Choosing Leaders (A Palm Sunday Sermon)
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, for the ordination and installation of deacons (Anyidoho, Baburaj, Kim, Nyambi and Raju) and ruling elders (Re, Vivekananda, Vrooman and Worthington).
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. With its climax of Good Friday and Easter, it is the most sacred week of the Christian year.
One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God. And his followers were peasants; poor families living lives of subsistence. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north, a journey that is the central section and central dynamic of the gospel. The story of Jesus and the kingdom of God has been aiming for Jerusalem, pointing toward Jerusalem. It has now arrived.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial horses and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus crucifixion.
Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. Though unfamiliar to most people to day, the imperial procession was well known in the Jewish homeland in the first century. The communities for which the gospels were written would have known about it, for it was the standard practice of Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. They did so not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. And, there often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire . . .
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful . . .
In contrast, imagine Jesus’ procession: Jesus rides a colt down the Mount of Olives to the city surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic followers and sympathizers, who spread their cloaks, strew leafy branches on the road, and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbols from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). [And] Zechariah details what kind of king he will be: “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” (9:10).
The king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land – no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace.
Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and the violence of an empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God, a kingdom of nonviolence, peace, and covenant justice. The confrontation between these two kingdoms – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – continues through the last week of Jesus’ life. As we all know, the week ends with Jesus’ execution by the powers who ruled his world. Holy Week is the story of this confrontation.
Easter is the resolution.
As they walk together toward Jerusalem, toward that planned procession, toward the peasants with palms and a city seething with imperial militia ready for conflict, Jesus gives his disciples some advice on leadership:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
What does leadership look like in this congregation? In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “The basic form of ministry is the ministry of the whole people of God, from whose midst some are called to ordered ministries, to fulfill particular functions.” In the New Testament we find the ministries of deacons and elders, and these are upheld by our church today. Deacons are called to particular ministries of compassion, witness and service. Elders (ruling elders on the church council and teaching elders as pastors) elders are called to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people.
The ordered ministries of deacon and elder do not replace but supplement, enable, organize and direct the ministry of every member. They are not a substitute for each member’s ministry but make possible the coordinated witness of the whole church.
What does this look like? For some it might mean organizing a march or demonstration, just as Jesus and his disciples organized the palm procession in Jerusalem, reaching out far and wide to those who have been cast aside by society, saying “come.” For others it might mean finding and getting the donkey, doing those practical things that enable our witness to be strong and clear. For all of us, it means, confronting violence or oppression with a message of peace and justice, just as Jesus and his followers did when they entered Jerusalem. It means continuing to move forward, even through our fear, to confront those aggressive powers and principalities that value power or profit over human dignity, just as Jesus and his followers processed into the capitol city, the place where anyone with half a brain knew that the Romans were waiting and ready to respond with their might. It means remembering that, “we should never hurt each other. That the power we have is the power of love.”
And so today, on Palm Sunday, which is also known as Passion Sunday, we ordain the leaders who have been elected by our congregation. We ordain them on a Sunday when we remember not only the joys but the costs of discipleship. We ordain them to a specific ministry of leadership that enables all of us to better serve God and others with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. We ordain them and remember our own commitment to this congregation, drawing upon wellsprings of compassion and courage, clear-eyed, facing our future as one people, called by God in this time and this place; “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38).
I invite forward the deacons and elders to be ordained and installed as we sing the first three verses of “We greet Thee Who Our Sure Redeemer Art.”
 The first half of this sermon is almost entirely from the opening pages of The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). The image of the two processions is so compelling I wanted to share it, and felt no need to rewrite their words. It preached! I hope this sermon can serve as an invitation for readers to explore this powerful book.
 Ralph Milton (with artwork by Margaret Kyle), The Family Story Bible, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 280. The image in the post above is by Margaret Kyle and accompanies the story “Jesus Goes to Jerusalem.” [A note to parents, grandparent and those who buy gifts for children, this is by far the best story Bible or children’s Bible on the market. Pastors and educators should know that there is a three volume Lectionary Story Bible available].