Message for March 1, 2020
Texts: Zechariah 9:9-10 and Matthew 21:1-11
In the book that inspired this worship series, Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, shares the unique perspective of her Jewish faith, helping Christian readers to better understand how first-century Jews would have experienced the teachings and the person of Jesus. She notes that many Christians nowadays rush from the festive celebration of Palm Sunday into the festive celebration of Easter Sunday without paying much attention to what happens in between. I certainly see this among many Methodists who don’t drive at night; they miss the high drama of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, or even the penitence of Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, for the practical reason that these services often take place in the evening. There’s a certain generation, as well, which has associated these observances with Roman Catholicism, and have viewed them with a degree of suspicion. And there’s no denying that these observances focus on the “dark” subjects of mortality, betrayal and torture, and invite introspection on our own sin. So for many reasons, there are worshippers in our Sunday pews who aren’t as familiar with what is arguably the key story of our faith: the Passion narrative, as it is called, the account, found in all four gospels, with some interesting variation in details between them, of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.
This Lent, we will dedicate a Sunday to the key events of that week, focusing on the element of risk. We will examine what risks Jesus was taking as he entered Jerusalem, engaged with the religious authorities there, and brought the grim reality of the consequences of these actions into the consciousness of his followers. Enhanced by the work of various artists whose paintings are on display at Vanderbilt, we are imagining, as well, how different lookers on might have reacted to the events of that fateful week — a practice not unlike some of the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, or of the Jewish tradition of midrash.
In the introduction to her book, Professor Levine — or A.J., as she prefers to be called — connects the observance of Holy Week to that of the “High Holy Days” of Judaism — a time which is focused on a self-inventory of one’s wrongs and of making efforts to reconcile with others, asking such questions as “When did I act selfishly instead of with compassion for others in my community?” admitting this failure, making amends, and resolving to be a better person moving forward. There is also a corporate element to this process, a commitment to “being a better us” as a community. And A.J. thinks this is what Holy Week, and Lent, should be for us. As we look at the risks that Jesus took, imagining ourselves in the Passion story, we should be asking what risks we have failed to take, where we have held back instead of courageously engaging in compassion and justice, and, drawing on the power of the Spirit and of grace, recommit ourselves, together, to being “a better us.”
Actually, if we were paying attention, like first-century Jews, to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, there would be more drama and less happy celebration than we are often wont to display in typical Palm Sunday processions. For this is not your ordinary hometown parade, but instead, a staged, carefully planned act of protest. It was the week of Passover, the Jewish celebration of freedom from oppression, and thousands were gathered in the city. But remember, this is a city living under Roman occupation. The annual festival — and particularly this one, given its symbolic significance — would trigger not only the arrival of Jews from around the world, but the appearance of extra Roman troops (do you see them in this painting?). At the very same time that Jesus was entering the city, at another gate, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was arriving in town. His would have been a traditional military entourage (imagine Nazi troops parading into an occupied town, with marching soliders and weaponry on display). The message: be sure your celebration of so-called “freedom” is properly tempered. We all know who is in charge here, and it is not the God of the Hebrews.
But in contrast to Pilate’s violent pomp and circumstance, Jesus enters the city humble, seated not on a horse — the symbol of military power and of royalty, but on a donkey, with people shouting “Hosanna,” which means “please save us.” Jesus is signaling that, as he will say in just a few days to Pilate, that his “kingdom is not of this world.” He is not the political Messiah that people are longing for. He will not be deposing the Romans.
So Jesus was taking a risk. He was not only risking the ire of the Roman occupiers and that of the temple authorities; he was also risking his reputation with the adoring crowds, those who were longing for a political Messiah. Even some of his own disciples nurtured this hope — those who were part of the faction known as the Zealots. The actions of Palm Sunday, carefully planned and boldly carried out — set in motion the events of that fateful week.
So where are we in this story?
Are we among those in the crowd, shouting, “Save us”? From what do we realize we need to be saved? Are we willing to take a risk in admitting our need, of admitting our inability to save ourselves? Or are we holding back?
Are we holding back from faith in this King whose ways are non-violent, and which, by virtue of that non-violence, brings upon himself the violent reaction of those who hold earthly power? Are we willing to risk the consequences of speaking up for voiceless and the vulnerable, of working to change unjust structures? Are we willing to risk our own reputations in the service of these greater causes?
Or are we lying our cloaks on the road, waving palm branches, and following this Jesus to the cross?
And in today’s parades and protests, are we even showing up? Are we adding our voices to those that cry out for justice? Are we not only praying, not only talking, but doing the works that make for righteousness?
What risk are you taking for Jesus?