Ten years ago this week in Chicago, thousands of people joined together in a march against the start of the Iraq War. The protest, which seemed nearly spontaneous and attracted around 10,000 people, shut down both directions of Lake Shore Drive at rush hour. Three years later, in 2006, nearly 100,000 people marched through the streets of Chicago calling for an end to the cruel practice of breaking up families through immigrant deportation. A little under a year ago, the members of this church marched out the front doors to join with the membership of Kimball Avenue Church, Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, and First Lutheran, to gather for a public witness of how our faith manifests as justice in the world. Today, we again join with these congregations in seeking a remedy for violence.
Preparing for this sermon, I found myself pondering these marches and how they echo Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.
The occurrence of a kingly procession wasn’t new to the residents of Jerusalem. Historians explain that many figures like military heroes and dignitaries had ridden into Jerusalem in this kind of public spectacle, and the routine was the same. They would enter on a majestic warhorse, proceed to the Temple to make an offering, and be given honorific title of the city. In fact, on the other end of the city, a different type of procession was happening- Pontius Pilate was entering the city, awash in gold and gaudy splendor, bringing with him heavily armed troops to ensure ‘peace’ (no doubt, outfitted in riot gear). Pilate had heard rumors of insurrection, and on this Passover holiday, he was not going to lose control of the city.
Jesus’ entry, on the other hand, can hardly be defined as anything but a parody of this tradition. Rather than sit atop a fierce beast of war, Jesus enters the city on a borrowed donkey. In place of formidable legions of soldiers, Jesus is surrounded by outcasts and exiles in rags and shrouds. When he enters the temple, rather than make a ritual sacrifice, Jesus overturns the tables of merchants and the moneychangers, calling them thieves. And this was someone who was to be called “king”? Instead of paying tribute to the status quo and the powers that run society, he turns our expectations upside-down.
But in all this, he is surrounded by unsurpassed joy. All I remember from being a child on Palm Sunday was hearing about the cheering and “Hosanna” of the surrounding crowds. The people who herald Jesus’ entry into the city, his ragtag band of followers, their joy cannot be contained. Where most processions demonstrate power and military might, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is heralded by the weak; people who had been cast out of community because they were diseased, or because they were convicted, or just because of who they were. Jesus’ followers had been marked by the legal system and lived in the shadows of doorways, on the margins of cities, begged for help on the roadside, and steered clear from the authorities. People whom, before meeting Jesus, could expect to be hated wherever they went. Harassed, ridiculed, or even brutalized. Or just plain ignored. Yet these were the people shouting and leaping and singing for joy along the route of Jesus’ entry into the city.
Have you ever been in a march with this type of a joy? As a former organizer, I can tell you there is a moment in every public event where fear and anxiety rule. “How will this go? Will anyone show up? Will the police bother us? How will we lift the spirits of the people? How will we make our point?” The most important question is always, how do we help bring the spirit of justice – that joy – into the event? Sometimes attendees come filled with the spirit. But often after the effort to attend the event, people need to be encouraged to be joyful and have hope.
Those with Jesus were so saturated with gratitude, triumph and joy that they didn’t need reminding.
“Teacher, rebuke your disciples, say the Pharisees. But Jesus says, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out,” in joy and celebration. These people who, prior to Jesus’ ministry, had no hope of restoration and full participation in community – their very existence had suddenly become a joyful event. They were restored! They were forgiven! They were reinstated into their full humanity again. And these people could not contain their joy.
Their joy of being restored into community brought with it the hope of what more was possible. Would this “King” bring power over the Romans and restore the chosen people to their former glory? What more should they hope for?
But, just like the tables in the temple, the message of God delivered through Jesus overturns our ideas of glory and triumph and joy. In fact, in scripture verse just before this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus recounts the story of a wicked, greedy king who is only pacified when his servants multiply his wealth. This king, who sounds a lot like King Herod to Jesus’ listeners, offers no mercy to those who oppose his rule. The author of the Gospel of Luke places this story just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, as if Jesus was reminding us that earthly powers of brutality are still very much in control. Followers of the Way are going to be subject to some very earthly persecution and harassment.
From a modern day perspective, we know this is often where our fear and anxiety live. The powerful forces that oppress us, while still frequently found in our authorities, also live within ourselves. Fear of ridicule, anxiety about harassment, and avoidance of persecution compel us to stay silent, or bend to politeness in the face of injustice. We sometimes hide from these issues, keeping ourselves exiled from our own compassion and our own experiences of liberated joy. But Jesus proceeds toward the powers, leading the way, demonstrating the vulnerable power of the kingdom of God.
