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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Palm Sunday

Sunday, April 5, 2020
Matthew 21:1-11

This sermon was originally delivered by video, without text, so this is a very rough approximation of the message of the original.

As I’ve been sitting with today’s story of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, what’s come to mind for me is a famous song and album by the jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. [He’s seen as the godfather of what became hip-hop.]

As a college student, a classmate of Scott-Heron’s became ill one night. Friends took him to the campus infirmary, but it was closed. Tragically, the student died. They soon realized that this was part of a pattern; several students had died in the years leading up to this, due to an ill-equipped and ill-staffed medical centre. 

Scott-Heron took part in protests that followed. He came to realize that the bite-sized snippets about the protests that appeared on the TV news did not do justice to the reality on the ground. The revolution will not be televised…

There was another experience that led to the song, however. Much of the students’ rage was directed at the doctor that was in charge of the infirmary. Understandably. But in due course an effigy of that particular doctor was created, and then hung by its neck, and lit on fire. This didn’t sit well with Gil. How easy and tempting is it for our yearning for change to devolve into bitterness and violence. We risk missing the revolution of love that our world needs, and instead, give in to lesser revolutions of anger and bombast. The authentic revolution will not be televised. Maybe it can’t be, because it’s internal.

We live in an age where every person, thanks to social media, can manage their own personal television network, of a sort, whether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. It feels like revolutions are constantly before our eyes. But as the prophet Andy Warhol warned us, after our fifteen minutes are up, people get distracted and move on. And we’ll have realized that the revolution never took.

The Lenten season is a movement — not like a crowd or an ideology — but a movement through the Church calendar. It’s a time of seriousness, devotion, simplicity, and charity. Our hearts change our actions, and our actions can work to change our hearts.

Palm Sunday, coming toward the end of Lent boasts a different liturgy than we’re used to. As we parade and hold our palms, it’s a multi-sensory experience. It helps us move from being passive hearers or readers to being characters in the story. Our actions mirror those of the people in the crowd. (Though I’ve yet to see anyone through their clothes into the aisle.)

There’s excitement, energy, hope, and also yearning and pain as we shout “HOSANNA!” The word means “save us.” Or better, “save, now!” There’s an urgency to it.

Everyone, believer or not, goes through times where we realize that something is amiss. Times where we need help. For the crowds in the story, they were living in a land occupied by powerful Roman forces. They had some freedom, but not full freedom. They were on a leash. It might not have been as bad as (roughly) 500 years earlier, when many of them had been carted off to exile in Babylon. But it certainly wasn’t as good as 1000 years before their own day, when King David reigned. When they were united, protected, and powerful.

Imagine how Pilate and others in authority felt, when they saw a descendant of King David parading into the holy city. This demonstration had political meanings behind it. People were crying out for justice, NOW.

The thing is, the revolution that Jesus had in mind wasn’t about replacing one power structure with another. Nor was it about nostalgia, or rage. Remember, before this parade, he told his disciples several times that he was going to be put to death. He knew that the revolution of love that he was bringing about involved embodying a completely different type of power than we’re used to. It involved coming to know God through a brutal, shameful form of torture. (What an amazing God this is, to condescend to such a level. To be willing to endure the brutal actions of terrible humanity.)

What are you calling out for in the hosannas of our own day? What are we wanting to be saved from? What are our assumptions about how our problems will be solved?

In recent weeks we’ve seen the hosannas of the world take different forms. Moments of utter stupidity and selfishness, like the mass hoarding of toilet paper comes to mind. But there have also been moments of selflessness. People offering to help those who are unable to go out for groceries, for instance. Not to mention the devotion of frontline workers.

But there are utterly disturbing hosannas, too. March 2020 was the second-highest month EVER for gun sales in the USA. That’s a hosanna that comes from a place of absolute fear. And fear of neighbour.

The hosannas are important. But they can also reflect our dysfunction and brokenness. That’s why the Church, in her wisdom, balances the palm liturgy with the recounting of the Passion. On an ordinary Sunday we would begin with the palm liturgy and then move into the Passion story. Today we’re doing things a bit differently, devoting the morning to the palms, and the night to the Passion. But the point is that Jesus calls us to follow him to the Cross, not to get caught up in the crowd.

So, beyond my recommendation that you spend some time getting to know the life and music of Gil Scott-Heron, my hope is that we will follow the rhythms of Holy Week, so that we are transformed by these life-changing stories. As we move past the crowd we can watch Jesus from various perspectives. From the vantage points of heroes like the unknown woman who anoints Jesus for burial, or the women who watched the crucifixion while most others fell away. But we can also read the story from the perspective of the failures. Like Judas, whose guilt consumed and destroyed him. Or Peter, James, and John, who fell asleep while Jesus prayed for relief.

This and every Holy Week week we are being called to become participants in the story of Jesus. The story of God’s revolution of love.

The irony is that this year we might have trouble feeling like participants, while we’re confined to our homes. And, to Gil Scott-Heron’s consternation, glued to our TVs…

But we can still participate, because the revolution is still largely an internal one. Whether participating in online worship opportunities, or following prayers and devotions that we’ve been sent or have found, or even just turning to a gospel book and flipping to the end — to the Passion story — we can become a participant by becoming a part of the story.

Amy-Jill Levine, in our Lenten study (cut short by the pandemic) puts the question potently and plainly: after the parade (the crowds, the energy, the anger, the television coverage), what will we do? Wait for a miracle?

OR, will we get to work? And continue on as part of the story?

That’s what Lent and Easter are about. Participating in the surprising story that God has told, and completed, but that is always ever-new and unfolding. Amen.