“Who Is This?”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 9, 2017
University Baptist Church
We know the story so well. We rehearse it every year. It’s a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, that place of religious symbolism. It was an occupied city and the religious leaders were willing to do anything to keep the tenuous peace—even if it meant sacrificing a few souls along the way. For they knew well what happened to anyone who upset the apple cart. Their crucified bodies lined the streets. The Romans took no prisoners. They executed people with a vengeance. So when the crowd started shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the priests tried to silence them. Silence=life.
Drawing attention brings death. This was what living under Roman rule meant. And every would-be messiah was killed. How would this one be any different? Who is this, that he is better than the other failed Messiahs?
Who is this? was a question on the mouths of many people on that first Palm Sunday. The religious leaders had suspicions. The military had their fears. The poor had their hopes.
He enacted no executive orders except to welcome the stranger and to not make the holy temple a den of thieves. He enlisted no military, released no nerve gasses. But he was a hopeful presence, or a nuisance, depending on your perspective.
It started up on the Mount of Olives. Jesus and his entourage are gathered there getting ready to head into town. It was not just a walk into town. It was a street protest, a demonstration against Roman rule and for a better way of living in the world. Jesus and his people knew that his movement was one of peace and love and understanding. But the people on the streets didn’t know that, couldn’t possibly know that. They had been fed a bunch of lies about Jesus. That he was an insurrectionist, a blasphemer or better yet, a military messiah who would finally lead an army of willing people. Jesus knew that people would be wondering Who is this?
Jesus used the tools of his time. He knew the prophecy of Zechariah which declared that the new ruler would arrive on the back of a donkey. So they dispatched a posse to pick up just such a donkey. The owners must have said, “who is this?” that wants the donkey.
Looking over Jerusalem, he wept for them who would kill their prophets. Even if they knew he was the Son of God, might they still kill him and his followers?
But this was an inevitable piece of the trajectory of his movement. Jesus needed to face the music. And so he rode into town. The people saw him from afar. They wondered, “Who is this?” Is this the one? They got down palm branches and waved them. They said “Save us”--that’s what Hosanna means. The crowd got bigger. Dance troupes formed, a conga line maybe, they created harmony. They made their own little green carpet. Leading all the way to the temple mount. There was laughter and shouting and street theater.
Catholic activist John Dear once wrote: “Jesus resisted the empire, engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, was arrested by the Pharisees, tried by the Roman governor and executed by Roman soldiers. If we dare to follow this nonviolent revolutionary, we too must resist empire, engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against US war-making and imperial domination, and risk arrest and imprisonment like the great modern-day disciples, Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Day and Phillip Berrigan.” (from an on-line article, “Pharisee Nation”—March 2, 2005)
The priests looked at the scene and said, “here we go again.” They didn’t really care who this was. What they cared about was that the tenuous peace was being disrupted. When they commanded him to be silent, Jesus responded that even if he could silence the crowd, the rocks and stones themselves, the very walls of the city would cry out. “Save us.”
The people of Syria have cried out “Save us” for years now. Bombs raining down from all sides, cities in tatters, shifting allegiances. All the while children are slaughtered or left for dead. The worst refugee crisis in modern times and the US refuses to let any into our country. Our solution, more bombs, a show of strength, something presidential. Where is the Messiah? What would the Messiah have us do? Where is the compassion? Where is the peacemaking? Where is the sanctuary for the refugees? The rocks and stones are crying out of Aleppo, of Damascus, of Washington. Can they even be heard in Mar-a-Lago? The people of God will not and must not be silent.
Jesus’ procession takes a turn when he gets to the Temple mount. He then goes up to the moneychangers and in a fit of rage turns over their tables. The moneychangers were needed back then. The country lived on Roman coins, but to buy your two turtledoves for a Passover sacrifice on the Temple mount, you needed to change your money into Hebrew money. Denarii to shekels. But the moneychangers skimmed a bit off the top. They didn’t submit their tax returns. They had no accountability. Jesus was their auditor and pronounced them guilty. Who is this? The great auditor knows what we make, what we keep, how we spend our resources. Are we ready for that kind of accounting?
Who is this, the great accountant, the great Messiah, the great activist, the great pest, the great hope?
Jesus knew that his days were numbered. He had seen the writing on the wall. Systems of domination always use extreme measures to put down anything that appears as a threat. That’s what Jesus was. A threat. How would the Jesus of today ride in? Would he disrupt traffic? Would he hold a filibuster in the halls of the senate? Would he take to the streets and befriend the friendless? And would we recognize him for anything other than a trouble-maker? And yet this is the one we portend to follow, even when he upsets things like commerce and staid worship services. For Jesus told us that he would be wherever people were marginalized, forgotten, looked down upon, or abused. That’s where the living Christ is.
