Sermon: A Church of Humanitarians?

Palm Sunday
Mark 11:1-11
Uncited/Unedited by J. Lavoy

Today, we are having a wonderful celebration. The choir has processed around the room, we’re all waving palm branches, as we think of California or Hawaii, we’re dancing in church, we’re singing joyful songs! It is no wonder why many in this congregation think of Palm Sunday as one of their favorite worship services of the year. I’m grateful to God, and to all of you, who have made our worship today possible.

Yet, from a preaching perspective, Palm Sunday has been made to be one of the most boring days of the church year. In the first place, Jesus intention – riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, in an act of subversive political theatre – is so crystal clear, that we clergy make every effort to muddy it up. Perhaps, feeling compelled to preach, we figure that we need to say something interesting, so we go rooting around for that one thing that, in 2000 years, no-one has noticed. Or, perhaps, in a more politicized context, we would prefer to avoid a conversation where Jesus is openly lampooning the Caesar, or any Roman bureaucrat who, in an effort to command respect, ride into their conquered cities with a legion of soldiers and horses. The more soldiers and horses, the more respect you supposedly deserve. Here, I want to ask, “How would Jesus ride into Ottawa, or Washington, or Brussels today?”, except I want to save that image for next year, in case I run out of ideas.

Actually, some churches, like the Lutherans and many United congregations, are even opting not to observe Palm Sunday. They recognize that very few people know the much more important stories that occur in between Palm Sunday and Easter, “including among others: 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.” Lutheran scholar Melinda Quivik continues “That’s a lot of treachery for one Sunday.”

And yet, we choose to observe Palm Sunday because it is part of our theology. We are a liturgical church, part of a liturgical denomination, which means that we take seriously every holy-day of the year, rather than just the ones we like. It means that there is a time for every purpose, under heaven. Before we can get to Easter, we must weep at Good Friday. Before Good Friday, we must eat and rest at the passover seder and quiet time in Gethsemane. Before the last supper and the time in prayer, we must witness Jesus’ subversion of the Temple, the whole impetus for Jesus’ arrest. And before Jesus’ time in the Temple, we must celebrate at his garish yet elegant arrival to Jerusalem.

I think, the verse of scripture that illustrates this best, is also my favorite verse from this week, Mark 11:11. After the whole stunt of going to get the young colt that had never been written, after assembling all of the crowds, after slowly processing into the city – an act of incredible courage, libel to get him killed on the spot – Mark says this: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

In other words, Jesus had a special panache for entrances. His entrance was a calculated attempt to draw attention to the political nature of his mission. He spent his day arriving, drawing attention to his mission, and, having arrived, looked around and said, “ok, lets go back to Bethany, back to where I came from, because I’m tired.”
We could be tempted to spiritualize Jesus entrance to Jerusalem by saying, “well, Jesus needed to be in Jerusalem in order to heal souls and chat with the other rabbis, so he needed to arrive somehow.” But this verse from Mark reminds us, the whole point of arriving, was to arrive.

It keeps us, the liturgical church, from becoming hypocrites.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was neither a practical act, or one loaded with self-preservation. As people, that is often our impulse: to seek the practical, and the self-preserving. Instead, today we’re remembering how Jesus intentionally drew attention to himself, the ire of those in political power, by making fun of their egos! “Hosanna! Save us, Ceasar! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is he who saves us from our enemies!”

This past week, I saw “The Book of Mormon”, which is a hugely outlandish musical written by the people who created South Park. The Book of Mormon is largely known for being disgusting. Every 10th word is vulgar, the themes are repulsive to modern sensibilities, and, I’m told, during each intermission, a percentage of the audience leaves due to their being offended.

And yet, this show, now three years old, is consistently sold out. On Broadway, there is nearly a year-long waiting list to see the show, and it ran for six or seven sold out performances here in Edmonton. I’m sure there are some who want to see it simply for its crass nature. And maybe, there are some who go expecting to find some deeper truth.

This reminds me of Palm Sunday. I’m sure there were some onlookers who played along with Jesus’ dog-and-baby-donkey show because they liked the grotesque spectacle of it all: look at this foolish peasant, with his ungodly send-up of the Roman and Jewish elite, surely going off to meet his doom. But then there were those, so disenfranchised by the state of Jerusalem, and the dominion of Rome, that they came out, perhaps cynically, to seek some deeper truth or meaning.

