RESPONSIVE READING FROM THE PSALMS (Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29)
1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
2Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
19Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Mark 11: 1-11)
11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
This is Palm Sunday. And Palm Sunday is a fascinating point in the liturgical year for Christians because it is a bitter-sweet celebration of a spiritual radical, our Jesus. Bitter-sweet because we know what happens soon after the party. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, people waving palms, shouting “Hosanna in the highest”…they greet him as a king…king of the Jews. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Well, that’s a dubious blessing, as we know. This mob of people who hailed Jesus as a king will turn against him just five days later and crucify him with thieves and slaves—spitting on him; mocking him; calling him names; nailing him to a cross. Even his friends turn away from him. So this celebration we have every year with all glory laud and honor has an element of doom, and even embarrassment. We think, “how awful that crowd is; what sheeple. Because soon they will turn on that guy that they are celebrating. Soon hails will turn to nails. People love a spectacle, whether it’s your coronation or your beheading.
And I think if we’re being honest, we even feel some shame on behalf of Jesus. Why did he do this again? He knew what was going to happen. Shouldn’t a savior be a little tougher?
I want to say something that is important to our story, which is that Jesus is given the death penalty for political rabble-rowsing—not religious rabble-rowsing. Or, rather, Jesus’s religious rhetoric sounded a whole lot to those in power like politics. Jesus was apocalyptic. That was his thing; what made his religious message urgent. He was telling everyone that the world was going to end, and that the empire would be turned upside down in the new world. The authorities were concerned that Jesus running around announcing the end of the world and telling the meek that they would inherit the earth would incite an uprising of the poor and oppressed, and the folks in charge really didn’t appreciate the idea of an uprising. In other words, just this celebration alone with the donkey and the palms waving was enough to alert the Romans that this guy Jesus was a threat. The Romans felt they needed to crucify Jesus because crucifixion for the Romans was a gruesome public service message to others who might try similar feats: Don’t do this or you will be next. Crucifixion was a warning.
So this celebration we stage every Palm Sunday is mawkish because of our retrospective view—this is a day when we remember how hard it is to work bravely in the face of abuse and criticism—how vulnerable it makes us; how dangerous it is to be a leader of any consequence. How it takes serious guts to ride in on a donkey and ignore the crowd that’s cheering you because soon they’ll be jeering you. Forgive them for they know not what they do.
I’m sure some of you have a story of serving an unpopular cause with total devotion to God and catching flack for it…having to stand out on a limb, unsure if you are going to get pushed off of it by an angry mob. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Our God-given conscious is indeed a dubious blessing at times.
Perhaps you served on a school board and favored the new school being built here, or you stood up for the senior center at the Sterling town meeting. Perhaps you are a second amendment enthusiast in a state full of gun control advocates. Perhaps you had the guts to email your liberal minister to ask her to vote for Charlie Baker. Perhaps you grew up in a fundamentalist family, and it is hard to talk about your adult-onset atheism, or perhaps you tried to talk about gay marriage at a hostile Thanksgiving dinner, or perhaps you took part in an anti-war rally that got you heckled and spat at. Or perhaps you are the only pro-life person in your largely pro-choice workplace. Perhaps you stood up to a boss you thought was unethical, or left a job because of labor practices that hurt people.
And maybe you know from experience that you don’t get all glory and accolades for doing what you believe to be right or just. Can I get an amen?
I have a story about myself, anyway, that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell you because it’s kind of about politics mixed with youthful idealism, so it’s embarrassing. Politics applied to religion is what got Jesus killed, too, and I’m trying to stay alive around here. But I have been reading a lot of Brene Brown recently who convinces me that being authentic and vulnerable in public is how to dare greatly. And we’re just not here on this earth long enough not to dare greatly. So I am going to tell you an embarrassing story about my teenaged political convictions, and how they got me in hot water. My seventeen year old self may come from a different political perspective than you do, and that’s totally OK. I don’t want you to think that you have to believe the same as me, because you don’t. Here at this church, we recognize that we are all over the map on the political and religious spectrum, and that’s what’s so great about our community. Our diversity, and that we can talk about it. And that we know that each of us is beloved by God, anyway.
So, here’s my confession that I was worried about telling you because it involves the F word. That’s right, I’m a feminist. And I used to be self-righteous about it. None of you knew me in the ‘90s, but I spent the better part of that decade wearing no make up, and forgoing heels as tools of the oppressor. I spent every weekend protesting frat houses and taking back the night, and marching on Washington. Like a good young feminist, I even had a bumper sticker that said “I’ll be post feminist in the post patriarchy”. I didn’t even have a car, but I still had that bumper sticker.
Anyway, I discovered quite early that there would be consequences for questioning the limited, sexualized roles set forth for women and for our bodies. That no matter how we slice it, women are considered sinful just for being alive and in the world and having bodies. Even as an ordained minister with two masters degrees and multiple careers under my belt, I still get frequent comments on my looks, my clothes, or even that “I don’t look like a minister” almost as much as I get comments on my sermons, and my male colleagues almost never do. Though women are doctors and lawyers and scientists and world leaders and have walked on the moon, there are still churches in America that won’t ordain women, or call them as ministers. Well, girls, this is what a minister looks like. So I will be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy, OK? We’re not there yet.
So, on to my story. When I was a senior in high school, I had two main loves. Feminism and musical theater. The former was a new-found love based on my experience in a senior year high school class in women’s studies at my New Hampshire public high school. The latter was a life-long passion passed down to me from my mother via my maternal grandmother. These two interests were sometimes at odds, frankly. Rodgers and Hammerstein were certainly not in the business of writing feminist manifestos set to music.
