Who Is This?
Good morning, friends. Palm Sunday – it’s a wonderful day – beautiful out today, to be sure – and a celebration that begins our holiest of weeks. For Christians, this morning’s story is well known – and for those of you who are less familiar, this story marks the beginning of Holy Week – the week of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Around the world this morning, churches are reading this same text and waving palms in the air, shouting ‘Hosanna!’
On beautiful, celebratory days like today, we can picture ourselves at that first parade celebrating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem – standing along the road, the weather warm enough to shed our coats and lay them on the road, waving palm branches like one might wave a rainbow banner at a Pride parade or the American flag on the Fourth of July, and we imagine ourselves laying those palms on the ground before Jesus as he enters the city on the donkey and the colt.
There’s another part of this story that may resonate with us too. ‘The whole city was in turmoil.’ Beyond the cheering crowds, beyond the celebrations of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil – Yet steadily, and intentionally, Jesus entered in. He saw the potential to love the world ahead. He did not look behind or for a way out. He entered this city in turmoil – Jerusalem, under the imperial rule of the Roman Empire, where the privileged remained privileged and the poor remained abused. Under the rule of the imperial theology, the Jews practiced their faith with the backdrop of the imperial faith dictating that the Roman Emperor was the son of God and was to be worshipped – different from the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob. And Jesus entered in.
In our lesson this morning, we hear the voices of two different crowds – one crowd who knew Jesus and one who did not. One crowd eagerly anticipating Jesus’s arrival into their city gates and one crowd representing the established power of the Roman Empire. Or to frame it in a slightly different way, there were two parades happening on that day – one that is articulated in our Gospel lesson and one of the Roman imperial authority. Jesus riding on a donkey and a colt coming through the east gate and Pilate, the Roman governor of the region, along with an entourage of cavalry of horses and soldiers, drums and banners of the Empire, entering from the west.
You see, for the most part, Pilate ruled from a city sixty miles west of Jerusalem called Caesarea Maritima, or “Caesarea by the Sea’– and for the major Jewish festivals, Pilate, like his predecessors, would go to Jerusalem for the duration of the festival. Mind you, this was not to participate in the festival, but to remind the people of the imperial power under which they were celebrating.
Now, Jesus, on the other hand, had a different processional through the east gate. This processional was deliberate and meaningful, not unlike the Roman processional. However, the intention was not simply to be the opposite of the Roman processional – it was not to overthrow the government, or to be the not-Pilate option – it was to show the love God has for God’s people, it was to infuse the culture and usher in a peaceful way of being. He instructed his disciples to go and get the donkey and the colt and bring them to him. Using the language of the Jewish Bible, the prophesy of Zechariah articulates that the king would come on a donkey and a colt. Matthew quotes Zechariah directly, therefore indicating to the Jews the kind of a king Jesus will be, the kind of king this man riding in on the donkey and the colt will be. Zechariah says that the king “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to all nations (9:10).” This king, riding on the donkey, will command peace – not war. This king, riding on a donkey will be different from the imperial procession entering the other gate. Pilates’ processional represents the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world – and in contrast, Jesus represents something entirely different. Jesus represents humility and peace, love for God and love for neighbor. And this contrast – between these two processionals, raises to the fore the turmoil in the city.
You see, it wasn’t the makings of a boxing match – Pilate the Governor and Jesus of Nazareth meeting in the middle from their corners to battle it out in 10 rounds. Nor is it a rumble of the two crowds meeting in the middle like West Side Story. No – It’s not a competition between these two processionals – it’s a presentation of different ways of life; a manifestation of the way things are and the way things will be; it’s a picture of how the presence of God incarnate makes a difference within the world. What Jesus represents, this new way of being, is freedom from hopelessness, freedom from power, and therefore, freedom from oppression.
It’s an entirely different approach – it’s a different way of being, what the processional of Jesus represents. The known way of life is the one where the empire rules and dictates the power structure we live by. In this structure, power is a mechanism to control, and wealth, we are told, is what makes people worthwhile. There are few on top and everyone’s role is to respect those who are and work to uphold them, all the while striving to be them. Neighbors are set against each other in pursuit of ‘a better life’ and being polite is valued more than practicing kindness and loving the world. Hopelessness is fostered in those without wealth or power – leaving all to believe that they’d rather live by these rules, because what else is possible? These are the rules and everyone knows how to live by them. These are the habits we have developed and repeat. But, for the people waving palms, for the ones shouting ‘Hosanna’, they believe there is another way because of the one who is riding the donkey and colt.
