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I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.
I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons. It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.
Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.
Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.
The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.
War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over, “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”
That was all I knew.
War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.
Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.
The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real, even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.
As though things were living, growing!
The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of the pain of ordinary people.
This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…
She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.
I didn’t know anyone else was alive.
But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.
But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.
I fell at her feet and wept.
She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.
She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.
Then we reached the next hill.
The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.
Not just me. Not just me and her. People.
Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.
Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.
I found myself staring into eyes of a child.
A child! It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.
I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my voice hoarse from disuse.
I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.
Had someone really just helped me?
My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….
I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –
“No! Don’t hurt her!”
I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her; made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?
Who has a child in times like this?
She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.
Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.
And every head turned.
And every voice faltered.
And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.
I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.
It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.
Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.
It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.
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.