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Mark 11: 1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ”     4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”     11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Had Jesus entered Minneapolis in recent history the way he entered Jerusalem long ago on that Sunday we call, “The Triumphal Entry,” he would probably have come right up Park Avenue, one block to our west. In the board game Monopoly, Park Avenue is prime real estate. And so it has been for this fair city, until electric streetcars made the Lowry Hill, Cedar Lake and Kenwood areas just as accessible to downtown, and more distant from the poor. Up and down Park Avenue you can see the grand and palatial nature of the homes of some of the first, the wealthiest and most influential founding families of Minneapolis and its industries, like milling, banking and railroads. Some are in decay now, others have been replaced, others rehabbed into condos and townhomes.

Because of its former prestige, Park Avenue was the first street outside of downtown Minneapolis to be paved. Everyone and everything important cominng to town came up Park Avenue. Whenever, in the late 19th Century, the circus came to town, elephants trod, the caliopes played, and clowns clowned around right where some of us found parking spaces this morning. Some of the longest-living residents in the neighborhood still remember how President John F. Kennedy came right past here in his motorcade in 1961.

So if your imagination needs a place in which to put Jesus on the donkey, you could do worse than to have him crossing Franklin Avenue heading north on Park Avenue, while the crowds shout “Hosana! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in the languages long represented in this neighborhood. Currently, that list would number into the hundreds.

I think we need a new name for this Sunday. That phrase, “The Triumphal Entry,” was borrowed from ancient Roman practice, in which a victorious, conquering general was granted the right, by the Roman Senate, to enter the city of Rome with his soldiers and to parade all the captives and all the loot he had taken. As a sign of imperial favor, the general would get to wear a crown of laurel wreaths. And that’s why I’m struggling this morning to find another name for this event. Because the original Roman precedent may have made some generals happy, and the soldiers in his army—the survivors among them at least—and the citizens who based their identity and their person worth on an allegedly invincible Roman power. But for everyone else in that parade, it was an experience of humiliation, fear and despair. Many of them knew that they would be killed for entertainment in the Coliseum later that week. The rest would be sold into slavery. So I have some real problems with associating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with what the Romans called a “Triumphal Entry.”

Here are some of the other ideas I’ve come up with:

How about The Assertive Entry? Its assertive, to the point of confrontational, because Jesus is now being open, public and assertive about his claim to being the Messiah, whereas before he was somewhat selective and even sometimes secretive about who he was, depending on the setting and the relationship. But now, while riding that donkey, approaching the gates of Jerusalem, there’s nothing subtle. Any Jew there who knew his Bible would immediately have thought of the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 9: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” They saw this bold, assertive, confrontational entry and “got it.” We know they got it because they responded as was expected to welcome a king, returning safe and triumphant from battle, with the words of Psalm 118: “Hosana! (or “Save us”) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They knew that this Psalm was for such a royal welcome, even though there had never been an occasion to sing it like this since before the last king, the last Son of David, had been hauled away captive, in chains, to Babylon 600 years before.

In which case maybe we could also call it “The Royal Entry,” for the welcome of Israel’s long-awaited king. And yet there’s one problem: the donkey. Kings, especially victorious warrior kings, ride on battle horses, spirited stallions, big and bold enough to strike fear into the hearts of enemies, and not yearling donkeys, small enough to leave the rider’s feet just inches above the dirt. The first is an image of fearsome majesty, the other an image of humility and vulnerability that are almost comical, compared to the king on a war horse. Zechariah seemed to understand this and even to project such peaceable humility when he spoke about this king, humble and riding on a donkey, and went on to say, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.”

So then we’d also have to call it “The Humble Entry.” Or maybe “The Vulnerable Entry.” Or the Peaceful, Nonviolent Entry, or even “The Anti-Violent Entry.” Maybe even “The Comical Entry.” Because there’s an element of playful, subversive humor that comes out when we consider the time and the location of this parade. It will not be news to most of us here that Jesus was entering Jerusalem during a time of war. A constant, nagging, low intensity war waged by between Rome and Jewish rebels.

To the rebels, Jesus’ way of entering into Jerusalem, claiming to be their long-awaited king, would have been like a poke in the eye, something just enough like their political expectations of him to be encouraging (Yes—he’s openly claiming to be our king, in place of Caesar!), and yet just different enough to be a big disappointment (Oh, he’s unarmed, and so are all his associates, and he’s on a donkey, not a warhorse.) But for the Romans, the joke would have even more unsettling. He’s riding into town down the same road General Pompey took 90 years earlier, and which Governor Pilate took every time he comes and goes, to the sounds of crowds cheering, singing, even on the very same route into the same city gate. And he’s doing this right under their Roman noses, in the shadow of their fortress, in full view of their sentries, in range of their spears and arrows. But riding in on a donkey, unarmed, to the acclamation of defenseless peasants and children—they wouldn’t know whether to be relieved by that, or insulted. Is this some sort of satirical political street theater? At the very least he’s acting like someone who is not afraid of them.

