Sermon March 24 Palm Sunday  ~ Mark 11 Go for Broke          Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you like camomile tea? It’s quite possible of course that not everyone here has actually TRIED camomile tea. But if I were to attempt to describe to you the taste of camomile tea it would become quite clear and quickly – that I don’t like camomile tea.

To put it mildly, my bias would be showing. Because camomile tea is a herbal tea that’s thought to be particularly good for those who suffer from insomnia, which means it’s suggested to me often and I’ve given it a go often. Even briefly as camomile ICED tea which a friend told me I might find more palatable.

And I did not. Unfortunately, I simply do not like camomile tea.

What I DO like, however, is saying the phrase “camomile tea”. Not only because it has a rather musical lilt, but also because it is a phrase that features in a quintessentially Canadian piece of 1990s comedy brilliance by the group The Kids in the Hall.

In which a reserved and repressed average Canadian goes to a café and orders camomile tea in a very reserved and repressed average Canadian sort of way – but then gets relentlessly urged and jollied and provoked and pressured by the server to speak up! Speak loudly! Raise his voice! Have the courage of his convictions! Get some physicality into it! Be brave! And order that camomile tea like you mean it!

It does briefly work on the poor fellow. Who finally musters it up to really give it his all, resulting in the simple phrase “camomile tea” feeling woefully and hilariously incomplete for a certain subsection of 50-something Canadians… 

But then of course he quickly reverts back to reserved and repressed and average Canadian.

Which brings me to Palm Sunday. And the annual inner Mainline Canadian Protestant struggle we like to call “how much do I really have to wave these palms”.

Or possibly, “how much WILL I wave these palms” unless relentlessly urged and jollied and provoked and peer pressured into such horrors as Make it loud! Give it your all! Have the courage of your convictions! Wave those palms like you mean it!

It really does not come naturally to most of us. The kind of full-hearted, full-bodied enthusiasm that’s inherent in so many faith expressions around the globe. The kind of full-hearted, full-bodied enthusiasm that’s on display in technicolour in the Palm Sunday story we heard this morning from Mark’s gospel. 

Because Palm Sunday really is big. And by big, I mean physical. Expansive. Enthusiastic – in the literal derivation of the word, which is from Greek. En—theos. Possessed by God, inspired by God. Palm Sunday really is enthusiastic. It’s big.
It wasn’t “Palm Sunday” at the actual time, of course – it was just Jesus entering Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Except that it was also kind of the culmination of the gathering wave of discipleship. All those months and months and months of his travelling around the country. Preaching and teaching and healing. Small crowds, big crowds, huge crowds – more and more people hearing something, seeing something, experiencing something… that didn’t just inspire them in the moment, but inspired them as a whole new way. 

A new way to live. A way of freedom. Not bound anymore by the fears imposed on them by the world – fear of others, fear of difference, fear of looking weak, fear of losing advantage, fear of not enough – but instead free. Free from those fears. Free to be generous, free to be forgiving, free to lay down arms, free from others’ judgment, free from instinctive wariness, free to love and trust.

They were inspired by a vision of freedom. And it was big. But if we might imagine that vision and bigness were new, they weren’t, on what we now call Palm Sunday. They were just a little bit different is all. 

Because what we’re reminded of by biblical scholar Jon Dominic Crossan is that the beginning of the Passover festival in Biblical times – like the day that's recorded for us in our gospel reading this morning – it was always big.

Every year. Huge gatherings of Jewish pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. And every year they were met by a vast gathered contingent of the Roman authorities who governed Israel.

Just as a bit of a warning, perhaps. Certainly an intentional show of strength. 

Because Passover IS at its heart and always was a celebration of the vision of freedom. It retells the story of Israel's deliverance from slavery and oppression. It retrenches Israel's trust in not only God's power but also God's desire to free God's people from whatever chains bind them and whatever overlords rule them. So it is and it always was not only a religious festival but implicitly a political festival. 

