Monday, April 10, 2017

Through Political Protest….
A Sermon for Palm Sunday
On Matthew 21:1-11
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
April 9, 2017
Jared Slack and Griff Martin

Jared: So what is this day?

Ever since I was little, Palm Sunday has always been a bit confusing for me. As a child, not  yet fully understanding it’s relationship to the wider narrative of Lent and Holy Week, I got quite a kick out of coming to church on this special day, and getting to march up and down the aisles waving palm branches while my family took photos and vigorously cranked the film on those old school disposable cameras.

But now, with some 30+ Easters and Holy Weeks under my belt, I don’t really know exactly how I’m supposed to act today. You’d all probably judge me if I grabbed a branch of my own and joined in with the children’s choirs and sang at the top of my lungs. 

Something about that just doesn't seem right.

So, what in the world are we supposed to do with Palm Sunday? Is it supposed to be a parade of sorts where we gather to celebrate the coming of the Christ?

For a person new to the stories of the Bible and had you just heard this passage out of Matthew for the first time, you might think this was the case… that this was a celebration heralding the arrival of a much beloved, much anticipated prophet and leader.

But for those of us who have been around a while, we know that this is all actually a prequel to some of the darkest events in the history of our faith tradition.

...that far from being a welcome celebration, that each waving palm branch, every smiling face, and hands lifted in excitement are tainted by Jesus’ coming betrayal and gruesome death.

Because we know what's coming this week…

We know what really awaits Jesus in Jerusalem… and unfortunately it is not the success and acclaim that our palm waving parade is anticipating.

Jesus’ entry on Palm Sunday has a dark side to it. It’s a day where the hopeful dreams of Jesus’ followers were ultimately destined to be broken…  because there was brokenness all around.

broken economics,
broken politics,
broken religion,
broken systems,
and broken people…

Griff: But there’s more…

And today on Palm Sunday we march right into that broken world, which is exactly what God does, God loves to enter our lives using the broken places. The cracks and the broken places are always where the light and grace get in. So it’s no surprise that God decided to enter into this broken world and then that Jesus would ride right into the heart of the broken world, the city of Jerusalem.

And typically that is what we celebrate this day… Jesus and palms and a crowd that is cheering him…. Sometimes we ponder how the cheers turn to calls to crucify him… sometimes we look at how this time the disciples led and how sometimes following Jesus means stepping out first…. But typically as preachers we try and use this Sunday as a moment of celebration, the light before things get really dark.

And when we do this we miss what might be the biggest implication of this day and the main message… and here’s the warning it’s political…. Because Jesus is political, which frankly I find myself saying a lot these days and I am really tired of having to say it. Because the fact I have to say it as much as I have means that we have missed it as a church.. Jesus was political, very political. Because politics is not simply republican or democrat, liberal or conservative, pro president or anti president… politics is so much more than that, as is that calling of the church, politics is how we get along as individuals and the systems we put in place to make the world run. It has to do with power and how all are treated. And Jesus is all about that, and Jesus is quite political as is this parade.

You see this day, this parade is a huge political statement because it’s not the only parade in town…. Pilate had a parade as well this weekend and Jesus' parade is making a clear statement in response to his….

Jared: Jesus enters from the East

Because on this day, Jesus rode in from the opposite side of Jerusalem, and he seemed quite intent on placing his arrival in stark contrast to what was taking place on the other end of the city with Pilate. It was as if Jesus had masterfully staged this spectacle as a piece of street theater paying a not-so-discrete homage to the Prophets who heralded the coming of a triumphant king, humbly riding into town on the back of a donkey…

Even more, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus began His parade at the Mount of Olives. While that may not seem all that significant to you and me, it was an incredibly powerful statement for the Jews. You see over the years, prophecy after prophecy had promised that the coming messiah, the one who would come to liberate them from their bondage, would enter the holy city from this very place.

So, Jesus and all those lining the parade route were well aware of all of this… each and every one of them was ready and waiting to see with their own eyes the triumphal entry of the king who would take a stand against the powerful, fear mongering rulers of the age and bring peace to their lives. 

The Kingdom of God that Jesus came to announce was the polar opposite of Rome’s, because Jesus and Pilate came from opposite places and for opposite purposes…

Griff: And Pilate enters from the West

Pilate arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday. He entered the city from the West, which was the major entrance to the city and he had a major entrance himself. It was a display of power and wealth that was created to put fear and awe in the soul. Pilate’s entrance was a parade, with many cavalry and soldiers. It was a display of Roman imperial theology. 

There was one simple purpose to this little parade; Pilate was essentially saying, I know you Jews are about to celebrate your holy days, but let’s make sure that celebration does not get out of hand and you forget who is really in charge. Celebrate your God all you want, but don’t forget whose you truly are and if you need a reminder, look at all the soldiers surrounding you. The Roman emperor is Son of God, Lord, and Savior (words they used, words that are quite political still today for us). 

It was a huge parade, and the parade got it’s message across. 
Rome is powerful. 
Rome is not scared to use violence. 
You can’t revolt against Rome. 

Pilate’s arrival did not go unnoticed that day. The people there to celebrate Passover saw the parade and they understood the message that Rome was sending them. They knew whose they were. 

Jared: The Way of Jesus is Political Protest

And it’s into the reality of this oppressive regime that Jesus comes preaching a message of his own.

