Hearing What We Like – A Palm Sunday Sermon

Title: “Hearing What We Like”
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
Delivered: Calvary Moravian Church, Allentown; April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday is one of those days that make me hungry for a good conspiracy theory. By now, surely you are aware that I do a lot of political thinking – that was my bachelors degree, after all – and I know that sometimes frustrates some dear ones here in the congregation, for whom its difficult to mix spirituality with politics – I’m really a terrible dinner party guest, because my two favorite things to talk about are religion and politics – but I believe that Palm Sunday is a day that politics and religion are very much intertwined.

The people who gathered to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem were peasants: most were poor, some were sick, a few were brothel-workers, there was more than one bankrupt farmer, there were surely some widows and orphans, among the many other types of “least of these” – and they were excited for a savior. They were victims of the Roman Empire. They did not want to welcome a purple robed Emperor, or Soldier – they wanted someone who was keenly interested in their salvation.

They welcomed this so-called prophet Jesus into Jerusalem with palm branches. Now, palm branches seem inconsequential, but 200 years prior, according to 1 Maccabees, after the Jewish people had defeated the Greek empire that controlled them (this is kind of what Hannukah is about), they cleansed Jerusalem and the Temple by waving palm branches and singing songs. With their palm branches, they recognized that Jerusalem and the Temple were a holy place. So, waving palm branches is kind of like a victory flag, or a symbol of resistance.

Fast forward 200 years to Rome, where, In an Empire, only people who can contribute to the growth and stability of the Empire are valued. For example, the wealthy, who can bankroll wars of expansion. Or soldiers, who are willing to fight and die for Caesar. Or tax collectors, who funnel money back to Rome. And let me not forget the priestly class, those clergy who keep people in good, moral conformity to the needs of the Empire.

But that, of course, means that the people who are not valuable to the Empire – for example, the poor, the bankrupt farmers, the widows, the orphans, etc. – they have no real place in the Empire. They are a drag on the system. They are burdens.

For some, the Empire was a source of Life. For many, the Empire was a source of Death.

So here’s my conspiracy theory. I’m thinking about Parades. Parades are political theater. Parades are things that rally Empires together – typically a show of military strength. In your head, you might be imagining a charming town parade on Memorial Day or Veterans Day, with fire trucks, and marching bands, and, having lived in Bethlehem for 6 years, people in kilts. But that is not what I’m talking about. I’m imagining the Eberstrasze in Berlin – on 1 end, the Brandenberg Gate, and on the other end, the Potsdamer Platz, which was, just 25 years ago, the center of the Berlin Wall. Now, I remember standing on the Eberstraze, and learning that, during the first world war, Germany intentionally widened this street, near the political center of Germany, so that they could host enormous military parades. Enormous parades of soldiers, marching in perfect time, with weapons like canons and tanks, and then, of course, cars full of dignitary-celebrities, like Generals and Political Leaders. Can you imagine it in your head? Think of the German propaganda films from world war 2.

These are the kinds of parades the Romans had. When they would conquer a new city, they would parade with their soldiers and centurions, and in some cases, with the Caesar himself. Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans, and was now an outpost of the Empire. It wasn’t particularly important for the Romans – it was relatively poor compared to other places, but it was obedient. Can you imagine the Pharisees on Good Friday, without any sense of irony saying, “We have no king but Caesar!”

This is the point of Parades. On a fundamental level, they intimidate, they inspire fear, and yet, they inspire a sense of strength and confidence.

But Jesus doesn’t conquer with intimidation and fear. Jesus doesn’t even rely on confidence to inspire his subjects, because crucifixion isn’t really a thing you expect to happen to leaders… and resurrection is something that many, including some Christians in this room, including me, at times, have a difficult time expecting.

Jesus doesn’t even have the kind of people you’d want at a parade, at his parade. He literally came into town on a baby donkey, not a stallion or chariot; he had no military, no swords, no spears – and if he did, they’d be plowshares and pruning hooks; he didn’t even get dressed up for the occasion: he wore no purple or armor, but his homemade tunic. And here, these people who were useless to the Empire were inspired with faith, hope, and love by Jesus’ parade. They shouted “hosana!” which could either mean “hooray!” or “save us!”

About 150 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there lived a man named Tertullian. This is still before the institutional church was formed, but Tertullian was a theological leader, and he had many followers. He wrote that:
We are charged with being irreligious people and, what is more, irreligious in respect to the emperors since we refuse to pay religious homage to their imperial majesties and to their genius and refuse to swear by them. High treason is a crime of offense against the Roman religion. It is a crime of open irreligion, a raising of the hand to injure the deity…Christians are considered to be enemies of the State…we do not celebrate the festivals of the Caesars. Guards and informers bring up accusations against the Christians…we are charged with sacrilege and high treason…we give testimony to the truth.

