Leafy branches | Lent 6| 29 March 2015


Text: Mark 11:1-11

There’s something wonderfully anticlimactic about Mark’s telling of Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem.  It all begins about two miles outside the city, in the town of Bethany, where Jesus and his companions will be staying throughout the week of Passover.  It was a time when the city was flooded with pilgrims, all the homes and hotels in the city at full capacity.  Jesus and his crew had neglected to meet the online early register deadline, so they’re stuck at one of those outlier hotels that some youth end up in at Mennonite conventions, when they have to take the shuttle back and forth to the convention center.  But it’s all good.  They’ve got friends in Bethany – hanging out in the home of a guy named Simon the Leper.  Maybe catching up with Mary and Martha and Lazarus who also lived in town.  And given all that’s going to go down in the city in the coming week, it will be nice to have a quieter -and safer – place to escape to at the end of each day.

Pilate had perhaps already made his dramatic entry into the city, coming down from his headquarters on the Mediterranean in Caesarea as he did every Passover.  Not because he was interested in celebrating the festival of the Jews liberation from slavery out of the Egyptian empire.  He was there as a not-so-subtle reminder that they were firmly back under the watchful eye of a larger, more powerful empire, the Romans.  Not quite slaves, but not quite free.  Like other leading figures of the time, governors and generals, he would have received quite a ceremonial greeting, which could have included the waving of branches and the spreading of cloaks along the path for him and his entourage.  Pilate was doing the people a favor, really, by being there.  They needed him, and the peacekeepers accompanying him, to keep things…orderly.

There were so many people funneling in to Jerusalem it’s hard to know if the little piece of street theater Jesus had orchestrated for his own entry even registered.  After getting on a borrowed colt and winding his way down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, Mark does say that many people became involved, spreading their cloaks on the colt Jesus is riding, on the road, and cutting leafy branches from the fields and bringing them to spread along the road as well – a locally grown, organic, green version of the red carpet treatment.

Some of the crowd was following Jesus and some were out in front of him and they were reciting that familiar Psalm that had become so closely associated with the Passover festival, Psalm 118.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Hosanna, which means, “Save now.”  “Save us now” they would recite every year.  “We are coming in the name of YHWH.”

No matter how large or small this alternative parade was, it all seems to be going well.  Seems to be going somewhere.  To have purpose and direction, headed toward some kind of eventful climax as they finally reach the city.  So it comes as a surprise when Mark says: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  Wait. What?

There’s all this momentum, all this expectation, all this coalesced energy that can only happen when a crowd is united in its focus and passion.  Jesus enters the capital city, heads straight for the temple, the building which carries the most symbolic weight –  marches right past security into the Pentagon, or walks right up the steps into the Capitol building.  All eyes are on him.  What’s he going to do?  He stops, looks around at everything, looks down at his watch, says “Whoa, look at the time,” and turns around and walks back to Bethany where he came from to hit the sack.

He will, after what was hopefully a good night’s sleep, return to the temple the next day, and there will indeed be drama that day and that week, but the way Mark tells the story, the way Mark tells many of his stories, it leaves us wondering what’s really going on here.

This anticlimactic climax is also the climax of our Sundays of Lent.  And it’s a good thing because our worship banner is full and I noticed the worship table has been simplified to make space for all the elements that have carried us through this season.  That odd term that was introduced the first week of Lent, the ‘hermeneutical community’ has been filled out with water, land, cattle, serpents, seeds, and now leafy branches.  A hermeneutical community is a group that does the work of interpretation, of listening for messages.  Looking out for Hermes, the messenger god, who links the realms of the divine and the human.  And in our Praying with Creation, we’ve suggested, that we need more than just ourselves in this hermeneutical community.  We need the presence of the creation to offer its counsel on how to understand the present moment and our place in it.  A seed, a cow, even a snake, can be a messenger.

And so can a palm branch.

Palms play a pretty minor role in Mark’s story.  Extremely minor if we count that he doesn’t even refer to specifically to palms, only John’s gospel does that, but instead speaks of leafy branches.  Leafy branches cut from the field, brought and spread in front of Jesus, pressed down into the rocky Judean pathway under the weight of that borrowed colt, already becoming compost by the time Jesus and the twelve unceremoniously trudge back over them as the sun sets on their way back up the hill to Bethany.  In this piece of public theater, the leafy branches hardly even qualify for a role of supporting actor.

