A Meditation for Palm Sunday
Sometimes, in the face of despair, the most audacious and courageous thing we can do is weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world. Jesus isn’t afraid to look silly. He comes to Jerusalem to confront the war machine, right, to liberate the poor from economic captivity, to preach the kingdom of God; then he rides through the gates on a gimpy colt, surrounded by unimpressive disciples and ne’er-do-well castaways. Weakness and foolishness. He’s not afraid to look silly and weak. He announces a new program for peace, an in-breaking of divine power; but he kneels at an old basin, washes their dirty feet, and wipes them dry with a towel. Weakness and foolishness. Jesus’s not afraid to look foolish and soft. So if you’ve come to church this Palm Sunday, expecting Jesus to make you look good, expecting Christianity to smooth out your rough edges, I’m sorry, but Jesus doesn’t give much of a hoot how good you look or how rough your edges are. In the face of life’s madness, he knows and he shows that the most audacious and courageous thing we can do is weakness, plain foolishness in the eyes of the world. Riding into Jerusalem on a gimpy, unridden colt. Washing his friends’ dirty feet at dinner. Begging God—with his last precious breath—to forgive his steely executioners. Often the radical choice of compassion means looking silly in the streets. But Jesus is not afraid to look silly. Not in the name of love. Not in the name of God.
Some of you remember the modest prayer vigil we organized ten years ago, just ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Some of you were with us in those days, standing out there in the morning rain, where the peace pole is now, holding handmade signs, begging pitifully for peace and restraint. I think back now to 2003 and that vigil, and it must have seemed to commuters on High Street an oddly underwhelming witness, a goofy picture of Christian defiance and compassion. We knew we were powerless. We read so much writing on so many walls. The administration’s warmongering was not only beyond our understanding; it was beyond our control. But we gathered, just the same, morning after morning, some kind of weird witness for peace. Most of those days, we finished in a circle, just a handful, reading St. Francis’ prayer for peace together: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow the seeds of love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope.” Let’s be honest—a handful of church folks in the rain? Invoking words of love and pardon, faith and hope? Goofy, indeed. And underwhelming. To say the least.
But I remember this week something else that happened that spring. Ten years ago. I remember getting a phone call, just after the invasion itself, from a teacher next door at Westlake Elementary. Someone I’d never met. And I remember this teacher asking if we’d consider re-constituting the morning vigil, getting it going again. She told me that spring that she was losing her faith: watching so many preachers and politicians invoking God as their partner in violence and vengeance. It had become something of a chore just getting up in the morning, driving in to work. But she told me our little vigil—in the awful build-up to war—kept her heart open and her faith alive in a dark and dismal winter. “I need you people out there,” she said. “It gave me something to believe in.” I put down the phone and cried. I have confess to you that I felt so terribly and pitifully impotent that winter. Watching presidents and pundits conspire in such idiocy and malevolence. And our vigil on the corner seemed so sadly irrelevant—irrelevant to any one who mattered, irrelevant to the machinery of war and the chicanery of politics. But then there’s that phone call, and that young teacher reminds me of something Jesus has been saying all along. Love is never irrelevant. And often the radical choice of compassion means looking silly in the streets.
In our story this morning—one we’ve even acted out in our own procession—peacemaking emerges again, in plain view, at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. There’s really no doubt in the minds of scholars that Jesus organized this odd procession as a prophetic protest against the Roman Governor’s own procession at the other end of the city. Pilate would have been coming to Jerusalem that Passover from the West, as he always did, to keep order among the Jews. Passover was a popular time for revolt and civic disruption; so Pilate and his Roman legion would make a huge show of Roman military might. Riding into the city on their muscle-bound war-horses. All decked out in the finest in Roman military attire. There were probably colorful Roman banners and booming Roman drums. And the point of all this was clear: don’t mess with the boss. Know your place little people, and don’t mess with the boss.