The truth of Palm Sunday is not that Jesus was universally understood to be the Messiah. The truth of Palm Sunday was that Jesus was entering into the last week of his life, where he would suffer a public lynching on pent-up charges. This was the transition point of the movement. Was it going to be about Jesus or was it going to be about the message of Jesus. Was the movement about an individual savior, or was it about implementing his teachings and then finding a pathway to peace?
The question for Palm Sunday is not who is Jesus. The question for Palm Sunday is who are you?
Crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils bloomed in the gardens at the American Cemetery in Normandy last week. The immaculate white crosses in neat rows mark the spots where 9400 US soldiers lay, like a well-tended garden. Perched atop Omaha Beach, you can imagine what the place looked like 73 years ago, when the waters turned red with blood. At low tide, you can still see the imbedded hulks of tanks and boats and harbor, standing as reminders of the cruelty of war. 30,000 people lost their lives on that bloody beach, another 6 million in the gas chambers, and another several hundred thousand in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Europe is littered with the graves of the fallen, the buildings in ruins, the generations lost in the madness of war. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 60 million people died in World War II and its aftermath. I knelt and prayed by a marker of an unknown comrade “known only to God.” I prayed for him, my family and a world where death seems the only option against powerful forces. The gravestones were crying out, “Save us”. I prayed for wisdom to find ways to de-escalate and prevent this bloody crimson tide from happening. I pray this knowing that we increase military spending, expand nuclear capabilities and stockpiles, and seem farther away from peace.
We played our bells at the formerly bombed out church in Vierville, a few miles from the beach, channeling our hopes for peace into our music. We choked back tears imagining what life was like a few generations ago, how life would forever be tainted by the visible reminders of death and destruction. The stone walls of the church cried out. “Save us.”
We went there after having traveled through Germany, seeing it’s beautiful churches, picturesque towns, lush wineries. Imagining that we were traveling from the land of one former enemy to another—and we as the former enemies ourselves.
In Germany, we noticed lots of wind turbines, solar panels and ominous nuclear power plants. Innovation. We mused that this is what can happen to a country that doesn’t spend its money on a military.
At the end of Saving Private Ryan, an old Private Ryan returns to the American Cemetery above Omaha beach. He stood at the grave of his commander. His dying words were, “earn this”. The stones cried out and he looked at his family and wondered the question that had plagued him all his life. Had he earned the sacrifice of his comrades? We are left with the question for all of us. Who am I?
Who am I? I am the descendant of people who fought in the Revolutionary war in the US, people who fled Ireland and Scotland during the 1850’s, peaceful Mennonite farmers from Pennsylvania, Baptist missionaries in India and Oklahoma, someone who has benefitted from relative peace. I’m a preacher, an activist, a father, a husband, a son, uncle, brother. I’m a person drawn by this story of a middle-eastern peasant turned preacher who befriended to unfriendable and offered a better way. Have I done what I could to bring about a peaceful and just world? Is there more I ought to do? Always.
I see people here who are educators, activists, musicians, thinkers, compassionate listeners, healers, researchers. I see mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, friends, colleagues, searchers for truth, peacemakers, justice seekers, those seeking after Christ’s ways.
We are articulate. We are composed. We are a mess, sometimes. We offer sanctuary. We imagine how we could be better. And we don’t stop there. The church is a launching pad for peacemaking, where love and understanding are not dirty words, where compassion reigns and we hear the truth which sets us free and also makes us accountable.
One of the things that I noticed in Germany was the roosters that sat atop churches. We are used to seeing crosses on top of steeples—a symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice. It seems a bit triumphant. But in Germany we see roosters. These symbolize the Peter’s denial. Jesus said at the last supper that Peter would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. Peter said, “Not me. That’s not who I am. I would never deny you.” But of course he did. His disciples, his very best friends betrayed him, fell asleep on him and denied him. The rooster on the steeple reminds us of our tendency to deny, to play it safe, to not live lives of discipleship. As we rode the Rhine River one day, I noticed the many churches with roosters atop them. Reminding us to not deny our faith. To be better than Peter, to be more faithful when the going gets tough.
Who is this who rides the donkey into Palm Sunday? We know. Who are we who follow this procession years later? God knows. And God is counting on us.
(Sung to the tune of Passion Chorale):
1 O God, how we have wandered and hidden from your face,
in foolishness have squandered your legacy of grace.
But how, in exile dwelling, we turn with fear and shame,
as distant but compelling, you call us each by name.
2 And now at length discerning the evil that we do,
by faith we are returning with hope and trust in you.
In haste you come to meet us, and home rejoice bring,
in gladness there to greet us with calf and robe and ring.
3 O God of all the living, both banished and restored,
compassionate, forgiving, our peace and hope assured.
Grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease.
Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.