Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Year A
Matthew 21:1-11
By Rich Gamble

The scene is Jerusalem before Passover. Now Passover is one of the most important celebrations of the year. It is a time when the Jewish faithful did their best to go to Jerusalem to celebrate. The population of that town swelled to many times its normal size. Imagine living in small villages or in small communities of outsiders in large gentile cities. In these small communities it is easy to feel powerless to respond to those who lord it over you. But in Jerusalem during Passover, you are part of giant crowd of like minded people. There you are in the majority. In such a settting it would be easy to feel the power of the crowd. Passover is also the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from the hand of oppression.

In Jesus’ day the Jewish people are once again feeling the hand of oppression. It is Roman oppression this time. So in the central city of Judaism, with the town packed with the Jewish faithful, comes the celebration of God’s liberation from oppression. It is a revolutionary’s dream situation, a crowded tinder box awaiting a spark.

And then Jesus comes to town. Now Jesus has prepared the scene. He has staged is a piece of political theater. Jesus comes riding into town on the back of donkey. This brings to mind the prophet Zechariah who proclaimed that the King would come to town in just such a manner. And that is how people imagined their Messiah. He was to be a king, like David only better. At about the same time, on the other side of town Pilot is riding into Jerusalem at the head of a column of Roman troops to keep order in Jerusalem during Passover. So Jesus’ entry is seen in direct comparison to the Roman one.

Jesus’ followers have done a good job of getting the word out. When Jesus comes riding over the Mount of Olives the people turn out in droves to wave Palm branches and to shout hosanna. Palm branches were a sign of Jewish identity, Jewish nationalism, Jewish independence from oppressive powers. Hosanna was an exclamation of entreaty meaning: save us. In this case undoubtedly the people were thinking of salvation from Rome.

Jesus as coming king, entering the city of David on the eve of the celebration of liberation from oppression, with people waving symbols of Jewish independence and crying out to their would be king an entreaty to save them from the oppression of Rome. Now that is good political theater.

It must have been a good time for those who threw down their cloaks before the donkey, (or donkeys if you take Matthew’s literalism to heart). Those who cried their hosannas and brandished their palm branches were thumbing their noses at Caesar and Rome. And there, they could get away with this act of contempt for Rome because it was filled with symbols that the Romans would not have understood.

Parades do have power. Protest marches, symbolic actions do have power; especially when it is an oppressed people marching in opposition to their oppressors. Why did Martin Luther King help organize those marches? And why did the white establishment use police clubs, attack dogs, fire hoses and rock throwing thugs to try and stop the marchers? It’s because a people claiming their power to march against their oppressors are going to be emboldened to cease cooperating with the system that oppresses them.

And so Jesus helps the people confront the power of Rome, nonviolently. He helps them celebrate their own identity independent from the one cast for them by imperial propaganda. He helps them see how much power they have to assert an alternative to the Roman idea of how things should be.

But of course they don’t really get it. Zechariah’s vision is that of the victory of God’s people over the forces of violence. Zechariah calls for the breaking of the weapons of war. But the people who turn out to mock Rome through Jesus’ coming to town don’t really see the depth of the revolution to which Jesus is calling them. In the end, when the choice is between the violent insurgent, Barabbas and the nonviolent revolutionary Jesus, they pick Barabbas.

Even those who believe in God, even those who are the oppressed, even those who celebrate Jesus can and do usually get it wrong. We don’t understand the depth of transformation required to achieve real and lasting peace.

Jesus was after something more. His sights were set not just on ridding Judea from Roman domination but ridding the world of the desire to dominate. He was about creating a revolution against domination itself. And to do that, his people, the ones who celebrated God’s siding with the oppressed; his people, the ones who had a long history of being under the heel of some empire; his people, the current victims of the latest global empire: his people, had to do more than dump the Romans, they had to change their own values, beliefs, and practices.

They were being called, as we are called to give up the concept of my (family, nation, possessions) and embrace God’s claim to all things, and God’s rule over all of our lives. We are called to look past the mindless acceptance of the way things are and the simple solutions of hate and greed offered to us by those who want to use us for their cause. We are called to sacrifice our expectations of cozy luxury so as to respond to a world of need. We are called to measure our lives not by what we have accumulated but by what we have shared. We are called to see past the blinders that let us go on day after day in the same old way while the earth withers in our pollution, and the poor grow in ever greater numbers and desperation. We are called to see that it is not enough to sing hosannas from the sidelines. It is not enough to wring our hands. It is not enough to vote for the latest incarnation of Barabbas.

Not in the victory parade or in the embrace of the adoring crowds, but alone on the cross, stripped of every possession, even his life, Jesus becomes the ultimate protest against the Powers that Be, Jesus becomes the challenge that strips away our smug self-certainty, Jesus becomes the boundless saving love of God, Jesus becomes our messiah.

That is the wonderful point of this day. The people on that day came out to mock the Romans by celebrating Jesus as their rightful king. Later in the week, when he failed to be their idea of a king they turned on him. Not imperious, lacking an army, forgiving his enemies, calling on the rich to give up their wealth for the sake of the poor. No wonder they picked Barabbas, we would never elect such a guy president.

Jesus is God’s idea of a leader. That is the challenge of our faith. Not to force God’s ideas through sieve of our notions of the way things should be but to change our ideas to align with God’s.

So often we get our ideas of things from the world around us and then we expect our faith to align with our ideas. We say that the church is a family and we think we know what family means because of our upbringing. Family is a group of people who are more special to us than other people. They are more dear to us. And so we say, if church is family then the folks who are in the church are more dear to us than those who are not in the church. And we use that same tool of thinking of one group as more dear to understand community nation and faith.

But God calls us to see family in a new way. Family as defined by God is everyone especially the stranger, especially the enemy. To enter into the mystery of our faith is to walk through the looking glass of our expectations and enter a new world, where we are redefined by God not as consumers or voters or workers but as beloved. In that reality the world is not something to fear, or conquer or exploit but a place to cherish, and our time is not something to measure our success or failure but an ongoing opportunity to embody the transforming love of God.

Hosanna Christ. Save us. May your path be ours, and ours together be the path of salvation for the world.


No comments: