In Between – Rev. Jessica Tate
28 March 2010 • Palm Sunday
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it'” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Shane Claiborne is founder of a group of “ordinary radicals” called The Simple Way. In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Claiborne tells the story of what happened when a group of homeless people moved into an abandoned church in North Philadelphia. The group, mostly women with children, had been living together in a shantytown of sorts when they were run out by police. Having no place to go and wanting to stick together, they took shelter in an abandoned church. When the property owners discovered the women and children living there, they gave them 48 hours to get out.
Some of the students at the college Claiborne attended were becoming tuned in to issues of poverty and justice, and they heard about what was going on. So they went to see what they could do to help. When they got to the church, they were confronted with a banner that read “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” Convicted by the sign and the people they met at the church, the students decided they had to stand with these homeless women and children. They created a media spectacle with a bunch of middle class white kids hanging out with the homeless in North Philly. All kinds of civic and political leaders showed up to show their support. The 48 hours came and went.
It went on like that for a while, with the college kids spending time at the church, organized with a cell phone and an air horn and a plan to mobilize quickly from campus to the church if the day came when officials showed up to evict the families. They got people to donate food and other necessities; they sang Tracy Chapman; they preached the words of the prophets; they felt the fervor of the Spirit like never before.
One night, really late, there was a knock at the church door. There were two firemen standing outside and everyone thought the time had come for the showdown. Instead, these two firemen had come under the cover of night to help. They had heard at the station that the fire marshal was going to come to the church the next day to inspect it and shut it down, citing code violations, and they had brought smoke detectors, fire alarms, and their expertise so that the building would not be in violation when the marshal arrived.
And so it went, with the students and the families together in this old church. They held Sunday services, they celebrated communion, and they prayed together. Eventually most of the families were able to find adequate housing, and a press conference was held, and things died down. Claiborne concludes the story with these words: “We do indeed have a God of resurrection, a God who can create beauty from the messes we make of this world.”[i]
It seems to me that on Palm Sunday we stand in between the messes we make of this world and the promise of resurrection. We stand, together, in between what is means to worship a homeless man on Sunday and confront one on Monday. We stand in between the jubilant peals of “all glory, laud, and honor to thee redeemer king” and the dark denial and confusion that will confront us later this week. We stand together between the ways of human power and the ways of the kingdom of God.
“Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30,” so say historical Jesus scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.[ii]
From the west, was a military procession. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse at the head of the imperial cavalry and soldiers of Rome. His procession proclaimed the power of the Roman Empire.
Imagine it: A “cavalry arrives on horses, along with foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.” You hear the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. Dust swirls around. The onlookers are mostly silent. Some are curious, some awed, some resentful by the show of power.[iii]
We are not used to such military processions today, thank goodness. But they would have been well known in the Jewish homeland of the first century. It was standard practice for the Roman governors of Judea to come to Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals—not out of reverence for the religious devotion of their subjects, but to keep order in case trouble brewed as the Jewish people celebrated Passover and their liberation from an earlier empire.[iv]
Pilate’s procession that day would have displayed not only Rome’s imperial power and might, but also Rome’s imperial theology. The Roman emperor was known as the ruler of Rome and also the Son of God. Since Augustus, the Roman emperors had been inscribed as “son of God,” “lord,” and “savior.” The emperor was to bring, “peace on earth.”[v] Pilate came from the west. A sign of power and military strength, demanding ultimate allegiance.
From the east came the procession with which we are more familiar for we hear of it every year as it is recounted in scripture. It was the procession of a peasant. Jesus rode in from the Mount of Olives on a colt, cheered along not by great crowds, Luke’s account says, but by his followers.[vi] His supporters took off their garments and laid them before Jesus, the way they would for a king.[vii] They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and proclaimed “peace in heaven.” Jesus came from the east. His message was about the kingdom of God; he invites our allegiance.
Against the background of the Roman imperial procession, it begins to make sense that Jesus’ arrival would create such a stir. Against the background of the Pilate’s show of strength, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem looks like a “planned political demonstration.”[viii] It’s no wonder the Pharisees wanted the people to hush; they were causing a commotion, inciting a confrontation with the powers of Rome. Jesus enters Jerusalem in the manner of a king, a king challenging the power Rome. A king offering power that stands in stark contrast to the power of Pilate’s procession:
– For one thing, Jesus does not ride a fearsome, intimidating warhorse, but a colt.
– In Luke’s account there are no palms or leafy branches, which would have been the standard fare for a victorious leader returning from war. Rather, the people shed their cloaks before Jesus. The cloaks people wore demonstrated their status in the community. Shedding their cloaks before Jesus is a message not of his domination, but of equality and of peace.[ix]
– The people call out to Jesus as king and Lord, using the very the titles the Roman emperor has claimed for himself. Jesus and his followers are proclaiming an alternative kingdom to the empire of Rome, proclaiming the kingdom of God. Understood politically, this is legal ground for Jesus’ condemnation.[x]
A few chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus said, “You will not see me until the time comes when you say, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (13:35). The people indeed see him now…and his way reverses the conventional values of human culture.[xi] The leaders see him now and his way and theirs is staunchly opposed.[xii]
These two processions. Each vying for allegiance. One of military might, domination and the promise of Pax Romana. The other offering a new king, a new way of peaceful living, servant leadership, and the kingdom of God.
It seems very long ago. We’re remembering this morning an event of 2,000 years ago. And yet, it seems that the contrast exists still today. We find ourselves living in between these two processions. We’re in between the values of Madison Avenue, the politics of Capitol Hill, and the power of the Pentagon on the one hand, and the kingdom of God, on the other. Our allegiance is courted by them all.
