Palm Sunday 03/25/2018
Sojourn Sermon – Palm Sunday – Mark 1:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
This is the image of hope the prophet Isaiah offers his people in Isaiah Chapter 11. It is a hope for a peaceable way of being, a cosmic transformation where even the animals make peace with one another. Warfare and violence will cease as the knowledge of the Lord covers the world as water covers the sea.
This is a passage full of wonderful imagery. From it very first verse it draws readers attention to new things. A shoot springing forth from the stump of Jesse. Jesse, you’ll remember, was David’s father. The implication here is that the Davidic dynasty has been cut off. God has abandoned the wealth, affluence, and violence that became synonymous with David and his progeny, but God has not abandoned the people. God has not abandoned God’s people.
Instead, says Isaiah, God is doing something new. Raising up a knew ruler to lead the people in righteousness and faithfulness. Under this new ruler’s reign, the world will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord and because this is so, the world will be utterly transformed. Unlike the wealthy and violent kings who ruled over Israel and Judah in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries BCE, the people will be led by a little child.
Scholars are uncertain about when this text was written. Some believe it was written during the Assyrian campaigns in the region in the later part of the eights century. Other believe it is a post-exilic text, written after the Israelites returned to Israel. One thing is clear, however. It was written during a time with the people were plagued by violence and oppression. It was written to a people who lacked hope and wondered whether or not God had abandoned them. No, Isaiah says, God is doing something new.
It’s probably obvious why early Christians interpreted this text as a prophecy related to Jesus. The subtext of the genealogies we find at the beginning of Matthew and Luke is that Jesus is descended from the patriarchs of Israel. He is of the stump of Jesse: might he be the messianic ruler of whom Isaiah spoke.
It’s also probably obvious why I couldn’t help but think of this passage as I watched the speeches given at the March for Our Lives event in Washington DC yesterday. In a culture that is plagued by violence, ruled by wealth and affluence, and by people whose moral ineptitude rivals that the Davidic kings, I couldn’t help but wonder, perhaps it is time that the children lead us.
My friend, Colin, offered an interesting analysis of the March for Our Lives. He drew a parallel between it and Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciple arrive in a city among the people. They don’t come with the weapons of war, but they come to speak peace to a people that are desperate for it. Megan has talked to me about the fear here students express, and I can’t help but here a wisher of “hosanna” in their voices. Hosanna means “save us,” in Aramaic.
Jesus arrival in Jerusalem is a parody of the Roman ritual of Parousia. A parousia was choreographed ritual of welcome reserved from Roman generals and other important officials. These welcome rituals were basically over the top displays of joy at the arrival of the person in question. We find a good example of a parousia in Josephus’ Jewish Wars. In Book Seven, Josephus describes Vespasian and Titus’ return to Rome after the war in Judea. He describes people running out to meet the Emperor Titus and his son, Vespasian, who would later be crowned emperor. Josephus says Rome was almost completely empty as the people went to meet them on the road. And they brought with them garlands to lay their feet as they passed, and called Titus their savior. One scholar writes, “the arrival of a royal or other dignitary was an occasion of an ostentatious display designed to court the favor or placate the wrath of a visiting celebrity.”
These parousia were meant to display Roman greatness and to dissuade subjects from contemplating revolt. So in a place like first century Palestine, which was a region as volatile then as it is today, these symbolic displays of power and greatness would have been particularly important, especially at a time like Passover, when the Jews would celebrate the mighty acts of God that freed them from the subjugation of a different empire. Festivals like Passover would have made Roman governors nervous, fearing them the people might get swept up in some revolutionary fervor.
We know, from the Gospel narrative that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was in Jerusalem, not at his home in Caesarea Marittima, when Jesus and his disciples arrived, and this is likely because Jerusalem was so volatile during this time. And this is an important note because Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem would most definitely have come with a Parousia. Roman officials would come with a parade of armored soldiers and slaves to remind the people of Jerusalem just what the empire was capable of. And Pilate was a man whose wrath needed placating. We know of at least two massacres he carried out during his reign as governor, one against Samaritans as they worshiped at Mt. Gezrim and another in the temple courts against Jews who had come to make sacrifices. He was so violent and cruel toward his Judean subjects that Rome actually removed him, which is saying something. Undoubtedly, Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem would have been accompanied by a great show of strength and greatness.
