A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday
Sermons are better seen.
People in power get nervous when hopeless people start hoping.
Many folks from First Church were marching for our lives yesterday in Worcester and in Boston. I was in Worcester with thousands of protestors there. The entire rally was led by the kids from start to finish: student after student from our area high schools, mostly students of color. Their speeches were impassioned and personal. Many of them had lost family members and friends to gun violence. They were powerful, smart, charismatic and determined. I have been to many rallies in my day, and these were the best speakers I have ever heard.
And then I went home and watched more on line because I couldn’t stop watching these kids.
Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida spoke for her friends lost in DC. She said: "Six minutes and twenty seconds with an AR-15 and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kira, 'Miss Sunshine.' Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan. Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp. Helena Ramsey would never hang out after school with Max. Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch. Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never. Cara Loughran would never. Chris Hixon would never. Luke Hoyer would never. Martin Duque Anguiano would never. Peter Wang would never. Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never. Meadow Pollack would never.”
She then stopped speaking and stared into the crowd.
There’s a hymn that goes: “Let mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.” Emma stood there, holding a crowd of hundreds of thousands, on national TV, all of America, in silence for several long minutes breathing, and silently weeping. It was one of the bravest leadership moments I have ever seen.
She ended the silence with, "Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and twenty seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your life before it’s somebody else’s job.”
And she left the stage.
I haven’t cried as much in a year as I did yesterday. I realized that what I felt was a strange sensation I haven’t felt for a long time: hope. Hope in our children and in our future. Hope that we can stop talking past each other long enough to hold silence for the lives we have lost; for all that we have lost.
On Wednesday night, the aptly named Awakening of Hope class Megan and I are leading learned about an unlikely friendship in the pre-segregated south between an African American woman activist named Ann Atwater and the head of the Klu Klux Klan, CP Ellis in Durham, North Carolina. Neither activist wanted to desegregate the schools at first, so they fought one another in town meetings—they hurled dehumanizing racial epitaphs at each other.
And then, a miracle happened: They listened to their children, who told them they wanted to go to school together. They realized then that they were fighting about the wrong things…that the schools themselves would never get better unless they worked together to improve them. They put down their weaponized words, cried together, and joined forces to head the committee to desegregate the schools in their community. C.P. left the Klan and became a Christian. And together they founded the organization “Save Our Schools” in an effort to fund a better education for their poorest children in their community. A book was written about them called “The Best of Enemies.”
When the hopeless start hoping… empirical forces fear what has been true all along: the people united in God can never be defeated.
Today is Palm Sunday. The day the hopeless came together and started hoping.
On the day of the festival, the people heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, so they ran out to meet him waving palms. In John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus just “finds” a young donkey for his triumphant entry, (maybe somewhere at a humble and unassuming, not-to -be-named farm in Sterling, Massachusetts) and sits on it.
The people shouted “Hosanna!” which means “I beg you to save!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” They shout.
They herald him as a King.
But his glorious entry into Jerusalem is not what typically could be called “royal.” Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was.
And for a moment in time before the gruesome days to come, he gave the hopeless reason to hope.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him.
In the procession were all 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. The children and the teenagers. The hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women.
In the procession were the people living with AIDS, the people without health insurance, the unemployed, the recently laid off, the middle management corporate shills. The people who had waited on line for their welfare check, at the DMV, or out the door of the food kitchen that morning. The people who have been gaybashed and deported and shot at in their schools or on the streets of Chicago. The black women who are scared for their sons when they walk to the grocery store in a hoodie, the blue collar workers, the MAGA red cap wearers, the coal miners, the crossdressers, the opioid addicted, the divorced, the widowed, the cancer patients, the grieving, the rape survivors, the people who grew up in a place so saturated by toxic waste that they had no choice but to get leukemia. The people who traveled to be there from places like Flint, Michigan and Camden, NJ and war-torn Syria and Iraq. The refugees, the asylum-seekers, the illegal immigrants.
