Jesus and the disciples have been traveling toward Jerusalem for some time now. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing all the way. Expectations are that something big, something amazing, something powerful is going to happen in Jerusalem.
Jesus has been warning them that things are not going to go well. He says,
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Humanity by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things. [Luke 18:31-34a.]
I think the disciples stopped listening after Jesus said, “Everything that is written about the Son of Humanity by the prophets will be accomplished.” They have their ideas about the Son of Humanity coming in glory, overthrowing the powers that be, restoring justice and peace to all. God is going to come and kick some butt!
So they had no frame of reference for understanding the scenario that Jesus was trying to prepare them for: being handed over, mocked, insulted, spat upon, flogged, killed. This sort of talk may have gone in one ear and out the other.
Luke says that the disciples traveling to Jerusalem with Jesus “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” [Luke 19:11.] They are ready for something magical and wonderful, for peace and love to break out everywhere. They were not at all prepared for what was actually coming.
Jesus says that everything the prophets predicted about the Son of Humanity would be fulfilled. What do the prophets say? Jesus zeroes in on Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So that’s what we see Jesus enacting, this image of the ruler arriving riding on a colt of a donkey. He specifically asks his disciples to go and find a colt that has never been ridden. And for all we know, Jesus has never ridden a donkey. So between him not being a rider, and the colt never having been ridden, this could be quite the hysterical image. Not exactly how one pictures royalty arriving in town.
Another scripture reference being embodied here is Psalm 118, which is all about the righteous coming up to the Temple with great celebration and procession, binding the festal procession with branches, processing right up to the altar of God. Luke actually doesn’t mention the palm branches, but the sense of procession is certainly strong. And the throwing down of cloaks in his path certainly seems to be the equivalent of what we would now know as rolling out the red carpet.
What is their message? What is so worth this street theater, this public demonstration that upsets some of the Pharisees, riles the powers that be, and contributes to Jesus’ ultimate end on a cross?
Do you remember in Luke 2, when Jesus is born, the angels appear to shepherds watching their flocks by night outside of Bethlehem? And what do the angels say? “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” Peace on earth.
Here the disciples shout, “Blessed is the ruler who comes in the name of God! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Peace in heaven.
Kind of nice bookends to Jesus’ story: angels wishing peace on earth to humans at the beginning, and humans wishing peace in heaven at the end. What are we to make of this? Something about peace.
Well, what would bring peace? What makes for peace? Hold that question as we review the setting for this parade.
You may recall that on the same day when Jesus and his followers are entering Jerusalem by one gate, Pilate and his entourage are entering by a different gate on the other side of town. They come in on mighty horses, with a great show of military might. During Passover week, when Jews flock to Jerusalem from all over, Pilate and the Roman soldiers are there to enforce the peace, to remind everyone who is in charge and that they’d better not try anything. Pilate represents not the power of love, but the love of power. Pilate represents Rome, the oppressor of the Jewish people and so many others within its empire.
Another way to think of the difference between Jesus’ procession and Pilate’s is that Jesus represents not power over but power with. Just as there are two ways of thinking about power, those two ways lead to two kinds of peace. You can have Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, or Pax Christi, the peace of Christ. The peace of Rome method is to kill all of your opponents or at least beat them into submission so that no one dares to rebel. You also tax them heavily to support your army infrastructure. You have power over the people. Oppress them.
The peace of Christ is not about having power over anyone but rather power with them. It’s about coming alongside people, it’s about seeing, loving, healing, valuing, including, listening to, feeding, sheltering, and calling people. It’s about all people having their essential needs met. No one is stereotyped into a box or label, but all know themselves to be loved by God and called to serve each other. This is not the power that oppresses but the power that liberates all to love and to live fully as the best selves God has called them to be.
What does this look like in today’s world? Two examples.
First example: As most of you know, Rick Russell and I went to Puerto Rico for the first week of April. Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017 with winds of 155mph and 40 inches of rain over the course of two days. One and a half years later, there is still much recovery work to do, so our group of 25 Pacific Northwest UCC and Disciples of Christ members were there to help however we could.
On our first day of work, we’ve got our work belts, safety helmets, goggles—we’re all ready to go. There’s a chalk board with all these houses listed and the various tasks required at each site: tile floor, paint sealer on the roof, hang cabinets, fix windows and doors, install new ceiling. And our job coordinator, Jose Molina, said, “Your work is not to paint and roof.” Say what? I thought that’s exactly why we were here: paint, roof, hang cabinets, tile floors. “Your work is not to paint and roof. If that happens, that’s good. Your work is to bring hope and love.” Bring hope and love.
At roughly the same time, the U.S. Administration announces that Puerto Rico is full of crooks and will receive no more relief funds because they’re not spending the money correctly. Billions of dollars are going to be cut off.
Do you think this was a week in which Puerto Ricans needed to feel some hope and love? Oh, yes. Were we dealing with crooks? Oh, no.