Today we find ourselves at the pinnacle of the Christian experience. Today, Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus enters Jerusalem, is the definitive day that sets in motion events that we can’t shake off. From here tumbles forward the story that has held us spellbound for 2000 years.
If ever Jesus had a choice to determine his fate, this was it. Jesus makes himself available to the powers of the authorities by voluntarily walking into Jerusalem. Scripture tells us that Jesus expected death was coming. But he was doing his ministry; healing, feeding and living in the countryside without interruption. Having been exiled to the outskirts of the Galilee, Jesus could have continued his ministry had he stayed out of the city walls.
In walking into Jerusalem, Jesus chose to do a brazen thing. He chose to stand against powers of the authorities – a single, unguarded figure on a lowly donkey, but one that would not back down or be polite. With his exiled followers, Jesus enters Jerusalem, knowing that in this defiance, he is vulnerable, and will likely face his end. But in that vulnerable defiance, there is also joy. In saying to the powers that ruled his time, ‘you do not have power over me’ – regardless of outcome – Jesus frees his disciples and his outcast followers from the despair of fearing the authorities, or the pressure to stay within the status quo. And in living into this defiance, those who were with him could not NOT celebrate. All of their worries and fears and concerns- sickness, status, wealth, ridicule, death – all that was irrelevant because the community of Jesus was entering the sacred city of Jerusalem, the place they believe earth comes closest to God. Surely this brazen defiance meant the coming of the Messiah. God was doing a new thing, here. What else might possibly be restored? What else might we hope for?
For the last 5 Sundays I’ve been in baptism class with Pastor Eric and the Castro family. Since I didn’t grow up Lutheran, many parts of the curriculum have had a strong impact on me. As Lutherans, I learned we see God in all people and places and situations, much like Jesus – and while we don’t turn away from pain and alienation, we are sure to rejoice where there is wholeness, restoration and love. And as Lutherans, we say no to a theology that privileges glory – the kind of glory that usually prevailed in the Jerusalem kingly processions. We say yes to a theology that dedicates itself to the liberation of human suffering, throws it’s solidarity in with human pain, and gives us permission to be as vulnerable as Jesus decided to be on that walk into Jerusalem. As Pastor Erik said, baptism inducts us into solidarity with the body of Christ – solidarity with all of human creation. And we are given permission to be brazen and joyful in our weakness and vulnerability.
We too need to celebrate. When we are generous with our time, or our compassion, or our charity, we defy the powers within and without. Last week at the food pantry, we had a day of great news. One of our clients, who had previously confessed to relapsing in her battle with addiction, and as a result, her fears of losing her home and her daughter, told us she had gotten a job. She was positively beaming and full of hope. And then, we learned the two brothers who stay under the Diversey bridge may have housing by the end of the month – for the first time in 14 years. These are two amazing, joyous developments that lead us to wonder, what else might we hope for?
We are a small congregation, but we have big ideas. Many of those big ideas have already been put into place. I wasn’t at last year’s Occupy Palm Sunday – but I heard about it, through social media, through colleagues and through friends. And it inspired me, and drew me to intern at St. Luke’s- to learn about how to put big plans into action. Our food pantry is an integral link for people who have been put into exile in one way or another, and we help them on the path to restoration. And there are more ideas for broadening our community every day. These are big ideas that we should approach with joy, the joy of collaborating with God to restore God’s creation.
Quiet down, some of the Pharisees will say. Don’t make a ruckus. Don’t rock the boat. The Pharisees are often demonized as skeptical figures who doubted Jesus’ divinity. But, it’s also possible they were merely warning, “don’t do anything to attract attention from the Roman guard” – fearing the danger around the corner. But Jesus says, we can’t. We can’t contain the joy of the kingdom of God. The very stones would cry out. It is time to walk boldly in our liberation, and demonstrate the manifestation of God’s grace.
Because it is in our defiance of the powers that we fulfill God’s calling on us. Whether by marching, listening, visiting, or filling a bag of canned goods, we dedicate ourselves to human liberation. Every time we do this we defy the powers of death a little more. We take a little power back from the authorities that would prefer to rule our world without disruption.
It is in our joy in the midst of this defiance that we manifest God’s grace. It is in the celebration of wholeness, restoration and community that we are showing the world what it means to be living in God’s kingdom. In our joy, God’s grace becomes contagious and justice becomes the foundation, not the exception. That’s when we communicate extravagant welcome to those bystanders who see our public witness. Because one of the remedies for violence is undoubtedly joy – joy in solidarity with others, joy in defiance of the powers that try to rule our lives, joy so that the very stones cry out.