, and threw it through a school window. Fires were lit, cars flipped, and police dogs had to be brought in to help disperse the crowd. A freshman student put it best saying, “This energy is like something I’ve never felt before in my entire life.” 35 people ended up in jail…and that was just over basketball.
But of course it doesn’t end with basketball. We have all heard stories of pack-mentality or group-think taking over when a group of people, often young men get together and start egging one another on—upping the ante until people are doing cruel things that they would never conceive of doing alone: looting, sexual assault, torturing an animal, beating someone to death. These stories are more common than we would like to admit. The only criterion seems to be that the victim has been designated as “other” or simply as “vulnerable.”
And, of course, we see this as our Passion scene unfolds. The governor’s soldiers have also been energized by the frenzied crowd and they decide to gather the whole brigade to “have some fun” at Jesus’ expense. They strip him down and then dress him up as a king with a thorny crown, handing him a stick as a scepter, bowing down before him in mock reverence. But the joke is only funny when they then get to assert their superior power, by spitting on him and use his faux scepter to beat him in the head. Later, after he has been crucified, they bide their time as he hangs dying by gambling for his clothes and continuing to ridicule him from their post beneath the cross. Even passersby stopped to mock him.
Because we are Christians, when we read this text we tend to align ourselves with Jesus. We are horrified and outraged by the way he was treated. We want to believe that would have tried to stop it, had we been there—or at least that we would not have turned our backs on his pain. But even his closest friends abandoned him one by one for fear of their own lives. It is much more likely that we, all of us, would have been members of that crowd. And for me, that awareness is painful one.
You see I am a person who is invested in believing that humans are, at their core, good. I see the kindness we are capable of, the tenderness and compassion we embody at the best of times. I believe that God dwells within each of us, and that when we can harness that love, we capable of incredible things. But… I also listen to the news enough to know that cruelty is something we have a propensity for. And while I have never caused grave physical harm to another, I have been in arguments that made me so angry that I WANTED to hit someone. I have been in conversations where I NEEDED to prove that I was smarter and secretly wanted to leave the other person looking stupid. I have made unnecessarily divisive comments about people with whom I don’t identify—creating hierarchies and placing myself (and people “like me”) at the top. So, much as I hate to admit it, I am aware that the seed of cruelty lies within me too.
Every year we revisit this story, we revisit the Palms and the Passion trying to gain insight into the mysteries of our faith. We have all heard the stories so many times that it is hard to be surprised. Plus, it feels really far away from our lived reality. Crucifixion? I mean who even does that anymore? But of course, this drama is timeless in that it unfolding around us over and over again—the details may change but the central story remains: fear, mob-mentality, violence, dehumanization, loss…and sometimes… forgiveness.
And so today I want to hold up another Passion story—one that took place in most of our lifetimes. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. I was only 14 years old when it happened and so all I remember is newspaper images of bodies stacked on top of one another in terrible, giant heaps. I am sure many of you know far more about the details than I do—and I can’t cover them all in this sermon. Suffice it to say that there was a tragic and complex history that led up to the genocide. But here are the stripped down basics: Rwanda is a country on the African continent. The majority of the Rwandan population belongs to the Hutu ethnic group. A minority of the population belongs to the Tutsi ethnic group. For more than 600 years they were farmers who shared a common language, culture and, later, a common nationality. There were many intermarriages and Hutu and Tutsi identified people lived side by side in mixed villages with plenty of overlap.
A wedge was purposefully driven between them when the European colonists moved in. The Belgians chose to designate the minority Tutsi as the privileged class. They created and required ID cards that marked peoples’ “ethnic identity”—although in reality the divisions were not so clean and simple—and designation was often based more on economic status than ethnic identity. The second class Hutus lead the uprising for independence from European colonialism, and when they had succeeded in the 1960s, they flipped the ethnic hierarchy…and the Tutsi, who were seen as part of the oppressive colonial machine, were now stigmatized.
Fast forward to the 1990’s. The tension between Hutu and Tutsis had gotten pretty tense and the rhetoric had gotten pretty nasty. In the middle of UN peace negotiations in April 1994, the plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down. Chaos erupted, and the nasty rhetoric exploded into action.
Hutu soldiers and police officers formed militias to kill Tutsi. Further fomenting the denigrating propaganda, Hutu officials and media also encouraged ordinary citizens to take part in the killing of Tutsi and their sympathizers. The genocide started on April 7th and by July 1st, three out of every four Rwandan Tutsi were dead. Almost one million people died in 100 days—it is an unprecedented rate of genocidal killing.
The Tutsi who survived had lived through terrible violence often witnessing the deaths or disappearance of loved ones and friends. Their homes had been burned. Their communities annihilated. Many had nothing left. In addition, they lived in villages side-by-side with the very neighbors who had butchered their families.
All of this is what made a recent article in NY Times magazine so striking It seems that several non-profits in Rwanda are promoting a process called Peace and Reconciliation. Perhaps you have heard of it in the South African, or Northern Irish context where Bishop Desmond Tutu has been a huge proponent. Well, the basic idea is that when perpetrators face their victims, or the families of their victims, and listen to their story– And when those perpetrators have a chance to tell their own story and then ask for forgiveness, BOTH parties are transformed. One of the interviewers explains: “These people can’t go anywhere else — they have to make peace. Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” Yet the practical necessity of reconciliation does not detract from the emotional strength required of these Rwandans to forge it — or to be photographed, for that matter, standing side by side with people who have caused them such terrible suffering.
So as I conclude my sermon on this Palm/Passion Sunday, I want to share some direct quotes from Rwandans who have embraced Peace and Reconciliation.
Munganyinka a survivor of the genocide speaks about the man standing beside her saying: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”
And Dominique who once burned down her house responds, saying: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am a human being.”
Another perpetrator named Habyarimana says: “Once I was (released from jail for participating in the violence), it was also necessary (for me) to ask pardon of the victim. Mother Mukabutera could not have known that I was involved in the killings of her children, but I told her what happened. When she granted me pardon, all the things in my heart that had made her look at me like a wicked man faded away.”
And Mukabutera who lost her children responds, saying: “Many among us had experienced the evils of war many times, and I was asking myself what am I created for. The internal voice told me, ‘‘It is not fair to avenge your beloved one.’’ It took time, but in the end we realized that we are all Rwandans. The genocide set neighbors, brothers and sisters against one another. Now you accept and you forgive. The person you have forgiven becomes a good neighbor. One feels peaceful and thinks (hopefully toward) the future.”
Now most of us in this room are lucky enough that we will not have to live through something like genocide. The majority of us will never kill someone or see a family member murdered. But we DO participate in harming others. Many of us have experienced rifts in our extended families that keep people from talking to one another. Some of us feel anger and even hatred toward family, neighbors, or co-workers. Many of us participate in the partisan political rhetoric that ridicules people who think differently than we do. And all of us have, at some point, been on the receiving end of shame or hurt. I am not suggesting that these conflicts are in any way the same thing as genocide, however I would argue that they are part of the same process of division. And once divisions are created, once there is a “right” and a “wrong” party, forgiveness and reconciliation can feel impossible. But if a mother can watch someone murder her child, and then find forgiveness… and if Jesus could in his dying moment forgive the people who killed him… then we as Jesus followers must do the hard work in our own lives to find forgiveness.
Desmond Tutu says: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
So on this Palm/Passion Sunday I want to leave you with the simple idea that perhaps the Peace that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Donkey-back to declare—the Peace that he was ridiculed and tortured for promoting—perhaps it IS a power stronger than death, after all. Amen.