But I can’t really imagine Jesus doing such a thing just to ridicule someone. The joyful, celebratory nature of this event is for real, and not a show just to score points against someone. And so I am leaning toward calling this “The Celebratory Entry.”

But for us who now know the rest of the story, all this celebration takes on a flavor or a feeling that is poignant, pointed and painful. Think only of the next six days to come and it appears that Jesus has only ridden into town to be betrayed, to suffer and to die. And he knew that. He even predicted it, many times.

That would make all this celebration seem tragic and even delusional. To borrow the image of the Roman Triumphal Entry again, it is as though the victorious conquering general has returned to parade his troops, his captives and his loot through the streets of the capital city, only to get not the victor’s laurel wreath, but a crown of thorns, not to execute the most important of his captives, but to be captured and executed himself. Maybe that’s one reason why the Roman soldiers wove that crown of thorns for his head a few days later, to say, in effect, “We saw your spoof of our Triumphal Entry, and this is our spoof of your laurel wreath.”

In the presence of such powerful evil forces gathering around Jesus upon his entry, knowing what we know, and what Jesus surely knew, isn’t all such celebration and spontaneous joy irresponsible at best, or needlessly, dangerously provocative at worst? By this celebratory entry into an armed and hostile city, isn’t he just begging for a brutal backlash? Therefore, shouldn’t we call this entry not triumphal, not celebratory or royal or assertive, but foolish, irresponsible, self-defeating, self-destructive, and guilty of raising false hopes? Weren’t the Pharisees right when they told Jesus and the cheering crowds to cool it?

My answer to that is: we do enough of that already. We don’t need a special Sunday of the year to remind us to moderate our expectations or turn down the volume of our cheers or to hunch our backs and look over our shoulders while we wait for the other shoe to drop. Such wisdom, so-called, is already embedded in many of our proverbs, like the ancient Greek one that the Romans overlooking this event would have known: “Whom the gods would destroy they first make happy.” Or the ones I grew up hearing, “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” or “Trust in God but keep your powder dry.” Or, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

No, it seems as though there’s nothing really to celebrate here, it all seems so irresponsible and immature to let loose and cheer, if, that is, we’re only thinking less than a week out from this Sunday morning street party.

But if we think ahead to what happens the following Easter Sunday, and if what we want from Jesus is precisely what he offers, then now there’s something worth cheering about. And we don’t have to curb our enthusiasm or watch over our shoulders and wait for the other shoe to drop. In fact, it becomes unrealistic not to let loose and celebrate. No one has taken back Jesus’ Resurrection and returned him, dead, to his long-empty tomb. If his resurrection victory gives you a measure of hope in the face of death, no one and nothing have come by to take that away, either.

Or if the Spirit of God has given us the assurance of God’s love and of our eternal safe-keeping in His hands, no one can take that assurance away unless we surrender it to doubt and the devil’s accusations. Or if we should find that the Spirit is cultivating the gifts of faith, or of spiritual gifts for ministry, and of new desires in our hearts for peaceful and holy relationships, then that too is just what Christ’s coming to the Holy City is about. These are just some of the things we can celebrate today and any day without watching over our shoulders for the other shoe to drop and ruin our joy and confidence.

Such gifts we can experience and celebrate even now. Others we can enjoy by anticipation. For the One who entered Jerusalem that day on a donkey has promised to return in such a way that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Such a return will be also be a celebratory reunion, of heaven and earth. It shall also be a reunion with all whom we have lost to death, and whom we have had to confide into God’s hands awaiting their resurrection, and ours.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. During Lent, in the weeks before Easter, the sermons and prayers are usually expected to be more somber and introspective, as we trace the path of Jesus toward the cross. I know that most preachers leave the talk of resurrection and reunion and eternal life for Easter Sunday and beyond. I’ll get to that again, too. But the joyful, celebratory events around Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, less than a week before his death, force upon us a choice: either to say that all this joy and celebration are irresponsible, premature and even self-destructive, or to say that such joy, confidence and celebration are the wise, realistic and even courageous way to face life and death because Jesus really is the rightful king. And if the latter is true, then for Lent its not enough to just examine oneself for the ways in which we might over-indulge ourselves or engage in “irrational exuberance.” The exuberance and delight and joy that Jesus encouraged and approved forces us to ask ourselves: Are there ways in which we wrongfully stifle and subdue ourselves, ways in which we collaborate with the world, the flesh and the devil to lock ourselves up inside dungeons of doubt and despair, all the while forgetting that the dungeon doors are often locked on the inside and that the key is within reach?