It seems we have made a choice, to some extent at least. For we are here in worship this morning, not the myriad of alluring things we could be doing. We’re not at Wegmans or the soccer fields. We’re not putting in some extra hours at work or sleeping in. We are here, lifting up our voices in praise of Jesus our king, rather than spending yet more money on things we do not need. That we are here shows, at least in part, that we offer our ultimate allegiance to God’s kingdom and not Wall Street or even our wonderful country. Our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus, our king. That choice, I think, makes us similar to the followers of Jesus who gathered to cheer for their king during the procession many years ago.
They, like us, showed up to praise God, not for things yet to come but for the deeds they have already seen.[xiii] For the breath of life, for the miracle of birth, for the wonder of healing, for the support of true community, for the hospitality and welcome, for the gift of abundance, for the offering of salvation. Renowned preacher Fred Craddock notes that in this instance, when the disciples show up for Jesus’ procession and declare him their king, “in this moment, [Jesus’] followers are right.” “His disciples did not fully understand his messiahship, to be sure, but neither are they persons who sing praise and scream death the same week. The portrait of such a fickle crowd must come from some account other than Luke’s. The story as Luke tells it is less crowded and more subdued, but it is an event of and for believers, and its meaning lies in Jesus and in their faith in him…. In this moment, his followers are right.”[xiv]
I’d argue that at least for this moment, we’ve got it right, too. Our allegiance is clear and our king is Jesus. But, this week, we will not just greet Jesus at the outskirts of Jerusalem in a festive procession. This week, we will walk with him into the depths of the city, in the betrayal, the denial, the injustice, and the death. And then we, too, will stand in between the cross and the light of Easter morning. We will stand with the disciples in the long darkness of Saturday sharing our pain and confusion, saying to one another, “but we had thought he was the one to redeem Israel.”[xv] And it is then, that we will be most confronted with the choice that stands before us: Are we going to stick with Jesus, our king, on a colt…on a cross? Or will we go with the alluring power and might of the other procession? Will we remain loyal to the promise of resurrection or will we succumb to the messes we make of this world?
It seems to me that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is filled with “fragile possibility.” The hope of a people rides in on a borrowed colt.[xvi] The king offers not victory but peace. The Lord offers not security but salvation. And the subjects of this king are not a splendid outfit. They are “fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples.” They are preachers and school teachers, government bureaucrats and stay-at-home-moms. They are military officers and defense contractors. They are you and me. Those who follow Jesus are a ragtag bunch, “pathetically unfit for the grand hopes that dance in their imaginations.”[xvii]
Pathetically unfit because it is so hard to actually give our ultimate allegiance to the “prince of peace,” to the one who turns our normal conventions upside-down. In our world “borders between love and hate, evil and good, beauty and ugliness, heroism and cowardice, care and neglect, guilt and blamelessness are mostly vague, ambiguous, and hard to discern.”[xviii] In such a world it is hard to know what is a worthy allegiance. This is a quandary in which I find myself all the time. Every week, every day, every moment.
I know some questions to ask myself in these moments of wrestling: Who’s offering me life? Which way offers freedom from oppression? Who is offering peace and who is offering power? Who is extending an invitation rather than coercing me to follow? Even stocked with good questions to ask, it’s hard to trust the answers. Like the rich young ruler who can’t seem to get on the right side of eternal life, for us, too, power seems to work. Riches seem to work. So it’s hard to discern which procession is worthy of my allegiance. I feel the tension daily, even though I’m on this side of the resurrection.
And so we stand in between these two processions. We stand in between the messes we make of this world and the promise of resurrection. We stand, together, in between what it means to worship a homeless man on Sunday and confront one on Monday. We stand in between the jubilant peals of “all glory, laud, and honor to thee redeemer king” and the dark denial and confusion that will confront us later this week. We stand together between the ways of human power and the ways of the kingdom of God.
As we find ourselves here in the in between, the allegiance that is being asked of us is a very real call to behave differently and be in relationship with God and one another in new ways[xix]—in ways befitting the kingdom of God. We are asked not only to confess our allegiance, but to stand in that procession. The college students in Philly stood with the homeless families. The firemen came to stand with them as well. In a few days, when the joyous celebration of welcoming the king has passed, when we are hunkered together in the wounds of betrayal and the shadows of the crucifixion, saying to one another, “but we had hoped he would be the one to bring redemption…” And in the first light of Easter morning, where will we choose to stand?
[i] Thanks to Elizabeth Cole Goodrich for retelling to Claiborne’s story in a paper on Philippians 2 presented to The Well in 2009. It is her version I have included here.
[ii] Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. The Lat Week. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 2. The following paragraphs and descriptions of the two processions rely heavily on that given by Borg and Crossan.
[iii] Borg & Crossan pp. 2-3.
[iv] Borg & Crossan, p. 3.
[v] Borg & Crossan, p. 3.
[vi] Craddock, Fred B. Interpretation: Luke. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, p. 226.
[vii] Boring, Eugene and Fred Craddock. The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville: WJK, 2004, p. 256.
[viii] Borg and Crossan, 4.
[ix] Ringe, Sharon H. Westminster Bible Companion: Luke. Louisville: WJK, 1995, p. 240.
[x] Boring and Craddock, 256.
[xi] Boring and Craddock, 256.
[xii] Ringe, 240.
[xiii] Ringe, 240.
[xiv] Craddock, 227.
[xv] Culpepper, Alan R. Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. IX. Luke. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, p. 370.
[xvi] Culpepper, 370.
[xvii] Culpepper, p. 370.
[xviii] Nouwen, Henri. From the Henri Nouwen Society Daily Meditation, March 27, 2010.
[xix] Thanks, again, to Elizabeth Cole Goodrich for the clarification of what is being asked of us.