A Palm Sunday Sermon
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on April 14, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Being a Christian should be far more dangerous than it is. I suspect that the church is dying in the West precisely because it is so safe.
I have a beloved congregant who shall remain nameless. He LOVES and supports our justice and outreach activities with his whole heart...and he always says that he just doesn’t want our congregation to end up on the 6:00 news. I know what he means.
But if the Church were Christian, it would probably end up on the 6:00 news all the time. I suspect he knows that deep down, and that’s why he worries. Especially with me at the helm.
If the Church were Christian, it would be worthy of its true leader, the One who rides into Jerusalem to foment a love revolution and gets killed in the process.
Revolution foments when people know their worth. Jesus is dangerous for that reason. What wondrous love is this, O my soul! Of course, this kind of riot doesn’t just end up on the six o’clock news on Palm Sunday (What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happening?)...it gets Jesus killed five days later.
So seriously, I know why my friend worries. Especially with Jesus at the helm.
“The reason I love church is because I know the rules,” Glennon Doyle says. “The rules are that everybody’s welcome and you are allowed to make mistakes, and that there is no shame.”
Those are the kind of rules that break all the other rules. Love overrules.
Unfortunately, too often the Christian church has made a business of shaming people for their sins instead of celebrating the potential and worth of God-imaged people.
Doyle was reading a Christian review of her first memoir, and she recalls it saying: “How is it that she can have so little shame about her abortion?”
Doyle said: “I get so confused by that because all of Christianity is based on the fact that we are forgiven. Forgiven for everything. That’s the beauty of it. I feel so bad for the people who come to Christianity and refuse to dance with grace….. It reminds me of going to a party and just standing against the wall and refusing to dance. And not only that, but refusing to let other people have a good time dancing. Don’t be mad at me because I’m shameless...Jesus told me to be shameless. And you know what? I’m a recovering drug addict, alcoholic and food addict. Grace is the only buzz I have left. And you will take it from my cold, dead hands.”
If the Church were Christian, it would be a dance party of shamelessness.
Palm Sunday sure was. The Palm Sunday partiers included multitudes: the religious outcasts and the inner circle, those on the margins, the lepers and the lame, the strangers, the aliens, the prostitutes, the homeless, the sick. Kind of a scrappy bunch of sinners and saints, hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women, the healed ones and the ones still in need of healing. You know, just like us. Just like our scrappy banged up band of sinners and saints here in this church dancing in the aisles.
After being stooped over with their shame for far too long, they were finally standing up straight, perhaps some of them for the first time.
They shouted “Hosanna! Grace is the only buzz I have left and you will take it from my cold, dead hands!”
They were anything but peaceful.
Jesus was born during a time of “peace,” but it came at the cost of heavy-handed oppression. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) existed only because Rome squashed all dissent. In Rome, the peace was kept with force and displays of intimidating military might.
Shane Claiborne says: “A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn't mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
The festival of Passover was a threat to the Roman authorities because freedom was a threat to their power.
This was the week the Jewish people remembered God’s liberation with feasting and with story-telling. When people get a literal taste of freedom, they can get out of hand.
This was the week the Jews celebrated their chosen-ness; their beloved-ness in the eyes of their God. And when people dare to remember they are beloved and worthy, THEY CAN GET OUT OF HAND.
This was the week that the Jews celebrated a God who led them out of slavery and bondage, and through the gates of freedom. And when people are reminded that they are still in chains and they were promised more, THEY CAN GET OUT OF HAND.
And they have a new leader now: Jesus, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The one who was consistently reminding the voiceless ones that they are worthy, and maybe not so powerless after all.
Yes, it was a dangerous week to be in Jerusalem. Insurrection was in the air, and this gleaming procession of imperial power—the long arm of the law--was prepared to do whatever it took to stop it.
Jesus was not to be deterred, and so he led his shameless followers in another kind of parade. There were no fancy saddles and horses and chariots for Jesus…just a donkey with some coats laid over it to ease his seat. This procession didn’t look at all like a kingly procession—there was no gleaming armor or guards or weapons.
But it was LOUD. It was the volume you might expect from a group of people once silenced; who have just found their voice.
They were singing and shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop. Tell them to be quiet. This is getting out of hand,” some Pharisees in the crowd said. They were standing up against the wall and refusing to dance with grace, and they didn’t want to let others have fun dancing either. It was too dangerous.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
When we were in Bible study on Wednesday night, one of the participants asked, “I wonder, what does this mean...that the very stones would shout out?”
One of the participants, one of our newest newbies, who was worried that her ideas were too radical for Bible study, suggested this:
“I think Jesus meant that if the crowd was made to be quiet, they’d start throwing rocks.”
I had never heard that interpretation before. This is why it is good to have have people who think they are too radical for Bible study in your Bible study.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. called a riot “the language of the unheard.” Riots don’t happen when people have enough food in their bellies. Revolutions aren’t needed when all people are free.
Early Saturday morning on June 28, 1969, police staged a raid at the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood. Unlike the many previous raids that had taken place at the Christopher Street establishment, this one inspired the bar's patrons to fight back. The Stonewall Riots, as the days-long protest became known, is credited as the spark that ignited the modern-day LGBTQ-rights movement.
The week following the protests, Village Voice writer Howard Smith described the "strange mood" when when police first ejected Stonewall’s patrons out onto the sidewalk under a full moon.
“Loud defiances mixed with skittish hilarity made for a more dangerous stage of protest; they were feeling their impunity,” Smith wrote. “This kind of crowd freaks easily.”
What had been a routine crackdown on an illegal bar took a turn when pennies and dimes started to whiz through the air and toward the police. The cops barricaded themselves into the bar, and then the gay mob outside the bar began to throw bricks and rocks toward the door and tried to break through the boarded up windows.
The first Gay Pride parade happened in New York City, one year later on June 28th, to commemorate the Stonewall riots...the day God imaged people dared to hope for freedom; and together proclaimed their own sacred worth. They marched into New York shouting “You will take grace from my cold, dead hands! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of LOVE! And love is love is love is love is love.”
The Pride parades that have happened every year since are Palm Sunday processionals: celebrations of Shamelessness.
The Church is slowly waking up to the fact that it is more Christian to show up at a Pride parade with signs that say “I’m sorry” than to protest one. Christian author Jen Hatmaker brought her husband, Brandon, and members of her church community to Austin Pride to give out "Free Mom Hugs, Free Dad Hugs, Free Grana Hugs and Free Pastor Hugs like it was our paying jobs.”
"Our arms were never empty. We 'happy hugged' a ton of folks, but dozens of times, I'd spot someone in the parade look our way, squint at our shirts and posters, and RACE into our arms. There were the dear hearts who said:
'I miss this.'
'My mom doesn't love me anymore.'
'My Dad hasn't spoken to me in three years.'
'Please just one more hug.'
You can only imagine what 'Pastor Hugs' did to folks. So we told them over and over that they were impossibly loved and needed and precious. And we hugged until our arms fell off. This is what we are doing, what we are here for."
This church is saving lives. LGBTQ teens are dying at alarming rates. If the Church were Christian, we would show up with free hugs instead of judgment and condemnation. God’s people all over the WORLD are shouting “Hosanna! I beg you to save!”
Barbara Brown Taylor says that “salvation is not something that happens at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead.”
And beloved, salvation doesn’t come from safety. If you want to bring about the revolutionary love of Jesus on this earth, don’t stand against the wall anymore. Don’t be safe.
Get LOUD. And don’t forget to dance.
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.