Seeking Freedom in the Woods

Mark 11:1-1, John 12:12-19

Palm Sunday. A sort of strange Christian day, isn’t it? Most churches purchase some sort of palm branches [fake or otherwise] and distribute them to all the people [young and old] who make it to a worship service the week before Easter. There is usually some sort of waving back and forth of said branches; maybe a processional during which a choir sings some happy song with hosanna in it. And when worship is over, the branches go back into boxes [if they’re fake] or people take them with them and then throw them in the trash perhaps after a few awkward hours [or days] of starting at them and wondering:

Uh, is it bad to throw away the Palm Sunday branches? Will Jesus be mad? 

If you’re worried about that, don’t be. Jesus wouldn’t be mad if he were alive to see all this Palm Sunday stuff. In fact, he and the writers of the Gospels would just be confused. It’s more likely that they would do a quick check of their 1st and 2nd century calendars, only to see that any sort of parade or celebration shouldn’t take place until Passover. But the waving of palm branches inside buildings with crosses mounted on walls and people singing “Hosanna” would most certainly be the most whacked out experience since the whole “pigs talking like humans and then running off a cliff” thing.

Palm Sunday has always been a little strange to me personally. It got stranger when I served a church in Hawai’i, where we were surrounded by real palms, and yet people were less than enthusiastic about waving palm branches on a the Sunday before Easter. Perhaps it’s because we are all so confused about traditions and where they come from and even what any of these symbols actually mean. And in each of our respective cultures, we have different ways to celebrate and remember, and different climates, trees, and branches.

Like in the South Indian state of Kerala, many congregations throw flowers on the floor on Palm Sunday during the reading of the Gospel story. This tradition is older than Jesus. People in India [later called Hindus by Westerners] would hold festive occasions in which flowers were strewn; also, the throwing of flowers was a sign of honor and respect for someone.


In the West, on Palm Sunday, just a few days before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in many churches people are waving branches, putting on big processions, shouting and singing Hosannas, and pretty much any pomp and circumstance we can possibly come up with that fits into a church’s worship service and involves choral anthems with hopefully an Easter egg hunt, though ideally not during the choral anthem.

It all seems quite the royal welcome to a royal Jesus. Fanfare, smiles, and happy songs. That wasn’t really what happened, though, when Jesus hitched a ride on a “borrowed” donkey to make it to Jerusalem. There wasn’t the fanfare we imagine; there was no pomp and circumstance.

But there was plenty of confusion.

After all, all four Gospels make it quite clear that most people [including Jesus’ disciples] didn’t really get who Jesus was. And as I’ve been saying all during Lent, each Gospel “gets” Jesus in a different way. So it’s fitting that we’re looking at the yin and yang Gospels, Mark and John, as we dig into this oft-told story. Mark’s version, the oldest source, is of course more to the point and full of clues for us to pick up so we understand its meaning. Mark gives us specific details as to which path Jesus took to get to Jerusalem. He and his band of followers come from Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. They are coming from the east. That’s important, because remember it’s Passover time. Lots of people were coming into the city. Lots of roman soldiers were, too, in order to make sure that the party didn’t get out of hand. The Romans came from the west. Mark’s setting up the story for us. Jesus and his little band of followers are not under the radar as they were before; things are getting dicey. So they need to enter Jerusalem from the east where there will be less chance for confrontation and arrests.

So don’t imagine large crowds like in some of the paintings depicting this event.And don’t imagine a royal procession with people cheering and applauding as Jesus rides in like a king on a white horse.

It was a donkey, remember? Oh, right. The funny part of the story.

Mark spends a lot of time on the donkey, because there’s still prophecy and purpose that needs to be spelled out. Jesus tells two of his friends to head into the nearby village and find a donkey [colt] that’s just waiting to be ridden. Of course, it all went just as planned, because it was planned. Quite easy to imagine that Jesus and his friends had other friends in the villages, because that’s where they spent most of their time—in villages and in the countryside. This was actually their first trip to the big city.  But the two disciples did need a secret password to utter, to confirm that they would indeed deliver the donkey to Jesus.

The lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.

That was enough for the villagers to give the two disciples the thumbs up, and now Jesus had his sweet ride into Jerusalem. Then Mark hammers home the point about this humble procession. Jesus’ friends put their cloaks on the donkey. Then other people spread their cloaks on the road; and still others spread branches on the road. The laying down of cloaks [and of branches] was a symbol of welcoming royalty. But the irony of course is that the “royalty” is not coming into the city gates on a chariot with armor and a sword and huge battalion from the west, like the Romans were.  And it all would have made sense to the 1st or 2nd century Jewish person.

Cue Old Testament prophecy. The book of Zechariah is where Mark gets his donkey story and how the Gospel frames Jesus’ identity.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.

How more specific can one be?

The king comes on a donkey; he gets rid of the chariot and the war horse in Jerusalem [i.e., Rome]. He cuts the battle bow and commands peace to the nations. Mark paints Jesus as the peace-bearer and Caesar-usurper; the suffering servant, once again.

