Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly
By: The Rev. Kim Jenne
One of my guilty pleasures is watching movies about some type of earth-ending event, movies like Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and San Andreas (2015). I love how most of these movies start calmly, pleasantly even, with everything just fine. The characters might even be in a celebratory mood—a new romance has blossomed, an important, high-profile job has begun and then, suddenly, things turn catastrophic. Life as they know it has ended. In a movie, this quick turn from good to bad is expected. It is part of the Hollywood formula. To go from a parade to an execution order and tortured death in the span of 45 minutes in worship, however, is almost too much for a congregation to handle. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “boy, that escalated quickly.”
But, did it really? Mark’s Gospel, our text for Year B, is known for its quick-tempo; but reading along throughout Lent, we have watched the rising escalation between Jesus and the religious authorities since the scripture’s abrupt beginning. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue in The Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Gradually and then suddenly. Mark’s Gospel starts off with a bang—healings, exorcisms, preaching with authority, and growing crowds drawn to Jesus, but we barely get out of the second chapter before the scribes began to question among themselves who this man from Nazareth thinks he is (2:6-7.) Gradually and then suddenly.
The arrival of Palm/Passion Sunday each year is the source of liturgical infighting among worship teams. There are camps that wonder why we can’t spend the whole Sunday focused on the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why can’t we wave our palms and enjoy Jesus getting “his due” for once before we head into Holy Week and the cross? There are other camps that would prefer to skip over the palm parade and spend the Sunday firmly rooted in the Passion as in this excerpt. Those in this camp argue that practically one-third of Mark is taken up with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life,
the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death. Only 11 verses tell of his triumphal entry into the city of David. Still others feel we must compromise and squeeze it all in—start with joy and celebration at the gates of Jerusalem and move to grief and despair as the tomb is sealed. We should start of gradually with pomp and circumstance and then arrive suddenly at the tragic end of Jesus’ ministry. Liturgical whiplash be damned. Gradually and then suddenly, that’s how the end of our brief encounter with the God-of-us.
In my childhood Bible, I remember the illustration from the palm parade—it looked like there were thousands lining the streets welcoming Jesus, hanging out windows and up trees, it looked like an ancient version of the ticker-tape parade. My current favorite children’s illustration looks nothing like my childhood memory. This Jesus, in Christina Balit’s illustrated world, is wrapped tightly in his robe, bound tightly for death upon the colt, face drawn as in a death mask. Regardless of how Jesus looked upon his entry, viewed through the lens of Empire, the procession must have certainly looked foolish to Rome.
It may be helpful to congregations to temper their palm pageants, often led by the children of the church, with the reminder that there were likely two processions in Jerusalem. In one, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, with no weapons and no army. There was simply singing, celebration, a quick visit to the Temple, and then it was all over (at least in Mark’s account.) In the other procession, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse accompanied by legions of Roman soldiers with all the pomp and ceremony of an Imperial authority figure. Today’s Passion reading is a counter-narrative to the Palm Sunday reading and intensifies the dialectic between the insider/outsider perspectives.
Perhaps the “let’s have it all” camp has it right. One approach to Passion Sunday is to demonstrate for the modern disciple how Jesus’ earthly ministry ended gradually and then suddenly once Passover weekend in Jerusalem. With such a long reading, it is helpful to break it up in vignettes or through a dramatic reading because Mark covers a lot of ground in the two chapters selected for the appointed Sunday. Mark spends time preparing Jesus for his burial through the anointing at Bethany and the quiet, intimate Passover dinner with his disciples. He is quickly betrayed by those he loved and turned over to the religious authorities. In short order, he is handed to Pilate, who, washing his hands of the mess, allows the crowds, hungry for blood, to issue the ultimate and final verdict. It makes one wonder, how short are people’s memories? Had they already forgotten the recent parade where they welcomed and called on him to “save them now” (the basic meaning of Hosanna)? Were they so naïve that they easily believed the religious leaders? Mark is playing all the time with the notion of who is on the inside, who is on the outside. The crowds move from inside to outside, the disciples move in and out of this dance repeatedly.
And, yet, in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he continued to challenge all the various forms of human Empire. Instead of a show of wealth, power and brute force, he revealed a way of being and of living together that was in complete contrast. Instead, revealing the Reign of God through giving, community, and simplicity. This Sunday’s readings allow pastors to remind their people of this contrast. A skilled preacher will quickly move the congregation from the ways in which we have witnessed, over the past 40 days, how Jesus chose not to flee from the pain of the world, but to head straight into those places in the world that frighten us. How Jesus challenged the Empire at every turn of his ministry. The last week of his life is no different.
Given the reality is that most of our congregation will fail to experience the fullness of Holy Week, we can allow Mark’s Passion narrative to help our Sunday morning crowd experience the fullness of the Jesus’ earthly ministry. For some of our flock, they have never allowed ourselves to spend any amount of time thinking about the sacrificial love of God for each one of us. They jump from the Palm parade to Easter brunch without even a glance at the events that lead to resurrection. Embracing the fullness of the passion will allow churchgoers to sit with Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion for a time before we rush to the tomb.
Before we get to Resurrection Sunday, before we put on our new clothes, before we welcome new lives into the baptismal covenant and sing our way to the Holy Table, to truly experience love, we must face suffering, trusting that love is always stronger than fear, that hope is stronger than despair and that life is stronger than death. For some of us, that witness and revelation, comes upon us gradually and then suddenly during Holy Week. We realize gradually and then suddenly that on the other side of that suffering, we can stand together as witnesses to the greatest love of all, God’s love for each one of us born upon that cross in Christ Jesus.
The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.