Who Is This?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday. “How Can You Believe This?” series.
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
Just as Jesus passed through a gate into the walled city of ancient Jerusalem, we pass through this day to enter the experience we call Holy Week. Jesus entered a place full of danger and tension. And this day holds the tensions of the week ahead in stark relief. We celebrate along with the many people who on that day long ago, hailed Jesus as the one bringing liberation, justice, and healing. We wave our branches (of all kinds!) as we join the throng through the ages who’ve been drawn to Jesus of Nazareth out of deep hope for things to be different in their lives and communities. And it is tempting to stop there, to shout hosanna and give thanks for the one who comes in the name of the Lord. But we know the story doesn’t stop there. Even in these opening moments, the story pivots quickly from “Hosanna!” to “turmoil.”
“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.” (Mt 21:10) …the whole city was in turmoil…That line hits a nerve. Because there’s turmoil in the whole city, the whole nation, the whole world… There’s turmoil as a microscopic virus upends life as we have known it, as this global pandemic shines a light on all the fault lines and fissures of human relationships, values, and systems at every level. There’s turmoil not just on a day more than 2000 years ago in the city of Jerusalem. Not just in that place and time where religion and government were in bed together to protect the status quo, to support the power brokers, and the privileged, not just then, when masters of war and industry played their games in palaces and shadowed halls and alleys, not just there, where tribes, cultures, religions, and races mingled and clashed, but also in this place and time where the story is the same, where the context is the same—and not just in this moment of our history, but from the very beginning. There is turmoil…
Was the whole city of Jerusalem in turmoil because Jesus entered on a donkey with “Hosannas” rising? In the old city of Jerusalem, someone entering one of its many gates—even with some flourish—would easily go unnoticed except by those who happened to be there at the time. Though from the walls and rooftops, I imagine things were monitored and word could spread pretty quickly. Jesus came to Jerusalem when pilgrims were gathering for the Feast of the Passover, a time when, according to scholars, “it was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem... They did so not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.” Tension and turmoil would already be stirred at this time, you see. And then here comes Jesus, riding a donkey—not a small detail. It signals fulfillment of well-known prophecy, and the crowds who’d heard he was one to watch hail him as the promised one, the Son of David, a hearkening back to Israel’s beloved King. In that “game of thrones” world (as in this one), agents of the empire would have been watching closely for anything or anyone they might deem a problem to their continued ascendency. Jesus and his ride fit the profile.
In the midst of the turmoil the question arises: “Who is this?” And that is the real question both then and now.
Between the moment he rides in and the moment of his arrest, Jesus makes clear what he’s about. Jesus turns over tables to challenge the system that takes the money of the poor to prop up a community who values money and power more than prayer or people (21:12-13). He takes the Temple leaders to task for their hypocrisy (23:13-36). Jesus calls out those in power for tying “up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on the shoulders of others” but not being willing to “lift a finger” themselves to help (Mt 23:4). Jesus zeroes in on the way those with money and power throw their weight around to get special treatment at all the trendy spots and ignore matters of justice and mercy and faith. (Mt 23:6-7, 23) These represent “the way things are,” the status quo. And Jesus is having none of this system in which every transaction is to the benefit of those with wealth and power and to the detriment of the poor and suffering. That is what Jesus comes to confront—the injustice of the whole system.
And in the midst of his critique, Jesus continues to practice and preach what inspired the crowds to cry “hosanna” in the first place: Jesus brings healing (21:14), proclaims that the greatest commandment is to love God and love neighbor as self (22:39), teaches and models that the greatest are not the ones who lord over others and throw their weight around but the ones who serve (23:11), and paints a picture of God’s vision for human community: whoever is hungry is fed, whoever thirsty is given a drink, the stranger is welcomed, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned visited and cared for (25:31-46). //
“Who is this Jesus?” The answer is clear through Jesus’ actions and words: Jesus is a prophetic critic of systems and agents of injustice. Jesus is a prophetic companion with impoverished, oppressed, sick, suffering ones. Jesus is a prophetic visionary of a world in which relationships are set right, the idolatries of empire are toppled, and value is placed on things that matter most of all. Jesus is a prophet. And that got Jesus hung on a tree.
