Palm Sunday C2016
Pastor Sarah Stadler
These days, we can’t get away from politics.
I don’t own a TV, but even I can’t get away from the political ads and political news...Facebook and other social media, NPR, the front page of the paper. Everywhere, we hear about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and John Kasich, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Everywhere, we hear about issues like health care and foreign policy, education and climate change. Everywhere, we hear about political math, the changing demographics of voters, and superdelegates. These days, we can’t get away from politics so much so that even today’s gospel is political…but in a way far removed from—and I do apologize if I offend—the absolute ridiculousness of current US politics.
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ action and the action of his followers is deeply political. Here Jesus is living in the Roman Empire, an empire that covered an expansive territory and included 20% of all people living in the world at the time, an empire which repressed the common people living within its borders, an empire ruled with a strong hand by one called “Caesar.” Jesus’ lifetime fell within a relatively stable period of the Roman Empire called the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, a time period in which war and violent uprisings were rare though the empire was occupied by Roman forces used to repress the people. Naturally, the emperor, effectively the king, of the empire did not want the people to rise up against him. And here Jesus is, riding into Jerusalem, not on a chariot pulled by four magnificent horses but riding a humble colt, flanked by a crowd who lay down their garments on the road, a multitude who praise God and declare about Jesus: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord. Here are the crowds living within the Roman Empire, ruled by Caesar, calling Jesus “king.” Here are the crowds calling into question the power and might, the glory and honor of Caesar. The crowds disturb the pax romana, the peace of Rome. Jesus the king disturbs the peace of Rome. Jesus’ alternate vision of kingship disturbs the peace of Rome. Because the peace of Rome is no peace.
Jesus goes on to further disturb the peace of Rome. When he comes into Jerusalem, instead of lauding its beauty or making political speeches, instead of gathering supporters or trying to please those in power—does any of this sound familiar from our political news these days?—instead of doing this, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says: If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. And Jesus speaks of the destruction that will come to Jerusalem, a destruction that will indeed come in 70 of the common era. And then Jesus enters the temple and drives out those who were selling things there, calls those who turn a profit robbers, and teaches such an alternate vision of life in God’s kingdom that Luke tells us the chief priests, scribes, and leaders keep looking for a way to kill Jesus. Luke tells us that all the people are spellbound by what they hear; when they look at Jesus, they see a king.
Jesus disturbs the peace of Rome which is no peace. Jesus does not play the game of Caesar, the game of power and majesty, glory and might. Even Jesus’ followers want him to play that game, to put an end to Caesar and his repression of them by the very same tactics Caesar uses, namely violence.
Today, we may be surprised that even Jesus’ followers struggled to comprehend Jesus’ alternate vision for life in the kingdom of God. But our surprise is surely tinged with irony for, by evidence of our politics, of our games, of the unjust institutions of our society we unquestionably support, we too cannot figure out this colt-riding, weeping, temple-cleansing Jesus. We too cannot get our heads around a man who really did choose humility, who questioned the very structures of society, who defied authority, who saw clearly and spoke honestly. And what is most confusing of all is that, in his defiance and questioning and truth-telling, he is neither arrogant nor mean. Even as he predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, he weeps for it. And when he drives out of the temple those who were engaged in business, at least in the gospel of Luke, he does so without any sort of violence.
Jesus disturbed the Roman empire, the scribes and chief priests, his followers who laid down their cloaks, and Jesus disturbs us…by his peace. This is not a do-nothing, passive, Minnesota-nice peace. This is not simply an absence-of-war peace. This is a peace that tears apart the instruments of violence. This is a peace grounded in deep compassion and love for humanity. This is a peace Jesus creates by living it, not by talking about it.
Jesus disturbs us and especially disturbs our peace. I wonder if we have really thought about what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to follow one who eschewed any sort of violence, who loved every single person in front of him, who questioned the very essence of his religion and his culture. This is the One whom we follow! During Daily Lenten Prayer these last few weeks, we have been reading through the gospel of Luke, and what has struck me in the consistency of this reading is how much Jesus talks about wealth and about caring for one another. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that we kind of, sort of believe that, when Jesus says: sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and when Jesus tells his listeners to invite only the most vulnerable members of society to their banquets, we kind of, sort of believe Jesus is kidding. We kind of, sort of think Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. I don’t think he is. And I don’t think he’s exaggerating his preference for peace or riding on a colt just for show. I don’t think he weeps for Jerusalem because he thinks it would be nice to show compassion. And I don’t think he drives out of the temple those who were turning a profit just because he felt like it. I think humility and deep, loving compassion and ending economic exploitation, even giving up possessions altogether, are important to Jesus. Indeed, this is what peace looks like: humility, love, compassion, and figuring out a different way to live abundantly by sharing our resources instead of turning a profit on people’s needs.
Yes, indeed, Jesus disturbs us, disturbs our peace if we allow ourselves to hear his message, to see him how he is. On Palm Sunday, we rejoice that our savior king rides into Jerusalem on a colt, but everything that will happen in this next week, this next Holy Week, will disturb us. Jesus will wash the disciples’ feet and declare his body broken and his blood shed for them. Jesus will be betrayed by one of his closest friends, and the rest of his friends will abandon him, save the women. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate, what will happen this week means that God chooses vulnerability, that God walks away from power, that God can be hurt by humanity. Jesus will suffer and die; he will actually die. What does it mean for us to follow One who, instead of making speeches or making empty promises, chooses humility, chooses vulnerability, chooses to love?
My hope? My hope is that following Jesus is so disturbing to you that it causes you to question everything about a world that does not choose humility, that does not value vulnerability, that thinks love is nice but not effective. Be disturbed, dear people of God, and know the peace of Christ which is truly peace.