The Book of Mormon is about two young Mormon men, off to do their 2-year mission. The supposed protagonist, with his glimmery white teeth and charming demeanor, is the poster-child for Mormon missionaries. He is sent to Uganda, in order to whip a mission jurisdiction into shape. His “mission brother” is a bumbling fool who is consistently accused of adding fiction to the Book of Mormon. Meanwhile, in Uganda, they encounter a population that is ruled by a military dictator, where there is woefully inadequate healthcare, and where the people live in total fear. Posterboy missionary discovers that the practices he learned in missionary training simply aren’t working. In the first place, there are no doorbells to ring, in order to have a conversation about Mormonism. So, he sulks and wonders why bad things happen to good people – all he wanted to do was go on mission in Orlando. Meanwhile, the bumbling fool of a missionary discovers that what these Ugandans really need, is not some false hope from abstract scripture, but humanitarian care. So, after he makes up scripture that speaks to the Ugandans, they all convert to Mormonism, and have dreams of going to paradise – Salt Lake City. The climax of the play comes when posterboy missionary realizes that the mission isn’t about him, its about God, and that these desperate Ugandans don’t need abstract hope from people who don’t care about them; they need real hope, with real change. I won’t continue, so I don’t offer spoilers, but the play has so much heart, and it got me thinking about Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

If Jesus wanted to be an effective rabbi by his church’s and culture’s standards, in the first place, he wouldn’t have been born in poverty. He would have been born to a middle class profession, like to a merchant or rabbi, and he would have taught in the synagogues. That way, he could do no harm. He might say some occasional radical things, but, for the most part, he would offer comfort to people who came to seek his guidance, and he would have encouraged them to keep-on-keeping-on, most likely by citing scripture.

But Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is not concerned with self preservation. He is not interested in appeasing cultural norms. Jesus’ concern is to usher in the Kingdom of God, which is not just a spiritual place that people aspire to, but is meant to be a real, visceral place, here in time and space. Jesus cannot bring about real, meaningful change, unless he is willing to take real, meaningful steps – like the real, non-violent subversion of the Empire.

The Book of Mormon helped me to realize something profound about our church, and our history as missionaries. People often refer to the Moravian Church as being a profound creative force for good in the world, singlehandedly sending hundreds of creative missionaries around the world, in the 18th century. When younger religious thinkers of our day imagine a church of the future, they often point to our past, as being hallmark examples of “the missional church”.

And there can be no disputing that our ancestors were creative forces for good. I know that a running joke around here is that there are very few “real Moravians”, typically only the pastors. But let me assure you, that these creative and redemptive people are just as much your heritage as mine. Ancestry is not just by blood, but by heart. If you have a heart for God’s creative and redemptive power, then you can be Moravian.

And what I realized about our ancestor missionaries, is that their success in relating to people was not in communicating one culture to another, but in listening to the actual needs of people, and doing something about it. Where I, and most in this room, would be totally aghast at the premise of entering into slavery, those white, 18th century Moravians would sometimes sell themselves into slavery, in order to accompany slaves on their own spiritual journeys. Where I, and most in this room, obey the orders of police and military officers, those 18th century Moravians would illegally harbor aboriginal people from militia forces, and then, instead of surrendering, would allow themselves to be massacred along with the first nations people.

Normally, this is the point where I would say, “but I’m not asking you to be a maniac, allowing yourself to be harmed.” And, youre right, I’m not asking you to do that. But I am saying this: I admire the courage and self-sacrifice of those missionaries, who were often abused and sometimes died for other people, with whom they had no blood relation, but with whom they were kindred through God. I hope that one day soon, I might be as courageous, and willing to take a leap of faith, when presented with the task of standing up for another.

Those 18th century Moravians, our ancestors, were such creative and redemptive forces because they were willing to take serious, self-sacrificing risks, for the sake of their sisters and brothers of all races, social classes, and religions. They were radical humanitarians, animated by God.

So, if presented with the task of riding into Jerusalem on a colt, wearing a Palestinian scarf, lampooning Benjamin Netanyaho, I would probably say no. I don’t like to offend people, and I also want to live. But Jesus might. And Jesus might likewise ride into the West Bank with an AK-47, and use it as a shovel, to plant a community garden. I don’t know if I want to do that, either. But I want to. What if we were to follow Jesus lead into the Jerusalems of our time, and be a church of humanitarians?