In some Bibles, the Palm Sunday story is sometimes subtitled, “the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” which is ironic, of course, since the word triumphal implies that somebody is the victor and somebody else is the defeated and that is precisely NOT what this event is about. It is a public relations winner, though, this March on Jerusalem. For when Jesus rides the little donkey into the city, he gains the attention of his followers, his enemies, and those in the great undecided center who don’t know what they believe. As they make a special palm lined way for him, they believe he’s come to save them in a military, power-over sort of way, but it is clear that Jesus’ teachings are about something else again.
The Gospel writer Matthew’s version of the story, part of which is our call to worship for today, carefully includes details from the prophetic traditions of how it will be when the Messiah comes. It sort of sounds like Jesus is balancing between two animals, though, like a circus act, when it mentions that the disciples are sent to find a donkey and a colt, but the great theologian Jon Dominic Crossan, says Matthew is making a subtle and important point with those two. Crossan writes, “Jesus does not ride into the city on a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable for the time: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her. The custom would have been for the occupying Roman government to make a militaristic triumphal entry into Jerusalem each year at Passover -with war horse, chariot, and weapons drawn. Such a demonstration would have been especially pertinent at Passover since Passover was explicitly a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from slavery. It reminded the subject people who held the power.”
It is a stark contrast–between these teachings of Jesus and the powers of the empire he is resisting. In the story, Jesus’ enemies and his friends, too, ultimately, did not understand or accept what he was about. His teachings centered on the ideas taught him by the great Jewish prophets like Isaiah and Micah and others, that God’s realm is among us not in some pie in the sky by and by, and the way of that realm is about doing justice, inviting in, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger. But even though he keeps on trying to show them enlightenment, he turns out to be a huge disappointment to all of them, because he does not offer to make Jerusalem great again through the ways of revenge and triumph that they believe they want, which helps to explain why the entire crowd turns on him by week’s end.
The phrase “to palm off” something literally means to use sleight of hand, a magician’s trick with reality, to sell as genuine alternative facts or products with the intention to deceive. The Holy Week stories, starting today, and moving through the rest of the four Gospels are elegant narratives and spiritual cautionary tales of what happens when false credos get palmed off on and then assimilated by a crowd—in Jesus’ day and so today. The parallels are stunning. The enlightened ones of this age and of every age and of every religion and of no religion know and teach us all–what you and I believe does in fact influence the directions of our behavior, the formulation of the way we understand truth. The tenets of our world view create our actions and the value we place on the Earth, other creatures, and other people. We know it in our history and in our present day, how easily it is done—palming off certain religious teachings, false credos of nationalism, racism, and other illusions that appeal to the basest desires and provide entree to the most compelling fears that lurk in the depths of human existence, such that crowds of otherwise good people can be brought together and turned on a dime with anger, focused blame and scapegoating and before you know it, you have a mob shouting, “Gas them! Lynch them! Deport them! Crucify them!”
But let us not be swayed or dismayed by the violent triumphal invasions being palmed off on us in word or deed in these days, because we choose our credo. But during Holy Week, we cannot help but reflect upon the stories of all those who have lived and died for following this way of justice, inclusion, and love. I do well to examine my heart and my speech for ways I may buy into, participate in, and benefit from the empire’s violent ways. And if we choose to resist and go another way, we also do well to know what it might cost us. For his part, Jesus got crucified at the end of this week-long cycle of stories not so much because of a religious creed, but because he threatened the empire’s nefarious materialistic structure and the powerful ones who through violence and greed benefited from it. In 1983 on March 24, archbishop Oscar Romero was shot through the heart as he stood in front of the church elevating the Host in the Mass, assassinated because he dared speak truth to empire regarding the rights of the poor in El Salvador. Berta Caceres, the 2015 winner of the Goldman Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for environmentalism was assassinated in 2016 in Honduras because of her work to protect the threatened rivers of the Lenca indigenous peoples. In her acceptance speech she said, “Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The threatened rivers call upon us. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth – militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action.”
This past week, the Justice and Witness arm of the national setting of the United Church of Christ, our denomination, called on us as spiritual community to revisit the content of the speech made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York in which he called for, in no uncertain terms, a “revolution of values to combat the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. His truth-telling about these things caused his popularity to plummet and one year to the day later, on April 4, 1968, he too was assassinated.
We remember… and then we ask…what is next? How shall we move forward in hope? Well, here is the way, as I see it. First, the end of the story is not yet. One of the many gifts of being human is that you and I are self-conscious, self-reflective, aware. The word “Credo” means I believe. What you and I and others believe about reality and about the other–political party, gender identity or race, Earth and creatures shapes how we behave. The Holy Week narratives, though they are specifically about Jesus’ life, teachings, and death in content, like all the best stories, also are archetypal and universal in their truth and in their invitation to us to respond. Throughout these weeks of Lent, we have been invited to remember that we are mortal and dusty and sometimes deluded, AND that we have agency and awareness and may awaken after the worst of our Bad Fridays or Terrible Tuesdays to work together toward a new day–to a small Easter, or a large one in which we rediscover new hope, even in the places of death. For even within the places of death, God’s realm is being made and remade.
I am so grateful for the symbolism of this wall of blocks to remind me how seriously to take the separation that walls cause in our world and in my own life, and grateful that by next Sunday, this wall will be transformed. For practicing resurrection is a credo we choose and it was central to the life and teachings of the Christ and to all those great martyrs we remember in these days, the belief that they live again and again and again in us. Romero said it, “You may kill me, but I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Moving to the margins, looking beyond what presents, pushing and resisting the walls, we believe– that later and sometimes even sooner, Love will make them come tumbling down, or will slide them open, or will brighten their shadowy crevices with light and flowers. It not only can happen, wishful thinking. It happens, all the time–in your life, in mine. But that is a spoiler alert for next Sunday and the really good news is, it is already happening–even today in your life, in mine, in this weary world.
Here’s Wendell Berry again with a last credo to finish this sweet worship theme and to end our time together today. I believe this credo. See if it resonates for you, too.
“What death means is not this–the spirit, triumphant in the body’s fall, praising its absence, feeding on music. No, if life can’t justify and explain itself, death can’t justify and explain it. A creed and a grave never did equal the life of anything. Yellow flowers sprout in the clefts of ancient stones at the beginning of April.”
That’s all. That’s everything. Amen.