Something More than Palms - April 7, 1968 - Three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
April 7, 1968, three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a day declared by then President Lyndon B. Johnson as a national day of mourning, for Christians it was Palm Sunday.
There is no room for violence and destruction in this great country whether it be the rioting and violence of Black America or the subtle and poisonous mind of prejudice, which reaches out and cuts us from within, time after time, to destroy and dehumanize our civilization.
Jesus, —knowing he would meet death returned to Jerusalem. He wept bitterly over that city. He died for that city and the world but his truth goes marching on.
Something More than Palms
Palm Sunday Sermon by Rev. Robert P. Starbuck, M.Div., Ph.D.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.
The prophet Zechariah (9:9) has spoken. In the year 530 B.C. he "began to prophesy, his was the period following the Jews return from exile. It was also the period of Jewish history when the people's hearts and minds were heavy and filled with hopelessness and discouragement; we catch something of this in the 5th chapter of Lamentations.
Lamentations 5:1-2 (RSV)
A Plea for Mercy
Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
behold, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to aliens.”
Into this setting the prophet Zechariah came. Feeling the feelings of his people —reaching out to them, loving them —knowing of their discouragement and hopelessness, he gave them hope. He prophesied saying:
“I will strengthen the house of Judah,
and I will save the house of Joseph.
I will bring them back because I have compassion on them,
and they shall be as though I had not rejected them;
for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them.
12 I will make them strong in the Lord
and they shall glory[c] in his name,”
says the Lord.”
Zechariah has spoken…
“Rejoice greatly, 0 daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, 0 Daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to yon
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.”
And five hundred years later he did come. He marched triumphantly and victoriously into the city of Jerusalem. He came riding on an ass as Zechariah had prophesied. Spread on the ground "before him were garments, and "branches of palm trees."
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes by the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!
Use of our imagination!
We too can see Him -there. He is among the throng. A vast multitude has come out to -greet him. Some are waving. Some are shouting. Some are there out of curiosity; I know of no greater description of this event than is found in Lloyd C. Douglas book, The Robe, for caught in the press of that crowd was the Greek slave Demetrius.
“Standing on tiptoe for an instant in the swaying crowd, Demetrius caught a fleeting glimpse of the obvious centre of interest, a brown-haired, bareheaded, well-favoured Jew. A tight little circle had been left open for the slow advance of the shaggy white donkey on which he rode. It instantly occurred to Demetrius that this coronation project was an impromptu affair for which no preparation had been made.
Certainly there were no efforts to bedeck the pretender with any royal regalia. He was clad in a simple brown mantle with no decorations of any kind, and the handful of men—his intimate friends, no doubt—who tried to shield him from the pressure of the throng wore the commonest sort of country garb.
Demetrius, regaining his lost balance, stretched to a full height for another look at the man who somehow evoked all this wild adulation. It was difficult to believe that this was the sort of person who could be expected to inflame a mob into some audacious action.
Instead of receiving the applause with an air of triumph—or even of satisfaction—the unresponsive man on the white donkey seemed sad about the whole affair. He looked as if he would gladly have had none of it.
'Can you see him?' called the little Athenian, who had stuck fast in the sticky-hot pack an arm's length away.
Demetrius nodded without turning his head.
'No, not very,' answered Demetrius, candidly remote.
'What does he look like?' shouted the Athenian, impatiently.
Demetrius shook his head—and his hand, too—signaling that he couldn't be bothered now, especially with questions as hard to answer as this one.
'Look like a king?' yelled the little Greek, guffawing boisterously.
Demetrius did not reply. Tugging at his impounded garments, he crushed his way forward. The surging mass, pushing hard from the rear, now carried him on until he was borne almost into the very hub of the procession that edged along, step-by-step, keeping pace with the plodding donkey...
...At present there was a temporary blocking of the way, and the noisy procession came to a complete stop. The man on the white donkey straightened as if roused from a reverie, sighed deeply, and slowly turned his head. Demetrius watched, with parted lips and a pounding heart.
