“Before the Storm” Palm Sunday

Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 9 April 2017

Let me take you back to 10 October, 1974. It was the night of the British General Election and I was staying overnight in a midlands town, Stafford. As I walked slowly around the streets of this fairly quiet county town fairly late in the evening I was caught up in an exciting, noisy and exuberant of crowd of people waving banners, singing chants, banging drums and on the whole having a pretty good time. I got pulled into it and discovered that it was an election celebration for one of the candidates who was leading the excited throng. He went under the name of Screaming Lord Sutch and let a political party called the Monster Raving Loony Party. If somebody like me had just dropped into this bunch of revellers they would certainly have thought without hesitation that Screaming Lord Sutch a failed rock n roll singer had won this prestigious seat of Stafford and Stone. In fact the conservative candidate had romped home with 28,000 votes, Labour was second with 21,000 votes, Liberal  third with 12,000 votes and screaming Lord Sutch was right at the bottom with a mere 251.

What appeared to be the case because of the fiery parade was certainly not true. 

And so it was on this Passover Day in Jerusalem.  There was traditionally an annual parade in Jerusalem on Passover Day. It was holiday time and Jerusalem was the destination hot spot. The city’s population of 40,000 swelled to over 200,000 with crowds of devoted Jews coming into the city to commemorate their liberation from Egypt about a thousand years previously. And many of them came for the parade. It was a big and well known parade, but this was not with palm branches and people singing Hosanna. This was always the day that Pontius Pilate led a parade designed to put on a display of force, to deter the Jews from getting too exuberant about the possibility of liberation from Rome.

Pilate’s Parade was the visible manifestation of Imperial Roman power. Once a year during the Passover the Roman Procurator moved his HQ from the coast to Jerusalem. This was a deliberate show of strength designed to prevent any outbreaks of terrorism or insurgency against Roman rule. Such outbreaks were a constant fear throughout the whole Roman Empire because none of the vassal nations liked the foot of foreign power on their necks. Terrorist uprisings and attacks happened all the time.

In a show of military force the parade included cavalry on hundreds of horses, thousands of foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, and golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.

This was a first century counterpart to what we see on our international news clips of shows of force just like this in North Korea, Moscow and Beijing.

And just like now in those modern day cities, the sounds of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the beating of drums, and the huge exhibition of weaponry this would have had a sobering effect on onlookers.  This would have struck fear into the resentful onlookers. As Pilate led a regiment of his most trusted soldiers, he did so in confidence knowing that he was backed up by battalions and battalions of Rome’s finest.

And O yes at the same time there was this OTHER parade not anywhere near as big or as loud, not military or threatening. No weapons being brandished, just a few palm branches being waved about, no aggression or shouting or marching much less an event than even Screaming Lord Sutch on election night. Just a peasant accompanied by his peasant followers, a few fishermen and a rag bag of folk tagging on coming from the unfashionable north end of Jerusalem.

And so we have at the same time a huge and mighty parade of power contrasted with a relatively small and insignificant procession of peace.

 You have a huge statement of aggression representing rule by strength, by force, by war and invasion.  Compared with a handful of scruffy county folk a few branches and a gentle trot into Jerusalem.

And so what does this teach us today? As we look at these inoffensive and lovely products of nature before us?

First thing is that it tells us something about the COURAGE of Jesus. He would have known well the huge statement of power just a couple of mile away designed to put down any threats that Rome just wanted to eliminate. And we know that Jesus was seen as one of those agitators. He was one of the very people that Pilate was concerned about putting down. And Jesus would have known that. The clouds were building. He was being warned about enemies on all sides conspiring against him.

But he made a deliberate and planned decision to go ahead with this event. This Palm Sunday procession was no accident. It was deliberately planned. In fact in Mark’s Gospel much more is written about the planning than the actual event. The disciples were given precise instructions to go to a pre-planned location to collect the donkey. Jesus knew that this, what might be called ‘counter parade’, would be a challenge to the Roman authorities.

And from a Roman perspective this is an easy one to put down a poor insignificant peasant from a remote part of the country with no weaponry, no army or terrorist group, no call to arms, no real power, even many of his own lot wanted to disown him. Yes this would have taken massive courage on Jesus’ part. It was a serious risk.

