Are You Prepared To Die To Power?

Steve Lindsley
(Luke 19: 28-39)

On a spring day in the year 30 AD, two processions made their way into Jerusalem.  Not one, but two.  We know about one of them.  It was the beginning of the Jewish Passover; and every year Jerusalem’s population would swell to over double its size.  Think Uptown Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention a few years back.  Jews from all over would travel for days on end, even weeks, just to be at the great temple for the celebration.

The procession in our passage today began at the eastern gate of the city, what was known as the Susa Gate, in close proximity to the temple.  The crowds had been gathering since early morning.  They’d gotten word that he would be coming into the city from the wilderness, this man they knew of in bits and pieces, coming in through this gate.  And they wanted to see him.  They wanted to experience him up-close.  For all kinds of reasons.

There were some in the crowd who were weary of oppressive Roman rule and the staleness of their Hebrew faith, and they thought maybe this Jesus could bring some life into all of that.  Others saw Jesus as the perfect catalyst for their radical political agenda.  These Zealots believed Jesus would lead them to military victory and rid them of the Roman empire they despised.  Still others in the crowd, those in positions of religious authority who were adamant about keeping the peace, they had gotten a bit squirrely with some of the things Jesus talked about, like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek.  And then there were those who thought Jesus was nothing more than a side attraction – a delusional lunatic or a fabulous liar, take your pick.

All of these people, and certainly others with them, waiting in the crowd outside that Eastern gate.  And it begins – a soft hum at first, the sound of anticipation.  It spreads through the crowd like a shot of electricity, folks careening their heads to see, children hoisted on parents’ shoulders. 

And then, at last, there he is. They see Jesus on this donkey, paraded through the streets of eastern Jerusalem.  They’re laying their cloaks down in front of him, like a royal rug rolled out in the palace.  Young and old, waving palm branches in the air.   Some of the crowd begins shouting: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!  That word, “hosanna,” a cry of infectious joy; the word literally means, “Save us!  Rescue us!”  It is adoration of the highest caliber that Jesus neither needs not wants.  But they need to say it, they need to sing it; because they’ve been waiting for this moment for many, many years.  And so the crowds lift their voices in praise as they welcome the Nazarene carpenter riding on a donkey.

It is a big deal, this Palm Sunday.  It’s a big deal for Jesus and his followers, for the beginnings and history of the church.  And it’s a big deal for us, which is why we reenact it right here in our sanctuary every year, right down our center aisle.  I love that we do this; I love that we join with our sisters and brothers over thousands of years and thousands of miles.

It is a big deal.  But not for the reasons we may think. 

True, this is Jesus’ triumphant entry into the holy city – but that’s not why this procession is a big deal.  True, all those people shouting praise, proclaiming through voice and song the arrival of the Messiah – but that’s not why this procession is a big deal.  True, this procession would set into motion a chain of events that would lead Jesus to the agony of Gethsemane and the horror of the cross and the glory of the Resurrection.  But none of those are the reason why this Palm Sunday procession is such a big deal.

This Palm Sunday procession, the one many of us took part in at the beginning of worship, is a big, big deal; precisely because it was not the only procession happening in Jerusalem that day.

You will recall I began this sermon by saying there were two processions on this day long ago.  Two.  There was another one happening on the same day, at the same time, on the western side of the city – at the Jaffa gate.  This one had actually been going on for years.  We don’t typically pay much attention to it.  Perhaps we should. 

This procession was an imperial march of the Roman empire – the world power of the day, the world power over all of Israel.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, led the march; and he was followed by legions of Rome’s finest soldiers, decked out in full military regalia and riding pristine cavalry.  Trumpets blared in unison, the sound carrying for miles.  Purple and gold flags waving in the air.  And the crowd!  More people than you could count; they lined the streets and hung out of windows and stood on top of buildings to behold it all.  Children “oohed” and “aahed” and adults shook their heads in amazement. 

And make no mistake: this was no innocent parade. It’s intent was to get the people’s attention.  Rome ruled over Israel and all its conquered lands with a mighty fist; promulgating their power through intimidation and fear.  These not-so-little processions were dramatic and frightening displays of who had the power.

And it was no accident that this procession at the west gate happened in Jerusalem every year at the beginning of Passover, as the city swelled in size.  A not-so-subtle reminder by way of soldiers and swords and spears and cavalry and trumpets and even the governor himself that any nonsense, any troublemaking would be dealt with swiftly and severely.  All week long, these tools of conquest and domination would be on full display, communicating a chilling message without having to say a word: Enjoy your little celebration, your silly Passover. Just remember who’s really in charge here.

It kind of casts our little Palm Sunday parade, our little soiree at the eastern gate, in a whole different light, does it not?  It’s not some quaint exercise.  Nor is it a spontaneous celebration that just happens to mimic what’s going on on the other side of town.  No, this was planned out in advance.  Thought through carefully.  In modern parlance, a protest demonstration. As Religion professor and noted author Marcus Borg writes:

Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city.  Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of empire that ruled the world.  Jesus’ procession embodied an alternate vision, the kingdom of God.[1]

All of this Lenten sermon series, we’ve been pondering various things we need to die to in order to live to something else.  With our passage today, and with our knowledge of the parade on the other side of town, we find ourselves facing this question: are you prepared to die to power?  To power.  The kind of power that buys into the notion that bigger is better, that the one who dies with the most toys wins, that fear is greater than love, that the good of the few outweighs the good of the many.  The kind of power that God’s people had been living under for generations.   The kind of power that Jesus came to undo. 