Its one thing to experience the natural and inevitable times of depression, disappointment, grief or fatigue. We all go through those, and often for very real reasons. When we recently celebrated my mother’s wedding in Florida, we were celebrating a new, life-long union. In a way though we were also celebrating the fact that the period of intense mourning after the death of her husband and my step-father, Bill, almost four years ago, had ended. We haven’t stopped missing Bill, or loving him. Its just that we have embraced the chance to move on and include another person, and his family, into our circle of love and celebration, now that the grief has mellowed over time. Before it had, though, it would have been cruel and irresponsible to tell each other to just buck up, cut loose and rejoice.

So its not those natural griefs, losses or periods of depression that I’m speaking about today. Its rather the ways in which we may sometimes take the place and role of the Pharisees and the Romans around the Celebratory Entries of God into our lives, the ways in which our first responses to such invitations to celebrate may amount to fear, mistrust and self-subjugation, always asking ourselves first, “So when is the other shoe going to drop?” When joy comes knocking at our door, can we welcome it in, even though we know it can’t stay forever? Not yet, at least?

A North American volunteer, working with Honduran refugees in Mexico during the Honduran civil war, was forced to consider such questions. A Honduran woman asked her why she always looked so serious and sad. The volunteer said that it was because of all the painful, difficult and destructive things she was seeing and hearing in the the lives and histories of the refugees. The woman replied that that is how one might look at things if you were a foreigner who only expected to stay a short while and to fix as much as you could in that short time. Sure, there are plenty of problems and needs and tragedies in this camp. But if you expect to be here long term, or even just to survive, you can not only permit yourself an occasional moment of celebration, you must work at it. Rejoicing is the responsible thing to do if you’re thinking long term commitment. In fact, although the Honduran refugee camps were uprooted and displaced several times, each time they claimed a new place to set up camp, they formed three committees: an education committee to build, staff and run schools, a construction committee to build homes, sheds and latrines, and a committee of joy, to plan and carry out exercises in celebration and jubilation. The third committee is just as important as the first two, the refugee woman said, especially if you’re in this for the long term.

I think I hear in that Honduran woman’s wisdom the voice of God. It certainly sounds biblical, because right after all the times we’re told in the Bible to “fear not,” in terms of sheer frequency and numbers, we are told to rejoice. Yes, it sounds as strange to me as it might to you to think of rejoicing as something that anyone can command. But this is God doing the commanding. And at the very least we can hold our natural fear and distrust lightly enough to open our hearts and heads to the possibility that God is indeed giving us much to celebrate and anticipate, and the joy with which to celebrate it, without worrying how long it will last.

Which leads me to what I finally think we should call this event, besides “The Triumphal Entry.” I recommend calling it “The God Entry.” Why? Because,God was in Christ, in a unique way reconciling the world to himself; that the man riding that donkey is the very presence, the power, the wisdom and the image of God in a way that God has never been present and active before nor since.

And not only in that person: Ours is a God who reveals himself in relationships and in events, as well as in persons and places. God was present and powerful in the joy and celebration and worship acclaiming that man on the donkey. He is, according to Psalm 22, “the God who dwells in the praises of Israel.”

And so God comes to us still, in all the ways that I have tried to describe this event: faithful, in keeping with his promises; bold and assertive, yet still vulnerable, nonviolent and even anti-violent; royal and regally confident, yet still invitational, humble and gentle; with an air sometimes of that gentle humor which peels off our pretensions, and takes us down off our pedestals; and with fresh blasts of hope that free us to rejoice and celebrate, regardless of what the present and the immediate future seem to hold.

I know these are tough times. I know this is Holy Week, under the shadow of the cross. But if ever the urge comes to celebrate or anticipate, if ever and whenever the urge strikes us to sing or play that favorite, confident hymn, or even just to let the dishes sit in the sink and go enjoy a moment of sunshine, on the south side of a building, away from the north wind of course, then don’t fight the feeling. It really is the responsible thing to do, even the realistic thing. Because of who God is, and what God does and how God comes to us. Amen.



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