You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2013.
Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” -Luke 19:40
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has got to be one of the great stories of our faith. I know this, because I remember coloring in the pages in Sunday School; the pictures of the palms – bright green crayon – cloaks spread out; the semi-condoned “borrowing” of a donkey, which we assume got returned later. The Hosannas, the cheering crowds, the wondrous procession – this huge parade through throngs of people shouting out, as though all of Jerusalem had shown up at the foot of this hill on the outskirts of the city. As though this were some sort of a spontaneous demonstration of the populace that served to make the events of later in the week all the more devastating.
And I can see why the narrative developed in this way – why we tell the story the way that we do. I can even see why we call this the “Triumphal entry”: as though Jesus were some sort of conquering hero or warrior, the Messiah that we all wanted Jesus to be. As though he had overcome Roman legionnaires and all that Herod and Pilate could throw at him. As though he simply were just another temporal leader. Or as though we ourselves had some stake in the Roman occupation of Palestine.
It makes for a better holiday, to have a narrative like this; it makes for a break in the depths of Lent during which we stop saying “Alleluia”. Having a day when we can shout Hosanna feels pretty good after nearly forty days of discipline, and fasting, and repentance. Moreover, it makes for better pathos later in the week – it makes for a more poignant moment of betrayal and desertion, when it isn’t only twelve who vanish but an entire city that just days before had been shouting Psalms, singing hymns, spreading their cloaks on the ground.
The narrative doesn’t surprise. At some level, it makes so much sense. We know Jesus could draw a crowd, we’ve seen it before. How many did he feed with loaves and fishes? Three thousand? Five thousand? That’s a big crowd! How many were gathered on the coast of the Sea of Galilee as he sailed across? How many gathered to hear the Sermon on the Mount?
But there is a difference between being out in the Galilean or the Judean countryside, and being on the outskirts of a major city – even on the outskirts, in the poor neighborhoods, away from the seat of power. There’s a difference. There’s a difference between going out to hear good preaching, and participating in an overtly political act. We’re not totally off our rockers to see, in this triumphant entry, the movement of a temporal leader, the movement of a powerful human. That’s not an accidental maneuver, that’s not something we added to the narrative later on to make Jesus into the Messiah that we expected. That was Jesus’ choice: to make the entry that way. It was not accidental, but it does point to something other, something much larger. Jesus is, in this moment, using the lens of the familiar, the hoped-for, the expected, to point beyond all of those things. This is, for all intents and purposes, a parable writ large, and acted out for all the world to see.
What we have here, though, is not a popular uprising, but a political stunt. This may look like a large crowd: according to the Gospels a lot of people were there, but let’s remember that a lot of people followed Jesus around. Not just those twelve disciples, but all of the followers, all of the hangers-on. Let’s remember that there were women in the crowd. It would not surprise me that Lazarus – not one of the twelve! – but Lazarus, who had been resurrected, had followed to that moment, and Mary and Martha with him. We know Mary Magdalene was there. We know Joanna was there, we know Salome was there. This was a large crowd, just his followers.
And they came into Jerusalem – not for the first time, but for the most potent time. In a way that looked like what it was: a mockery, a challenge to the powers-that-be. But in a way that went so far beyond that, and we hear it in the words they chose, because that wasn’t accidental either. I don’t think they called it “Psalm 118” in the way that we do, but they chose that scripture deliberately. The Psalm invokes the promises God’s abiding love, that tells us that God’s steadfast love endures forever. That verse is repeated throughout the Psalm, and that is not accidental. They chose a scripture that reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, that the chief cornerstone shall be the one that was rejected. And in that, how can we see anything but a challenge. Not a challenge to the Romans – we hear this and we know that this isn’t really about the Romans. As much as we want it to be, as much as we want to have a stake in overthrowing occupation, that is not what is happening here. When we read this and we read the Psalm that goes with it we realize that this isn’t even about Herod, or Pilate. This isn’t even about the Jewish establishment and the Temple practices, this isn’t even really about humanity at all.