Jesus calls us to something very different than how the world wants us. The world wants us to obey, and pay taxes. Jesus wants us to live – to be creative, redemptive, and holy forces in the world.

What Jesus was doing, did, and still does, is fundamentally incredible. Jesus pulls us out of the hell of self loathing, and defeat. Jesus pulls entire systems out of the hellish ways of living that lead us to destroy the planet, and our universe. Jesus takes the systematic dehumanization of people, nails it to a cross, and resurrects it as reconciliation.

But we are not listening, because we hear only what we expect to hear. At some fundamental level, I think we all hope that the senate, congress, president; the pentagon, bankers, and lobbyists, will all have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment, and will somehow start getting along. That’s what we expect. And I believe that there are many people of Good Faith in Washington and I do believe that their efforts to work for justice and wholeness are good and pleasing to God. But I think that if Jesus had any desire to go and repair the dehumanizing state of our government, he wouldn’t ride in on some elaborate motorcade. He would probably ride in on a unicycle.

And, like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, only the people who were in on the joke would understand it.

We say, “Jesus, why do you let bad things happen in the world?” We say, “Jesus, what is wrong with me?” …What is it that we expect to hear?

For too long, we have been listening to the Pharisees, instead of Jesus. For too long, we have let the world dictate the terms of our lives to us, instead of God.

How can we be creative, redemptive, and holy people, when we believe what the world has told us: that we are interchangeable, part of a system, and only valuable when we can make money? Why do we expect the so called terrorists and criminals of the world to be creative, redemptive, and holy people, when they have been systematically beat up by the world?

I regret that everyday, I feel like a Pharisee, instead of one of those people who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. I often listen with Pharisaeic ears. The other day, I was listening to b104 with my Pharisaic Ears, and when Eminem came on the radio, I thought, “O Lord, here we go again…” Then, something caught my ear. The lyrics All the pain inside amplified by the fact
That I can’t get by with my 9 to 5 / And I can’t provide the right type of life for my family
Cause man, these food stamps don’t buy diapers
And it’s no movie this is my life /And these times are so hard, and it’s getting even harder
Eminem has some serious anger issues that stem from trauma in his earlier life, but his lyrics ring true, I’m sure, to thousands of young men and a few women across the country, who are victims of the Empire. Eminem, of course, grew up in the desolation of Detroit, after the collapse of the auto-industry there. Of course, he’s found a music career; but what of the many young men and women who know that they can’t provide for their families – whatever those families look like?

With my Pharisee ears, his music may sound like angry nonsense. I might see him as a troubled man who needs psychiatric help, but that would be the end of it. Who do we Pharisee out others’ humanness, because they don’t sound like what we expect them to? Because they don’t look like we expect them to? Because they don’t act like we expect them to?

Would we rather call Eminem our brother, or send him away for punishment? I know it sounds silly, but Eminem might have been at the gate of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus. I wonder if I would have been inside, nervous about his arrival, and alerting my colleagues that the strange traveling preacher had arrived.

What is it that we expect to hear – in church?

I am very grateful that we are all together on Palm Sunday. I am sure that we will see each other again on Easter. I am grateful that Palm Sunday and Easter are important components of our spiritual life. But the work of Christ happens in between these days, and I’m worried that we’re ignoring it.

We Moravians have this beautiful tradition called “Holy Week Readings”. Our Holy Week book takes the four accounts of Jesus’ last week, including his death and burial – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and organizes them. We sing appropriate hymns in between the scripture.

You might think, “golly that sounds boring”. It isn’t. We hear many depictions of normal life, including: betrayal, meal preparation, distress over the presence of evil even at a table of friends, deception revealed, boasting, failure to help someone in need, using a kiss to signal its opposite meaning, physical hurt, desertion, an arrest, deviousness, abuse of a beloved teacher, denial of friendship, bitter self-contempt, repentance, suicide, confusion on the part of a political leader, receipt of a prophetic dream, mocking a vulnerable and abused person, murder, and attempting to keep a lid on the zeal of Jesus’ followers.

Maybe we expect to hear something bland and dated. But if that’s the case, we aren’t listening with our Christian hearts. The language might be old; heck, even the format might be old – but the content is always fresh, if you’re willing to hear the whole truth.

With all the hubris of an assistant pastor, I am willing to get on my knees and beg that you will participate in these Holy Week Readings, which will be every night this week. On Thursday, there will be a service of Holy Communion. On Good Friday, the confirmands will read about Jesus’ crucifixion at 2:15, and Dena Zosky is organizing a Tenebrae service for 7:30 PM.

I will also say that we will be streaming the services online, on our website.

My prayer is that you will hear God – a full, abundant, active God – and that your expectations will be moved by these dusty old books.