Sunday, March 29, 2015

Phil Kniss: Getting politically cross-wise

Palm Sunday: A second look
Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11

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Pardon my shameless boasting, but in 32 years of preaching,
    I think I’ve never had a more clever sermon title than today.
    Don’t judge me, I know you’ve all done it.
        You have a sudden flash of brilliance,
            and you’re so pleased with yourself,
            you just have to point it out to somebody.
    I just hope I haven’t exhausted
        my limited supply of brilliance on the title.

All joking aside,
    I know it will never be brilliance that makes a sermon do its work,
        mine or any one else’s.
    Preachers are at the mercy of the Holy Spirit, in community,
        to mediate the Gospel.
    We need the Spirit to breathe on us and among us all—
        to take the divine word of Scripture,
            as it gets processed through the filter of my mind,
                based on my experience, perspectives, and biases,
            then turned into speech,
            then fly through the air into your ears and thoughts,
                with your experience, perspectives, and biases,
        so that the Spirit somehow helps the word pass into your heart
            unharmed and uncorrupted,
            that it might give life, and bear fruit.
    If that happens today, chalk it up to a miracle of God.

    And as always,
        take my words as Part One of a conversation,
        not a final proclamation.
    So God helping us, let’s engage these Palm Sunday scriptures.

This title phrase I’m so proud of—“politically cross-wise”—
    has multiple layers of meaning
        that may not be immediately apparent,
        but which, of course, I will point out.
    I may be breaking new ground with that phrase,
        because I Googled it.
    It shows up only 15 times on the internet,
        none of them in a sermon,
        none of them with my multiple meanings.
    Maybe some of you can already tell where I might be going with it.

Let’s start with the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumphal entry,
    which we retold this morning,
        in action, in song, in words from Mark 11.

I’m going to contradict something you’ve heard many times.
    You’ve heard it said Jesus was not a political Messiah,
        but a spiritual Messiah.
    You’ve heard me say something along those lines.
        But not in recent years.
        I’ve given up that line of thinking.
    Jesus was, most definitely, a political Messiah.

This march into Jerusalem was a political march.
    It was intended, from the start,
        to be a confrontational walk into Jerusalem
            to set things right in society.
    It was to be the beginning of a social and political revolution.

If Jesus did not see himself as a political Messiah,
    the story makes no sense.
    Not only did Jesus not stop this political march.
    He facilitated it. He initiated it.
        He sent his disciples to fetch his ride.
        He got up on the colt, of his own accord.
        He allowed people to spread cloaks and branches on the road—
            clear symbols of royalty.
        He allowed them to take up political chants—
            “Hosanna!”, “Save us!”—
                a familiar political chant for greeting a king
                    returning home from battle.
        They openly proclaimed him a conquering king,
            to save them from brutal King Herod.
        This was the chant of revolution,
            and he did not shush them.

If we try to claim that this public act of Jesus and his followers,
    which they orchestrated,
    was not a political event, but only spiritual, or internal,
        we are not being honest with the biblical text,
        and we are completely ignoring the historical context.

The savagery of Herod’s oppression can’t be overstated.
    It was in-your-face-barbaric. It was brutal and dehumanizing.
        ISIS has nothing on Herod.
The people were more than ready for a deliverer, a heroic savior.
    They found that person in Jesus.
    And it was realistic hope, in their minds,
        that Jesus could, literally, overthrow Herod,
        even if Herod had the whole Roman Empire behind him.

They had seen Jesus’ miracles.
    He fed five thousand with a few loaves.
    He healed people born blind and born lame.
    He even raised the dead.
Now, they were about to witness a miraculous coup d’etat,
    a wondrous deliverance from the world’s strongest army.    This political march into Jerusalem
        vibrated with hope and optimism.

Picture, if you can,
    East Germans marching through the hole in the Berlin Wall in 1989;
    Indians marching with Gandhi in the Salt March of 1930;
    Blacks and Whites walking arm-in-arm
        on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965,
            the 50th anniversary of which was earlier this month.
If you can picture those scenes
    and the hope, and determination, and righteous indignation
        of a people long oppressed,
    then you have an idea of what it felt like to the people,
        to be with Jesus on the march into Jerusalem.

If this sounds like a new idea, I assure you, I’m not making this stuff up.
    No, Mark 11 does not explain to future readers
        exactly how this procession was seen politically, at the time.
    But there is plenty of historical evidence to support this picture.
        Spelling it out wasn’t necessary to the first Gospel readers.
            They were living this reality.

    Now . . . did the people have the wrong idea about Jesus?
        Yes. Absolutely, yes.
    They were badly mistaken in their expectations.
        But their mistake was not
            that they proclaimed Jesus as a political Messiah.
        Their mistake was in misunderstanding
            the kind of politics Jesus stood for.
        They were wrong about the nature of Jesus’ kingship,
            about the character of his political kingdom.

Let’s recall what the word, “political,” means.
    I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating.
        Human beings are political by nature,
            and we need to embrace that.
        The word has been ruined for us,
            by a very broken political system in our country,
            that seems to accomplish more harm than good,
                when it manages to accomplish anything at all.

    But politics, per se, is an important and noble thing.
        Politics refers to the way human beings organize themselves
            into a cohesive social entity.
        It comes from the Greek words
            for city (“pó-lis”) and citizen (“po-lí-tes).
        So the process by which people decide
            how to distribute power and resources,
            how to make decisions,
            how to live together harmoniously—
                that process is “politics.”

The church is political.
    That’s not a value statement. That’s a fact.
    We establish patterns of making decisions
        of governing ourselves,
        of living together in an orderly way.
    We develop shared practices and expectations.
    We mark our citizenship by the rite of baptism.

