Peace March

Lessons: Matthew 21:1-17

You may have noticed on your bulletin covers that today is Palm/Passion Sunday. I grew up with Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday “Hosannas” were followed a week later by Easter morning “Alleluias,” with nothing in between. If my childhood Presbyterian churches even had Holy Week services, I didn’t know about it. Sometime after I quit going to church, Presbyterians switched to Palm/Passion Sunday. The “passion” comes from “the Passion of Christ,” the phrase used to describe Jesus’ arrest, trial, conviction and execution. One theory I’ve heard is that churches started telling the Passion story on Palm Sunday because so few people show up to hear it on Good Friday.

But all by itself, Palm Sunday is a hinge. It isn’t all hosannas. Palm Sunday turns us toward Holy Week. To begin with, Jesus’ triumphal entry wasn’t a first-century version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a meant to be a statement. It was powerful street theater. Matthew is clear: Jesus rode into town as a returning king. That’s what the colt and the donkey mean. They hearken back to Old Testament passages describing triumphal entries of kings.[1] Moreover, the crowds greeted him as such. They greet him as the Messiah; “hosanna” means “save now.”[2] These crowds expect Jesus to overthrow the Romans, and the Romans take note. Don’t forget: this was just before the Passover celebration in Jerusalem.[3] Passover was a tricky problem for the Romans. They couldn’t ban it because there’d be an uprising, but the Passover festival is all about deliverance from slavery and freedom from oppression. It’s hard to imagine that when the people celebrated Passover, they weren’t also hoping to be delivered from the Romans some day. Passover wasn’t good for the Empire.

These events help explain why Jesus was arrested and crucified. Jesus didn’t merely offend the religious authorities of the day. He proclaimed another kingdom – the kingdom not of Caesar but of God – and called people to give their allegiance to God’s kingdom first. He was, in other words, a real threat.[4]

The people are half right. He did come as God’s Messiah. But they misunderstood what that meant. It didn’t mean “regime change” by violence, but rather the love of God poured out upon the world in a way that dissolved all the things we use to differentiate ourselves from others and the formation of a single humanity that knows itself – and all those around them! – as God’s beloved people.

But that means the religious and political authorities are also half right. Jesus was a threat to the way they led and ruled and lived. For that matter, he still is. He threatens our obsession with defining ourselves over and against others. He threatens the way in which we seek to establish our future by hording wealth and power. He threatens our habit of drawing lines and making rules about who is acceptable and who is not. He threatens all of these things and more. But the authorities are so wrong in thinking that they can eliminate this threat by violence.

These words from Dr. King come to mind:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[5]

Brian McLaren tells an alternative Palm Sunday story in which Jesus and his disciples meet secretly outside Jerusalem for days, planning where their weapons will be stored, horses will be waiting, and various militia will assemble and wait until they receive the word to strike. They organize crowds to hit the streets at just the right moment to create intimidation, distraction, and fear in the Romans and their collaborators. It’s called “Operation Sacred Vengeance,” and it’s set in motion when Jesus mounts a huge white warhorse on Palm Sunday with his sword hidden in a palm branch. His disciples, too, camouflage their daggers and swords in palm branches. Raising their fists, they head into the city, knowing their freedom fighter allies are already there to create mayhem. They chant, “Victory! Crush the Romans! Kill the collaborators!” The nervous Pharisees suggest this battle might be premature, but Jesus shouts, “Those who live by restraint will die by restraint. Now is the time. Now is the day of annihilation for our enemies.” And so the battle for Jerusalem begins.

And then McLaren ends the story this way: “No. That is not what happened. And the differences are at the heart of the story of Holy Week.”[6] In fact, they are at the heart of the Gospels, and even, the heart of our God, who is love.[7]

That is not what happened. Not a mighty warhorse, but a donkey. He comes not in the name of Caesar, but in the name of God. He’s surrounded not by a retinue of impressive chariots, weapons, and uniformed soldiers, but by a ragtag crowd carrying branches. It’s not a show of force designed to inspire fear and compliance, but a joyful, peaceful, even humble celebration. A peace march.

What would happen if every year, Christians made Palm Sunday the day for joyful public celebration of creative, nonviolent action and public lamentation for local, national, and global conflicts?[8] If we did, today we’d pray for Syria where a dictator perpetuates atrocities; for Egypt, where our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters were attacked during their Palm Sunday worship; for Congo where inter-tribal and inter-religious violence has reared its ugly head; for Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and North Korea. We would pray that Israelis and Palestinians could live in peace with justice as neighbors. We’d pray for victims of torture and victims of domestic violence. We would lament and pray about violence in our own cities and about the persistent presence of racism that expresses itself in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways – including voter suppression, mass incarceration, and police shootings. We would lament the unchecked and often unacknowledged power of the military-industrial complex. We would dream of better ways to use human talent and material resources than in the production of the tools of war. We would dream of better ways to show moral authority and integrity in humanitarian crises than sending Tomahawk missiles.

That’s enough of a somber message to be getting on with, right there in the Palm Sunday story, without even touching the Passion story. But there is a good reason to worship during Holy Week: As Jesus’ followers, we need to remember the consequences of challenging the powers that be. And we need to remember the consequences to all of us, to the whole world, of continuing to live by the politics of Rome. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, American or Russian or Syrian, whether we are corporations or governments, high school principals or high school students, parents or siblings, husbands or wives, whenever we seek to influence others through coercion and violence, we are following the politics of Rome.

May we who love and follow Jesus join him today and this Holy Week – joyfully, faithfully and courageously representing the loving heart of God. On Maundy Thursday, we see Jesus not armed with a spear, but with a basin and a towel. On Good Friday, we see not revenge, but suffering love. And the end is Easter. Always Easter. Always, the end is the revolutionary power of death-defying love.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] 1 Kings 1:32-40; 2 Kings 9:13; Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (NRSV)

[2] Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), 239.

[3] In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples at Matthew 26:17-30. That is likely the reason he “went up to” Jerusalem, Matthew 20:17.

[4] David Lose, “Dear Partner: Palm/Passion Sunday A,” April 5, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/04/palmpassion-sunday-a/.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love (Harper and Row, 1963; reprinted as a gift edition by Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 47.

[6] Brian D. McLaren, “Palm Sunday 2011: End of Violence,” April 17, 2011, http://brianmclaren.net/palm-sunday-2011-end-of-violence/.

[7] 1 John 4:8.

[8] Brian D. McLaren, “Palm Sunday, Torture, and Peace,” April 13, 2014, http://brianmclaren.net/palm-sunday-torture-and-peace/.

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