That’s the kind of power this Palm Sunday parade calls us to die to.  The question is: how?  How exactly does one defeat a power that intimidates, that threatens, that instills fear?  There sure seems to be a lot of that kind of power these days.  How does one die to power that seems so… powerful?

I’ve shared from this pulpit before the poem “White Flour,” written by singer/songwriter and our Montreat retreat leader from a couple years ago David LaMotte.  It recounts the true story of a Klu Klux Klan rally in Knoxville back in 2007.  David captures in verse the foreboding moment when the KKK appears on the scene.  He says:

The men put on their uniforms and quickly took their places
In white robes and those tall and pointed hoods that hid their faces
Their feet all fell in rhythm as they started their parade
They raised their fists into the air, they bellowed and they brayed
They loved to stir the people up, they loved when they were taunted
They didn’t mind the anger, it’s exactly what they wanted

David goes on to tell about how the rally is suddenly interrupted by, of all things, a pack of clowns – women and men with painted faces, tacky clothes, outrageous hair and hats, all with red foam nose.  They come alongside the KKK, as if they’re just happy to join in a parade.  Except when the KKK starts shouting their offensive two-word slogan, the clowns join in but pretend to mishear it every time.  One time they’re yelling “White flour!” as they throw fistfuls of flour into the air.  Another time it’s “Tight showers,” as the clowns cram into these makeshift showers they’ve brought with them.  Next it’s “Wife power” as they hoist the female clowns onto male clown shoulders.  And on and on it goes until the KKK, beyond angry and now just exasperated, simply disbands their own parade and leaves.

To which David offers these closing thoughts:

And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use
So here’s to those who march on in their massive, silly shoes.[2]

So when we die to power, we live to…..what, exactly?  Humor?  Kind of.  This well-planned counter protest in Luke 19  seems like Jesus mocking what was happening on the other side of town, don’t you think?  A donkey instead of cavalry?  Coats spread on the ground instead of royal rugs?  Palm branches instead of swords?  This wasn’t Jesus trying to be like the royal procession.  This was Jesus making fun of it, because the worst kind of power deserves to be mocked, deserves to be shamed, deserves to be called out and disarmed.  For it cannot last.  It collapses under its own weight.  It is not sustainable.

What is sustainable is a whole different kind of power – the power that is love, that is compassion; the power that is the first being last and the last being first, the power of a God who creates, redeems and sustains over and over and over again. 

This is the power that Jesus marches for; and he invites us to join him.  Join him in this parade, and not the other one.  Which brings us to the rubber-meeting-road question in all of this: which procession do we choose to be part of?  Are we at the eastern gate or the western gate?  To whom are we waving palms and shouting hosannas and pledging our allegiance? 

And please know this is about a more than one day on the liturgical calendar.  Every day, we’re choosing our procession in how we live and operate in the world.  When it comes to the millions around the globe who die of hunger and curable diseases every day – are we in the procession that chalks it up to “just the way things are,” or are we in the procession that will not rest until no child goes to sleep hungry and no one dies a senseless death?

When it comes to the 610,000 Americans experiencing homelessness or the 1500 of them right here in our city – are we in the procession that claims there are plenty of jobs out there and plenty of places to stay if people really wanted it, or are we in the procession that supports efforts like Room In The Inn while also working to secure affordable housing for all?[3]

When it comes to those who are marginalized over divisions of age or gender or skin color or sexual orientation and identity – are we in the procession that casts a blind eye on inequality as we focus on self-interests and comfort levels, or are we in the procession that comes alongside the marginalized, working to empower their voice?

When it comes to an earth that is disintegrating day by day in the name of “production” and “the bottom line” – are we in the procession that understands the Genesis verse “having dominion over” as meaning “do with it as we wish,” or are we in the procession that understands it as a mandate toward creation care and sustainability?

And when it comes to a society that is frighteningly polarized over politics, theology and wealth – are we in the procession that intentionally or unintentionally furthers these divides, or are we in the procession that dares to seek common ground?

This is the choice we make, every day, one way or another.  And the thing is, if we choose to be in the Palm Sunday procession, then we have to understand where we are casting our lot.  We are casting our lot with Jesus Christ – the one who defeats fear with love, the one who disarms violence with nonviolence, the one who puts full faith and trust in a kind of power the world simply cannot understand.  We cast our lot with him – as we see where it led him.

On a spring day in the year 30 AD, two processions made their way into Jerusalem.  This Holy Week, sisters and brothers, I ask you: which one do you choose?  Are you prepared to die to power?  Are you ready to live to love?

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] The Last Week: A Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan (2006: HarperSanFrancisco), 4-5.
[2] https://www.davidlamotte.com/white-flour/, visited on 3.19.2018.
[3] http://www.urbanministrycenter.org/helping-the-homeless/ways-you-can-help/get-informed/, visited on 3.22.2018.