Since you all were such good sports in receiving the new phrase ‘hermeneutical community,’ I thought we could close Lent with one more vocabulary word, although this isn’t a word they teach you at seminary.  It’s one I came across a few years ago in a book about trees titled, appropriately, The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter.  So I’m clearly outside of my specialty here, as I have been for most of Lent, but this is a word that stuck with me.  The word is autotroph.  Let’s say that together…. !    Auto-troph, the tree book told me, means “self-feeders.”  In other words, autotrophs are living organisms which are able to make their own food.  The key to autotropy is the fantastic practice/process of photosynthesis which takes place in the leaves of leafy branches all over the world.  I think they tried to teach me this in high school, or middle school, but only in the last five years or so have I come to better appreciate how marvelous a process this is.  The chlorophyll in leaves is able to receive water drawn up from the ground, or absorbed out of the air, hold it together with carbon dioxide gathered out of the air, and then catch a photon of light hurled at it from the sun, whose energy it uses to slice and dice and rearrange the bonds of the three distinct elements in H2O and CO2, to make a simple sugar, food.  A leaf is a little solar powered sugar maker, creating food for itself out of thin air, which can then become more complex carbohydrates and food for other life forms, like insects, and the creatures that eat them.

Humans and all other animals are heterotrophs, other feeders, which means no matter how good a cook you are, you still don’t technically make your own food.  We are utterly and absolutely dependent on those little solar powered sugar makers, the leafy branches, for our existence, as is every other non-plant.

To take it one level further, the waste product, if you want to call it that, of photosynthesis is oxygen – kind of a cool thing to have coming out your exhaust pipe.  And there was a time early in the earth’s history when there was hardly any oxygen in the atmosphere.  But once the first photosynthesizers started doing their thing, after thousands and millions of years, they split apart enough oxygen from water and carbon dioxide, slowly upping the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere, to enable creatures like us to eventually come into existence.

It’s a whole different time scale than a human life, certainly different than expecting all the drama to happen on one triumphal day.  It’s an unhurried revolution.  The leafy branches make their cameo appearance in Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem, and we are doubly dependent on the leaves and their quiet, persistent life, in our eating and our breathing.

So the leafy branches, and the leaves that are about to burst out of autotrophs everywhere in Central Ohio, fill out our earthy hermeneutical community.  They serve as an icon of our dependence.  We are dependent.  We can’t make our own food, and need our nourishment to come from a source outside ourselves.

It’s nice to generally think of myself as an independent person.  I know I need food and the love of family and friendships, but it’s still kind of satisfying to think that I’m mostly independent.   We spend a lot of early adulthood working at becoming independent.  But after pondering the world of the autotrophs, and finding myself clearly in the world of the heterotrophs, this goal starts to feel silly and misguided.  The question isn’t so much how do we become more independent, but how will we live with our dependence in a way that nurtures the healthy interdependence of all we’re a part of.

Giving up the illusion of independence can make us ponder what we allow ourselves to become dependent on, where we direct our Hosannas.  Save us now.  Save us guns and drones.  Hosanna.  Save us technology.  Hosanna.  Save me substance of choice.  Hosanna.  We need you.  I need you.  Hosanna.  Save me.

We’re dependent on Pilate and all that he represents, who gives us a clear and easy place to direct our allegiance and devotion, who keeps the present order of things intact, who doesn’t much care what we do with our religious festivals as long as we don’t ask too many questions.

We can even be dependent on a type of Messiah whose grand entrance instantly sets everything in its proper place…sometimes we like to think of ourselves as that kind of Messiah…rather than one who looks around and decides that the work of the day, incomplete as it is, is enough, and it’s time to get some rest.

One of the ways of interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, and certainly the events of this final week of his life that we observe during Holy Week, is that he continually unveils our dependence on things which ultimately destroy life rather than support it:  The Pharisees’ dependence on sharp religious boundaries; others’ over-dependence on wealth; the disciples’ dependence on images of greatness and power rather than humility and servanthood.  And, as if to make the point once and for all for all of history to see and consider, Jesus reveals that the ways of Pilate and the system he helped maintain is always willing to destroy innocent life in order to preserve itself.  The icon of the cross is the ultimate judgment against Pilate.  Rather than Jesus being on trial, the cross puts Pilate on trial.

So what should we be dependent on?  What should we be interdependent with?  When it comes right down to it, What do we really need?  What truly saves?  These are some of the great questions that Jesus leaves us with.