A Sermon for the Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
April 14, 2019
Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash
Video available here:
Text: Luke 19:28- 40
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Chester was a Heifer Project ambassador. He spent almost 25 years caring for a flock of sheep, greeting children in his gentle way, pausing for photos, meandering around somewhat at random.
Every spring, for many years Chester went on a roadtrip. All the way to Somerville and he traveled, just to be with church people for their Palm Sunday parades. In Davis Square, he’d start in Powderhouse Circle and in the midst of the crowd, plod down College Ave, nodding to confused people on the sidewalks, listening to a great ecumenical choir singing their way down the block, waving palm branches. In Arlington, he’d join the Episcopalians first, and then the Methodists, and finally the UCC, where the older children were in charge of meeting him halfway between. He would be pretty tired out by then, so they were instructed to be particularly solicitous of Chester while getting him settled on the church lawn before the final parade of the day. Then the younger children would do just what children visiting Heifer did – run out toward Chester in glee, pose with him, pet him, and feed him apples or carrots.
Chester, of course, was a donkey.
Now, once your church has a real donkey visiting annually, you get used to the idea. It’s hard to give up.
So when the news came one winter that Chester had gone to glory, and that there would not be a successor Heifer Donkey, there was a fair panic amongst clergy and parents in the general vicinity. That is, until Guapo was found, rented from a party company. Not a few of us said, wait, a Heifer Project ambassador rescue donkey is one thing, but a party rental donkey? Is there an animal rights question here? Tradition, however, prevailed, and the sublimely ridiculous countercultural donkey parade through the streets of Somerville continued. Guapo was perhaps less amenable to the entire process, having a somewhat nervous digestive system and not really seeming happy about being petted but at least he was willing to nod and bray when posing for photos.
A couple of years later the Facebook post went out, Rest in Peace, Guapo, the Donkey, gone to glory. Line break. So, anybody have a line on our next donkey?
The next one was rather tall for a donkey, and walked on his hind legs. His plush polyester costume came in two parts, and animal welfare activists sighed in relief. But this donkey was also a rental, and so you can imagine the relief in store for the people of Somerville this very morning. First Church Somerville has purchased a donkey costume.
And so, this very morning: a protest/parade dutifully depicting the peasants and pilgrims in Jerusalem waving and shouting Hosanna! There are kazoos. Passersby who have no idea what is going on unknowingly enter into the reenactment as the unknown questioners in Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?””
Today’s parade will be as different from Jesus’ entry in to Jerusalem, as Jesus’s procession was different from Pilate’s parade.
Let’s go back to Jerusalem, the City of Peace that knows no peace. Let’s go back to the Pax Romana. Let’s go back to a spring day in the early decades of the Common Era, a day of two parades.
In the city that day, there were:
Pilate and his soldiers
The chief priests, elders, and temple leaders
The peasants and pilgrims come for the Passover
The zealots and rabble rousers
And Jesus, with his friends and followers.
Jerusalem was the center of Judaism, home of a re-built / soon to be destroyed temple. Home of the temple priests who were also Roman appointees. The place where liberation was remembered and liberation was longed for. The city of peace, the city that knew no peace. And every spring, preparations for the Passover evoked it all.
Pilate led the first parade that day, “from the west, the Roman governor coming into the city to keep order, during the Passover, the Jewish high holy day celebrating Israel’s long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire…Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city…A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses (horses were only used for war), foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold..the marching of feet…the beating of drums.”” (Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem) Rome had power over the people, and a theology of power that said the emperor was the son of God, and every governor, every soldier, every war horse was sent in God’s name to maintain God’s power over the empire. If they’d carried a banner, it would have said: We are the strongest and the greatest. Only we can save you. You are a conquered people, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
There were also in Jerusalem that day, chief priests, temple elders, perhaps watching from the center of the city as Pilate marched in. The Romans had given them just a touch of power. The governors gave power to the priests so there would be “Jewish” religious legitimacy for Rome’s control. Lead your people, the Romans said, keep them safe by keeping them controlled, passive, and out of our way. If you do this, we will give you land – taken from peasants who couldn’t pay their Roman tax – we will give you power and wealth. Pilate’s parade kept the priests in line.
There were also in the city that day, peasants including farmers who grew the food that went to the city, that went to the priests, that went to the soldiers; by the toil of their hands they created the wealth which fueled the Pax Romana but they did not keep it. Landholders who could not make ends meet and lost their land to empire and temple. Rural peasants were ninety percent of the population around Jerusalem and they came, near the Passover, to the city of their ancestor David, to Jerusalem the city of peace that gave them no peace.
There were also in the city of peace that day, zealots and rabble rousers who sought to overthrow empire and take power.
And then there was Jesus.
He came from the east, on a humble farm animal, with no horses or swords, no drums, no soldiers, no prestige, no intimidation, no might. No symbols of power over. Just people, peasants, pilgrims, disciples, calling out, Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Save us!
In spite of every sermon he preached on peace, every mile he walked humbly next to them, the people expected him to take worldly political power. For so many of his followers, his entry was the entrance of a new king.
Human beings cling to systems that we understand, frameworks and structures that we are used to, even when they don’t make sense.
Even when they don’t make sense anymore.
It is is so much easier to tweak an existing system, than to set an entire system aside.
It is so much easier to transfer power than it is to transform what power means.
Rome in the first century, and the United States and most of the world in 2019, are built on power-over. Power is a possession and those who have it win. Fear is intrinsic to this model, because power is used to control. But there is another concept of power, power-with – a collaborative model of power. “Power-with is not a property or a possession. It arises from what we do rather than what we have.” (Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy) Jesus, I propose to you, came in to Jerusalem to declare the realm of God, which looked like no kingdom ever before seen by human eyes. Jesus came in to Jerusalem not to take power but to preach an entirely different concept of power.
When we describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a protest against the oppression of the Pax Romana, or as a rejection of the chief priests’ collaboration with Pilate, we are not thinking radically enough to see what Jesus was really up to. When we say, his parade echoed Pilate’s, we’re missing the point. When we say, well the donkey was a symbol of humility in contrast to Pilate’s warhorses – we are staying too close to the framework set up by Rome. Jesus was not just protesting the oppression of Rome – he was mocking the notion of earthly power. He was not just claiming power for the powerless, he was redefining power. He was not just allying himself with the peasants in contrast to the priestly class and the Roman occupiers (although let me say clearly Jesus was always on the side of the poor and the oppressed). Jesus was calling all of them away from the power structures that human beings so consistently cling to, calling them toward the power of love.
The people cried out, Save us, Hosanna, Save us, blessed is the king, blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, give us the power. For some folks there is comfort, in a system that you know and understand even when it is a system that hurts you. Because, you think, if I could just switch places. If I could just take power.
But in response, Jesus proclaimed: The system is broken. “We do not find our collective salvation in a political system. We find it in the radical gospel of love.” (The Rev. Amy Butler, The Riverside Church (NYC), Palm Sunday Sermon 2016.) Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
And is it any wonder, that in a system built on power over, leaders who used power to control, would want to kill this radical vision? Wouldn’t it go down this same way today?
Perhaps it only seems possible to change the players – Chester to Guapo to donkey-person. King David to King Jesus. Pilate to Jesus. Perhaps it seems impossible to change the system itself. Well, we’re moving toward Easter, a day when nothing is deemed impossible. So maybe we need to write the story of the power of love overcoming the love of power, and believe that it could be.
Here’s the question I invite you to walk through Holy Week pondering. What is the power that would save you right now? What is the power that would save our world right now? What is the story of the coming kin-dom of God in this moment? And whose procession are you walking in? Amen.