April 5, 2020


Joining the Jesus Parade

Preacher:
Passage: Matthew 21: 1-11

Synopsis: During this coronavirus pandemic I’ve been reading the biography of John Adams, written by David McCullough and am finding it reassuring. The biography shows how the founding fathers and mothers of our country survived during a tumultuous time, sometimes despite themselves. By God’s grace, we’ll also see our way through this, learn some valuable lessons, and be stronger for it. We can learn from Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem which was a form of  street-theatre proclaiming a new world coming.

How do we keep ourselves from getting too focused on the latest news and becoming overtly anxious during this coronavirus pandemic? I’ve been reading the biography of John Adams written by David McCullough. It’s a fascinating book that broadens my perspective on our present crisis. John Adams served as one of our first American ambassadors in Europe during the Revolutionary War, then as our first Vice President under George Washington, before becoming the second president of our country. In a way I had not expected, the story of his life and times is reassuring.

He lived through an especially tumultuous time of war, vicious political partisanship, economic collapse, and even a yellow fever epidemic where people fled in alarm from cities like Philadelphia.  The story shows both the strengths and foibles, integrity and pettiness of our country’s founding fathers and mothers. At various times it seemed that all was lost yet they somehow they persevered, occasionally in spite of themselves.

We Americans were recently all caught up in the Democratic presidential primary and our passions ran deep. Then it all stopped as this pandemic arrived on our shores. That feels like a long time ago. What I find reassuring about the biography of John Adams is that we have much stronger political institutions and healthcare systems than they had. By God’s grace, we will also see our way through this, learn some valuable lessons, and be stronger for it.

As many of you know, I did my doctoral dissertation on the politics of Jesus. The life and times of Jesus were also so different from ours. His entry into Jerusalem was a carefully planned event that reapproprated national symbols such as waving palm branches. He was a charismatic healer and prophet from Galilee who was adored by common people and despised by the elites.

Waving palm branches reenacted the earlier entry of triumphant Jewish leaders into Jerusalem with people waving palm branches and singing victory songs.  Jesus wasn’t a violent revolutionary staging a victory parade. It, however, helps us understand why Pilate had him crucified on the charge of sedition. Yes, he was a revolutionary—a peace revolutionary.

This Jesus parade was “street theatre” making a bold statement about an alternative world coming in the life and ministry of Jesus. And they were celebrating and having fun. The procession conveyed a positive peace message. Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus wept as he came near the city and proclaimed, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace!” (19: 42).

Jesus was appealing to Jerusalem to follow the path of peace as war clouds hung over the city.  He was proclaiming that the alternative of peace was still open.  His “street theatre” portrayed a radical upside-down kingdom. We might think of it as expressing the vision of God’s new world coming. Such imagery was alarming to the custodians of the social status-quo. Looking at each other in alarm, they exclaimed, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” After that, events unraveled quickly.

By the time the Passover arrived, Judas had agreed to betray Jesus, but he wasn’t the only one who had failed. All the disciples fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus agonized over the hard choice he had to make. Then, when an organized mob arrived with swords and clubs, Peter immediately resorted to violence, forgetting everything Jesus had taught him. Later he denied that he even knew Jesus.

The religious leaders, purportedly seeking to do God’s will, organized a sham trial in the middle of the night where they convicted Jesus. Pilate then gave the order to have him executed while attempting to wash his hands of all responsibility—a common strategy of seasoned politicians.

Pastor Christine Chakoian comments, “In the end, only a Gentile centurion and a number of women stay faithful to Jesus. No one in his inner circle, no one with religious responsibility, no one with civil power does anything at all to stand for Jesus. Which makes me wonder: how would we do?”[1] She then adds, “Palm Sunday started out not as a parade but as a protest. How exciting it would be to honor Jesus’ courage with a reboot of this start to Holy Week. There’s plenty in our country and our churches to question right now. I would love to know how this might play in our own Jerusalems.”[2]

The Jesus parade was more than a protest. Yes, he protested and we will also want to occasionally protest. But protesting is not enough. Viable social movements need to embody a positive, alternative, lifegiving community. Jesus formed a community of disciples rooted in his example of self-giving love.

These are not easy matters because following Jesus’ example of letting go and being willing to die creates consternation in all of us. Furthermore, anyone who would even raise the possibility of Jesus’ example for the nations of our world would be laughed out of town. We can’t imagine a world other than our present world of nations engaged in fierce military, and economic competition.

Our failure to follow Jesus is not only because we lack courage. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we also find it hard to grasp Jesus’ vision of the reign of God. Before the Last Supper they had been arguing about who would get the most prestigious and powerful positions in the new, liberated Jewish state they imagined Jesus would usher in. They were still thinking in terms of power politics. That’s when Jesus told them that the least would be the greatest and then stooped to wash their feet. They couldn’t grasp the meaning of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They didn’t have the imagination to comprehend Jesus’ upside-down-kingdom.

If we’re completely honest, we don’t get it either. We think of Jesus’ good news as an idealistic, utopian dream, or as a free pass to get into heaven, rather than as a spiritual practice that liberates and forms our lives. I keep asking myself what this means for us and our small church here in the City of Fairfax.

Several weeks ago, Glen Denlinger and I were on a conference call about affordable housing with mayor David Myer and some of his staff. The mayor complemented our church for our peace witness which he said makes a real contribution to our city. He especially appreciated the memorial to the lost on our church lawn, remembering those killed by gun violence in the DC area as well as our participation in the interfaith friendship walk.

Then he surprised me by asking how we envisioned the future of our church. Glen and I told him about how our church has been revitalized in the past five years by our energetic young families and your children. This is our hope for the future. We also told him about the electric solar panels on our church and our two electric car charging stations.

We talked about our passion for caring for the earth, our garden tool lending library, our church garden, and our nature trail through our woods. We told him how making our church available to minority churches has become a ministry. He affirmed that need as the demographics of our city keeps changing. We could add other things like being a founding church in the Fairfax County Student Peace Awards program and helping the Daniels Run Elementary School with providing food to needy students and their families.

What other things would you add? All these things are part of joining the Jesus parade and marching in the way of Jesus.

 

[1] Christine Chakoian, “Coming Sundays,” from Christian Century (April 9, 2017).

[2] Christime Chakoian, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (March 15, 2017): 19.

 

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