We began our service this morning according to a Christian custom that goes back at least as far as 381 A.D. It was in that year that the pilgrim Egeria traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter. She arrived a week early, and as she approached the city she witnessed a group of people processing down into the city from the Mount of Olives. The crowd waved palm branches as they chanted, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” These early Christians represented the people who crowded the road as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.
Today we reenacted this venerable tradition. We processed to glorious song, and we waved our palm fronds before us. But if you paid careful attention to the liturgy of the palms this morning, you may have noticed that in what we have just enacted there is a disconnect with the reading we heard at the outset of the service.
One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is expected to take at least once during life. The pilgrim’s first stop upon reaching Mecca is the miqat, or changing room, in which he removes whatever clothes he has on, including jewelry, and dons a stark, plain, white garment known as the ihram.
Eventually, the pilgrim makes his way to the mosque housing the Kaaba stone, believed by Muslims to have been built by our shared father Abraham and symbolizing the faithfulness of God, where the pilgrim falls in with thousands upon thousands of identically-plainly dressed Muslims to ritually walk around the Kaaba seven times.
Before he arrived in Mecca, the pilgrim might have been a peasant or a king. But in Mecca he strips himself bare, ritually divesting himself of any and all indicators of his station. He removes his world, as does everyone around him, and he gives himself over to God.
The disconnect in Luke’s account of that first Palm Sunday, which we read this morning, is that there are no palms! There is no throng waiting for Jesus like the party awaiting the returning Longhorn or Aggie football teams after an away game victory. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and especially John, Luke’s recollection lends its focus to a different aspect of the story. In Luke, the emphasis is found less in the enthusiasm of the people (though that is present, too) and more in the deeply personal and committed action of each gathered individual. First, we are told, the disciples remove their cloaks and lay them on the back of the colt, as a blanket on which Jesus can ride. Then, we are told that passers-by stop and shed their cloaks to straighten and smooth as best they can the way along which Jesus travels. Clothing, then as now, is a powerful symbol of who we are, what we do, and how much we matter relative to others in the world. And what Luke tells us on Palm Sunday is that first the disciples and then the various people they meet along the road remove their cloaks and lay them down in service to Jesus the Christ. Whether the person be a peasant, a wealthy landowner, or a scribe, those whose eyes look up from the road and see not a fool on a donkey but God in their midst strip themselves bare. Each person removes his world and lays it at the feet of Jesus. They foreshadow the very model that Jesus himself will set five days from now, when he, too, is stripped bare and when he commits himself on the cross and gives all that he is to the service of the lonely and the lost. Riding on that colt on Palm Sunday at the beginning of the week, he invites all he meets to join him; to lay down their lives with him against the way of the world that instills injustice, prejudice, and fear; to side with him for love.
It is worth asking the question, “How can I lay down the world I have built around me? I must eat. I must provide for myself or my family. People at work and at home depend on me. I am part of a system, a spoke in a wheel. What would it even look like to remove my cloak and lay it on the ground for Jesus?”
It is a fair question, and it is one for which the Gospel provides us an answer. There is a small-group exercise that is sometimes conducted in church gatherings during Holy Week. Participants are asked to imagine who they would be in the Passion story. Mary Magdalene? Simon of Cyrene? Pilate?
For most of us, who in our culture enjoy great status and comfort, I would argue that we are represented by Joseph of Arimathea. We are not the disciples, to be sure. We do not live hand-to-mouth nor do we give up all that we have—including family and home—to devote ourselves to the Gospel. Let’s not kid ourselves; that’s not who we are.
But listen again to what Luke says about Joseph:
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.
Jesus is crucified, and Joseph anguishes. What does he do? How does he respond? He could forget about this Jesus, who preached the kingdom Joseph had come to anticipate. He could go back to his privileged life as though it had all been a misunderstanding. In an atmosphere where those who rock the boat tend to find themselves hanging from a cross, that would surely be the safest decision.
But that’s not what he does. With courage, Joseph uses his very status in service to the Gospel, in the way that one might take off an ornate and expensive cloak to cover the road leading into Jerusalem. He goes to Pilate (into the lion’s den), who will only see him because Joseph is a member of the Jewish council, and asks for Jesus’ body. There must then be a moment of tension so thick you can cut it with a knife, as Pilate stares at Joseph trying to decide if Joseph, too, is an insurrectionist, if he, too, is an enemy of Rome. But the moment passes, and Pilate turns the body over to Joseph. Please understand, no one else could have accomplished this; not Peter, not the mother of Jesus. Only Joseph, because of who he is in the community, because of his standing, and because he is willing to take the cloak of his life and lay it on the road in service to the Gospel.
Friends, the final journey of Jesus has begun. Jesus needs us to walk this Way. He needs us to take these clothes that we wear as symbols of status and worth and render them truly valuable. He needs us, even in the face of risk and challenge, to strip ourselves bare, and offer whatever we have in service to the One who seeks us out in love. He comes now. There are cracks and fissures in the road. It can be treacherous. The colt may stumble. Our cloaks—our lives—are needed.