And as such, it was a bit of a threat. To Roman rule. And so the response of the Romans, unsurprisingly, Jon Dominic Crossan tells us, was to greet the beginning of Passover each year -- with its great pilgrimage of Jewish worshippers to Jerusalem – with a bit of a parade of their own.

Every year, on this same day we heard about in our gospel reading, a massive display of Roman might. Guards in full armour, thousands mounted on their horses, with their weapons at the ready and their standards flying, and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate borne through the city in a chariot – the whole show. An impressive and magnificent and also terrifying parade. 

And all of it delivering the unmistakable and inescapable message that there is no might like Roman might. It's huge, it's overwhelming, and it's immovable.

And probably, on the day we heard about in our gospel reading, probably... when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and all his guards taking part in that huge and overwhelming and immovable parade of sheer Roman power... when they heard about another parade going on that day in Jerusalem, they probably thought it was laughable.

Masses of people waving not weapons but palm branches? Following a simple man not rigged up in a chariot, not even rigged up on a horse, but just sitting on a DONKEY? 

The whole thing's absurd. Everybody knows what freedom looks like. Everyone knows what wins. Weapons, power, might. If Pontius Pilate had been able to look into the future, he could have righteously FALLEN OVER laughing with the ultimate in cynicism -- at the way within only a few hundred years the so-called followers of Jesus would in fact have fully aligned themselves with the Roman Empire, and started forcibly converting everyone in their path.

Everyone knows what freedom looks like. Everyone knows what wins. Weapons, power, might. Pilate's Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine. Became the Christian Empire in Europe. Became Christendom as it was unleashed across the Atlantic and across the global south to stretch around the world, staking its claim, taking what it wanted. Became economic imperialism. Huge and overwhelming and immovable. Everyone knows what wins.

So if Pilate and the Romans laughed that day at the crowds waving their palms and welcoming Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, it's not hard to see why. Even IF by the end of the week they found themselves quite a bit more reactive to the threat they began to realize he posed.

But you know what? Here we still are. In a world no less shaped by the violating values of imperialism than it was in Pilate's time, including the imperialism that so-called Christianity itself built and entrenched and perpetuated – but here we still are. With our palms instead of weapons and following in the way of the one who opted for a donkey, and not a horse.

The one who repudiated violence and was disgusted by greed. The one who said be compassionate. Take care of the sick. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. 

The one who said start with kindness. Start with mercy. Be with others the way you want them to be with you. 

Here we still are. With our palms instead of weapons and choosing AGAIN the way of the one who -- despite how subsequent history unfolded into an utter perversion of his message "in his name" – 

Who construed for his followers a very different vision of freedom. And one that our world still quite desperately needs. 

A way of living that’s unwilling to be bound by fear – fear of others, fear of difference, fear of looking weak, fear of losing advantage, fear of not enough – but instead chooses to be free. 

Free from those fears. Free to be generous, free to be forgiving, free to lay down arms, free from others’ judgment, free from instinctive wariness, free to love and trust.

It’s ridiculous and it’s absurd and it’s revolution. But if there’s one more thing that it ALSO is, that it’s not just good and crucial but also heartening for us to be aware of in this post-Christendom world –

Is that it’s not just ours. We see now what people in previous ages NEVER got to see – which is how powerfully the Holy Spirit continues to inspire people to wave their metaphorical palm branches in their celebration of the way of freedom from fear and freedom FOR generous courageous peace-building – all over the world, across national and ethnic divides, as expressions of every faith and no faith at all except in a sense of goodness.

It’s not just ours, this vision of a new way of freedom. Which is probably good, if our exhuberance about it is hemmed in fore and aft by all the best Canadian traditions of being reserved and repressed and quietly requesting our cups of camomile tea –

But the world quite desperately needs this vision. And it IS ours too. And reserved and repressed right now – it really isn’t enough. Palm Sunday is big. This vision is essential. We need to start yelling it like we mean it. God being our helper. Amen.