Everyone was shouting, shouting—all but the Corinthian slave, whose throat was so dry he couldn't have shouted, who had no inclination to shout, who wished they would all be quiet, quiet! It wasn't the time or place for shouting. Quiet! This man wasn't the sort of person one shouted at or shouted for. Quiet! That was what this moment called for—quiet!
Gradually, the brooding eyes moved over the crowd until they came to rest on the strained, bewildered face of Demetrius. The eyes calmly appraised Demetrius. They neither widened nor smiled; even so, in some indefinable manner, they held Demetrius in a grip so firm it was almost a physical compulsion.
The message, they communicated, was something other than sympathy, something more vital than friendly concern; a sort of stabilizing power that swept away all such negations as slavery, poverty, or any other afflicting circumstance. Demetrius was suffused with the glow of this curious kinship. Blind with sudden tears, he elbowed through the throng and reached the roadside. The uncouth Athenian, bursting with curiosity, inopportunely accosted him.
'See him—close up?' he asked.
Demetrius nodded; and, turning away, began to retrace his steps toward his abandoned duty.
"Crazy?" persisted the Athenian, trudging alongside.
'No,' muttered Demetrius, soberly, 'not a king.'
'What is he, then?' demanded the Athenian, piqued by the Corinthian's aloofness.
'I don't know,' mumbled Demetrius, in a puzzled voice, 'but—he is something more important than a king.'”
Something more than a King…
There in the midst of the throng were all sorts of people. Let us see if we can identify them, the subject and the object. Now we are standing in front of a mirror —the recollection of the crowd comes back to us. What do we see?
First, we see the curious ones. Not truly caring for the man Jesus, not sincerely knowing who it is that has attracted the crowd's attention, but simply present because of the crowd. Conforming once again to the winds that swept across Jerusalem that day and in the days immediately ahead.
But there is the; Blind man.
The woman caught in the act of adultery
The crippled boy
And there is a young man who cannot hear…
Can we find ourselves in this crowd!
What infirm condition do we take with us? Are we there and are we here this morning out of curiosity or have we come in search of a meaningful faith?
Second, there are those in the throng who have come once again to trap Jesus. Now they are more sure than ever they will reach their goal —accomplish their task,
Paying taxes to Caesar
Healing on the Sabbath
Stoning to death a woman who sinned.
She broke the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
And then there is Judas! Someone used him.
Politics —Using people
SOMETHING MORE THAN PALMS
Third, and the most important person in the midst of the throng on that Palm Sunday was Jesus himself.
Something more than a King.
Yes, —King of kings and Lord of lords.
He was the Saviour of the world. He had been sent by God to save the world, but the world knew him not. Only a few of his own people really understood this man Jesus. Only a few men today understand him and are willingly to give their lives for him, Jesus was 33 when he died.
He healed the sick. He caused the blind to see the lame to walk. Even so, such miracles as these did not kill Jesus. It was the political and economic and social changes, which he advocated that killed him. It was the same injustice, which he spoke against that finally put to him to death.
The hatred of men; not the love which he taught and exemplified brought him to that cross on Calvary.
The man, who was killed by an assassin's bullet last Thursday night, was killed because he too advocated political and economic and social justice for all men. I do not really want to talk about Martin Luther King this morning. It is too painful.
And yet I must even though I know you are exhausted of the subject, and I too am exhausted. It was not my intention even to mention the race problem in today's sermon, and of the things I have prayed about since my coming to you, is that I would not alienate you or cause you to think that I was trying to coerce the love which God has given me for the black people on you.
Above all, I do not want to do either of these things this morning.
So I'm going to stop preaching —right now!
I'm only going to talk to you as you talk to me when there is a death in your family. So I do not seek your respect for the man who meant so much to me; I only seek your love in sharing with me the pain and suffering which the event of history has thrust upon me in the tragic death and loss of my brother.
So I talk out of deep pain, sorrow, grief. It was in 1963 that I first came to know Martin Luther King. I was fresh out of seminary and had struggled with some of the problems of life, including the race problem. However, I never took it seriously.
A part of my bringing up was to play it safe; don't be controversial. Don't get involved.
And then I received this letter from Martin Luther King, and I cried and sometimes I still cry when I read it. This is where my brother has been misunderstood because people have seen only the violence, which often has followed the non-violent movement.
