In the Easter Parade?

March 16, 2008

Speaker

Summary

IN THE EASTER PARADE?

© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

Palm Sunday

March 17, 2008

University Congregational Church

Reading: Mark 11: 1 – 10 (NKJV)

Now when he they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples; and he said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.”

So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing loosing the colt?”

And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:

“Hosanna!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the kingdom of our father David

That comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest!”

They say that everyone loves a parade. And during this Holy Week it seems that there are many parades to choose from. There will be St. Patrick’s Day parades and Easter parades. There will be the parades on Sunday morning, beginning this morning with the parade of palms. Some people still go out and buy Easter dresses and new suits. Some will buy floral hats and white gloves. And if that is not enough, we are in the midst of March madness and the gala of college basketball. The winners will come home, of course, to more parades. So drive carefully. The roads will be packed with leprechauns, cheerleaders, rabbits, chickens, and churchgoers in their Sunday best.

Even two thousand years ago you could count on a parade in Jerusalem. This was the parade of the Roman Legion that marched into Zion during every Jewish holiday. A city of 40,000 residents could swell to over 200,000 believers on pilgrimage to the holy city. The Passover holiday was one of the most critical. Passover was the celebration of Jewish freedom from the tyranny of Pharaoh’s Egypt. And when people who are crushed under domination systems start telling old stories of freedom, they just might to get reckless. Someone might get the idea that God’s people were not meant to suffer under the oppression of Rome any more than Egypt.

I am wondering if you can imagine Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, leading the Roman parade from Caesarea Maritima – Caesar by the Sea. This was the base of the Roman garrison at Fortress Antonia and the splendid home of Pilate. He only traveled to Jerusalem for official business, which certainly included keeping that city under control. Surely he was mounted on a magnificent horse. Pilate, like all of his soldiers, would have every sword, shield, helmet, and breastplate polished to a bright gleam. The leather was well oiled and lustrous. Banners and battle ribbons fluttered and snapped in the wind. The entire width of the street was filled with the ranks of well-armed soldiers who marched in an exaggerated cadence that spoke of power and order. At the head of each unit one soldier carried a staff the head of which was mounted by an eagle made of gold. Such an insignia would march with the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler. The message that Pilate wanted to convey was simple. Any disturbance, riot, or rebellion would be met with the swift and sure force of the Roman Legion. Resistance would be crushed and no mercy tendered.

Everybody in Jerusalem knew about this parade. As I said, it happened several times a year for major Jewish holidays. The gospels do not mention Pilate’s parade because everyone already knew about them. The Roman Empire was precise and you could count on their parades every season.

The Carpenter’s son knew about the parade. And I pose to you the radical possibility that he decided to organize a parade of his own. He was going to lead a counter parade. Dare I say it? I think Jesus of Nazareth was going to lead a parade of political protest. This parade was not going to be a little parade of poor folks taking a day off for a barbeque and beer in the city park. No, the story is too deliberate to suggest anything other than the careful choice of symbols and actions that question the ultimate authority of the rule of Rome.

The whole notion of the king riding a colt, the foal of a donkey, into the city of Jerusalem is taken from the book of Zechariah. In the first place, the colt was considered the mount of princes in the books of Judges and Second Samuel in the Hebrew Bible. And what Zechariah said was the Jewish king would ride the foal into Zion and “cut off the chariot of Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem. The battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the end of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:10).

Just to remind you, Zechariah was written right after the time of Babylonian exile. The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and held the Jewish leadership in captivity through several generations. The Jews returned to Zion to find the city in ruins. The prophet offered a new vision of a restored city and kingdom. Let me rephrase that. The Jewish vision, long before and long after the kingdom of David, is a vision of shalom – of peace and freedom. Zechariah is claiming that when the new king returns to the city all of the implements of foreign domination will be laid to waste. The war chariots and military steeds will be stilled. All of the war machines will stand in the fields to rot and rust in disintegration. This peace will spread from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.

The act of riding a colt into Jerusalem during Pilate’s parade would be a symbol that an observant Jew would understand. But just in case we missed the point, Mark quotes the old prophet. It is an outrageous act of defiance. Jesus is suggesting that the Legion with all of its cavalry, chariots, and foot soldiers will be silenced by the Messianic vision of wholeness and peace. The strategies of invasion and occupation will lose their power and crumble before the kingdom of grace. It is not violence that will win the world. The security of the world will only be achieved by humility and charity, trust and benevolence. I have never heard a military officer say that the future peace of Iraq will be secured by the military. Every one that I have ever heard comment about peace in Iraq has said that it will come by co-operation, social infrastructures, effective government, economic development, and a deep tolerance for tribes, clans, and religions.

