I used to think that I hated Palm Sunday. It turns out, what I hated was what the larger Christian church has done with it.
I got home this afternoon at 5 pm after a Palm Sunday service that cracked me open, followed by a baby shower for a couple of friends waiting the arrival of their firstborn. I opened my computer to begin sharing the extraordinary day with you, and saw the news of three people being gunned down at Jewish centers in a town where I have quite a few family and friends, some of whom are Jewish.
The word that keeps flashing in my mind is “Enough.” Okay, if I’m completely honest, there are a few expletives thrown in there, too. But, really, ENOUGH.
Today my brave bride stood in the pulpit like the protester known as “Tank Man” in that iconic image from Tianenmen Square. Instead of tanks, PW led the congregation in facing down centuries of the odious Christian tradition of reading the Palm Sunday scriptures like a play, in which the congregation takes on the part of an angry mob and shouts “Crucify him!” repeatedly.
But that didn’t happen today at Emmanuel. ENOUGH.
Instead, PW stood in the pulpit and our deacon, Susanne, stood at the lectern, on the opposite side of the steps leading up to the chancel. Susanne read the Palm Sunday scripture passages in five sections. After each section, PW offered a brief meditation on that section.
Here’s the opening section, with the scripture first:
11Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. 15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
This year, in conversation with the members of Emmanuel’s Worship Commission, I decided that I want us to abstain from engaging in the custom of reading the Passion Narrative as a play script with members of the congregation taking various dialogue parts, and the congregation as a whole representing the crowd. I cannot imagine how it is edifying – that is, how it might provide moral or theological instruction that would build up the body or how this practice might glorify God in any way. If any of you in the congregation are longing for a greater voice, more participation in liturgy, a deeper involvement in the narrative of salvation history, this turns out to be a most terrible place to start. No good can come from imagining ourselves as members of an angry mob. No good can come from re-enacting the highly implausible scenario that Pontius Pilate or any other Roman authority would have even permitted a crowd to gather in the occupied capital of an occupied country during the time of a great feast celebrating the notion of freedom from oppression, freedom from economic and political enslavement. Nor would a Roman governor give people a vote about whom to crucify.
Biblical scholars have known for a long long time that “the evidence explicitly and definitely points against any representative Jerusalem crowd shouting for Jesus’ death.”1And yet, churches all over the place blithely carry on this libel in the name of tradition or custom or piety. I think that it does not honor God’s Holy Name or God’s Holy People.
A few weeks ago I came across an article published by Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan that he wrote when I was a little girl. He was writing at Loyola University in Chicago, just a few miles from where my family lived when my dad was in seminary. My guess is that my seminarian father knew about Crossan’s work because I grew up understanding it. The article is about Christian anti-Semitism. Crossan wrote, “the often-repeated statement that the Jews rejected Jesus and had him crucified is historically untenable and must therefore be removed completely from our thinking and our writing, our teaching, preaching, and liturgy.” Yet, here we are, 50 years later – the Passion narrative being proclaimed throughout Christian churches, today and this coming Friday, during our Holy Week, with scant attention to the libelous and deadly consequences to Jews. Indeed, it’s their blood which is on our forebears and on us. Let’s not get it on our children. Let’s agree to stop using guilt as a motivation to love.
The entire sermon is here, and I urge you to read it. Enough of the old Palm Sunday traditions. If clergy won’t face down the tanks of centuries of “historically untenable” readings going by without challenge or comment, then at the very least those of us in the pews should demand it. Palm Sunday is March 29 next year. There’s a lot of work to do. Get busy.