This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday March 25 and Monday March 26, 2018
Hello! I have the sad position of closing out our #SheSaysLent series, and the difficult task of figuring out how to weave together a queer sermon about #MeToo and Palm Sunday. Now, I know, Palm Sunday does not seem ripest scriptural text for queerness and feminism. But, I found this day was actually one of the best ends to our series. Something I certainly never imagined. Why? Because when viewed through a queer feminist lens the day is something completely different and wildly resonant with our time.
Now before I get too far, I have to admit that I’m not the best queer on the block, and I’ve lost my better, queer-er half, Liz Edman. However, she taught me that to see something queer and feminist in a story is to:
(1) interrogate whose voices we are hearing
(2) to see the role of power,
(3) and to ask what this means for how we interact with one another.
But before we get into the Palm Sunday story, a time so far away from ours, I’d like you to imagine something with me:
Close your eyes and remember the last protest march you attended. Maybe it was this weekend’s March for Our Lives, or one of the Women’s Marches, or a Black Lives Matter rally.
You’ve got a clever sign in your hand and a few drops of paint splattered on your shirt. A burst of cold air and clear light send you stumbling up the steps at 72nd street, but it’s no matter as suddenly every New Yorker is your friend. “Great sign!” they say, hand under your elbow as they catch you and set you back on your feet. With each step you’re moving to the rhythmic pulse of political chants: ‘Hey hey, ho ho, the patriarchy has got to go!’ The air whips excitedly about your ears carrying the cheers of the multitudes. It feels, if just for these few hours, despair is being changed into hope, and all has the chance to be right with this country.
Are you there? Do you remember the feeling? That, my friends, is the energy of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday wasn’t merely a joyous event, or even just a peaceful event. Palm Sunday was a boisterous, cantankerous, rebellious event.
Palm Sunday’s message then, as it is today, is queer, feminist, revolutionary: oppressive systems must be dismantled and replaced with radical love we build ourselves from Jesus’s example. Hand in hand, with love and righteous anger, we have to build our new society. But to get there, we have to look at the text a little more deeply, with a little more imagination.
As I said, part of a queer and feminist perspective is to interrogate whose voices we are hearing. And as Hannah showed us last week, while women’s voices were so often overlooked as Scripture was written, their presence can still be felt and understood. Turning to our text, a strange thing grabbed me. You see how the crowd is cutting off branches to line the streets? The Greek verb used here for ‘cut’ is kopto, which seems to most often mean to smite or to wail and beat one’s self in mourning. That’s odd, no? We think of palms as symbols of peace, joy, harmony. But here they are: smited, cut down, chopped down in the prime of life, and they’re screaming, wailing, howling as feet and hooves alike trample them into the ground. Their screams remain silent in this story like the screams of so many women around us, and yet they are here, if we listen.
And those aren’t the only screams. In fact that screams we hear most are from the people. Mark says the crowd going before and following after is shouting excerpts of Psalm 118, including, “HOSANNA,” “HOSANNA,” אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א. They’re screaming it, they’re shouting it—and in fact the verb in Greek means to croak out as if ravens. This scream is guttural, it is visceral, it is primal. And it literally betrays a deeper uncertainty of Palm Sunday and so many protests: see “Hosea-na” is Hebrew for “Save us! Deliver us!” But it’s said joyfully. Is this an exhortation or an adoration — or both? Are they demanding, or celebrating, salvation?
In my mind, the voices we hear and have to imagine, tell us something more to this story. I can’t help but hear the Women’s March when I think of the wailing branches and croaking ravens demanding—and yet celebrating—liberation.
Which takes me to another feminist and queer perspective: what’s the role of power here? There’s an interesting scholarly theory floated that as Jesus and his peasant parade walk eastward into the capital city Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate and his army march westward into the city. It’s a literal war of dueling visions on the eve of Passover, a festival of liberation. While I like that vision, I’ll offer another.
See, what separated Jesus’s procession wasn’t just its peasant makeup, or its message of a realm of God, but specifically Jesus’s version of a realm of God, and I’ll focus in on one aspect of that: how he treated women, and how those women responded, and moreover, how he was moved by their responses. I’m not just talking about all the times he saves women from would-be murderers or shunning neighbors, I’m talking about the times he gets his words served back to him on a platter by the women he’s empowered and how he rises to the occasion:
When Mary of Bethany, his shining example discipline, sends her sorrow like a dagger at Jesus when her brother Lazarus dies, it is Jesus who weeps, and is moved to raise Lazarus.
When Jesus chastises his mother at the wedding in Cana that his time hasn’t come to perform miracles, she doesn’t care and tells the servants to do whatever he says, and in the next line there goes Jesus instructing the servants in order to turn water into wine.
When Jesus compares a Canaanite woman to a dog, she spits back his version of a God who loves all of God’s creation, and by God there goes Jesus praising her faith and healing her daughter.
Jesus so often defied the patriarchal rules of his time, not only to the chagrin of his society, but even in the face of his male followers. The women at his tomb never lost faith, and it was to these women he revealed his resurrection, all the while his few good men doubted. Jesus didn’t just raise up women’s voices, he heard their voices so as to be moved by their voices. There is a powerful difference. These women are in the march with Jesus. They aren’t just celebrating a savior, they’re championing his vision of radical love that gave power to their voices.
This takes me to my last observation about Palm Sunday for us and how we are to interact with one another.
A week from now, in the story, some of the women who no doubt were marching will be sitting around the tomb after his body is lain within. I can imagine them commiserating saying, “Our people just wanted a good guy to fix it all, they didn’t realize he gave us the tools to fix it ourselves if only we would changes ourselves.” It’s no surprise to me that Jesus comes back to these women first, and it’s no surprise these women are doubted by the men. And as a side note, I love how Jesus chastises the men for not believing. Finally someone who takes her at her word.
But these ladies don’t dawdle in the despair of being dismissed, or of being left again by their savior when he ascends. I mean, let’s get real, Mary Magdalene doesn’t have time for that, neither do Martha and Mary. These women, and men, go empowered with the good news to change each other’s despair into hope, to change their cities, their country, and our hearts, so many thousands of years later.
The message of Palm Sunday isn’t about celebrating a savior who is going to “fix” everything for us and usher in an easy peace. Jesus is moved when we demonstrate how our faith has changed our actions and ways. The reckoning we’re in with #MeToo is that time. Palm Sunday shows us it’s our holy work to truly listening to voices of women, queers, people of color, in order to be motivated to action. Palm Sunday commands us join in the thousands marching and lend our voices jubilant and boisterous. Palm Sunday demands we wait not for a king but see the king among us and create the society he inspires in us; egalitarian, just, peaceful.
At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions and hang them from the branches above. For our time of confession, I’ll offer you the following reflection: where will you lend your voice, or if your voice has power, where will you lend your hearing, to create the society Jesus promoted?
Alicia Fowler lives in Brooklyn but will soon be calling New Haven home, where she’ll be attending Yale Divinity School. She loves exploring and coming home with wild tales and deeper gratitude. When she’s not on the road (behind a fist full of fries and a camera) you can usually find her at St Lydia’s, at CBST most Friday nights, or occasionally posting travel stories online.
“Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity,” by Elizabeth M. Edman
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg