The original flashmob, and one of the greatest music video of all time.
I have a soft spot in my heart for flash mobs. I’m guessing you’ve seen these before, whether it’s the iconic Fatboy Slim music video or the Copenhagen Symphony erupting into Ravel on a Danish subway platform. There’s a crowd of people, going about their daily life, and suddenly they hear music. Around them a few people start to sing, or dance, play instruments. More join in. The crowds begin to realize that they’re in the middle or a production, an unintentioned audience member.
Public space has been converted into theater, making you rethink the space, what it means to be there, how your body belongs or doesn’t belong.
I have wondered if my natural draw towards flash mobs has anything do with my Christian formation, in particular this story we head today, on Palm Sunday. I’m a little sad that flash mobs have faded in prominence, but I’ve always loved that idea of walking around in your everyday life and discovering that, quite by accident, you are in the middle of a Tchaikovsky ballet while attempting to buy sheets at Macy’s. That’s the sort of thing that happens on Palm Sunday.
Today’s Gospel is street theater, a dangerous, anti-Empire play hosted in the political hotbed of Jerusalem. Passover was a tense time in Jerusalem. It harkened back to the time when Moses led the people from Egypt and slavery. It was a time when uprising was brewing in the air. And it carried the painful memories of those many attempts at freedom from Rome that had been decimated by the power of Roman military machine.
The oppression of Rome is the way it seemed it always had been. On any day, Pilate could enter the gates of Jerusalem on a war horse, 2000 guards by his side, head to toe in armor, carrying a sword. He sign, a symbol of brutality and misery.
But then we see Jesus. Jesus enters through the back gates, stumbling down the craggy hills of the Mount of Olives. He’s riding a mother donkey, the donkey’s nursing baby colt by her side.
If you’d been there you might have laughed, caught up in this ironic, upside down moment of Rome’s mockery. You might have pulled out your dirty laundry and thrown it in front of the sword-less Jesus, pulled branches down before him. Because there’s something absurd about what is taking place here on Palm Sunday, street theater carefully placed during the Passover, here after the procession of Pilate, here before the looming Cross, here in politically contested Jerusalem.
It’s a play about contrasts, about authority, and how that authority will play itself out in the politics of the day. There is no animal more in contrast with a warhorse, more at odds with the militarism of Pilate’s procession than this mother donkey, pausing every once in a while to let her baby, her colt drink. There is no scene more striking in its difference than this Jesus, unarmed, entering the city by stealth.
This is often where the story ends in our reading of Palm Sunday, but today I want to push us a little further down the road, to the next stop along the way in Matthew’s Gospel. The procession winds its way into Jerusalem, to the heart of things. We don’t want to forget that the destination of this pilgrimage, the direction that this mama and baby donkey are going is directly to the Temple.
And there this scene of meekness and mildness melts away. A switch is flipped. Jesus begins to flip over tables. The money-changers. The dove vendors. It’s a riot, a looting, destruction of property. He drives them out. He screams, “you have made this house of prayer a den of robbers.” And then the children start to shout. “Save us! Hosanna!”
To the horror of the religious leaders, rather than correct the voices of children shouting Hosanna, Jesus lifts them up as a model, quotes Psalm 8.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
This may answer the question for us: why is it the children shouting “Hosanna in the highest” caused such ire in the religious leaders? Why would the shouts of children result in such fury?
The presence of children undoes the seriousness of the scene; it continues the mockery, now turning it from Rome to the religious leaders of Temple. The presence of children is a truthful word from those who cannot take the Empire seriously but who also refuse to bend a knee to religious institutions. These scenes are one, protesting the logic of economic oppression that fuels both the Roman army and the Temple.
There’s a church in Seattle that has a tradition of celebrating Table Turning Monday the day following Palm Sunday. The first of the week they gathered outside their local Bank of America. Bank of America had recently paid off huge settlements for their role in the financial collapse a few years earlier. The bank continued its predatory practices by lobbying against health care for the poor, and participating in socially destructive and racist practices like assigning higher interests rates to African-Americans.
The Monday following Palm Sunday the church gathered outside the bank. One by one the filed in to close their accounts, investing their money instead in a local credit union. They spent the rest of the morning passing out flyers explaining to passersby how the predatory practices of Bank of America were wounding their community.
This church doesn’t expect the banking industry to change overnight, for their account closing to bring the giant to its knees. Instead, it’s an act of faithfulness, a reenactment of table turning, making it clear to see the seamlessness between God’s kingdom and oppressive economic systems. You cannot claim one without a discipleship that refuses the other.
Etta Wren and I went to witness some table turning earlier this week. It was April 4, the day that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis while speaking at a rally for black sanitation workers. That day King called for a Poor People’s March. The Fight for 15 and the Black Lives Matter movement continue this struggle to bring dignity to 64 million workers in the U.S. who make less than $15 an hour.
Thirty percent of these workers make less than $10 an hour. Most fast food workers in the U.S. make around $7.25 an hour. There has been only a $2 wage increase over the past 20 years. Etta and I heard speeches from the people who care for our love ones who want to die at home, from the people who feed our children, from the people who teach at our universities. We heard about their struggles to raise children, pay bills, plan for retirement as each year the cost of living increases and their wages are stagnant. Working full-time, they will earn $20,800 a year.
Fight for 15 is deeply embedded in the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that began with the murder an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “Whose Streets” is a new documentary that filmed the days, months, and years after Mike Brown’s murder. The film highlight how the news media covered the shooting death. What made the news night after night wasn’t the death of boy who held his hands up saying, “don’t shoot,” it was the looting of stores the following night. The media was fixated upon these images, even as vigils were held around Mike’s weeping mother and father.
This is the story of Palm Sunday. It is the story of a society so consumed with the machinery of wealth, so consumed by the destruction of property that it was, night after night, able to look aside from a lynching. Business at any expense, at whatever cost. Black lives are reduced to another obstruction that disrupts the flow of capital.
Jesus parades to Jerusalem, turns over tables in the Temple for fast food workers, for Mike Brown, for children in the Temple, for all those who find their lives are subjugated by the relentlessness of corrupt economics. The Temple was meant to be a microcosm of the world, so this play acting isn’t simply a condemnation of religious exploitation. Jesus is reordering the universe, giving voice to the most vulnerable, the ones who bring ridicule to the logic of the religious leaders. It is no wonder that once they begin to speak, Jesus leaves. The work is done, the authority to name God’s saving presence among taken from the wise and learned and given into the authority of children.
So it is that on Palm Sunday street theater, a flash mob, turns into reality. When Jesus enter Jerusalem, when he turns over the tables in the Temple, he is initiating a new reality. The theater becomes the real thing. We, Jesus’ disciples, are set on this path, this path of upending economic oppression, of bringing this new world into being.
Each time we take to the street for economic justice, we are living out Palm Sunday. Each time we strike, unionize, move our money, support the rights of workers, stand in the street proclaiming “black lives matter,” declaring the dignity of workers – each time we are disciples of this Jesus, the one who entered into Jerusalem making absurd the logic of Empire, whose path led directly into the Temple, overturning the tables, giving final authority to children.