Now on the face of it this little parade of the Nazarene seems ludicrous. It is laughable to think that this peasant on the back of a donkey could resist the might of the Roman Empire. Indeed, there was never a successful peasant rebellion against Rome. And before the week was over the man would be dead. But whoever imagined that a bumbling Hindu lawyer would lead the British Empire out of India? He would be shot on his way to prayer. Or whoever thought a young black preacher from Atlanta would re-write United States civil rights legislation leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama? They shot him down on his way to dinner. They seem so weak, so vulnerable, and awkward before the might of Rome, or Britain, or America. And yet they ride donkeys and take long walks on the way to freedom. They quote old scripture verses, sing hymns, and offer sermons. Before it is all over oppression weakens and the feeble grip of violence collapses in on itself.

I dare suggest this morning that when the children lead us into this Palm Sunday service waving palms fronds we might be tempted to think that it is cute; or just a way to include children in the service; or just another Christian education ploy to teach children a story about good old Jesus. I hope we are teaching children a story of freedom and resistance to oppression. I hope we are teaching them something about the nature of non-violent resistance that seizes the moral initiative, asserts human dignity, and meets force with ridicule and humor. I hope that it teaches them to expose the injustice of domination and humiliation, and inspires them to never submit to or accept assumptions of inferiority about themselves or others.[1]

My argument is strengthened when we remember the context of this story. Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He was there to make a new statement about freedom. And yes, by Friday he was just one more dead Jew. But Rome would only have his body – not his obedience and not his dignity. And the day would come when Caesar would bend his knee to the Christ.

There are all kinds of parades. People will choose to follow different ones. Some will want to follow the parade with the biggest bands, largest floats, and greatest personalities. Some will choose a parade because a member of their family plays in the marching band or is a marshal for a department store or organization. Some will choose a parade because it throws out the greatest amount of candy to the children. We expect a parade to provide us high entertainment values, maybe even excitement. We want a parade to make us feel good about ourselves, our circle of friends, and our life styles. I think in one way or another we choose our religious parades as well and sometimes for the same reasons.

I think if you are going to follow the Jesus parade it means that you will go to Jerusalem and confront the domination systems that are in your life and in your world. Now do not think that I am going to attack the military industrial complex, or target a corporation that takes advantages of its workers or pollutes the environment. There are certainly times and places for all of that. But the truth is that we live in an extremely complex global system that is interdependent economically and environmentally. Clearly identifiable domination systems like Rome are harder to pinpoint in our global village. It is like trying to buy an American automobile, all of whose parts are made in America. That also means that we must confess that we are part of the system. We are sometimes forces within the domination matrix that makes us morally responsible for the state of human affairs and the ecosystem.

If all of this is true I think that the place to begin is not judging others; not condemning others and flattering ourselves by thinking that our motives and behaviors are pure. And the very worst thing that we can do is presume that God is on our side or that we represent and know God’s will for the rest of society. I think the place to begin is by understanding domination systems and the means they employ to enforce their control over others. We need to know the ways in which people become enslaved and the violent means that keeps them in slavery. We also need to understand that violence is not always physical. It is more often psychological, economical, political, and social. We need to know the ways that religion is used to justify domination systems and spiritual violence that often perpetuates tyrants and systems of oppression. We need to know that religious violence is very often perpetuated in the name of Jesus Christ by the church of Jesus Christ.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue in their book, The Last Week there are three characteristics of domination systems in the pre-modern world. These include: (1) Political oppression where societies are ruled by the few wealthy elites, typically the monarchs, nobility, and aristocracy. (2) Economic exploitation where a high percentage of the society’s wealth is held very a very small percentage of the population. This wealth came primarily from agriculture. (3) Religious legitimation that justified the system as the “will of God.”[2] The dynamics of domination have become more complex in our post-industrial global economy. Walter Wink writes that the domination system “is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.[3] Dr. Wink believes that most people subscribe to the myth of redemptive violence which means that when we get do to brass tacks we believe that “violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.”[4]

I believe that this is the myth that most people put their faith it. They believe in violence far more than they believe in the love of God or the reconciling ministry of Jesus Christ, regardless of their denominational affiliation or congregational membership. In fact, I agree with Wink’s assessment that the myth of redemptive violence uses “the traditions, customs, and symbols of Christianity to enhance both the power of a select wealthy minority and the goals of the nation narrowly defined. This national security type of church is nothing more than the compromised court chaplain of the national security state.”[5] If you think I am wrong, read the statements of the Christian right with respect to foreign policy and pre-emptive warfare. Go back to the annals of history and follow the Christian right with respect to slavery, segregation, and the rights of women in personal and political life.

If we are going to follow the Jesus parade to Jerusalem it means taking the way of the cross, the way that sees clearly the domination systems in which all of our lives are woven. It means taking the time to learn and understand the myth of redemptive violence and how it thrives in every aspect of our culture from movies and television to politics and pulpits. It means getting on our colts and riding into a peaceful future of justice and compassion.

Finis

[1] These are just a few of the characteristics of non-violent resistance that Walter Wink identifies as “Jesus’ Third Way,” from his book, Jesus and Non-violence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 27-28.

[2] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (San Francisco: Harpers, 2006), 7-8.

[3] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 39.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 59.

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