Matthew 21: 1-17, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and How to Survive This by Barbara Kingsolver
Happy Sunday! It’s wonderful to see so many of your faces, even in boxes. It definitely feels like we are in some kind of game show. Thank you once again for being willing to show up creatively! I know that one gift of this platform is that we have people joining us from all over the country. Welcome to you who are both near and far. Just a reminder that you are invited to make yourself comfortable and take notes or close your eyes or do whatever is needed to hear deeply this morning. Let us begin with some centering. We open our minds and hearts to this preacher’s prayer from Psalm 19:14, God, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Christian tradition calls this day, Palm Sunday. You might already know that the symbol of palm branches originates with the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, also called the Festival of the Tabernacles or Booths. In the observance of Sukkoth, worshippers processed through Jerusalem and in the Temple, waving a lulab, which was a bunch of branches made of willow, myrtle and palm. And as the branches were waved, worshippers recited the words from Psalm 118, "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord." In Hebrew, save us is, hosianna or hosanna. Followed by a response found in that same Psalm, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. (Ps 118:25–6).”
For us, palms point to a procession. They are mentioned in the version found in the Gospel of John, but notice in the version according to Matthew, we don’t read of any palms. Here it just says cut branches. So if you are so moved after this gathering, you can go find some cut branches or draw some on paper and cut them out and wherever you are, wave them and loudly say “Hosanna!!!! Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!”
What is common in all four Gospels is not palms.
Instead, in all four tellings of this story of the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus is riding into the city to cheering crowds. What is shared in all of the versions, is not palms, but a procession. And some scholars go even further to contend that it was more than a ceremonial procession. It was something like a planned political demonstration…
In the book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan reconstruct the story by contrasting the image of Jesus’ procession and pronouncement of the power of God, with Pilate’s pronouncement of the power of Empire. One has a donkey, the other has a war-horse.
Borg and Crossan, “The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology…According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God…Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.” The conflict Jesus had to face, was a “protest against a domination system legitimated in the name of God, a domination system radically different from what the already present and coming kingdom of God, the dream of God, would be like.”
Jesus, this other “king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land- no mare chariots, war-horses, or bows…he will be a king of peace.”
An imperial procession with economic control and military dominance, and a peaceful procession of peasants and people with a vision for another kind of world, armed only with a Divine vision.
For a long time, Christianity has focused on the spiritual challenges that Jesus offers human beings, making faith mostly about piety and righteousness. But this week, this day, this story, in our tradition makes clear that we must also take seriously Jesus’ challenge to our political and economic systems as well. It is discipleship to be a dissident.
As scholar James Duke writes, “Jesus is meant, not just as a spiritual challenge, but a political challenge.”
There is so much we can say about this moment that we are in. I trust that commentary will soon come in the form of art and song, in poetry and movies, in graffiti and novels. And from the lens of our faith, it seems to me that this is a time of unveiling, stripping down, so all is made plain. This time in the wilderness is showing us with absolute clarity that what we truly value, isn’t what our economy rewards. Our economy rewards hedge fund managers and CEO’s of HMO’s instead of bank tellers and nurses who pay more in taxes. We reward those who can afford to lose a lot, while those can afford to lose very little are the ones now currently labeled ESSENTIAL. The ones now stocking shelves and delivery groceries, the ones bringing meals to seniors in lockdown, the ones driving trucks of toilet paper, the ones harvesting our carrots and strawberries. And still our current economic system says- these essential people don’t deserve to have healthcare. This Lenten journey, this time of examination has made it abundantly obvious that what we have set up profits from sickness and suffering, leaving us to rugged individualism and competition and scarcity and more suffering than necessary. What we have set up thrives off of incarceration and detention, it is designed to exploit people and resources, it aims toward war and division, it allows large corporations to externalize costs to the public, while still revenue overflows.
This global pandemic places us in a Cosmic Holy Week, showing us the truth that we have followed the imperial procession. We have followed the procession with the warhorse, the one that told us that THE MARKET was a god who would take care of us all. Now we see that kind of god will never love us back. And now we have a choice. Because there is no going back. Because once we see it all put out before us, we cannot say we didn’t know. And we will be forced to start all over in some ways. We can stop here and ask ourselves if this is really the procession we want to be in? Do we still want to march on the way we were, giving our hearts to those other gods?
I love these words from the poem How to Survive This by Barbara Kingsolver, “O misery. Imperfect
universe of days stretched out
ahead, the string of pearls
and drops of venom on the web,
losses of heart, of life
and limb, news of the worst
Remind me again
the day will come
when I look back amazed…”
Because the day will come when we will all look back amazed at this road we have traveled together. And when we do, what will we say about which procession we chose?
The procession Jesus leads, is the one with essential workers. It is the one where it is not a crime to be poor, or a sin to be sick. It is the procession where those who are hurting are heard, where justice is not expected to trickle down, but points the way…
In these “imperfect universe of days stretched out ahead…” let us sing “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And while much of the world is halted, before the day that will come, we can stop here. Because even though some still boast that the US has the best healthcare in the world, this myth is killing us quickly. Which procession are we in?
Because even with all of our stockpiles of the best nuclear weapons, even with our drones and submarines, even with our $693 billion for the Department of Defense, we have been stopped, reduced, overpowered by something microscopic. It is clear that the procession we have been in, the one led by the warhorse can’t win this battle. It is leading us and all of creation to destruction.
Because of the unprecedented nature of this time, we have an incredible opportunity, in this emergency, impossible, God-like visions are emerging. The procession that will lead us to life is the one that acknowledges that workers are the backbone and the back is breaking, it is the one with healthcare for all and a livable wage for essential workers even when we are not in a crisis.
Whatever name we have the Higher Power, I believe It beckons us to pause. Perhaps it is time to bid farewell to the warhorse and dare to follow the one led by the donkey.
The day will come… so if not now, when?