The past couple of weeks, we’ve mostly been preaching out of the Gospels. It’s not unusual, during Lent, as we are working our way towards a particular, expected end. But we’ve also been hearing quietly from the prophet Isaiah, and Isaiah has had a consistent, clear message these past couple of weeks: that God’s ways are not our ways. We heard that in Isaiah 55, a couple of weeks ago. That God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. That God doesn’t see the world in the way that we do – we need that reminder on a pretty regular basis, I think. Last week, we heard that God is preparing something totally new, totally different, that we can’t count on previous experience to be our guide, that we must simply be prepared for whatever is forming, whatever will be coming.
And so the fact that we see Palm Sunday as triumphal rather than subversive, as somehow being somehow in opposition to Good Friday, rather than otherwise, strikes me simply as a failure of human imagination enshrined in tradition and coloring book pages.
It strikes me as a failure to understand that the God who requires our death and rebirth in the waters of baptism; the God who requires our continual renewal in repentance and grace might just, it strikes me, have something beyond-the-normal-human-scale of revolutionary in mind.
We know the end of the story. Why is it so hard to see?
But if you look at it, and the way in which we have traditionally viewed it: that failure of human imagination to grasp and to comprehend, the failure to put ourselves honestly into the narrative. It makes you wonder where in that story we really would be. It suggests that we would not, actually, be among the disciples, throwing our cloaks down and shouting Hosanna and quoting the Psalms. Rather, it suggests that we would be with the Pharisees, running up to this loud and boisterous procession, entering the city in such a mocking and challenging fashion, and fearing for Jesus and for ourselves. It strikes me that we would be with the Pharisees shouting, “Be QUIET! Don’t you know what could happen to you? Do you have any idea what it is you’re doing?”
Which sounds harsh. Because we all want to be the disciples, right? We all want to have those palms, throwing them down before him, and shouting praises and singing Psalms but… really? Can we honestly say that?
It sounds harsh, but I stand here before you, someone who has been told many times to be silent because of what might happen, and so it rings true.
It sounds harsh, yes it does, but we had a reminder just a couple of weeks ago: when it took 50 years for the Chief of Police in Montgomery, Alabama, to apologize for what had happened during the Civil Rights Movement, when a bunch of people came in on a bus and the city had turned its back, knowing full well that those people had been attacked and beaten in every city in the South where their bus had been. The Montgomery City Police refused to even show up at the bus station. And so those people got attacked, and beaten, and terrorized yet again. And those who might have followed them were silenced. “Be quiet, you, do you know what might happen?”
We got a reminder this week – like we needed another? – in Steubenville, Ohio, of what happens to women on a regular basis. Of how often women are silenced and shamed for being victims. Of how they are re-victimized after the crime for daring to speak the truth, for daring to ask for justice. And that that second victimization, the social victimization that happens afterwards, only serves to silence hundreds more who might have spoken up themselves. “Be quiet, little girl, don’t you know what’s going to happen to you? Don’t you say a word.”
We have reminders daily of how hard humans will cling to the status quo. Of how fierce is our resistance to change, even when change is for good, and change is for love, and change is for justice. We have reminders on a daily basis, and it is not hard to find them, of what happens to those who do work for love, and for justice: of what happens to those who seek to live the Gospel message.
So where do we stand, in that story?
We have reminders as well, that God’s ways are not our ways; that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And we have reminders of the power of God who is not like us, the power of God to break through into the story and to break us open. The power of God to refuse to be silenced, no matter the cost. “Silence these,” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “and even the stones will cry out.” All Creation shall sing Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All Creation shall sing praises to God, but let’s remember that we’re silencing that, too.
Where are we, in this story?
