“Two Parades”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 13, 2014 – Palm Sunday

Scripture:  Matthew 21:1-11

 

The date was May 26, 2007.  It was a day like many others, a bright and sunny Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee.  On that day, seven years ago next month, there was a rally scheduled, a public demonstration in the city of Knoxville.  People would be traveling from miles around, coming in from out of town and even from surrounding states to join with like-minded others and make their voices heard.

The demonstrators arrived, and gathered in a park downtown, and got themselves decked out for the occasion.  They put on their long white robes.  They put on their tall, pointed white hoods, with the attached white masks that covered their whole faces, except for two eye-holes so they’d be able to see.  They got out their swastika placards and their WHITE POWER signs, and they got ready to march, got ready for a show of force that would strike fear into the hearts of anyone who dared to disagree or to be different from them.

They set out on their parade route, those white-robed, hooded marchers.  But no sooner than they had started their procession, they met a great crowd of counter-demonstrators, Knoxville locals who were determined to overshadow the white supremacists’ message of hate.

The locals were also decked out for the occasion.  They wore red foam noses and multicolored curly wigs and garish, ridiculous face paint.  They balanced on unicycles and towered on stilts.  They juggled balls, and scarves, and bowling pins.  They made quite a scene in their silly clothes and floppy, too-big shoes.  The KKK marchers were met on their route by an army of clowns.

As the marchers drew nearer, shouting and chanting with their fists in the air, the clowns made a big show of listening.  They leaned in and cupped their hands to their ears, apparently trying to make out the slogans coming from the robed and hooded crowd.  Then one of the clowns jumped up and down and waved his arms—with exaggerated gestures and excessive drama, of course, because he was a clown—and, grinning foolishly, he shouted, “I’ve got it!  White flour!

And they all reached into their backpacks and purses and tote bags and pulled out sacks of flour—five-pound bags, ten-pound bags, maybe even some of the big twenty-five-pounders.  Pillsbury, or Gold Medal, or White Lily, or King Arthur, or Bob’s Red Mill, or store brand, it didn’t matter.  They tore those flour sacks open and tossed their contents into the air, shouting, “White flour!  White flour!” as they marched alongside the Klansmen.

The now flour-covered marchers rounded another bend, and another group of clowns met them.  These new arrivals listened hard, as their counterparts had done on the previous block.  They craned their necks and stared until one of them said, “Oh!  White flowers!

And they reached into their bags and pulled out bunch after bunch of white flowers—daisies and carnations and tulips and perhaps even white roses.  They tossed bouquets in the air and ran around in the gathered crowd and handed out flowers to everyone.  Some of them even ducked into the ranks of the white supremacists and tried to tuck stems into their tightly-clenched fists.

Leaving a trail of petals behind them worthy of the aisle at a particularly elaborate wedding, the marchers—now feeling quite frustrated—persevered on their parade route.  But soon they met yet another band of clowns.  This group, mostly women in white dresses, listed, and then shouted, “No, no, it’s not white flour or white flowers.  It’s wife power!”  And they were hoisted into the air, or did the hoisting themselves, and shouted and waved signs spelling out WIFE POWER.

They went on from there, making other silly misinterpretations of the Klansmen’s slogan and diverting everyone’s attention from the original hateful purpose of the rally.  Before too long, the white supremacists threw in the towel and dispersed.  And that ragtag band of clowns marched on, with police escorts and all, and what had been intended as a day of fear and bigotry became a day of joy and laughter.

This is a true story.  The Coup Clutz Clowns (the CCC) are a group of anti-racist activists who use a flamboyant brand of satire to dismantle the power of groups like the KKK and their neo-Nazi sympathizers.  Rather than fight hatred with hatred, they use a sort of spiritual jiu-jitsu to overcome hatred with humor and racism with ridiculousness.

Two parades came into Knoxville that day.  One was a parade driven by the power of violence.  The other was a parade driven by the power of love.  When those two parades collided, if you had to guess which one would emerge victorious, the “might makes right” standards of this world would tell you that the forceful, frightening one would triumph.  But somehow, it was the one animated by laughter and love that won the day.

