The palms were fresh cut and laid on the road that Jesus took into Jerusalem and up to the Temple Mount. It called to mind when Simon Maccabee cleansed the temple following the revolution against Syria 190 years earlier, and the people of Jerusalem paved his route with fresh cut branches. The people of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day lived under foreign occupation, under a governor with a taste for brutality, a governor who was to be hailed as the image of the Emperor. An Emperor who claimed to be the high priest between humans and the gods, and who himself was a god. But Passover was coming. Passover, that glorious festival of God’s liberating of the slaves. The governor was coming to town, lest anyone get carried away with the holiday and attempt a new liberation. But on the opposite side of town, Jesus was coming. Jesus who healed the sick and cast out demons and fed the hungry and welcomed the marginalized.
So, while the governor came from the west, properly hailed as the Gospel of Peace, the Advent of divine blessing, and the Savior of the World, Jesus from the east came hailed as the one coming in the name of the Lord, as the second coming of David, as the one who like Simon Maccabee would kick out the occupiers and cleanse the temple of foreigners. Those fresh cut palm branches symbolized the rightful king returning to set things right. Everything would finally be as God designed. There would be no need to attend to life under Rome, for Rome would be gone; no more need to solve complicated problems because Jesus would remove them; no hard choices now that Jesus chooses for us; no need to organize our lives, remember what we learned, think through our actions, or struggle to hold on to our values. Jesus would do it all. The palms stood for that. So, let’s check on how the palms are doing. You can’t see from here, but, uh, they’re about 2/3 of a cup of black ashes. They caught on fire and we put them in a Daisy Sour Cream jar to keep them in one place. This is what remains of our idea of Jesus from Palm Sunday. Like a snarky tweet from an ill-informed celebrity, it has not aged well. Our concept—our construct—of conquering rightful king is just a pile of ashes. Well, not just: we will mix them with a little olive oil to help them stick.
All of us return to dust. Putting ashes on your foreheads is one of the more profound experiences I have as a pastor. Young and old, it doesn’t matter—I mark you with mortality. Then I peg one of you to mark me. We will die. More will die than our bodies, though. What we build crumbles. Maybe if you’ve got top engineers and an empire’s worth of slave labor you build a Colosseum or some pyramids, but those wear out, too. Our institutions crumble. Like kingship. If someone in the US claimed to be king he’d be laughed off the street. Places like Britain kept their kings, but now the people tell the king or queen what to do. We still like the idea of one person fixing all our problems, though. We feel drawn to someone who promises to handle all the choices, all the thinking, all the value-forming, all the shedding of light on the subject. These are functions of the neo-cortex of the brain.
The brain has three major regions. At the base is the survival-oriented brain that all animals have. Above and around that is the limbic system that feels emotions and bonds with others. Mammals have better-developed limbic systems than other animals. Above and around all of that is the neo-cortex, which is most developed in humans. It’s the part of the brain that solves complex problems and thinks ahead and constructs values and sees things in new ways. The neo-cortex is what separates us from other animals. It is our most human feature. Sin tempts us to hand over our humanity to someone else, to shut off the human brain or at least put it in the service of the survival instincts. Sin tempts us to find a messiah who can destroy our humanity. That idea of a messiah, who will end our need to be human, is front and center this evening, thanks to these incinerated palm branches.
The ashes of those branches will go on our faces, despite Matthew’s injunction against disfiguring our faces. It would appear that the ashes pose a dilemma. On the one hand, being made from palm branches they remind us of Jesus coming to Jerusalem to face the powers of this world that oppressed and exploited, powers that claimed their brutal physical and psychological grip on power was divinely ordained and necessary. Jesus marched into Jerusalem to tear tyrants from their thrones. On the other hand, those palms being reduced to ashes remind us that human beings are mortal and imperfect, and that we often place our trust in things (or people) that will crumble and die. Jesus marched to Golgotha. As usual, our society tells us that the choices are A or B, one or the other.
If the former, Jesus is one who simply needs the right politician. In my lifetime I have witnessed the coming of Ronald Reagan to save Evangelicals. That didn’t work, apparently, because twenty years later George W Bush came to save Evangelicals again. I witnessed Barack Obama coming to save black Christians. And I witnessed Donald Trump come to save white Evangelicals again. In this model, Jesus is all powerful…just has trouble finding people to hold down the presidency. So we get the latter option, that political action in this world is futile and we must remember all goes to the cross, so why bother? This was the attitude Bonhoeffer decried in moderate German Christians, who did not like Hitler one bit but felt Church wasn’t the place the talk about it, and that Martin Luther King decried in moderate white American Christians, who did not like segregation and racism but felt Church wasn’t the place to talk about it. Our binary obsessed society tells us to pick A or B: identify political leaders with Jesus OR withdraw from reality completely.
That either/or—that dilemma—dies and crumbles to dust along with everything else we create. The Jesus who marches into Jerusalem to dethrone the tyrants is the Jesus who marches to Golgotha and pours out his life on the cross. Jesus breaks whatever takes away humanity. He comes with all the power of the survival-oriented brain in high gear, but he comes to make our world more complicated. Oh, he will cleanse the temple: by throwing out the people you think belong there. Oh, he will take care of the foreigners: the first person to understand what Jesus is about will be the foreign soldier in charge of the crucifixion. Oh, he will rule everything: from his cross he is enthroned as king. Dead, he has more power than anyone on this earth. As a puddle of ashes and olive oil on your face, he is more powerful than anyone on this planet.
We wear these ashes—yes, despite Matthew’s urging us not to disfigure our faces—because these ashes proclaim the inevitable death and crumbling of anyone or anything who claims to have to solution to all of life’s problems…as long as you just give up what makes you human. Whether it is a system that commands you not to use your human brain to question or change it, or it is a person who promises to name the threats to your survival and eliminate them for you, it’s going to be ashes in a cup.
God did not become human so that we could quit being human. God became human to draw us into being fully human as God is. Karl Rahner famously asserts that humanity is really and always something of the Son, the Word, the second person of the Trinity. Humanity is in God in a special way, and anything or anyone who tries to take away humanity attacks God in God’s very being. Jesus comes to us living as fully human, calling us to be fully human. He didn’t use the word because it didn’t exist, then, but he calls us to use our neo-cortices.
That’s not a quick fix that crumbles to dust; it is a discipline. Shortly I will say the words I say every Ash Wednesday: “I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of Lent.” Part of me always rolls my eyes at this. Who considers discipline inviting? But Jesus is inviting us to be human with him. He is inviting us to use—dare I say it—the godliest part of our brains, the human parts. He calls us to self-examination and repentance: getting above and beyond our old mindsets, to experience insights, see things differently. He invites us to prayer and fasting: assessing our values and convictions and beliefs, ordering our lives with some thought for the consequences. He invites us to sacrificial giving and works of love: to take on the complicated problems we face, and to do so in ways that are faithful to how diverse and complicated the world is.
It’s a lot. We keep it as simple and direct as we can. Lent is a return to basics, sometimes. So we will talk about temptation; we will hear Jesus call us into solidarity with the suffering; we will watch Jesus cleanse the Temple of the people we assumed belong, and announce that no one but God controls access to God; we will hear the most pointed reminder in Scripture that God loved the world and died that it could live; we will hear Jesus call us to trust in God as he did. And we will end where we begin: another procession with palms that will soon turn to ashes. For Jesus does come to free us—not to free us from being fully human, but freeing us to be fully human.