Palm Sunday 2016
Duke Memorial UMC
It’s a tense time. There’s mistrust between the government and the people. The political system that always seems on the tip of disaster is fraying at the edges. It’s the time of year when these things happen. But something feels different this time around. People are angrier. The country seems to be erupting in violence and rage.
It’s that time of year. I’m not talking about election season in the United States of America, but Passover in Jerusalem.
Passover was always a tense time in Israel. It reminded the people of revolution, of the time when God saved Israel, brought them out of the land of their oppressors in Egypt. Could God do it again? Could this be the year? Could everything change, the people taking back the city from Rome? The people rising up? Could this be the year, the year of God’s favor?
And on this particular year, during this tense season, this season of watching and waiting, two parades take place.
If you’d been there you would have seen him, riding in from the West. Herod on his warhorse leads a charge of imperial guards into the occupied city. The people make the way wide. There are soldiers and a cavalry. Purple robes and a crown. Herod the Great, the Kind of Judea. His bodyguard numbers 2000. He is a tyrant known for his ability to sniff out and crush the rebellions of the people.
If you’d been there you would have seen him, riding in from the East. On a colt borrowed for this little parade. This little horse totters down the steep grade of the Mount of Olives, a ragged band of unemployed fishermen turned beggars beside him. As he reaches the city a band of the poor greet him, spread out there dirty laundry and shout “Hosanna to the King!”
If you’d been there you would have seen them. And you might have laughed. Because there’s something absurd about what is taking place here on Palm Sunday, a kind of street theater carefully placed during the Passover, here after the procession of Caesar, here before the looming Cross, here in politically contested Jerusalem. It’s all here – the costumes and the props, the stage and the script.
What kind of king is this? This doesn’t look like the hundreds of rebellions that sprang up and died out just as quickly, quashed by the power of Rome. Jesus’ ragged procession mocks the costly gold and silk of the Empire with narrow streets lined with the tattered coats of peasants. Jesus doesn’t offer an alternative to Caesar, king for king, lord for lord, another hand off of Roman power in a long succession of brutality.
In this political satire Jesus reveals the uncertainty of Rome’s power. Jesus demonstrates that coercive power, the power that maintains order and control, the power of domination, the power of rich over poor, of the occupier over the occupied – Jesus reveals their fragility.
The Wednesday women’s group is reading a book by Lauren Winner called Wearing God, and in it she tells this story about a Ku Klux Klan rally. When it was announced that the rally would take place in their hometown, the citizens of Charlotte, North Carolina were rightly horrified. They had two options. One was to take on the KKK with all seriousness, to launch a counter protest, to mirror back the weightiness of the Klan. Instead they chose a different direction.
As the Klan took to the streets, forming lines of white hooded men, people began to emerge from their homes. Every one of them was dressed like a clown. The laughed and juggled, blew horns, and danced. The absurdity of racism and hate met with the absurdity of clowns. When the Klan chanted “white power” the clowns responded with cheers of “white flour” or “wife power.” The clowns joined the parade. By the middle of the march there were five clowns for every member of the Klan. The rally dispersed.
The group that organized this counter protest wrote something called the Clown Manifesto that perfectly sums up the possibilities of satire: “Nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule.”
In the Palm Sunday procession, in the Clown Manifesto we begin to see that the way coercive power fortifies and exerts itself is by making us believe it is inevitable. Palm Sunday reminds us not to take tyrannical power seriously.
A few weeks ago I saw some pictures that were taken at an action planned by a group of young people in our community. This was a group that is working with Durham CAN, the community organizing group to which our church belongs. These young people wanted to organize around the deficit of counselors in their high schools. They staged a public action to show the city and the school board that the numbers of counselors currently employed is below the recommended average, that young people are slipping through the cracks in college admissions, ACT prep, and career guidance.
I suppose these young people could have made signs that said something like “we demand more counselors.” Instead they didn’t something amazing. They gave out report cards. Standing outside, these students held up large cardboard reports. They listed the recommended teacher to counselor ratio and then gave a grade. Durham School of the Arts received a B. Southern High School earned a letter grade of D, while Northern and Jordan received a C.
As we know, this isn’t the way things usually go. Students don’t give grades. They receive them. They don’t make demands. They are told what to do. When I saw these pictures something about the way I think about power shifted.
A month later two of these same students climbed up a set of stairs and stood at the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church. These incredible young women talked about what their schools needed, their experiences with school counselors, how students continue to struggle without guidance. Then they called forward the candidates running for the five open seats for county commissioner. These ten or so candidates stood on the floor, the two teenage women towering above them. The young women looked down, as the candidates craned their necks to see them, and asked each a set of questions. Would they redirect under utilized funding towards the goal of getting more counselors into school? Please answer with a simple yes or no.
As we know, this isn’t the way things usually go. Students sit in assemblies and classrooms while adults tell them what to do. They don’t put questions to their elected officials. They don’t hold them accountable. They don’t set agendas for city money. At the Durham CAN assembly last Sunday the room was electric. My eyes were filled with tears. Something about the way we thought about power shifted.
When I think about Easter I usually think about upending power, of turning power on its head. Palm Sunday Jesus, riding a colt, giving no power to the procession of Caesar offers us another way to understand the journey to the cross and into resurrection. Jesus helps us see that power is negotiable, fragile, transferable, and available. We see how we continue to be distracted by those who want to rule through violence, through the rhetoric of force. We learn that the power of Rome is a construct, and that it isn’t the way things will always be. On Palm Sunday we don’t have to buy what Rome is selling anymore.
And on Palm Sunday we learn that Jesus doesn’t give us a grand theory of power. Jesus doesn’t tell us what political party to align ourselves with. Jesus doesn’t run for President. Instead, the God of creation, the one who knit together the earth at its founding, reveals to us what has always been – that there is no power outside of God’s love and God’s justice.
This power is always changing, always taking new forms, always surprising us, always showing up in people and events and places that we least expect. In Palm Sunday we discover that the power of God isn’t a toppling or an overturning – it’s a revelation, God revealing to us that God’s power has always been disruptive and elusive, is always slipping out of the grasp of tyrants and kings.
That moment at the CAN Assembly last Sunday, it’s the same kind of thing happening in Palm Sunday, the same kind of reorienting of power to the places we do not expect. Today, I find myself in the midst of those crowds in Jerusalem, looking at Herod passing by. I can feel the rage in some, the revolution in their silence. In others I can hear their longing and their hunger, the ways they have been broken time and again.
I hear it today. I heard it here on our front lawn this past week as young people from Black Lives Matter brought their demands for lives free from fear and violence. I heard it again a few days ago when children and adults from around Durham gathered in the same place, right here in front of our church, to protest the impending deportation of Riverside high school senior, Wildin Acosta. Could this be the year? The year of God’s favor.
And then I see Jesus pass by. He doesn’t seem that interested in the Empire. He doesn’t want to be king.
Then I see Jesus, not looking to replace one tyrant, one king with another.
Then I see Jesus. I see power slipping, making a new way, interrupting, asking new questions, seeing with new eyes.
If we want to see it we have to look in unexpected place for these moments happening around us. We have to look at children and beggars, at high schoolers giving out report cards, at protests on the church lawn, at clowns in the street. If we want to be a part of it we have to pay attention.
The answer is always yes. Yes, this is the year of God’s favor, God among us. Hosanna in the highest.