This Sunday is Palm Sunday, perhaps the most political Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Here’s a sermon from the vault from Luke’s account of the triumphal entry.
At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.
After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.
Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.
So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.
He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.
He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?”
He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.
It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’
And he chuckled.
Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.
He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’
Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.
He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’
I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.
Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.
And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.
So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’
He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.
And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:
‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’
The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’
And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’
I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.
‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’
He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.
‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’
Again with mock sincerity I said:
‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.”
And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’
When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’
And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’
Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.
Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.
So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’
A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.
At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.
His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.
And establish peace.
The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.
For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.
From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.
It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.
But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.
It’s his deeds.
The mighty deeds.
The deeds of the power.
The healings and the miracles.
As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.
There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.
It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.
The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.
They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.
And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.
And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’
He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.
And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.
He’s talking about:
Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled
Embracing society’s untouchables
Eating and drinking with outcasts
Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven
Greatness redefined as service to the least
Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor
Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home
A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world
He’s talking about the Kingdom.
Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.
With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.
Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.
They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.
‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.
‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’
Did I mention I was feeling cranky?
Well I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’
The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’
I nodded my head in concession.
‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’
‘That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’
In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.
The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.
The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.
It’s like he knew. It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.
And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.
He goes up.
Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.
As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-
for him to forgive those who trespass against him
and for him to turn the other cheek
and for him to bless those who curse him
and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak
and for him to love his enemies
all the way to a Cross
just so we might finally see
the things that make for peace.
The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.
The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.