The hopeless hopers. “Hosanna! I beg you to save!”
“You see, you can do nothing. The Whole World has gone after him,” the religious authorities muttered to each other as they watched the Jesus parade. They were scared.
All the rules were being broken by this man who threatened the power structures with his Love of the world as it was. All the rules were being broken by an unlikely King who didn’t even fear his own death by execution because he came in the name of the Lord.
It truly was a great celebration, a pop-up merry band. And in hindsight it just looks shameful. Because this same crowd will spit on Jesus, jeer at him, mock him, and laugh at him while he’s crucified by the Roman authorities just days later.
But for this one blessed moment, the crowd is convinced they have a place and a voice and a God to champion their cause. They believe at least for a day that because he lives—that their lives matter. That Love can truly be the Law of the Land.
Jesus’ kingly celebration was created as a piece of street theater. We don’t always think of Him this way, but Jesus was a satirist like John Stewart, or the Onion, or the writers of Saturday Night Live, (like our own Emma Clark). The world will be saved by the comedians, for they show us with laughter that the emperor has no clothes.
Jesus’ street theater parade was as fearless as it was funny. He knew he was going to die as he rode into town. He rode into town anyway to thumb his nose at the authorities; to show them that God has the power, not weapons of mass destruction. And he set up this pop-up “march for our lives” to mock the military parade that was happening at the same time, on the other side of town.
The military parade was an expensive show of power. There were big horses and chariots and weapons and gleaming armor. The Romans paraded through the city, passing the crucified bodies of political dissidents hanging from crosses as they went. “Don’t try to cross us, or you’ll be next” was the message they sent with their expensive show of military might meant to wow and silence a crowd.
Jesus laughed at them. And his followers shouted with joy. “Hosanna! Blessed are we who come in the name of the Lord!”
“You see, you can do nothing. The Whole World has gone after him.”
I’m sure the Roman authorities had the same thought.
And so it’s no wonder they killed him. When the whole world goes after God, empire quakes in its boots. When people see themselves in one another’s eyes, when they dare to hope, when they understand the whole world to be God’s, and not the government’s or the king’s or the president’s, that’s a dangerous thing.
The people start to see their opponents as friends. They start to realize that people in power want us to be divided so that we the people remain powerless. When we see one another as God sees us we might realize that the people united can’t be defeated because GOD CAN’T BE DEFEATED.
When people see each other the way God sees us, our differences start to melt away.
The cop and the unarmed black man know that they are one
The white minimum wage cashier at Walmart and the Mexican immigrant laborer picking in the fields know that they are one
The idealistic teenager and the cynical adults criticizing them in the internet comment sections know that they are one
The Conservative Republican and the Liberal Democrat know that they are one
The gun control activist and the second amendment activist know that they are one
The small town coal miner and the city-dwelling Marxist know that they are one
The gay asylum-seeker from Jamaica and the rural white farmer know that they are one
The uninsured and the unemployed know that they are one
The Muslim and the Christian and the atheist and the Buddhist know that they are one…
That’s dangerous stuff. Because when the people know they are one, they stop following the rules of religious orthodoxy and empire, and start enacting God’s law of love instead…TOGETHER. They start fighting together for the children—for their lives and their quality of life. They start creating communities together that topple the mighty, that lift up the lowly.
When we stop following the rules in order to follow Jesus, the whole world is turned upside down. Which is exactly what God’s dream for the world is.
This week, we will follow Jesus through the betrayal, the trial, the denial, the suffering, the crucifixion, the death, and the long dark night of the soul; the utter hopelessness that follows this day of hope. And then on Sunday, April Fool’s Easter, Love will rise, victorious. God will have the last laugh.
So as we prepare to walk united around our little town here in Sterling…as we prepare to walk with our donkey in our own street theater parade of hope in the Palm Sunday promenade….remember this:
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other.
This may be Caesar’s week, but this is God’s world. The power of Love will overcome the Love of power, and we will rise.
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.