Jesus’ vision of peace is something you throw yourself into with your whole life. Jose Molina had had a good career, at one point with 4,000 employees under his supervision for running water systems or something like that. He retired a while back. But when Hurricane Maria hit and everybody lost power for months, and recovery efforts proved to be very slow, Jose prayed to God, “God, please put me to use.” Three days later his phone rang, and he was offered the job of facilitating recovery work on homes through the Iglesia Cristiana (Discipulos de Cristo), or Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “God,” he said, “When I asked you to put me to work, I didn’t mean this fast!”
But Jose plunged into this work through the church. On Fridays, he sits at a table along with people from FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse (run by Billy Graham’s son Franklin), and perhaps others who are helping out with recovery efforts. So all of these organizations are represented at these tables, and people whose homes need work show up to get help. They stand in line and get steered toward whichever organization will be able to help them. If their house is totally gone and they can prove ownership, FEMA might be the right place for them to get help rebuilding. If their house is still there but needs a new cement roof because the old corrugated tin one peeled like a sardine can in the hurricane and everything inside got flooded, Jose might be the one who can make things happen for them using volunteers like us, who may or may not have building skills. And FEMA does help fund this work, too, working with the Church as the primary deliverer of repairs.
This actually seems like a pretty efficient system, but I don’t know if there is corruption elsewhere down the line that would prompt the Administration to cut off funding. The Church is a major player in connecting the people with the help they need.
I bring this all up 1) because I just got back a week ago and it’s all still fresh in my mind, and 2) because it seems like a pretty great way to bring peace. Start with love and hope, meet the people face to face, paint two coats of sealer on their rooftops, receive the great lunch that they prepare for you, see each other, try out your broken Spanish, laugh at your mistakes, play with their Chihuahua. We served each other. We met each other as human beings. No power over each other, but definitely power with each other—we are stronger together. When our Administration says oppress the people harder, Jose and the Church show up with the opposite message: bring love and hope. Feet on the ground, hearts engaged. “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”
In Jesus’ case, the stakes are higher. The powers that be don’t want him healing everybody, inviting everyone to the table. They have their rules. You see some Pharisees trying to hush up his parade. They’re afraid of him rocking the boat. But this parade is about bringing love and hope and peace to all the people, and the need for that effort will not cease even if the disciples go silent. The very stones will cry out, because the work is still there to be done.
Second example: Perhaps you saw the story on the front page of this morning’s paper about an organization called Choose 180—as in 180 degrees, a complete change in direction. Juveniles in Seattle who commit misdemeanors can be sentenced to juvenile detention, which often leads to later criminal behavior. Or some of them are given the opportunity instead to participate in Choose 180. In that program, adults who look like them and have been in their shoes tell their own stories about turning their own lives around, and provide guidance on how these kids can choose to do the same. One man now in his thirties turned his life around with support from many people, including his church. It’s just mentioned in passing, but there it is: the church as support system, the church showing up with love and hope, teaching peace and power with instead of power over. Choose 180 is all about power with these kids. And out of the 245 kids who have been through the program, only 8 have had further encounters with the justice system. Pretty great track record.
The powers that be in this world are not interested in Christ’s peace. It’s too hard, too dangerous, and it doesn’t serve them. For us to work for the vision of peace on earth, goodwill to all, and peace in heaven, to which Jesus points us, we have to be ready to take some risks, annoy the powers that be, show up with love and hope for people who have been told they are worthless and should be ignored or even oppressed. Jesus knows the price he will pay. Preaching liberation to people who know oppression is dangerous for those doing the oppressing. Jesus has been warning his disciples, but they don’t have any frame of reference in which to understand what he’s saying.
So here we are, heading into Holy Week. We’re in that procession entering Jerusalem, shouting of love, hope, and peace in the presence of those who oppress. The reading today is all about street theater, about celebration, about sticking it to the powers that be with creative mockery. Jesus riding an untamed colt. This is street theater of the absurd. But when you stick it to the powers enough times, they are going to push back, and it’s not going to be pretty. Jesus knows this, and he keeps going. He sets his mind on Jerusalem and never looks back.
Dying on a cross is perhaps one’s worst nightmare. It’s painful, long, public, humiliating. It’s meant to be a warning to others. Maybe one way we find peace is by confronting our greatest fear—death on a cross, death by any means, hurricane ripping our home away, juvenile detention, prison, whatever. We confront our greatest fear, and in doing so realize that it no longer has power over us. We are now all about power with, and that’s where God is. God is with us. The prophets promised that: Emmanuel, God-with-us. The prophet Isaiah said that’s how it would be, and Jesus is living into that prophecy.
So as this street theater procession winds into Jerusalem and this final week, let us shout our loud Hosannas. Let us throw our cloaks down as a red carpet for Jesus. And then let us fall in line behind him, ready to offer our life and breath to bring love, hope, and peace, God’s message of liberation, of power with, even in the face of those who would rather stay stuck as oppressors and oppressed, who would rather kill than love. Our God Emmanuel is with us. May we be with such a powerful God all the way. Amen.