When I was in tenth grade, I starred in the musical “Anything Goes.” It was one of the great highlights of my life; landing that role. All glory laud and honor.
In the winter of our senior year before Christmas break, the Concord High School chorus waited with baited breath for our music teacher to announce what the school musical would be that year. He announced that our school musical would be based on the Al Capp comic strip L’il Abner called “Li’l Abner”. He showed us the movie in our chorus class so that we would have an understanding of what it was about, and so we could hear the music before auditions in January. As I watched the film, my excitement about auditions quickly turned to increasing discomfort with the dialogue, particularly the dialogue by and about the scantily clad female characters. I gathered together two of my chorus friends and shared my concerns that the movie was offensively sexist to me. I explained my position using many examples. The main character, Daisy Mae, heard such comments from male characters as, “How is your sweet and well-proportioned little self?” and sang, “My aim in life is to be a good wife.” Men treated women as objects throughout.
My friends agreed with me. We rented the movie and watched it at my house that weekend, hoping to have a different opinion of it when we were done. We didn’t. In fact, we became convinced that we couldn’t play these female parts as a matter of principle. We decided that we would plead our case to our music teacher who we had been quite close to for three years. We would explain our discomfort, and he would surely change his selection to something more respectable like West Side Story or something. (ignore the fact that this show might also have some sexist themes, OK? I was 17! And the music is better in West Side Story!)
Two of us went to my teacher when we came back from the break. Rather than hear our concerns and change his mind as we thought he would, he became very angry with us for doubting his choice, and worse, for implicitly accusing him of sexism. Rather than change the selection of the school musical, he chose instead to cancel the musical altogether, and announced to the entire chorus (and later to the school) why he made that decision—that a group of students had complained that the play he had chosen was too sexist. Everyone knew I was the ring leader, and there were no palms and hosannas and shouts of “Queen of the Concord Senior High School” for me. My peers who were looking forward to the auditions the following week were furious with me and quite unforgiving. “Robin Bartlett got the musical cancelled” was the scuttlebutt around school. I felt betrayed by my teacher. All of my friends but one backed down on their vocal support of me.
The local paper and the associated press picked up the story that week, based on a tip by one of the sympathetic parents, and the “bad press” made our school principal angry. We naively didn’t understand that this newspaper article might be a bad thing. We thought we’d get pats on the back for standing up for what was right, especially since we were only 17. But this was in 1994 New Hampshire, during the height of political correctness backlash. The story was picked up around the country. My music teacher told the papers that he canceled the musical because my friend and I didn’t “understand satire” and called Li’l Abner a piece of Americana like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I was skewered by letters to the editor in my local paper for weeks. Opinion pieces were written about me. There were even political cartoons in the Manchester Union leader mocking me. Jim Finnegan, in an opinion piece called “Li’l Comprehension” in the Manchester Union Leader wrote: “One would like to believe that these students, who take offense at such cartoon characters as Li'l Abner, Daisy Mae, Earthquake Muldoon, Moonbeam McSwine and Mammy and Pappy Yokum, will mature to the point where they will develop, if not a sense of humor about themselves, at least a sense of the satirical. One would like to believe that, in time, that will happen. Otherwise, and this would be a terrible tragedy, they could face as adults a dull, humorless, chip-on-the-shoulder existence.”
Was it true that I didn’t have a sense of humor? Did having convictions mean that I would really face a dull, chip-on-my-shoulder existence as an adult? I began to seriously doubt my decision to speak up and I questioned whether any of this was such a big deal after all. Maybe I was just a misguided, annoyingly politically correct, humorless teenager. I really didn’t want to be any of those things. I felt entirely ambivalent about the whole thing. Winning the NH young feminist of the year award was no consolation.
Regardless of what I feel about whether or not I did the right thing to protest the musical at my high school in 1994, I will tell you that I look back on the adults and my peers in that mocking crowd and still feel shame.
I want to tell my 17 year old self what I want to tell all of you…which is simply this: Don’t be timid; and don’t listen to the praising voices of the crowd, nor the hazing voices of the crowd; the cheers or the jeers. The crowd will just as soon build you up as they will tear you down, and neither the shouts of bravo, or boo are what matters. What matters is that you are living brave—standing up for God’s people in the ways in which you feel led. Doing the work. Be bold; go in the way of Jesus; not the way others would have us go. 17 year old Robin and congregation: what other people think of you is none of your business.
And then I want to say to my seventeen year old self and my 38 year old self, and all of you: Robin, you have been in that mocking crowd before. You have judged people not worthy of your friendship because of their politics, or their religion, too. You have abandoned friends when the going got tough. You have disassociated yourself from people who might make you look bad. For reasons of self-preservation, not conscience. You have ganged up, you have been too afraid.
Any and every one of us could be a member of that crowd yelling “crucify him.” Even you.
And so this Palm Sunday story is significant not only as a story about the crowd, but about God.
The story of Palm Sunday is a reminder to us that Jesus would enter Jerusalem to preach and heal and save, despite his fate. Jesus would rather climb up on a cross and die to show us how loved we are by God than to save himself. Jesus, instead of choosing self-righteousness and abandonment and backing down, chose death to make this point. Jesus, instead of choosing anger and scorn at the tormenters in the crowd, instead said, “forgive them, father. They know not what they do.”
This is a story about God’s love.
This Holy Week, may we be brave and kind. May we remember how much we are beloved by God despite our tendency toward destruction and mob think. May we dare to speak our truth in public with vulnerability, and may we fight for the right for others to do the same. May we stand up for the vulnerable members of the body; they are to be cloaked in greater honor.
Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord. His steadfast love endures forever.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.