“Palm Sunday: The King’s Parade”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, April 9, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Today we begin the walk to Jerusalem
The holy week
The demand that we face the darkness, the broken path, the abuse of power.
Today we walk toward the dayspring breaking through,
The Easter day of joy.
So let us prepare the way,
Let us join together this morning in worship
To see what holiness resides within and about us
To welcome in the day
And make straight the path for the work of Love.
Let us worship together.
ONE: Palm Sunday is found:
ALL: whenever we are serving a noble and unpopular cause with selfless devotion, holding to the ideals of truth and justice;
whenever we are seeking to uplift the fallen, to comfort the brokenhearted, to strengthen and encourage the weak and hopeless;
whenever we are working bravely and persistently in the face of abuse and criticism to establish more equitable relations in the world;
ONE: whenever we are sacrificing our lives on behalf of what we believe to be the service of love for all humanity.
ALL: That is Palm Sunday!
Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs by Robert Fulghum
“Giants, wizards and dwarfs was the game to play.
Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game. It’s a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.
Organizing a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity–all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out: “You have to decide now which you are–a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!”
While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”
Where do the Mermaids stand?
A long pause. A very long pause. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” says I.
“Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid.”
“There are no such thing as Mermaids.”
“Oh, yes, I am one!”
She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category. Mermaid. And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the “Mermaids” – all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?
Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it.
What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. “The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!” says I. (Yes, right here by the King’s Fool, I thought to myself.)
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.
It is not true, by the way, that Mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.”
Last week in church I felt like a dog reuniting with its pack. After having been away for three months of sabbatical, you’re lucky I didn’t bowl you all over while leaping about and slobbering a reunification happy-dance! I didn’t know I’d feel quite like that about being back, because it had also felt good to be away for a while. But as I watched you settle into your pews, your faces looked so beautiful to me, each different, each carrying the triumphs and strains of daily life. I wondered what I’d missed. I wondered what each of us misses in each other’s lives, even when we’re around each other a lot.
As the service started, I stood beside Olivia Daugherty while she lit the chalice, and I remembered an important conversation her mom and I had about her before she was even born. There are kids here whom I knew about and longed to meet, long before they came into being. Sometimes I’ve heard about one of your partners for a long while before they come to church. I get all excited to meet them, but try to keep the leaping and slobbering in check. It’s moments like those that I am reminded that groups work far better because everyone who’s there is part of it. The humanists and the theists, the wealthy and the working poor, the brown skinned folks and the pale skinned folks, the soldiers and the pacifists, the gender queer teens and the elders who’ve seen it all. Dwarfs, Giants, Mermaids… And at the same time there is always, always, someone missing. At Passover, Jews keep an empty chair at the table to symbolize their hope that the prophet Elijah might join them, but it also symbolizes that a stranger or newcomer would be welcome. I looked out at your faces last week, and I felt as if you’d pulled a chair out just for me, and patted the seat. It made me want to turn and pull one out for the next person who walked in behind me. Hey, I’d say, welcome to this big old pack of common folks, you’re one of us too. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to call you all dogs.)
I want to express my gratitude to all of you for the gift you gave me of a sabbatical, and to anyone who picked up work on my behalf while I was away. In year eight, I hate to admit it, but I was getting crotchety. Little things would weigh on me, I’d take things personally, or stay up all night trying to perfect some piece of writing that didn’t need that kind of neurotic perfectionism. I had tried to save up my sabbatical for a potential maternity time with a kid, but my life hasn’t yet lined up quite right for that, and so instead of waiting further, the Parish Board and John encouraged me to take some time away to “sharpen the saw” so to speak. I am profoundly grateful to you, and my sense is that the time away gave me much the same experience as Lent.
Many people find this season of Lent, which shepherds us through the end of winter and into the revival of all things new, to be a time worthy of reflection. During my sabbatical, I tried to find a balance of reflection, learning and action. John suggested to me you might appreciate knowing how I used the time a little more specifically, so I’ll take a minute to do that, before we move on to considering Palm Sunday.
During Jan, Feb and March, I faced the sense of loss and doom that our election stirred up. I’m not done with that feeling, but I dug deep within to find my own resilience. For me this meant going to the Women’s March in DC, and to an anti-racism conference, a No Ban/No Wall speak out, a spoken word poetry slam put on by Mipsters, (Muslim Hipsters,) and backing my best friend Nazish, to start a non-profit centering on peace activism. In my average day I think up all sorts of art, and I dream about making bright colorful paintings at night, but somehow what with everything else, I rarely actually make any. I’m pretty critical of myself about that because I feel like being an artist is part of who I really am, so I signed up for a stained glass class at Emerson Umbrella in Concord, and loved every minute. I did not write the children’s book I hoped to, but did make a few false starts. Instead I played guitar, and taught myself how to use Audacity, which is an audio editing program.
Nazish and I are sort of aunties to three little girls and we were able to have them come stay with us while their mom went to visit her family in Pakistan. When the President created the travel ban, we spent a couple scary days with the girls wondering if their mom would be allowed back in to the U.S. Thankfully, she was. But I remain horrified at the bigotry of our current leadership. To capitalize on that outrage, I helped to lead “bystander trainings” with my playback theatre troupe, True Story Theatre. With the audience we practiced scenarios in which we stand up for someone who’s being targeted. It’s nerve-wracking, sometimes embarrassing, and empowering to speak up. At one show at a mosque, Jews and Muslims shared about how it feels to be allies to one another in public, because society would more likely expect them to be against one another.
Because our troupe performs in over 150 shows a year on many topics that are social justice issues, I had the chance to be in shows about Veterans and Civilians speaking across the divide, an Episcopal Coming of Age Class telling wisdom stories, a show about combatting domestic violence, and a night featuring stories of the transgender experience based on Arlington’s “Town Read” this year called “Becoming Nicole.”
In terms of sharpening my ministry abilities specifically, I listened to tons of sermon podcasts (the good, the bad and the ugly,) and I read a lot: fiction, news, short stories and poetry. On Sundays I fell into the back pews of churches all over the place. I returned to First Parish just in time to cast my vote to become a Sanctuary Church, and perhaps like you, went home on cloud nine, thinking that maybe someday soon we’d have someone or maybe even a family, joining us because we decided to pat the seat beside us and smile our wide welcome.
Thank you for the saw-sharpening sabbatical time. I feel deeply grateful, renewed, and energized. I hope to put it all to good use here somehow, and I rejoin you with the fresh hope of all that is in bud.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
The theme of Palm Sunday is radical welcome, and that is our theme today as well. Here is a reading from the gospel of Mark, chapter 11, verses 1 – 10.
READING: Mark 11:1-10
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
As we are all well aware, the stories surrounding Jesus’ last week on earth are legion. The events of the week are recorded in each of the four gospels and are the subject of God only knows how many movies, books, hymns, songs and paintings. The time leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus is one of the great dramas of rejection and despair. It has to come before the Easter rejoicing, because the promise of new life and great hope for humanity would be meaningless if there was no understanding of what Jesus’ death meant to the people who knew him. You can come hear more of this story unfold at our annual candlelight Tenebrae Service on Friday night.
Our reading from Mark begins with Jesus, the little understood revolutionary, arriving at Jerusalem in order to both celebrate the Passover Seder and to confront the rulers and ruling institutions of his day.
The entry into Jerusalem is important, because the story relates one of the wildest and most politically explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry. The story is a reminder of the political challenge of his ministry, as well as the revolutionary undertones often embedded in worship itself.
As Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, his followers throw their cloaks and palm fronds down on the ground as a sign of homage and submission…of laying one’s self down, in hopes that the coming King will be able to bring deliverance. While the people there are unhappy under Roman rule, they quickly are willing to submit to Jesus, who they hope will be their new ruler, a ruler who would bring them freedom and liberation.
For all its joyful Hosannas, Palm Sunday is a day of contrasts. We hear it in the happy crowd welcoming their non-violent activist leader, the same crowd who will by the end of the week take part in his crucifixion. We see it in Jesus, the worshipped one, riding in with humility on a borrowed colt. The contrast is clear in the destination of Jerusalem, as the city that welcomes him will later demand his blood. Because we know how the drama of holy week plays out, we can see that the greatest hopes for peace are hidden from those who wish for it. Only on Easter morning will all be revealed.
Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan give us a riveting image with which to begin: there were actually the two processions that Passover week. From the west came Pontius Pilot draped in the golden glory of Imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor. He moved in with the Roman army at the beginning of the Passover week to make sure nothing got out of hand. Insurrection was in the air with the memory of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. From the east came another procession, a commoners’ parade: Jesus in ordinary robes riding on a young donkey. The careful preparations Jesus made just prior to his arrival, suggest that he had planned a highly ritualized symbolic prophetic act. The carnivalesque “military procession” into Jerusalem was a carefully orchestrated piece of “Guerrilla Theatre.”
Riding on the colt, his feet possibly dragging on the ground, Jesus came not as one who lords his authority over others, but as one who humbly rejects domination. His message was of radical acceptance toward each person. He came not as a mighty warrior, but as one who was honorable and refused to rely on violence. He and his growing band of followers were riling up the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the homeless, telling them that God loves them, telling them that loving each other and being kind to each other was more important than following the old rules. His way was to befriend the outcast, eat meals with the unclean, defend the criminal. The Roman authorities feared him, and their solution was to crush him and others like him, lest their system of domination be upturned.
What’s interesting is that on Palm Sunday Jesus takes the role of a jester, who acts in a humorous, disorienting way introducing a totally different understanding of societal rules. It would have been sheer mockery of the Roman procession on its own, but add to it the prophesy of Zechariah, of a peasant king riding on a donkey, and we have something that is much more subversive and challenging to Rome’s authority than mere theatrics.
Jesus’s street theatre invites us to consider the ways in which lampooning may be a means of unmasking and resisting the powers that be. The annual revisiting of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem provides the occasion for us to explore the politically subversive nature of scripture through parody and carnival. We know that humor and carnival is a favored method around here at First Parish, whether we are goofing around for fun, or challenging the powers that be. As one parishioner once put it, what she loved best about First Parish was it’s “circus like atmosphere.” We already like subversive, revolutionary, and slightly chaotic revelry. Palm Sunday fits right in with our modus operandi.
Back in 30 AD Jesus set up a parody of contrasts. We have our own contradictions in our time too, of course. Someone tells us the best way to create peace is by initiating a war. Our President’s recent decision to launch a missile strike on Syria seems to follow this argument. The strong are strengthened by holding off the weak. Parents confront fear by storing a handgun in the dresser drawer. Schools encourage competition over cooperation. Governments and businesses seek to win at all costs, even if it bankrupts them. Jesus rides his lowly farm animal through all of it.
This is the normalcy of civilization, Bible scholars Borg and Crossan remind us. “It is important to realize that what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. [As] empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is simply the way domination systems behave.” We live today in a society where greed, hate and closed mindedness looks so normal that sometimes we don’t even notice it. In our own lives and community, what are the things that make for peace? What are the things hidden from our eyes?
As Unitarian Universalists, we stand firmly against the Roman Empire of our day. Becoming a Sanctuary Church will most likely not be without difficulties. Will we have the support of our neighbors? Will we be able to create a safe enough place? Will there be barriers of language, race, or class? Will we be able to welcome our guests as equals into our church life, or will we pity them in some way? Will our government put pressure on us in a way that we are not equipped to handle? Will we have enough financial backing to see this through? Will we continue to stand together as a community to support this one small act of defiance as our own form of subversive guerrilla theatre? Despite the supposed separation of church and state we are about to play our own game of political chess. Make no doubt that we are confronting politics, on behalf of justice, just as people of faith have always done.
Bible Commentary Feasting on the Word reminds us that “history is replete with the stories of common folk who have recognized that we are able to accomplish more together than we can alone; stories that we might do well to remember as we continue our Lenten journey. They include the women and men who provided safe passage on the underground railroad for person seeking freedom from chattel slavery in the United States in the mid-19th century. Remember also Dietrich Bon Hoffer and others in the confessing church in the 1930s who took a definitive stance that their loyalty was to God, not to Hitler and the Nazi’s. Youth in South Africa stood against apartheid and formed the African national Congress youth league in 1944 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, envisioning a world in which racial domination would no longer exist. Many others joined these exemplars of uncommon courage, including the 250,000 women, men, and children from diverse racial, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds who gathered in the US Capitol on August 28, 1963, anchored in an abiding faith in respect and human dignity.” And let the half a million people who attended the Women’s March this year not go unmentioned as well.
Our values guide us in the ways of truth and love, whether our beliefs are the same or not. We seek to help one another with our words and deeds, and to not hold back when we might act. We lift up the human journey, not for what is glorified in our society: status and power, wealth and political leverage, but rather for the courage it takes to live a life of integrity, interdependence and goodwill.
Theologian William G. Carter writes, “Years ago, I was studying the New Testament while my father worked for a military contractor. That prompted many interesting conversations during my school vacations. I spoke eagerly about my dreams for world peace, and he listened patiently. Sometimes he noted that it was people like him who put money in the offering plate so that people like me could become pastors. After one of my rants, he said “I do not disagree with anything you have said, but we will never have peace on earth until we can quiet the wars with in our own hearts.” Then he looked at me as if to say, “they should teach you such things at the seminary.”
I’ll close with a poem written recently by a young black female social activist, Mickey ScottBey Jones. It captures how we must try to be with one another in the spirit of our radical welcome. It asks us to remember what are the things that make for truth, respect and solidarity. It invites us to have our eyes open to the pain of the world, while embodying peace within. If our church is to be a sanctuary for those society would cast out, we need to grab hold of the Palm Sunday extravagance. Waving our palm fronds, we pat the seat beside us. Let us welcome every being among us as if they are the long awaited peasant king on horseback. Or a new beloved child we can’t wait to know. Or at least already a member of this good old pack of common folks.
“An Invitation to Brave Space”
By Micky ScottBey Jones, inspired by an unknown author’s poem.
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know,
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work in it side by side….
By Carl G Seaburg
Between the dawn and dusk of our being, let us be brave and loving.
In our little passage through the light let us sustain and forward the human venture—
in gentleness, in service, and in thought. Amen.