In the face of Roman greatness and pridefulness, Jesus comes, as the prophet Zechariah says, “humble and riding on a donkey.” And not only is Jesus riding on a donkey, he is riding on a colt who has never been ridden. He doesn’t ask for a seasoned donkey, one who is used to carrying people. He asks for a colt, never been ridden. It seems Jesus’ trusts the young.
The Quaker writer and activist, Parker Palmer, has said that to be a rebel you need the combination of hutzpah and humility. This is exactly what I think is going on here. Jesus display is one of hutzpah, of audacity. Wrapped up in Jesus’ parody of a Roman Parousia is the claim that Jesus really is a king, that he comes to Jerusalem as a conqueror, just like King David was when he returned to Jerusalem on a donkey. That’s an audacious claim.
But at the same time, Jesus’ represent a much different kingdom. It’s not a kingdom built on wealth or greed or violence or exploitation. Just like Jesus’ Parousia is everything Pilate’s Parousia is not, Jesus’ kingdom is everything Rome is not. It is a kingdom grounded in mutual self-giving and peace and kindness and justice for the oppressed and forgiveness for the oppressor. In the face of Roman pridefulness, Jesus’ Parousia and kingdom can be described as nothing else than humble.
To the adults in the room, might we have something to learn from Jesus show of hutzpah and humility? Might it take hutzpah to acknowledge that, perhaps despite our best efforts, we have let our children down. And I don’t mean politically. Somehow we have failed to engage our neighbors in ways that promote peace and not fear. I keep coming back to this quotation by Walter Brueggemann, “The crisis in American Christianity has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up out faith in our Christian baptism and settling for a common generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, and part violence.”
I think he’s right. And I’ll be the first to admit that there have been forces at work that have sought to intentionally cultivate this crisis, but like it or not, we have to own that. And considering the fact that gun culture is part patriotism, part consumerism, and part violence, we might have to own some of that too.
Again to the adults in the room. Are humble enough to listen to the children? Man, the vitriol that has been thrown at these kids. People calling them stupid, claiming they have no idea what they are doing. Saying they are part of some anti-Trump FBI conspiracy? Have some humility y’all. Listen to you children.
Sallie Mcfague, one of my favorite theologians, says this about how Christian’s ought to engage environmental issues but I think it is applicable here too, “Theology by relatively comfortable North American Christians ought not to focus on personal salvation, in this life or the next, but on lifestyle limitations, on developing a philosophy of “enoughness,” and realizing that the cruciform way of Christ means making sacrifices so that others might life.”
Over the past two years I’ve need hope. I’ve been to the marches, I’ve read the books. I’ve done all the things that are supposed to inspire hope. I was really hopeful yesterday. I saw a group of teenage assemble a diverse and inclusive line up and speak about the intersectionality of gun violence, drawing on how people of color are disproportionally affected by gun violence and how mental illness make you statistically more likely to be the victim of gun violence rather than the perpetrator. I saw the level of discourse rise significantly above the level of discourse I’ve seen in politics for a long time.
I don’t know what this hope is for, though. I’m hesitant to suggest to you that this hope is for political change. Jesus message was about a new way of being human. Jesus reminded us that in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, we must become like little children. If I could become like David Hogg or Emma Gonzales, I’d be down.
Perhaps this hope comes from people being willing to follow the lead of a child. Perhaps living longer on this earth doesn’t make us wiser. Perhaps it makes us more corrupted more accustomed to in justice and more complacent. Perhaps Isaiah vision for a child leading the people of Israel has something to do with the fact that they are maladjusted to this world, to use a Martin Luther King Jr. term. This world of violence and destruction isn’t natural. It takes some getting used to.
So as we come together tonight to commemorate this moment in Jesus life, I can’t help but ask myself what it might mean to show up in a culture ruled by wealth and affluence, plagued by violence, and uninterested in voices of its children, I invite us to emulate Jesus’ hutzpah and humility. Almost to make that our mantra because the reality is, this idea applies to everything.
Last year I gave you palms, and I encouraged you to put them somewhere you would see them every day and be reminded of the kind of habits that make a disciple of Jesus.
This year I’m giving you palms, and I’m inviting you to, again, put them somewhere you’ll see them, and be reminded to have both hutzpah and humility. Be reminded that we must have the audacity to speak to injustice when we see it, to admit when we’ve failed, and to continue to fight the good fight. But also be reminded that we are not the be all end all. Perhaps other know better than us, perhaps even our children. This I think is kind of like riding an untamed donkey. It’s difficult and there’s a good chance we’re going to look stupid. But if its good enough for Jesus, its good enough for us.