We have reminders on Palm Sunday, of the radical and subversive nature of God. OF the radical and subversive nature of the one whom we are all, here pledged to follow. Of the responsibility that we all accept as disciples, to participate in what is, inherently, a political – not a partisan, but a political – act. Because if we are to be partisans to anything, to anyone, it should not be to those who have temporal power and human soapboxes, where stone will not stand upon stone; but to the one without whom those very human structures cannot stand, who will break the stones apart as they sing out. It shall be to the one who builds the things that humans would otherwise reject; who takes the least, and lays it as the cornerstone of the strongest foundation. It shall be to the one who rides a donkey through back roads, knowing exactly what he is doing. Knowing the cost of that act, and the cost of those Hosannas, knowing the cost of speaking out.
We have reminders, each of us in our hands, of the real triumph of this entry and of this day. Take your palms, carry them out into the world unafraid to shout Hosanna. Go out into this world, disciples of subversive love and radical vision. Preach the Gospel. Live the Gospel. Live it out loud, and refuse to be silenced.
I find myself reflecting a lot on stewardship, recently.
Partly, because part of my job is to help ensure the financial health of this congregation. But also, of course, this is because of our preparation to participate in the UCC’s Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 days of earth-care and eco-justice between Easter and Pentecost. When we consider the marvelous complexity of this world around us, it must necessarily be heartbreaking to see it be so thoughtlessly damaged. Whether you believe that God literally created this world, or you believe that it evolved to become the world we know, it matters little: I know few people who have not experienced the divine in the power of nature. Caring for the earth keeps us in relationship with that divine presence all around us.
Recently I heard Rev. Mike Piazza, a UCC pastor in Virginia, suggest that the pollution of environment is an indication of the abdication of the church to teach covenant and stewardship. In other words, the church is not keeping us from acting selfishly. We are not being reminded of our sacred responsibility to be in covenant – that relationship of mutuality, of shared values and of holy promise. We are not being reminded of our commitment to stewardship, in the literal sense of that word – the commitment to care for something which is not ours, yet which has been entrusted into our keeping. We treat the earth as we treat so much of our lives: as though we were in sole control, as though we owned it, as though we had the privilege of treating our possession in whatever way felt pleasurable or convenient at the time.
We behave as though we were nothing but consumers – of material goods, of the earth, of God.
We behave as though God’s gifts to us demand nothing in return, as though God’s love and grace justifies our own self-interest and corruption.
We behave as though the covenant were made only with us, the privileged, the materially-blessed, and we do not heed the injunction to be, in turn, a blessing to others.
For the most part, the church has, indeed, declined to raise its voice against this trend. In this age of church-hoppers and the “spiritual but not religious”, we try to make churches easy, comfortable places to celebrate God’s presence. We try to be a loving community, while ignoring the fact that sometimes love is uncomfortable, and demanding, and hard.
I dare to think that, as sweet as this sounds, we want our church to be better than this. We want to be convicted. We want to hear that God loves us – yes! us! flawed, difficult, stubborn, near-sighted us! – enough to keep a covenant with us. Enough to give the most precious gifts into our clumsy care. Enough to trust that, even when we fall down, we will keep trying to be good stewards, good babysitters of God’s gifts. I dare to think that we want a church that will not only reassure us, after we fail for the hundredth time, but that will give us the courage to get up and try again; to never stop giving everything we have to this relationship with the divine.
I dare to think that, as much as we are trained by our culture to be consumers, we would rather be the ones consumed – swallowed whole by God’s extravagant love.
I dare to think that we want this church to be a church of the Gospel, a church of God’s covenant, a church that looks upon pollution, and corruption, and exploitation and says, “Enough!” A church that practices what it preaches, even to the point of being ridiculed for its countercultural stand. A church that represents the one who ate with lepers, blessed prostitutes, gave the Word to the illiterate, died for the sake of love.
We might be one church – one small community in one small state – but we have the power to live into the covenant. We have the power to say, “Enough!” And in these 50 days of Eastertide, we have the power to raise our voices, with other churches in other communities in other states; to be one Church living one Gospel as stewards of one Creation. We have the power to be responsible for our end of the relationship of mutuality and shared values to which God has called us: to choose relationship, to choose stewardship, to choose love.
We have the power to be the church we want to be. Praise be to God!