Guest Preacher Leigh Finnegan-Hosey
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11
I’m excited for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you this morning, but you will have to excuse me if seem a little tired. You see, yesterday myself and a dozen-or-so members from our church took part in the March For Our Lives – a nationwide demonstration calling for an end to gun violence via comprehensive gun control measures.
The march was planned by students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, where less than two months ago a former student carried out a mass shooting, killing 17 people. Like you I was shocked and heartbroken by this tragedy. More innocent people – children- murdered in their classrooms. And to make this loss even more poignant for me, this happened in Broward County, the area where I grew up and still consider home. I had to march.
Our day began in the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill; the same place Martin Luther King Jr began his walk down the mall for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Volunteers from across the country showed up early to make signs, give out water, and pack snacks to sustain them through the day. By noon Independence Avenue was a sea of bodies and signs. There was cheering and clapping and after meditating on the story of Palm Sunday all week, it was difficult not to imagine the signs calling for an end to violence as palm branches welcoming in the Prince of Peace.
If you look at the historical context of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the connection to a protest like March For Our Lives isn’t far off. According to New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the Triumphal Entry wasn’t an impromptu parade as we might imagine. There is something romantic about the concept of people dropping what they’re doing in spontaneous praise, but if you look at what the scripture says it was clearly an orchestrated event. Mark’s story begins with Jesus telling two of his disciples to go ahead and procure a donkey in advance. And John’s gospel says the people in Jerusalem knew he was coming. While spontaneous worship might have occurred, it wasn’t the point. Jesus’ entrance was an act of political theater, an anti-imperial demonstration designed to mock the arrogance of Rome. It was, in essence, a protest.
In their book, The Last Week, the scholars I mentioned before explain that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday: Jesus’ and Pontius Pilate’s, the Roman Governor of Judea. Every year, the Roman governor traveled from his coastal residence into Jerusalem for Passover, when the city’s population would be at its highest. The governor would parade through the city in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Here is how they describe the royal procession:
“A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
It’s important to remember that according to Roman belief the emperor was also the Son of God. So how the empire displayed and wielded its power made a very particular statement about what God is like and whose side God is on.
And how, you may ask, does Jesus decide to stick it to Rome? He does it through humor; caricature; absurdity. Jesus, entering from the opposite side of the city that day, looks (by contrast) like a clown. He rides in not on a horse but on a donkey. One commentary I came across said the animal was likely so short that Jesus’ feet would have scraped the ground. And his followers, they must have looked like a band of misfits – a hodgepodge of women and men, some poor, some rich, teenagers, and old folks; basically the most unthreatening group imaginable.
It sounds like a ridiculous way to make a point, but it’s not unlike the political rallies I’ve attended over my past five years in Washington. Take the Women’s March for example. By a raise of hands, how many of you took part in that protest? Well, I don’t know what your experience was like, but that day I saw groups of people wearing pink “kitten” hats, women carrying giant crocheted uteruses, drag queens and grandmothers marching arm in arm all for the same cause.
Right now there are whole websites devoted to people’s hilarious protest signs. Some of my favorites from the March for Science include:
“I like big brains and I cannot lie!”
“Girls just want to have FUNding for rigorous experiments with robust hypothesis.”
“What do we want?” Evidence based science! “When do we want it?” After peer review.
And last, but certainly not least… “It’s science you boron.”
We can get away with this stuff now, but Jesus was lampooning an ancient near eastern military ruler. He was critiquing an empire whose armies marched into towns and said “join us or die.” Those were your options. It’s no wonder days later he ends up on a cross, and his disciples scattered, hiding in fear.
You see, we miss something important when we think of the palms we wave in the lead up to Holy Week as charming fanfare. What if we thought of them as protest signs, and we, “the Protestants,” are being sent to critique the status quo and announce the existence of another way, a deeper, truer reality.
Because civil disobedience is not just an indictment of the way things are, it’s an invitation to believe that another world is possible; a world where power is used to lift up everyone; a world where children feel safe in school; a world where the common good is more important than individual liberties; a world where people of faith are known for their love, and not for their fear.
The tag line for yesterday’s march was: “We don’t have to live this way. We don’t have to die this way.” In other words, all we see is not all there is. The word for believing that, against all odds, things can be different is hope. The author and Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Bruggemann, says this about hope in his book The Prophetic Imagination:
“Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk.”
Brother and sisters we are people of hope. We believe poverty can end even though it’s all around us. We believe in unity in midst of a divided and dividing world. We believe in peace even though all we hear are rumors of war. And we are so bought in to this other reality that we have begun to live as if it has already here.
This reminds me of an old joke attributed to, among others, Mark Twain. An interviewer is supposed to have asked him, “Do you believe in infant baptism?”And in usual Mark Twain fashion he quips, “Believe it? Hell I’ve seen it!”
When it comes to things like hope and belief, we tend to locate them in the world of ideas. But when we eat together, comfort the grieving, befriend the lonely, forgive our enemies… we get a concrete glimpse of the hope to which we testify. So when someone asks us, in one way or another, “Do you really believe another world is possible?” We can say with confidence, “Believe it? Come see for yourself!”
There is, of course, a bitter sweetness about Palm Sunday. For we know that soon the same jubilant crowds who shouted “hosanna in the highest!” will cry “crucify him!” After everything they have been through Jesus’ closest friends will betray him, deny they ever knew him. And after it’s all over, they will go back to what they were doing before, like none of it ever happened.
At that point, did some of them feel foolish believing things could be different? Did they cringe thinking back on how they’d waved palm branches and laid their coats beneath his feet?
If I’m honest, part of me is tempted to believe that this latest push for gun control will unfold in the same way it always has… Soon enough there will be a new tragedy, new think pieces about some pressing issue or another, and slowly but surely our passion will die out. And I wonder: Will I look back on pictures from yesterday with plaintive embarrassment? Will I grimace when one of my sanctimonious facebook posts comes back to haunt me?
Henri Nouwen said somewhere “There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. Even in the happiest moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. Joy and sadness are born at the same time…” Nouwen was speaking about everyday moments, but his words seem especially relevant during Holy Week.
Maybe the best way to approach these conflicted moments is be honest about anxiety. That way, we aren’t tempted to misconstrue optimism with true Easter hope. Nouwen went on to say that remembering every bit of life is touched by a bit of death “…can point us beyond the limits of our existence… by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.” Even though a crucifixion follows Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, death is not the end of the story, for it is near places of death that God has always chosen to set up camp.
I believe God invites us to wave our palms in protest and in praise no matter what lies ahead. Another world is possible. Therefore let us continue our journey to Jerusalem. We go there together because that is where we are being called. As it says in the book of Hebrews:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
May it be so.