And now the people in the crowds speak.

Hosanna is not a happy term—at least that’s the way I read the story. Some argue that this phrase does indeed refer to praise or adoration. I’m just not buying it based on what drives Mark’s narrative. Hosanna [in its Hebrew and Aramaic roots] is a cry for help, not praise. The literal translation would be save us now. And that would be a quote from the Old Testament again—this time Psalm 118. I’m sticking with that interpretation, because I think it’s consistent with Mark’s story.

The people weren’t praising Jesus. They were making a statement about how much they were oppressed, how much they suffered, and how much they wanted to be free.

Again, Mark’s Jesus is the suffering servant on his way to suffer even more on behalf of all those who were also suffering. The people wanted to be saved, to be rescued. They would have remembered nostalgically the era of King David’s reign in Israel. But there’s little in common with the reign of David that was based on military force, expansion, and occupation.

Jesus came with no swords, chariots, or even a horse.

He wasn’t interested in taking over the land or even restoring the religious and political power of the Jewish temple as an institution.

He came to suffer to be in solidarity with those who suffered; he came to set people free.

And in order to do that, he would need to flip the balance of power and give people the ability to set themselves free from oppression and suffering. So Mark has Jesus enter the temple and he just looks around. There’s no fighting, no war, no inspiring speech. He just looks around.

Now let’s look at the later version of the same story in John.

Remember that John’s author would have had Mark’s Gospel. This is interpretation of an earlier story.

First off, do you notice that John makes a few changes—or mostly omissions? We don’t get Jesus’ location or route to Jerusalem as in Mark. Secondly, the crowd is a “great” crowd and they already knew that Jesus would be coming because they “heard.” So they purposely spilled out of the city to greet him and they specifically have palm branches and no cloaks. Big change, because in Mark’s version, the story focuses on the followers of Jesus being the ones to lay down cloaks and branches—not random people who had journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover. So John is once again appealing to a wider audience.

John even says “as it is written,” to erase any confusion or doubt about the source: it’s Zechariah and Psalm 118 but John adds the title king of Israel.

And John certainly doesn’t care at all about the details of the donkey story.

The disciples, and how they view Jesus, are way more important in this Gospel.

Jesus’ followers don’t get Jesus while it’s all going down.

It’s not until after the fact, long after Jesus is “lifted up” or glorified, that they remember what happened and then they make connections.

John also doesn’t have Jesus go into the temple in Jerusalem.

They stay on the outskirts of the city.

But John explains why the people spilled out of the city and what they had “heard” about Jesus. Some of them had heard the story of the dead man Lazarus who was called out of the tomb alive by Jesus. This was another John “sign” and the chief motivation for the crowds gathering with palm branches.

And the reason why Jesus doesn’t have to go to the temple in John’s story is because the temple comes to him. Some Pharisees are observing the whole thing with the donkey and branches. They say to each other:

You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!

No matter which way we look at this story, I think there are things to learn and more importantly, there are positive, impactful perspectives that we can gain.

Most everybody in the world is too easily convinced that we need a king or queen or some type of ruler to tell us what to do and who will solve our problems. Churches do that to—with pastors and other leaders.

But across the Gospel board, that’s not who Jesus was.

If there is consistency in John and Mark’s stories, it is this:

Jesus served; Jesus healed; Jesus freed.

John’s “signs” were moments when Jesus served another person in need or healed him/her, met people where they were, and then offered them the opportunity to be free. In Mark’s no-nonsense Jesus story, he’s also serving and healing and freeing, but he’s also suffering—not just for the sake of suffering as some have sadly said—but suffering for the sake of saying to all of us that we’re not alone in our suffering.

I don’t know about you, but there’s a certain comfort I feel when I think about a God who is not afraid of suffering and neither oblivious to our suffering. A God who seeks to alleviate suffering and to break down the barriers of oppression and injustice is a God I’m enthusiastic about.

In the end, though, this Palm Sunday stuff always leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, because I still see so many people who suffer so, so much. And many of them suffer because we put so much of our faith in rulers and powers and institutions. And in doing so, we forget that if we really buy into this “we are the lights of the world” thing, we are supposed to be the ones serving and loving others, healing, and freeing. We’re supposed to be the ones to sit in with someone who is suffering, not afraid to hear her cry or to say swear words out of frustration and sadness. We’re supposed to be the ones who are not afraid of suffering, because we also have suffered and do suffer. And we don’t want to suffer; and all the people around us don’t want to, either. So what does it look like for you take this to heart, to live this out?

There are lots of hosannas being shouted, lots of cries for help, in this world.

How will we respond?

Will we respond in fear?
No! How about honesty, care, and authenticity.

Will we respond in anger?
No! How about passion for justice, cooperation, and solidarity?

Or will we respond with apathy?
No! How about empathy, compassion, and grace?

The journey into the woods has led us out and we stand at the outskirts of the city.

Many, like us, are all seeking the same freedom.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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