A couple of weeks ago, as you may know, I attended the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference in Chicago. It was the first conference of its kind and it was a great experience. Not only did it equip me with some practical tools for our ministry at Western, but it also inspired me to learn more. You see, the landscape of youth ministry looks different than it did when I was growing up – different from most of your experience’s too – and this is in part a result of what has been learned through the National Study of Youth and Religion, funded by Lilly Endowment. Under the direction of Dr. Christian Smith, at the University of Notre Dame, and Dr. Lisa Pearce, at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both professors of sociology, the study sought to research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of American youth, among other things. To do this, they surveyed over 3,000 American youth, over the course of 3 surveys – beginning when they were between the ages of 13 and 17 in 2003, again in 2005 and then again in 2008. Needless to say, these youth are now considered young adults in our congregations today, well, those who still attend. I won’t bore you with loads of details, but I do think it is important to share some highlights that are relevant to us as we ponder why the crowd in the city asked who was riding on the donkey and the colt.
One of the initial purposes of the study was to investigate what kinds of youth ministry programs were effective and what weren’t. The initial question was ‘why aren’t youth coming to church?’ However, one of the significant discoveries made in the survey doesn’t pertain as much to the programming offered to youth, but rather sheds light on the faith that is modeled by the adults in their lives. Meaning, what they discovered is that the faith embodied by the adults in the lives of the youth is found to have greater impact on youth spiritual formation than programming would provide – which encourages congregations not to wonder why the youth aren’t involved, but rather, this discovery invites congregations to examine the faith that is being modeled by the whole community and why it matters.
In a very brief summary, in reference to their findings when it comes to Christianity in particular, Smith and Denton, another one of the lead researchers, say this:
“We have come with some confidence to be believe that a significant part of Christianity in the US is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition…It is not so much that US Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself, or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith.”
This different religious faith that is colonizing Christianity is known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – it follows the belief that God generally is not needed except when a problem or hardship arises – but, a God does exist nonetheless. It is believed to be a nice thing to go to church, to remember to be nice to others, but the central goal is to be happy and feel good about oneself – and, as the study has found, it is most prevalent in the mainline Protestant traditions. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – this is a term that has been coined by Smith and Denton and it describes their impression of what is happening in the Christian Church in America. Kenda Creasy-Dean, in her book Almost Christian describes it like this:
“After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream’, churches have perfected a dicey co-dependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization.”
Now, this is a pretty condemning view of Christianity in America – and though I would like to outright deny these claims and say that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has no place in our church, I think we would be wiser to reflect on our lived faith and discern what it means to be in the crowd waving our palms, following Jesus. Not simply for the sake of our youth, but also for the sake of our ability to live out our faith as a community in the world – a world in turmoil that needs an infusion of love.
You see, for Christians, hopelessness is not an option. Turmoil is in the city – as a society, we have grown so accustom to injustice that we remain complicit in a system that imprisons the poor and oppresses the impoverished. As creatures of habit, we resist change – even change for the better. But for Christians, for the ones waving the palms, hopelessness is not an option – not even for those disciples following Jesus into Jerusalem. And that, dear friends, is a different way of being entirely. It means dwelling within the system not to perpetuate it, but to co-create, with God, the change that is necessary for all to live freely. It’s not avoiding change or fearing how others will perceive us. It’s co-creating a more just and joyful world. And, it’s a compelling way of being, isn’t it? On that day Jesus rode into Jerusalem, it was so compelling that others inquired about who it is that inspires this way of being. And, today, we have the opportunity to be among the processional that follows him.
Jesus didn’t spend his ministry being polite for the sake of not disrupting the norms – his ministry was radical love. It is this love that makes Christianity meaningful. Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers in the Temple because preying on the poor with high interest loans are not what God had in mind. He ate at the meal tables of people who were considered “undesirable company” and he spoke of banquets for the poor, not simply soup kitchens. He didn’t put a lot of stock in platitudes, he wouldn’t have much time for petty complaints without productive solutions, and he was abundantly clear that ordering life in a way that many suffer so that a few can triumph not only needed to change, but that change was possible. Jesus was not nice, for the sake of being nice. He loved – he loved all people and forgave liberally, building the foundations of relationships – he didn’t reserve his care until he believed it was earned. He started with love – and his love didn’t depend on whether or not it was reciprocated. Jesus showed that hopelessness is not needed any longer. And those who are among the crowd with palms live accordingly.
With change comes turmoil. The turmoil in Jerusalem did not dissuade Jesus from riding into Jerusalem as a king of peace. Nor can we allow fear of turmoil to prevent us from engaging in the work of Jesus by loving one other radically, valuing people over power. We, as Christians, know that hopelessness is not an option. Even when we journey to the depths of despair this Holy Week, hopelessness is not an option because our God’s steadfast love endures forever and it is to this unchanging presence we cling. When change is afoot – as traditions change, buildings shift, laws are altered and communities ebb and flow, hopelessness is not an option. In the face of injustice, in the harsh and often grueling work of loving the world, hopelessness is not an option because the one who enters the city atop a donkey and a colt has shown us how. Who is this? This is Jesus, of Nazareth in Galilee. And, we’re following him.