But, Martin Luther King, Jr. never carried a gun or a knife from the day he walked into the Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., following his seminary and doctorate work at Boston University. He preached love, and he died because of it. I wish there was time to read the whole letter but let me complete it by sharing the last few paragraphs.
A Letter from Birmingham Jail – A vigorous, eloquent reply to criticism expressed by a group of eight clergymen.
“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.
Nevertheless, the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.
They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the south on torturous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been kicked out of their churches; have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.
But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.”
Something More than Palms!
Jesus, —knowing he would meet death returned to Jerusalem. He wept bitterly over that city. He died for that city and the world, but his truth goes marching on.
There is no room for violence and destruction in this great country, whether it be the rioting and violence of Black America or the subtle and poisonous mind of prejudice, which reaches out and cuts us from within, time after time, to destroy and dehumanize our civilization.
I would pray that both groups might reorder their lives and rather than have a hell on earth, which is more than a possibility. We might strive to have one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Let us pray!
Historical Note: In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination there followed a nationwide wave of riots in more than 100 cities; this was the greatest wave of social unrest the United States had experienced since the Civil War. People were scared White America was scared. This sermon was delivered in this social and racial context at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas.
In April of 1968, my father was only 41 years old. I was nearly 16, soon to get my drivers license and a sophomore attending South Park High School in Beaumont, Texas. We lived at 3705 Chaison Avenue, in the parsonage of St. Paul's United Methodist Church. The house was located in the blue–collar working–class neighborhood of South Park.
St. Paul's United Methodist Church and South Park High School were one block from one another. The church at Woodrow Ave., and the school on Highland Avenue, were only four blocks from Lamar University. The old high school building built in 1922 is gone now, and in its place stands the brand new South Park Middle School.
To this day I remember with great fondness how warm and gracious and welcoming so many people at St. Paul’s Methodist were to me and my family. It is memory I treasure still; it was my first experience of Southern Hospitality. At school I was a Trainer for the football team, staying late every day to help tape up ankles for the team.
When I began dating girls that summer and into the fall, my junior year, we took our dates parking at Lamar University because the campus police would simply leave us alone to talk and neck in our innocent teenage way. No, we did not go too far, perhaps first or second base at most, just mild petting; we were All American Teenagers in every way.
I'm sharing this, because I want you to understand how young and innocent we were then.
How young, I was.
My first real job was at Highland Avenue Pharmacy, where I drove around South Park delivering drug prescriptions to people in their homes. I also mopped the floor every night, and at times helped a bit at the soda fountain.
There is another important back story here, South Park High School was integrated in the late 1960s. And in the direct aftermath of Martin Luther King's death, a group of black and white students gathered at the parsonage one evening to learn more about one another.
My parents welcomed us; they opened up their home to a new generation, a generation that wanted something more.
Most of us were only 15-16 years old and trying our best to understand so many dark and confusing things within our world.
Why do we love?
Why do we hate?
Why is there war?
How can we make the world better?
We were young and idealistic.
There is something else I remember too. It is how watching the news. My father cried like a baby the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
And how, at some point, we simply held one another. There are deep memories here, pain and sorrow and great love. Great love, which should not be forgotten.
There are small simple transforming stories of humanity's love that need to be shared and treasured. This is one of those stories to be remembered.
Two months later, on June 6, 1968, the nation witnessed the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. I'll try to share that story soon.
Saint Julian Press
Robert P. Starbuck, M.Div., PhD
In My Fathers's House Are Many Mansions (John 14:2) will be a new book to be published by Saint Julian Press in 2017. It will be a collection of essays and sermons written by Robert P. Starbuck, M.Div., PhD, in his fifty plus years as a Christian clergy, and over forty years as a practicing psychotherapist. We'll begin at the beginning and work our way through my father's life. The book's title is of course an allusion to and a metaphor for the diversity found in a literary and artistic dialogue that promotes world peace, cultural conversations, and an interfaith awareness, appreciation, and acceptance. Although, mostly Christian in vocabulary, the messages offered here are ones of universal acceptance across all humankind.