Text: Mark 11:1-11 & Mark 15:1-15
The year was 1982, the beginning of my sophomore year at Gardner-Webb College. I had just been elected president of my sophomore class. In addition to being class president I held an elected position in BSU—the Baptist Student Union—and was a group leader in FCA, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I know, balance has never been my strong point! On top of my campus/social responsibilities I started my sophomore year with a class load of eighteen hours—three of those hours was a geology class that consisted of all senior geology majors, except for me. I knew nothing about geology—I still don’t. Still, in my mind my sophomore year promised to be a year filled with opportunity, challenge, and excitement. It was the BEST of times.
There was another story, however, underneath and behind that whirlwind of activity. And here is the other part of my sophomore year story. At the end of my freshman year my parents had called a meeting with me. Their interest, they relayed to me when setting up the meeting, was to see how my freshman year had gone and what my plans were as I prepared to start my sophomore year. As we began the conversation, I couldn’t help but detect the look of concern on their faces. My mind raced. Had they found out about the weekend I had gone with some friends across the state line to a bar? Or had they received my grades and saw where I had made a C in my history class. Not wanting to show my concern, I played along answering their question about how I thought my freshman year had gone. “Great!” I said. “I love college. All of my classes were interesting and I met a lot of new friends.” “Well,” they responded, “that’s what we want to talk with you about—these new friends.”
Now, before I continue this story, you need to know that I grew up about ten miles from Gardner-Webb College. Not only that, my dad had worked at the college during my middle school years and I attended basketball camp at Gardner-Webb every summer from the time I was in middle school through my high school years. My family was well known by the staff and faculty of the college and so was I.
Back to the story. My parents said to me, “We think you need to make some different friends. Some of your professors and the faculty are concerned about you. They say that you are hanging out with the wrong people—the wrong crowd.” I didn’t understand, or maybe I did. But I asked anyway, “What do you mean.” To which they replied, “We have been told that you are hanging out with gay people. If you want to go back to college, you need to find some new friends.” In that moment, I knew what I had to do. I had to go further underground, not only with my friends but also with my very identity. And so I did. That was until I had a full on breakdown trying to prove my worth by being president of this and being a leader in that and carrying a class load that most would crumble under. All the while pretending that I was somebody that I wasn’t. It was the WORST of times.
Such are the narratives that we come to this morning as we prepare ourselves for Holy Week. If we go with narrative one—the liturgy of palms, as we typically do here at Pullen, these are the “best of times.” The liturgy is marked, as we have enacted already this morning, with excitement. There is a parade, a processional. We wave our palm branches and shout with joy: “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The air is filled with anticipation and hope. Something new and exciting is about to happen, we can feel it, and we all want to be a part of it. Or at least we think we do.
But there is another narrative to consider as we approach this Holy Week. It is called the liturgy of the passion, and one could say of it “these are the worst of times.” This narrative doesn’t begin with a parade or with roads covered with palm branches and cloaks. The crowds are not chanting joyfully hosanna or blessed is the One. Instead, in this narrative, the crowd is deciding who would be crucified, or as Walter Brueggemann noted, who would be executed. Would it be Barabbas—a murderer, a zealot, one who we would call today a terrorist— or would it be this man named Jesus?
Well, you know the story. As was the custom, the governor had the power to stay one man’s execution during the time of the festival of passover. So, he turned to the crowd and asked, “Do you want me to release for you the ‘King of the Jews’?” But the crowd shouts Barabbas—give us Barabbas. The governor asked again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And the crowd shouted back, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” From shouts of hosanna and blessed is the one who comes…to shouts of crucify him, crucify him. The best of times and the worst of times. Two narratives, one ending.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Mark’s narrative of the parade and palm waving as Jesus rides into Jerusalem is, as one writer put it, how anti-climactic it is. He writes:
All the excitement of the parade, the crowds chanting, the road strewn with coats and branches – it all leads up to, well, nothing. Jesus looks around, and then turns around and returns to Bethany. Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. [They would soon learn that] their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart. Their agenda is a coup d’état. Jesus’ agenda is to scope the place out for a teach-in. Their agenda is a revolution that will sweep away one empire and replace it with – a new empire. Jesus’ agenda is a revolution that will replace empires altogether with a humanity in which everyone is included. Their agenda is to co-opt God to legitimate their vision of utopia. Jesus’ agenda is to realize the divine image that lives in every person. So, at the end of the day, after all the excitement, nothing happens. The expectations are utterly unmet. This is indeed the beginning of the end, where the unmet false expectations turn the crowd’s adulation to disappointment, and finally to bloodthirsty anger. It’s fine to have great expectations. But what happens when your expectations go unmet? Do you turn to thoughts (and actions) of vengeance, or does it cause you to consider whether your expectations were what they should have been to begin with?
In following that reflection, I would say that the most notable thing about Mark’s other narrative—the liturgy of the passion—is exactly what Walter Brueggemann has said of the narrative: “only the passion can finally penetrate the numbness.” Only the passion—that moment of deciding which path you will ultimately follow regardless of the cost—is what finally wakes us up and pierces the numbness of living a life only going through the motions and simply trying to meet the expectations of others.
Here is the message I want to leave with you going into Holy Week. Throughout our lives, we move in and out of these two narratives. Sometimes life is that parade filled with excitement and anticipation and we wave our palms and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is…” We are filled with expectations, with anticipation, with hope. These moments we think of as the best of times. And then there those other times in our lives when we find ourselves lost in the crowd, disappointed that our expectations for our lives have not been met. We feel betrayed and hurt and numb. In these worst of times all we want to do is shout “crucify, crucify.”
It is tempting, as we have sometimes done in our palm-focused church liturgy here at Pullen, to focus on the story of light at the expense of the story of shadow. It is almost overwhelmingly tempting in our own lives to chase those moments of light and to run from and deny those moments of darkness. The much harder work of the Gospel, and of life, is to hold them both. To know that we are both the adoring crowd, seeing the potential of the new kingdom and the new king, and the bloodthirsty crowd, calling for the execution of the one who refused to be who we recklessly expected him to be.
We weave in and out of the narratives of light and shadow in our lives. There are times when we create that narrative around us, and times when the crowd creates it for us. And in those brightest and darkest of hours, we are called to know that both are true, and neither are true alone. Jesus was a new arising in the dynamics of human politics and power – a new king. But he never claimed nor intended to be the king the people projected onto him. Jesus knew that he would disappoint these expectations, and that in the very disappointment he would teach his most powerful lesson, he would be able to live and die the narrative that would not only defy expectations, but change the storyline completely.
In reality, in our every day lives, we move in and out of these two narratives. Sometimes we find our way in the shouts of hosanna, blessed is. And other times we find our way when we allow the passion, those moments in life when we decide who we really want to be and what path we will take regardless of the cost—regardless of whose expectations we might not meet, when we allow that passion to penetrate our numbness and to wake us up to life. As we move into this holy week, it is my prayers that we may find hope and joy in the one who rides in on a donkey and that we may find our own passion in the one who prepares to bear the cross. For that is the week that lies ahead of us.
These are the best of times. These are the worst of times.