It’s Palm Sunday and we’re here waving our palm fronds in the street to celebrate King Jesus, humble, courageous and strange. But this Jesus makes me nervous. This Jesus makes me nervous the same way crowds make me nervous. The funny thing is I’ve never been in more crowds than I have been in the past year. Crowds of people protesting, mostly, crowds for Black Lives Matter, crowds for Standing Rock, crowds for immigrants unjustly detained. I don’t name these to toot my own advocacy horn, I try to be transparent about the fact that I’ve been present in most of these crowds despite myself. I am not so much proud of the crowds I’ve been a part of as I am persistently nagged by them. When crowds formed after the first travel ban was issued I felt something like an itch inside me, a magnetism calling me to the airport. When crowds protested the presidential election results I felt the opposite, I hid and avoided them. I’ve seen how volatile a crowd can be, especially one that isn’t well organized. They are susceptible to influence, and I’ve seen the way different people play with that energy, sometimes an agitator who is trying to magnify it, sometimes riot police who are trying to contain it. I am weary of crowds mostly because I am afraid of getting hurt. I am weary of crowds because I mostly experienced them as dangerous when I was a kid, the groups that ganged up on me on the playground or at the bus stop. I’m not alone in that, of course. If you remember, some folks questioned whether they should bring their kids to Pride parades after Orlando, for fear of more violence. Crowds have become targets. Crowds have become something you can drive a truck through. Even this morning, our own Christian brothers and sisters assembled for Palm Sunday processions in Cairo and Alexandria have been killed by bombs in their churches. My gut sees a crowd and tells me to go in the opposite direction, or to become invisible. Better yet, just stay home. But the Spirit convicts me to do otherwise, impulsively, almost, at this point. The Spirit, loving bodies, loving to knit them together into ever greater masses of incarnate presence keeps saying, “here. Place your body here, with these bodies and these people who need to be seen. Witness this. Stand up. Be counted.” And sometimes it does count. A few weeks ago a bunch of us listened to the Spirit calling us to assemble against ICE for the unlawful detention of Francisco Rodriguez. And it worked. They sent him back home on bond. God set the captive free by incarnating a crowd with our bodies.
The crowd that welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem is no different. This is not merely a parade, it is a march. A few hundred years earlier when the priest Judas Maccabeus returned to Jerusalem after his guerilla army defeated the Greeks and won freedom for the Jews the people celebrated his homecoming by waving palm branches then, too. They were political. A Roman lawyer might decorate the lintel of his home with palms if he had won a case in the forum that week. The emperor would have had his own parade with them. But it’s not only political, it’s a religious slap in the face as well. To have children in the street proclaiming the arrival of the Son of David was a populist affirmation of Jewish Messianism, the arrival of a powerful leader who was expected to crush the Gentile government which the Jewish religious leadership had been straining to maintain peace with. The shouts of “Hosanna” mean “Help us! Come quickly here to save us!” and “Hosanna to the Son of David” expects that help to come from a newly found military king. Except that this one is on a donkey rather than a war horse, close to the ground, at eye level with the people he is passing, people who are shouting, “save us.” The Chief Priests are furious about this.
I can imagine them thinking, “WE are the ones who are saving you, we are the ones maintaining this peace, and YOU people are going to ruin all of it by stirring up this political nonsense.” Who knows if the politicians even noticed, after all, they weren’t the ones who came for him in the end. This entrance happened far from them, at the outskirts of town. It would be like if Jesus came to Portland now and started his march for downtown in Gresham. I imagine seeing it on the news, Burnside shut down east of 162nd, some guy from Grants Pass having come to town to begin the revolution.
Jesus makes me nervous the way I imagine he makes the Chief Priests nervous, angry even. All their careful order, their meticulously planned peace with the authorities of this world threatened by his arrival and by his call to be with the least among us. I can imagine being in the crowd, and being terrified. What will happen when the authorities catch us here? Did we get a permit for this? Doesn’t he know where standing out will get him? Strong men want him dead and this publicity will get him captured. This will get him spat upon, and struck by rods, and beaten by guards, and I don’t want to have anything to do with that. I can imagine wanting to turn away from the spectacle of Palm Sunday. But the Spirit convicts me to stay. In staying I see him, at eye level. He knows what he is doing. His face is set like flint against his destination. The world swirls around him, the world makes a spectacle of itself, and ultimately the world says his name, again and again, for fame or infamy. The true peace Jesus proclaims is at odds with the false peace of the world, and so it can feel uncomfortable and nerve wracking at first, but it is the only peace.
I am wary of crowds because a crowd can crucify a man as quickly as it can praise him. But he knows this. He is here for this. He is here for it not just today, not just this week, but everywhere and everytime he enters in the world. Everywhere and everytime his generosity and courage are manifest it is enough to draw a crowd, and if it feels uncomfortably at odds with the world it is a sign that we are doing justice to his Spirit. He assembles beneath guard towers. He assembles around pipelines. He assembles at City Hall. He assembles us here, as his Church, but does not intend for us to stay in this building. He has gone on ahead of us to the people who need healing, who need holding, who’s eyes say, “come quickly here and help us. Stand with us. Witness this. Be counted.” It feels terrifying, at first, to go there with him. But in the crowd you catch his eye, and his peace becomes your own.