We’re in that smallish low key crowd. It’s a sunny day. We’re with our friends and in the company of a man who’s been saying some terrific stuff, but the clouds are gathering. We might wave our palm branches in support and joy, but behind that greenery is fear and concern about the storm which is brewing.

This is a great act of courage from Jesus.

And it’s this courage that we still need to emulate. If the church is comfortable and basking in the sunshine it’s not doing its job of making a stand, showing courage, challenging much of the accepted standards of the day.

If our Federal Government is so controlled by a small group of extremists it can’t deliver the easy legislation empowering Marriage Equality, then we should be challenging that. If our church is so lily livered about it we should show them the way. If as a country we aren’t welcoming refugees then our church should be demonstrating against that.

If our City Council wants to shove our 267 rough sleepers off somewhere else and have the power to seize their pathetic belongings, we should be demonstrating positive non aggressive alternatives. We should have that Palm Sunday courage to stand up against might and power. Vincent Van Gough, “The fisherman knows that the sea is dangerous and the storms are terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason to remain on shore”.

Here’s another e.g. of courage: Charlotte and tea and scones. Even the simplest of thing s can be courageous.

And we should also be following the second statement Jesus is making on this day, that of LEADERSHIP.

Consider the comparative acts of leadership.

Pilates leadership style is authorities and controlling. It’s a statement of “Do as I say” or else you’re in trouble big time. I’ve got the power and authority over you and I’m going to exercise it.

Now think about Jesus’ leadership style…throughout the whole of his ministry or if you like his position as Executive Director of Ministry incorporated. His style was one straight out of the management text books, described now as “Building up Common Vision”. The former Pilates style only works, and even then very ineffectively, when the leader is present. The latter Jesus’ style continues to work when the boss is out of the office, because people have a share in that vision.  It is participative and energising and the Christian Church today owes its very existence to that management or leadership style.

So what are we doing about sharing our vision with others?

Well at least the Cathedral has a Welcome to Refugees poster.

And on behalf of all city churches I presented to the City Council on Thursday a response to the city’s homelessness and spoke as Minister of this Church on 3AW to Tom Elliot that afternoon. And our stand on marriage equality continues to get good media and social media coverage.

But this is only a start.

Let today be the beginning of our parade to stand up and be counted. Let’s see some strong courageous vision building in the church to get people excited and enthused. Last week when I appealed to you to go and talk to someone else the hall was buzzing with life and vitality. We’ve got fabulous resources here at St Michaels. We’ve got a city centre platform. We’ve got a squad of hundreds of people, many many more than the original bunch of palm branch wavers.

And the third thing that screams out at us about that first Palm Sunday is that it is not an act of aggression. It is an act of PEACE.

It is fitting today that Ken Gosbell carried in the processional Staff “IN recognition that we might work towards peace in our world through education and knowledge”. So often war is a product of ignorance. Donald Trump’s statement í love war and I’m really good at it” is an anathema to everyone in our Palm Sunday parade. It fits well into Pilate’s Parade, but we’re not there. We have palm leaves in our hands, not guns!

A good modern day analogy is that Pilate has a parade of Harley Davisons. We just have bicycles.

“Blessed are the Peacemakers. For they shall be called the children of God.”  There can be no greater title than to be able to put that after your name, and as Ken rightly says in carrying that staff, education and knowledge is a vital part of peacemaking.

Jesus spent the whole of his ministry educating and opening up new ways of looking at things.  You can imagine those Nazarine peasants brought up on a diet of Jewish orthodoxy, having their eyes opened to new life changing and even world changing concepts.

And Jesus preaching peace and healing could see the clouds of pain and suffering both for himself and for his followers.

This is no easy road, as Detreich Bonhoeffer says “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe”. Remember he was saying these things and fighting against anti-Semitism in Hitler’s pre-war Germany, a very courageous thing to do, and it was these actions that led him to a Nazi prison cell  and execution only days before the war ended.

So let us work towards being part of a courageous church. A church which leads the way. A church which enthuses and excites people and a church which dares to live and talk peace in our lives and communities.


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