A message that takes aim at Rome and calls out Pilate’s grasps for power. A message that exposes the myth of how empires prop themselves up with fear and intimidation. A message that sheds light on the pervasive belief… the illusion…the lie really… that it’s through violence and war and oppressive policies that you maintain control and promise things will get better.

Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem that day calling upon anyone who would listen and inviting everyone he met to live in a new way in the world. To open their eyes to the fragility of Pilate’s claim on their lives and rise up against this system of abusive wealth and power that cared for nothing and no one but the rich and influential.

And he chose to do all this on the back of a donkey…

Which makes me think…. who chooses to ride a donkey in a parade? 

Not someone who cares about appearances. 
Not someone who’s trying to overwhelm you with their power and grandeur. Not someone who flaunts their wealth or brags about their influence.

Certainly not someone like Pilate. 

No… Pilate’s parade was led by huge horses, powerful animals used in battle, animals turned into weapons. An animal that for centuries has been used as a symbol of triumph and victory…

But Jesus does’t ride in on a horse… he rides in on a donkey.

And so this parade, wasn’t really a parade at all… it was a protest movement that took to the streets of the very city in which political might was being put on display. 

And so the entirety of Jesus’ political message has now arrived, announcing that we don’t have to live in a system of fear, violence, greed, or power anymore. That there’s an alternative way.

It’s a message that Jesus has been preaching over and over again about who we are, whose we are, and how we are supposed to live - this message that flies in the face of the Roman system, is about to reach it’s full conclusion.

Griff: So what has changed?

So today is about more than children coming in to church waving palm branches…. Which actually is what we do, when Scriptures get too rough for us, we often turn them into children’s stories. We do it with a good deal of the Old Testament and we do it with this text too. Because children waving palm branches is easier to talk about at lunch than the revolutionary and political aspect of Palm Sunday- to think about what Jesus is standing in opposition to- power, wealth, unfair treatment of the powerless and a system that allows for all those things- maybe we don’t want to think about what Jesus rode in against on Palm Sunday because it might make us realize that we are attending the wrong parade today. It might make us ask if we are on the opposite side of Jesus on some issues. 

Last season on House of Cards one of the major story lines centers around a young activist being imprisoned in Russia. At one point during an attempt to rescue him, he is asked if all he has done has been worth it personally, esp. since his activism seems to not have really worked. His response, “Yes, I am still trying to decide if this is something I am willing to die for, however I can say that even having something in my life that I can ask that question of- would I die for this- has given me real life.”

And that question is everything. What would you give your life for?

So what is that for you today? What do you believe in so deeply that you are willing to give all for? And then what are you doing about it.

One of the fears I have regarding the church today is that we have forgotten the difference in prayer and protest. We think we can simply pray things away, that we can give things over to God and all will be well. Prayer is most certainly the first step, but it is not the only step. 

Recently few weeks ago I heard the brilliant Catholic sister Joan Chittister interviewed and the subject of nuclear weapons came up, her reply left me speechless: “Please God let me not die in a nuclear war’ surely is not a real prayer. We can stop nuclear war ourselves by stopping the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Humans created them and now it’s our time to uncreate them, to destroy them.” The line stopped me because the theology behind it is terrifying- prayer is not only giving things to God, but doing our part. 

As they say in the black church, you pray with your feet.

Why are we scared to do this today? Because I don’t think Christ following has changed, I think Christ followers have changed. We have chosen safety and security over following, privilege over risk, the institution over the movement and culture over Christ. We have made Christianity as option, an add on, compartmental instead of that which is your all… maybe we have forgotten our call to Christ will often put us at odds with the world around us, including both political parties.

And this means things that make us really uncomfortable…. For instance as a church that is located downtown, how do we join Jesus in the fight against power, wealth, unfair systems of discrimination and a system that keeps people in place when it comes to the issue of homelessness. Do we become an emergency shelter, do we take some of the relationships we have started with our homeless neighbors and move into the direction of really inviting these people into our lives and around our tables, do we work harder for better mental health facilities, are we vocal against the systems that put homeless people into a trap they can never escape? What do we do the help fight the K2 crisis, the one that we saw someone the victim of as we all entered this sacred space this morning? Because we must do something.

It seems to me that would be Christ following. Not just asking the questions, but doing something about it.

And if we don’t…well church we better put our palm branches down and go join the other parade because that is where we belong.

Jared: Whose Parade Do You Want To Be In?

So the question we have for ourselves this morning is the question of which parade we want to join in on.

The parade that flaunts power and excess?
Or the parade that subversively offers peace?

The parade laden with false promises of security and safety?
Or the parade that takes you down into the risky, adventurous flowing  waters of the Gospel stream that preaches freedom and hope are  offered to all without exceptions?

The parade meant to strike fear?
Or the parade meant to instill hope?

The parade that’s intent on keeping everything how they’ve always been?
Or the parade that’s offering the Good News of a brand new day with endless possibilities of what our community of faith can be about in  this world?

Whose parade do you want to be in? What message will you rally around? 

Because today, on this Palm Sunday, we have the opportunity to make a choice… and may we all choose wisely. AMEN.

*artwork: Hosanna in the Highest! Painting by Hanna-Cheriyan Varghese,


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