And that is an awful lot like what Jesus did on Palm Sunday.

 

At the time of Jesus, in the first century C.E., pilgrims and tourists would flock to Jerusalem when the festival of Passover approached.  The population of the city would grow five-fold, from about 40,000 to more than 200,000.[1]  Think of South Woodstock on Labor Day Weekend, only all those visitors would stay all week, not come and go within a day.

With the crowds would come a great deal of religious fervor.  And with the religious fervor would come a great deal of anti-imperial sentiment.  Passover is a holiday that’s all about liberation, all about God saving God’s people from situations of oppression.  During Passover, Jews tell the story of the Exodus, of Moses telling Pharaoh to “let my people go,” of God bringing the Israelites through the Red Sea waters with unmoistened foot, while Pharaoh’s chariots were washed away.  Passover is a pretty anti-imperial holiday.

Two-Parades-3

Photo:  ἀλέξ

At the time of Jesus, in the first century C.E., the land of Israel/Palestine was ruled by a foreign power.  It was an outpost of the Roman Empire, under the control of a governor who spent most of his time in a palace on the Mediterranean coast, in the town of Caesarea.  But when the festival of Passover approached and all those riled-up people descended on Jerusalem, the Roman governor would come, too, bringing with him a show of force, just in case the fervor got out of hand.

And so, on the day we remember today, there was not one but two processions entering Jerusalem.  One, the official one, coming from the west, was led by Pontius Pilate, the governor at that time, whose name is familiar to us from the stories we will tell later this week, the stories of the end of Jesus’ life.  Pilate’s parade was a mighty one, complete with war horses with armor creaking, and legions of soldiers with sabers rattling, and decked-out chariots with flags flying, and perhaps even some drummers or trumpeters or a sort of early marching band.  Pilate’s procession was intended to reinforce the power of the Roman Empire by a show of force that would strike fear into the hearts of anyone who dared to disagree.

And the other, the unofficial one, coming from the east, from Bethany, was led by Jesus, riding not on a battle-tested steed but on a colt or a donkey, a humble beast of burden.  His followers had no banners to wave, but cloaks and palm branches to strew on the ground.  They had no marching band, but the voices of children shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”

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Photo:  David Agren

Jesus and his ragtag band of followers staged a counter-demonstration, diverting attention from the original fearsome purpose of Pilate and his soldiers.  Rather than fight violence with violence, they used a sort of spiritual jiu-jitsu to meet might with merriment and power with play.

Two parades came into Jerusalem that day.  One was a parade driven by the power of violence.  The other was a parade driven by the power of love.  When those two parades collided, if you had to guess which one would emerge victorious, the “might makes right” standards of this world would tell you that the forceful, frightening one would triumph.

And from Palm Sunday on through the terrible events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, it looked like the powers of fear and death held sway.  Pilate’s parade was not turned aside by that ragtag band of Jesus-followers.  The palms would soon be exchanged for a crown of thorns.  The one carried on the back of the donkey would soon become the one carrying the cross.  The entire weight of the vast Roman Empire would come crashing down on Jesus, and no carpenter from Nazareth could withstand that impact.

But when all was said and done, when the dust had cleared, when the stone was rolled away on Easter morning—you know the story—the tomb was empty.  Love triumphed once and for all.  Pilate and his minions were consigned to the dustbins of history, while Jesus became the focus of a movement of peace and mercy, of nonviolence and grace, of laughter and healing, of forgiveness and song, of radical hospitality and extravagant welcome, of justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, of love that is the be-all and end-all—love that is first and last, alpha and omega, beginning and end; love that is our primordial origin and our ultimate destiny; love that is the strongest force that will ever exist, the heart of the very heart of everything.

Doesn’t that sound like a parade you’d like to be part of?



[1] See Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Last Week, for this and other fascinating context for the Palm Sunday story.