What seems true through the ages is that we love our prophets once we’ve killed them. When they’re dead we no longer have to deal with the ways they put before us things we don’t want to perceive or try to change—because those things are too painful, complicated, or beneficial toward our own interests. When the prophets are dead we are free to tidy them up, to manipulate their image, actions, and words so that they can be made to support our positions, so that they no longer really ask anything of us or challenge our pettiness, greed, selfishness, sloth, and all the other things that, in ways large and small, lure us away from the Kin-dom and into the numbed consciousness and habits of empire.
This manipulation of dead prophets allows us to make Jesus only interested in saving souls but not bodies or in saving only bodies and not souls. This allows us to twist the words of Jesus into a crown of thorns we make others wear as we sit in judgment of them. Jesus, the dead prophet, becomes the mouthpiece for pithy quotes that get made into feel-good memes instead of the disruptive and transforming words of the living God. A memory or story of Jesus, the dead prophet, may still occasionally prick our conscience with an awareness of our hypocrisy, but it is no longer that difficult to simply move on with business as usual. Jesus, the dead prophet, can be manipulated so that we don’t have to be moved by his words and actions any more than those who got swept up in the movement to crucify him.
But the good news is that Jesus is more than a prophet. The words proclaimed as he rode into Jerusalem were appropriate not just as acclamation of praise. The “Hosannas” were not just “You go, Jesus!” not just, “Yay, JC!” These are cries of joy because hope is riding into town. One who has proved his worth and power, who has spent years in humble solidarity with people from all walks of life to bring love and justice and healing and renewal and restoration and LIFE—this one is coming—is putting himself at great risk—to take on the things, the powers, the people of this world that do such harm. “Hosanna! (as Pastor K.C. taught us means) Save, please! Deliver us! Save us, we pray!” These cries and prayers for salvation are directed toward the one who has power to save.
More than once over the years when I’ve taught Confirmation class I’ve done a simple exercise in which I ask the students the question, “Do we need a savior?” We take some time to think about that. And then I lay out magazines and newspapers and ask them to cut out words, images, and phrases that might explain why we need a savior. The collages are always heartbreaking.
Lord knows we need a savior. Think of the collage we could make on this day of all the things so deeply broken in our world, some of which might be mended by human generosity and cooperation, though those are so often in short supply. It is true that the Kin-dom vision is always one in which humans participate in the mending work of God in the world. We have our part to play. But we simply cannot do it alone. We need one another and we need God.
We need a savior to save us from our small-mindedness, our obsession with violence, our tribalism and factionalism that shreds the beautiful fabric of truly human bonds, bonds of friendship, tenderness, compassion, patience, compromise, creativity, and love. We need a savior to restore our vision to perceive what is truly of value, to restore our hearing so that we listen with compassion for understanding, to restore our minds so that we are able to hold ideas in tension as we work together toward solutions, to restore our bodies from centuries of inhumane work demands and stress, to restore our spirits so that we might know lightness and play, to restore our hearts so that we finally see every human as family, to restore our capacity for wonder so that we might not miss the beauty of the world even now.
We don’t need a dead prophet re-fashioned in our own image. We need a living savior who is able to restore in us God’s image. And we have one—one who doesn’t peddle in manipulation or shame, in violence or fear, but who simply shows us what we need to see and gives us grace to do something about it. And when we falter and fail as we inevitably do (because this stuff is hard), our savior is compassionate and merciful and helps us try again. In the turmoil of our lives, our city, our nation, our world, Jesus the living Christ enters in to move in ways both simple and profound that we might do our part to prepare the way for the fullness of the Lord’s Kin-dom to be manifest on earth as it is in heaven.
Perhaps we can join our voices again and yet again: “Hosanna! Save, please!” And then forever add, “Thanks be to God.”