In Palm Sunday, the cross, and the empty tomb, Jesus blesses the world by declaring a new reality with his body. This is what Jesus is doing on Palm Sunday, inviting us with his body, gathered with our bodies, to proclaim the Good News he has come to make real.
Palm Sunday as the start to Holy Week has never made a whole lot of sense to me. Even as a kid. As a kid, I got Advent and Christmas – we wait together for the birth of Jesus, lighting candles in the dark; Jesus is born; and we all celebrate. That makes perfect sense.
But Palm Sunday. In the church where I grew up, we would celebrate Palm Sunday, with all the kids lining up, each with our palm branch, and we would march into the sanctuary, waving those palms, as we all sang, “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear; Things I would ask him to tell me, if he were here.” In the moment, it was pretty cool. But that Palm Sunday celebration then led into Holy Week, and back to church on Maundy Thursday, there was this ominous communion service, which led into the outright brutality of the Good Friday story. And then Easter, suddenly, it was time to celebrate all over again.
About the third year I experienced this (maybe 5th or 6th grade), we lined up on Palm Sunday, again with our palms. We marched in, with everyone singing, “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear.” And I thought, “Um, does anyone here remember how this story goes?” Though I wouldn’t have used this word then – the whole experience had a certain amount of foolishness to it. Why would anyone tell a story like that?
In the Gospel of Mark, here’s how the story goes: This year, we’ve been traveling with Jesus from the beginning – from his baptism and the moment Jesus begins his ministry, saying: “The time is right. The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good News.” And we’re off... Jesus teaching and healing, finishing one thing, immediately moving on to the next.
We pick up the story today as Jesus makes his way and toward Jerusalem, the center of political and economic power – joining the pilgrims who are traveling there for Passover. As he stands on the threshold of Jerusalem, he prepares to enter in. Jesus says to two of his disciples, “Go into the village and find me a colt – a donkey – you’ll find one tied up – one who has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. And if anyone asks what you’re doing, just tell them the Lord needs it.” They go, find the colt, just as Jesus said. Sure enough, someone asks them what they’re doing; they tell them the Lord needs it, and they let them take it. Just like Jesus said.
The disciples put their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to sit on. And as Jesus rides in toward the city gate, amid the Passover pilgrims heading into Jerusalem, the crowd begins to line his way with their cloaks. They gather leafy branches that they gather from the fields. And they begin to shout over and over: “Hosanna! (which means “Save us!”) Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” And Jesus enters Jerusalem.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has – rather strangely – become a triumphant royal procession. That’s what everyone would have seen and known. This is how conquering kings or emperors enter a city they now rule. And here Jesus is – like a king – processing in on a donkey. As one writer describes it: With their cloaks, “the people honor him with the only red carpet treatment they can offer.” It’s a strange scene.
And then, the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus enters Jerusalem, goes into the Temple, he looks around at everything, and it’s late, so he heads back out of Jerusalem, back to Bethany where he is staying for the night. That’s it. For now.
And that’s strange too. Jesus makes this triumphal entry. Goes to the temple and looks around. And then goes home for the night. That’s strange for the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, the action is nonstop – one thing happens and then another – Jesus does this, and then immediately does this, and then immediately does this. But here. Jesus stops the action, and takes a look around. It’s different from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew where there’s no pause – no break in the action – the triumphal entry leads into the clearing of the Temple and then relentlessly on to the cross. But here. Jesus stops the action, and takes a look around.
I’d never noticed that before: In the moment between Palm Sunday and the rest of Holy Week – Jesus stops and takes it all in. And gives us a moment to do that too. As I puzzled with this story this week, it dawned on me, “Oh, Jesus knows exactly where this story is going.” That’s why he pauses to take it all in. He has been telling his disciples and us all along. Remember? Back when Peter is the first disciple to say to Jesus, “You are the Christ,” Jesus responds, saying “The Human One must suffer, be rejected by the chief priests and scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again.” The disciples don’t get it (and are too afraid to ask), but as they go on he’ll tell them again and again – the third time, as they are going up to Jerusalem: “See, we are going to Jerusalem, the Son of Man will be handed over, condemned, mocked, spit upon, flogged, killed, and after three days he will rise again.”
And in this strange triumphal entry into Jerusalem – Jesus is saying it yet again. With his whole self. What Jesus does in this morning’s Scripture is a performative act – what Brian Blount calls an “interventionist proclamation” – what Charles Campbell describes as “a carefully orchestrated piece of street theater.” You’ve heard “actions speak louder than words” – well, Jesus gives that a try. Jesus has planned this out. And the Scripture says that it all goes according to plan. The donkey. Just as Jesus said. The people who lend the donkey to the cause. Just as Jesus said.
Jesus joins the crowd of jubilant Passover pilgrims, and he turns it into a triumphal military conquering procession. And as he does so – as Charles Campbell rather bluntly describes it – Jesus “lampoons the political powers through a carefully planned carnivalesque military procession.” It is, Campbell continues, “one of the wildest and most explosive acts in Jesus’ ministry.” Jesus is taking on the powers, doing a parody of them, and proclaiming a new reality.
What we see here is a special kind of foolishness. Jesus gets up on a donkey – like a king or a general – and leads in triumph an army of jubilant pilgrims living under Empire, coming to the center of power to celebrate the story of their liberation. He subverts the domination systems of their day, takes their conventions and turns them on their head, and proclaims a new order. Jesus proclaims a reality yet unseen, and, in this embodied moment, makes it so.
Jesus takes his body – and invites the bodies of others – to enter into and occupy public space and proclaim – with their bodies – a new order of liberation. It is performative and proclamation and protest all at once.
And we know what this looks like – what a constitutional scholar might call “expressive conduct” or “symbolic speech.”