So here comes Jesus, this small-town rabbi from the boondocks. And he’s building a movement around compassion, and he’s inviting untouchables into his inner circle, and he’s preaching forgiveness and mercy and peacemaking. And just to be sure, just to be sure that we see and feel and know the difference...Jesus dreams up this very different procession, this seemingly pitiful procession, this bit with an unridden colt and crowds spreading cloaks on the road and hungry disciples, homeless believers, society’s outcasts shouting PEACE, PEACE, PEACE, BLESSED IS THE KING WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!
So undoubtedly there’s this kind of exuberance, maybe even defiance in the air as they run after the colt, chasing Jesus down the Mount of Olives. PEACE, PEACE, PEACE, BLESSED IS THE KING WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD! And Jesus feels it too. Peacemaking has something to do with claiming a vision, seeing a future, believing that it can be different. It’s not easy to do in a season of violence, in a culture of animosity and grievance. But Jesus uses every tool in his kit to publically imagine a different world, a better future, a people at peace. And so he rides along, bumps along, on an unridden colt. As the outcasts sing praise, and peace, and blessing!
But there’s this other dimension here this morning, this other dimension of peacemaking here in Luke’s story. And it follows so quickly, so abruptly on the Palm Sunday love fest that we miss it sometimes. We’re tangled up in those cloaks on the ground, hanging tight to those wonderful, wavy palms in our hands. Jesus gets close to the city, close to Jerusalem, and he sees the city from the hill opposite. You remember what happens at the end of this story. How Jesus weeps. How he grieves. How he weeps for missed opportunities and violence in the streets and too many wars in the name of somebody’s God: “If you, even you,” he cries, “had only recognized the things that make for peace!”
The kind of peacemaking Jesus’ teaches, the kind of peacemaking he embodies—it’s always weaving together exuberance and grief, defiance and mourning. It’s hopeful and joyful, but Jesus’ peacemaking is sober too, and painfully aware of all the ways we hurt one another, all the ways we accommodate animosity and settle for retribution. Jesus finds a way to bear all these contradictions in love. The beauty of God’s world and the cruelty he meets around every corner. The generosity of the human heart, all the ways we do right by one another, and our dreadful capacity for bigotry. Jesus is open to all of it: to the world of wonders and the grief of violence. Peacemaking imagines a future full of love and weeps sadly for missed opportunities and broken hearts of the here and now.
Some of us have been watching with some interest the transition this month from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis in Rome. And who knows, really, where this new Pope will lead the Catholic Church? It’s much too early to tell. But symbolism matters, and his first few choices are certainly interesting ones. For example, you know that a lot was made of Pope Benedict XVI’s footwear. How he had this thing for the bright red shoes of the papacy—and almost seemed to revel in their showiness and extravagance.
Did you see this week that Pope Francis has decided, on Maundy Thursday, to forgo the usual glitzy Vatican liturgy for Maundy Thursday. And he’ll go instead to an Italian prison somewhere just outside of Rome—where he will very simply kneel before gathered inmates and wash and dry and wash and dry and wash and dry their feet? Now, as I say, who knows where this new Pope will lead his Church? But this little gesture, this foolish little gesture is going to cause a whole lot of folks, a whole lot of us, to think again. Love in weakness is a beautiful thing, even a powerful thing. Compassion in action is a foolish thing, but a bold and promising thing. And it opens doors in the human heart many of us had thought were closed forever.
You see, sometimes, in the face of despair, the most audacious and courageous thing we can do is weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world. I hope you’ll give that some thought this week, as you follow the story from Palm Sunday to the courthouse steps Wednesday. Where we’ll cheer and sing and commit ourselves all over again to marriage equality and human rights for everybody. I hope you’ll give it some thought as you follow the story from the courthouse Wednesday to this circle Thursday. Where we’ll kneel over bowls and pitchers and take turns washing the feet of friends and strangers. Practicing Jesus’ foolishness in the best way we know. You see, sometimes, in the face of the world’s madness, the most audacious and courageous thing we can do is weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world. And it’s the one thing, in the end, that really changes anything at all. AMEN.