Scripture - Luke 19:28-44
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.
*Hymn - Mantos y Palmas (UMH 279)
These past few weeks we’ve been talking about prayer - the prayer practices that make up this central discipline of the Christian faith and are woven throughout our daily lives. We began with the prayers we say before we eat - table blessings - where we pause and give thanks to God and the most central Table Blessing of the Great Thanksgiving that we pray before we share in Communion, where we recall God’s salvation story and our role in the God’s redeeming work in the world. We then moved to Prayers of Intercession - the prayers we pray as petitioners on behalf of others and ourselves, using the image of a prayer shawl as a way to understand that our prayers are part of how God is knitting the world back into wholeness. Last week we explored prayers of Lament - sharing those honest, vulnerable, and raw emotions with God and how worship is a place where we can bring our full selves.
This week brings us toward the end of Lent with Palm Sunday - the day we remember Jesus entering into Jerusalem to shouts of joy and acclimation as the people looked to Jesus to fulfill their messianic hopes. We envision the crowds lining the pathway into the city watching Jesus and his followers make their way down the Mount of Olives. This scene was prayer in action - a radical prayer for the Reign of Peace to come upon them - for God’s kingdom to be established among them.
Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The Last Week give a compelling image and context for why this parade was so radically subversive and problematic for the Roman Empire - and why these shouts from the crowd were prayers that put into action a faith that would place them on the edges of both Jewish and Greco-Roman society. I invite you to imagine this scene...
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year . . .
. . . . One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.
. . . . Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
Jesus's procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate's proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus's crucifixion . . .
Pilate’s presence in Jerusalem for the Passover festival wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. It was not for some religious observance - after all, the religion of the Empire was that Caesar was the Son of God. Pilate’s presence wasn’t out of some deference to the local cultural customs, but to be on hand in case there was any trouble - which there often was as the Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt...God’s saving presence among the people, delivering them from under the hand of the oppressor into a Promised Land where they were their own people.
Pilate’s processional, with all the pomp and circumstance, would have been a strong reminder of the power of the Roman Empire, a reminder of just who was in charge, a reminder of this way of life where you climbed the ladder by currying favor with the Romans, where wealth and status grant power over others, where might made right, where the great Pax Romana had been forged through conquest, oppression, and exploitation.
So when we have Jesus coming into town, with an ordinary robe, riding on a donkey with his rag-tag band of disciples following on foot - no neat rows of tight discipline, no shiny banners but rather branches of palm and peasant clothing on the pathway before him into the city - we see that Jesus is coming as a new kind of king - a king of peace that will break the bonds of war, a king of peace come to challenge and change the kingdoms of this world, a king of peace that refused the temptations of earthly power based in domination and oppression. In Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims, we see a different way of life emerge that causes those in power to tremble because his message threatens to undo the very fabric upon which their whole Empire was built.
And the choice comes - the peace of Christ or the peace of Caesar? To which kingdom will we owe allegiance?
Jesus’ life - and that of his disciples - looked vastly different than the life of those whose identity was wrapped up in that of the Empire. The shouts of alleluia were prayers that placed hope in Jesus’ radical message of hope and peace, a cry to God for salvation, a witness to the movement of God’s kingdom among them -- a rejection of what the Empire stood for. Their very lives became a way in which God’s kingdom became real - a living witness that life could be oriented around compassion and forgiveness, mercy and justice, reconciliation and redemption, new life and hope and in the love of God. And we see all of that in Jesus, who healed the sick, ate with tax collectors and sinners, spent time with the forgotten people of his day and who gave of his very self to restore wholeness to humankind.
As we are invited to choose the peace of Christ over the peace of Empire -- our lives are also called to look different - our very lives transformed into prayers of action that call witness to the self-emptying power of Christ’s love and the way of life in the kingdom of God that seeks to look at others the way God does.
Richard Foster wrote, “Each activity of daily life in which we stretch ourselves on behalf of others is a prayer of action.”
Life in the kingdom means that we move beyond ourselves to consider how we are in the world - that we move beyond ourselves to choose the peace of Christ over the values of this world. When we stretch ourselves to forgive someone who wronged us - that’s life in the kingdom and a prayer of action. When we stretch ourselves to ask for forgiveness to someone we have wronged - it’s a prayer of action. When we open our doors to the stranger, to the lonely child, to the people who can’t seem to get it together - it’s a prayer of action. When we intentionally stretch ourselves to include those who don’t have a place at the table, it’s a prayer of action. When we prioritize our time and energy and resources to take note of, include, and engage the people who are forgotten in our world, it’s a prayer of action. When we give up our place at the center - giving away our privilege and emptying ourselves in the way of Jesus - it’s a prayer of action. When we orient our lives around Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed was near, when we choose to live a life following in the footsteps of Jesus, who gave up everything that the world had to offer, we make the kingdom more real here on earth, and our lives join those of the disciples throughout the ages who have worked for, prayed for, and lived for God’s reign of peace and justice.
These two processions are as real today as they were two thousand years ago. One that promises you peace and security paid for by war, that is shiny and respectable, that gives you a ladder to climb, that is full of might and wealth and splendor...the other a procession that cannot give you money or power or status or security or success, but a parade that proclaims the way of self-emptying love, promises peace beyond our understanding, that will join and march with you - no matter who you are or what state you are in - that promises life, grace, and freedom in God’s love.
Which do you join with your life?
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.