I think of the first protest I ever went to. It was a “Take Back the Night March” back in law school. They were pretty common on university campuses in the early 90s – a way to raise awareness about violence against women. Folks gathered from across campus, marching through nighttime streets and campus spaces. We “took back the night” with flashlights and headlamps and chants – most importantly, as female bodies led us, accompanied by the bodies of friends and family – taking back public space -- challenging a particular type of violence – and embodying a different and a better way.
I think about that moment a few years later when my friend Alesia and I emerged from the Smithsonian Metro station on the Mall in Washington, DC – and as far as we could see – from the US Capitol to the Washington Monument – we saw the AIDS Quilt blanketing the civic heart of our nation. For years of the AIDS pandemic, folks from all across the country had made quilts, remembering and celebrating the lives of loved ones lost to AIDS, and on that weekend they quilted them together. As a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock remembers those who had been lost,
“They unfolded your lives, one by one,
they laid out your patchwork under the sun,
and people gathered from miles around,
to witness your quilt spread on the ground.”
It was a performative act of love on a grand and national scale, subverting the formal, federal space of the Mall, and filling it with the power of love and remembrance. In that moment, a community held these lives, in love, before a nation that said that it could not muster the resources to respond to a pandemic. Of course, we know now that when a pandemic is understood to impact more than gay and black bodies, the nation can muster all the resources that it needs.
I think of Gay Pride parades and Black Lives Matter protests where people who have for too long been marginalized occupy public space to say that our lives will no longer be hidden or discounted.
I think of moments like these – in the corridors of the Texas Statehouse, or in the entryway to the Marin County Board of Ed, or on Market Street in San Francisco:
a brief video of protests
Rebecca Solnit talks about this in her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking – how we make meaning by placing our bodies in time and space. She writes of the many ways we do this, but particularly of the ways we do it together – in processions, parades, and protest, which she points out are all about ordinary folks moving through public space for expressive, rather than practical purposes. Public marches, she writes, mingle the meaning-making language of pilgrimage, with the power of persistent picketing, and with festival, “as the boundaries between strangers recede” and “the distinction between word and deed is blurred.” In public procession and performative action, “we make history ourselves, we walk together, and the whole street is for the stamping out of the meaning of the day.” We are no longer an audience to our lives, but a force; it is no longer a journey, but an arrival.
This is what Jesus is doing on Palm Sunday, inviting us with his body, gathered with our bodies, to proclaim the Good News he has come to make real.
And we’re not talking only about protest. In what may seem like a very different way, we have been thinking carefully all year about how we place our body in space in relation to others, and we have been making meaning. We’ve been practicing physical distance, as what might at first have been a counter-intuitive way of embodying compassion and care for each other. And in that care – transcending every barrier – we have found connection in ways we never thought possible, and awakened a creative Spirit we had not yet dreamed.
We are talking today about the blessing of foolishness: May God bless us with just enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this ol’ world so that we might go and do those things that others say cannot be done. When we speak of “foolishness” in this way, we are not talking about foolhardiness, and I want to be clear that we are not talking about recklessness that causes harm to others or to ourselves. The “foolishness” of which we speak is the ability to see and live beyond the conventions and constraints of our day – beyond the powers that hold us back – and, the ability to see possibilities for life beyond those constraints – along with the courage to live that out. This kind of foolishness sees the barriers, plainly and soberly, and then transcends them in ways that others think impossible – impossible, that is, until they come to life in us.
Now to be sure, Jesus’ performative act on Palm Sunday is a political act – and most of the examples I’ve drawn from are from political movements. This Scripture is about liberation from systems of domination, as embodied in Jesus Christ and in us.
And it is about more. I want to be clear: What we are a talking about here – ultimately – what Jesus is proclaiming as he enters into Jerusalem – what we are talking about... is Resurrection. I know by saying that I am breaking convention – we are supposed to save Resurrection for Easter Sunday. But Resurrection is always a present reality for us, right here, right now, all the time. What Jesus Christ did in his life and on the cross, entering into death, and bringing us into new life – once and for all has put an end to the ultimate power of everything that would do us harm – including death – and has established once and for allthe reign of God – shattering the constraints and conventions of the powers that used to hold sway. Standing on this side of Resurrection, Resurrection is our present reality every moment of every day – in every season of life. What Jesus is doing now is inviting us to live that reality.
We bless the world with foolishness by proclaiming Resurrection with our bodies, on those nights that feel like Maundy Thursday, where sorrow and betrayal are thick in the room, and even so we choose to live lives of compassion and mercy.
We bless the world with foolishness by proclaiming Resurrection with our bodies, on those days that feel like Good Friday, were we see and experience, sometimes it seems everywhere, injustice, violence, and the oppression of people, and even so we persist in the steady work of justice freedom and peace.
We bless the world with foolishness by proclaiming Resurrection with our bodies, when we are present in all that, and still have scope for the imagination to see Resurrection, present here and now, in the midst of us.
After Jesus enters into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, to shouts of loud Hosannas, he goes quietly to the Temple, and he takes it all in. He looks out over the Temple, and Jerusalem – and on into Holy Week, and the struggle, the last heartbreaking supper, the agony of the garden, the arrest, the trial, the cross – Jesus looks out on all that, and beyond that, into Resurrection. He takes it all in. And he gives us a moment to take it all in too.
And then, it’s as if he turns to us and says, on the threshold of Holy Week – “Can you see all that? And are you ready?”
© 2021 Scott Clark
 For background on the Scripture, see Pheme Perkins, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, v.viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999); Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008); Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989); Karen Chakoian, Commentary in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), pp.339-43.
 Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989), p.180.
 Brian K. Blount, Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988 (Kindle ed.); Charles Campbell, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
 Campbell, p.154.
 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin Random House, 2000).
 Solnit, p. 233-34.