Palm Sunday

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

A Sermon by Trevor Bechtel on March 24 2024

Good morning, We are in one of those dense periods of religious observance. We have arrived at the beginning of holy week, traditionally regarded as the most important week in the Christian religion. I wish you all a Blessed Palm Sunday. But we are also in the middle of the Muslim celebration of Ramadan and the Jewish celebration of Purim. And in the calendar of the religion of American sports, we have just entered March Madness, seen by many as highpoint of basketball. This is the madness weekend where small, unknown schools cause massive disruption. Many of us have taken notice of that this year because the disrupting school is just down the road, Oakland University. 

This is a special year for basketball viewers because it is the year that the women’s game is widely recognized as more significant than the men’s. Articles have been written with that as their title, but the leading indicator is the fact that tickets for the women’s final four are much more expensive than tickets for the men. As with any new reality that breaks into the world you can come up with lots of reasons which it’s not really important, or real, or significant. And it’s true that the women’s venue is smaller, only 20,000 people can sit in their stadium compared to 75,000 for the men. But whatever excuse you want to cling to, you can’t get around the fact that it will cost you much more, around 5 times as much by some accounts, to get a ticket on the secondary market for some games. 

Most of this is down to one player, Caitlyn Clark, who plays for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Leland Ropp, the long time Shalomer who recently moved to Virginia wants me to pause for a moment and repeat the team name, the Iowa Hawkeyes. I went recently to the Big Ten Tournament, one of the many minor festivals that precede the celebration of March Madness, and every game had more Iowa fans than fans for any other team, regardless of whether or not Iowa was playing. While still a college student Caitlyn Clark has transformed women’s basketball, by being better at long distance shooting and passing than just about any other player to play the game. 

I love stories of individuals that transform the world. It happens with some regularity in sport. On the men’s side in basketball Steph Curry changed how everyone plays the game by becoming good at long distance shooting. Serena Williams and her sister Venus transformed tennis, bringing a new level of power to the game. Wayne Gretzky changed the sport of hockey when I was a child by being the first person to play behind the net. It’s easy to analyze these changes in sport, partly because everything in sport is so well documented. But individuals regularly transform the world in other domains as well. Taylor Swift and Beyonce, independently and simultaneously have become the first entertainers who regularly impact whole economies when they tour.  Mark Zuckerberg built a college project into the tool that lies at the heart of the social media revolution. Jane Goodall changed how we understand nature bringing cooperation to a science dominated by competition and the survival of the fittest. Rosa Parks catalyzed the civil rights movement making the non-violent protest averred by Martin Luther King. 

Individuals can and do change the world, but they always do it in a world where others lay the ground work. A nice thing about Caitlyn Clark’s rise to prominence is that we are learning the names of other significant scorer’s in women’s basketball who played at a time when the sport wasn’t as popular, like Lynette Woodward and Pearl Moore. Rosa Parks was a social connector in Birmingham and rich people cared what happened to her. Probably the best example of this is Rosalind Franklin who laid most of the ground work for Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. 

But while many of us will offer obeisance to basketball later this afternoon we are here because of our interest in Jesus, another person who as an individual transformed the world. And just as this is Caitlyn Clark’s moment in basketball, today is the Sunday when we celebrate Jesus moment. 

In our religion this is a minor festival. Christ’s birth and death have become the celebrations at the heart of our faith, but they were not social moments at the time. Herod was anxious about it, but the only humans who noticed Jesus birth were a few shepherds. More people paid attention to Jesus death, but it was not a social moment, and only a few people will notice Jesus resurrection. But the march into Jerusalem is a socially significant event for everyone. Large crowds waving palm fronds. Very deliberate imagery reshaping imaginations. 

I don’t know what people will think about Caitlyn Clark in 20 years. If she has an even middling professional career she’ll be remembered as one of the best basketball players of her generation. History and the stories we tell about people who change the world can often detach themselves from the actual events. 

I know that people think many different things about Jesus. 

This event is probably the center of one of my favourite ways of thinking about Jesus. This is Jesus as social movement founder. By riding in on a donkey Jesus opposes military power and instead offers a vision of a world where people are interested in the things that Jesus is interested in. I think that these are also the things that we are interested in. I believe it is a vision of salvation, but it is also a social, if not a political imagination. 

Another way of thinking of today is as a series of steps on the inevitable journey towards the cross. This way of thinking about Jesus focuses on the power of his redemptive death and sees the entry into Jerusalem as the fateful beginning of that set of events. 

The final way of thinking about Jesus that I want to highlight is as an actual political ruler. This has been a live option at points in the last two thousand years as large swaths of Europe have been ruled by men leading both the church and society. 

One way of ending this sermon is here, by saying that Jesus can show us a new way to live, and sending you all out to live that way. And because when I get to the end I’m not going to leave you with anything other than the call to reflect, you can probably stop listening now if like sermons that tell you what to do. 

One reasons I’m not ending the sermon here is because it matters who is in power. I don’t think that Jesus ever had any desire to rule, but it does matter who does. The best example of this is the Child Tax Credit put in play towards the end of the pandemic. It cut child poverty by 70%. So we are in a situation where we know how to end child poverty but we have chosen not to do it. 

This is dramatic, but you could travel to many parts of the world where rulers have created a much more dramatic impact on their people’s lives. I won’t review these situations in detail but I’ll give you a second to call them to mind. Some of these are also situations where individuals are reshaping the world. Again, I’m not going to name them but I’ll give you a second to call them to mind. 

I have a few questions for you. 

Do we know that the people I am willing to name make better changes to the world than the people you are thinking of? Do we know that our democracy is better than more authoritarian ways of organizing society that are resurgent throughout our world right now? Do we know that the arc of moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice? 

When Jesus gets onto his donkey we don’t really know what he is going to become, and we don’t really know the best way to follow him. Waving our palm fronds? Turning them into crosses? 

We don’t know who in our world is going to bring the best situation forward for the people. The one thing I will say is that Jesus is on a donkey and not a war horse and that when we spend on money on war it is a complete waste of resources that could do many things, including ending child poverty. We’ll take some time now to since some hymns. You can join us in singing or you can drop by one of the tables and pick up a palm frond and do something with it.  

Categories: Sermons