Delivered March 20, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Scriptures: Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Luke 19: 28-40
THIS is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
We gathered this past Wednesday in our parish hall for our “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” night with over 100 people, 20 of whom came from the Worcester Islamic Center. It was a beautiful event, amen? We broke bread together, we prayed together, we learned together.
I found myself on the verge of tears the whole time, and I realized that I wasn’t tearful because it was so moving, though it certainly was. I found myself on the verge of tears because I was scared, and I was angry that I was scared. Gathering in a room with a large group of people trying to create peace across difference has always been dangerous, especially now. And that makes me angry.
I am angry that our Muslim neighbors have to justify why they deserve the same human dignity that you and I do. I am angry that our neighbors have to constantly distance themselves from terrorists, as if Islam and terrorism are the same thing. I am angry that I feared disruption from people who may have had ill intent toward our guests. I am angry that our Muslim neighbors here in Central Massachusetts have faced discrimination, harassment at the grocery store and on the internet, defacement of property, violence. Especially Muslim women, who have to take classes in self-defense because they are targeted far more than men. I am angry that our Muslim brothers and sisters are over and over again told to leave this country, even though they are citizens, many born here. I am angry that a country founded on religious pluralism and religious freedom is not free.
And I’m ready to turn over some tables, which, if you are asking yourselves “what would Jesus do?” Don’t forget that’s one of the options.
This is a good week for fear and anger. And it is also a good week for hope. It is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. We will go through the suffering and the torture and the death of this week with Jesus at our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. You need to come to one or both of those, because the Christian story makes little sense, and has far less power, without them.
And next Sunday, after the violence and destruction and betrayal and scorn and spit and blood and nails of this week is over, LOVE WILL WIN. The stone will be rolled away, and God will rise victorious.
Likewise, after the violence and the hateful rhetoric against our brothers and sisters in this presidential election is over and the dust clears, the stone will be rolled away, God will still reign, and Love will win.
Today is Palm Sunday. We heard the story of the Palm Sunday procession from the Gospel of Luke already.
But there were actually two processions into the holy city of Jerusalem on Passover week.
Pontius Pilate also entered the city at the beginning of the week, in a procession from the west, described as being “draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor” (David Lyon Bartlett, Feasting on the Word). Pilate rode in with a professional, organized army to represent the watchful eye of the law. This processional was a display of might and power. It’s sole purpose to make sure Passover week in Jerusalem didn’t get out of hand.
This festival of Passover was a threat to the Roman authorities, after all. This was the week the Jewish people remembered God’s liberation with feasting and with story-telling, and when people get a literal taste of freedom, they can get out of hand. It 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. And so the first procession was one designed to show the military strength and the power of Caesar’s government. The procession came to intimidate those who gathered to witness Jesus’ arrival into the city.
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.
And from the East, came another procession. Jesus, a newly popular prophet (which means truth-teller), leads this one. 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. Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was. And it was a fulfillment.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him. They cried out Hosanna! Which means “I beg you to save!” In the procession were those in need of salvation: 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. All being led by the blessed king who comes in the name of the Lord.
And the multitude was standing up straight and shouting, perhaps some of them for the first time.
Because this was a group of misfits formerly on the margins, drawn into God’s ever-widening circle, shoulders back, faces to the sun. They were grateful and joyous to be counted again as worthy by this unlikely King Jesus. And so these people; this multitude; spread cloaks in the road, waved palms. Made the path straight and soft for his feet.
And 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 loudly singing and shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
As my friend and colleague, Reverend Claire Feingold Thoryn, says, “it was a pop-up parade of loud poor people who had the audacity to be happy, so you know someone was going to complain.”
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop. Tell them to be quiet. This is getting out of hand,” some Pharisees in the crowd said.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
Jesus knew that this merry band of followers was too loud; too dangerous. That he was a threat to the authorities by virtue of his audacious crowd; that his days were numbered. In fact, he knew he was entering the city in which he would meet his death just five days later. It was dangerous. Gathering with a large group of people trying to create peace across difference has always been dangerous, especially now. He was probably even fearful, and maybe angry. Maybe even on the verge of tears.
He rode in on that donkey anyway. Jesus had more important things to do there in Jerusalem than worry about his own death, or the volume of his followers’ cheering. He was going to that city to remember, and to taste God’s meal of freedom—our God whose steadfast love endures forever; our God who opens the gates of righteousness.
Let them be loud.
“If these were silent, the very stones would shout out.” He said.
It is Palm Sunday, and you and I need to be loud, too; we who have tasted God’s meal of freedom; we who seek to create earth as it is in heaven. There has been too much silence in the face of oppression at the hands of the powerful; at the expense of the weak.
It is time for the people of faith to be the voice for the voiceless.
I want to read a letter to you that Episcopal Church House of Bishops and the United Church of Christ leaders have signed onto:
On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.
In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.
Beloved, the spirit of reconciliation must prevail if we are to live up to our status as God’s own beloved. God’s people are crying: 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.”
On Wednesday night, we opened our doors. We rejected the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hope of others. We took a step toward respecting the dignity of every human being, and the common good of our community.
Our Worcester Islamic Center guests were brilliant, faithful, kind, funny, and inspiring. We were humbled by our neighbors’ willingness to teach us, and to share with us. This is what God’s world looks like—people eating at table, breaking bread together despite difference, growing in faith by looking into each other’s eyes, and recognizing God there.
In a time of deeply concerning rhetoric against our Muslim brothers and sisters, and our black brothers and sisters, and our Mexican brothers and sisters, and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and our immigrant brothers and sisters, we need to know one another. In a time of violence and hate, we need to love one another. In a time of disunity, we need to create unity.
We will unmask the lie that only might makes right. This may be Caesar’s week, but it is God’s world.
We sang this song together on Wednesday:
Weave, weave, weave us together, weave us together in unity and love.
We will ask our one eternal God to continue to weave us together in unity and love. We will have the audacity to be happy. Our voices will no longer be silent in the face of intimidation and hate. We will prick the ears of the authorities with our songs of unity; we will triumph over those who seek to divide us. In the spirit of Jesus, we will be LOUD with our insistence that love will win. We will get out of hand if it will loose the bonds of injustice. We will find our voices and use them on behalf of the voiceless.
If we were silent, the very stones would shout out, “peace, peace, peace.”
I will close with A Prayer for Palm Sunday by Roger Cowan
And so we come on our donkeys,
Some from Detroit and some from Tokyo and even a few from Seoul.
With horns blaring and brakes screeching,
We enter the city, the holy of holies.
We know what Caesar wants:
Testing ranges and new arenas while the homeless haunt church basements
And the poor shuffle in the streets.
But we march to a different drummer.
Not many rich, not many mighty.
A vagabond crew in a strange land,
Whose ways are not our ways
Nor thoughts our thoughts.
But let us be of good cheer.
Let the word go out.
The donkey is mightier than the missile,
And flowers have been known to split a rock.
This week moves inexorably toward Friday.
It is Caesar’s week.
But it is God’s world.
And so we take heart and rejoice.
This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
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.