    Your S.S. class or small group is a political body of one kind.
    Park View Mennonite Church is a political body of another kind.
    Virginia Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Church USA
        are political bodies of yet a different kind.
    We all have practices and rituals
        that help us relate to each other in meaningful ways.
    In the church, communion is one of the most political acts we do.
        It shapes us deeply as a people.

When we in the church proclaim that Jesus is Lord,
    we are making a profound political statement.
    We are pledging our loyalty to the reign of God.
    We are affiliating, politically, with the people of that realm,
        and their sovereign ruler.

But God’s kingdom politics
    has a completely different basis
    than the politics of any human government.
National and civic politics is about exerting social control,
    reinforced ultimately by violence, or the threat of violence.
    It forms alliances strong enough to control the agenda.
    It ensures that the ideology of the most powerful
        gets exerted onto the whole of society.

A classic case was recent elections in Israel.
    And yesterday there were elections in
        a sharply divided, and unstable, Nigeria.
    And we ourselves are starting to enter a 2-year long
        presidential election season.
    The question is always,
        which vision of the future will “rule the day”?
    Whether a multi-party parliamentary system
        where you win the right to build a majority coalition,
        or a 2-party system like ours
            where a 50.1% majority is all you need—
        in human partisan politics you play to win, at any cost,
            because winning gives you coercive power
                to control the agenda and outcome.
        There is no wonder this kind of politics
            is rife with corruption, and negativity, and dirty tricks.
        There is no wonder that partisan politicians
            are allergic to anything that smacks of weakness—
                like listening, collaboration, patience,
                or God forbid, respectful yielding to an opponent.

In Jesus’ day, the cause of the Jewish people was a righteous cause.
    They needed deliverance from oppression.
    Jesus was on the side of justice for his people.
    But his first allegiance was to an even higher cause.
        He came proclaiming God’s kingdom of peace and justice,
            a kingdom that would not be established by force,
                or by coercion of their enemies,
            but by the irresistible power of sacrificial love.

    The political platform Jesus identified with,
        during his march into Jerusalem as Messiah
            was that of hospitality,
            of orientation to the poor,
            of self-sacrificing love and compassion.
    Jesus rejected the politics of fighting violence with violence,
        of destroying others to save ourselves,
        of grasping for power in order to control our destiny.
    Jesus was a political Messiah,
        but with a kind of politics the people were not expecting.
        And that’s putting it mildly.

    The shouts of “hosanna” died away, quickly,
        and became shouts of “crucify him!”
    The first thing Jesus did upon entering the city of Jerusalem,
        was not to storm the king’s palace
        and confront Herod and his godless, violent regime.
    Jesus first went into the temple of God,
        and confronted his own people,
        those buying and selling animals for religious sacrifice.

That’s not to say Jesus wasn’t concerned about Herod and Caesar.
    Of course he was.
    But he had a deeper concern: his people were losing themselves.

    It wasn’t Rome that kept them from living into God’s purposes.
        They did that on their own.
        They forgot the two greatest commandments.
        They forgot to love and serve God
            with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
        They forgot to love and serve their neighbor.
    Their faith and identity could thrive even under brutal oppression.
    But it wouldn’t stand a chance if they destroyed it themselves.

They were forgetting justice and compassion.
    The wealthy were stepping on the poor.
    Widows and orphans were being left on their own.
    This injustice extended even inside the walls of the temple.
        The money-changers were making a profit off the less fortunate,
            right inside the temple, in the court of the Gentiles.
        Instead of making space for Gentile worshipers of Yahweh,
            they were extorting them financially,
            inside the place named a “house of prayer for all nations.”

Jesus looked on the city and wept for this people
    “lost and without a shepherd.”
    They were divided along party lines—
        Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes, Herodians—
        and forgot completely what held them together.
    They were too confused about their identity
        to realize their biggest problem wasn’t Rome.
    The spiritual and ethical ground had eroded under their own feet.
        So Jesus confronted them with deeper, more grounded politics.

After his ride into Jerusalem, it was clear where the ride would end.
    At the cross.
    Where all the powers of the world converged,
        to crush the opposition.
    But the cross is also where God showed up,
        and began to fashion a new covenant people.
    This would be a people formed around a covenant
        shaped by the cross, not the sword.

And now you see the layers of meaning in my phrase,
    “politically cross-wise.”

Jesus’ political framework
    built on sacrificial love and non-violence,
    put him cross-wise with the political systems already in power.
    Both the religious political system,
        and the imperial political system,
        could not abide someone who stepped entirely outside
            their play-to-win politics that relied on violent coercion.
    Even the crowds were at odds with Jesus’ way of love.
        His politics were a big disappointment to everyone,
            including his own disciples who had other hopes for him.
        The people shouting “hosanna” during the march,
            now realized their hopes were badly misplaced.
        Jesus was cross-wise with his people and their politics.

    But Jesus’ posture was politically cross-wise in another sense.
        His politics were shaped by the wisdom of the cross.
        His politics called people into communities shaped by the cross.
            Sometimes we call these cruciform communities.
            Cruciform simply means cross-shaped.
                Shaped by the wisdom of the cross.

Cross . . . wise . . . politics are no more popular today,
    than they were in Jesus’ day.

    We continue to be shaped by a culture of partisan politics.
    And yes, even the church is profoundly shaped
        by the partisan political culture.
    That becomes most apparent in times of church conflict.
        Let’s not fool ourselves that we are not being political.
        It doesn’t fly to accuse others of “being political”
            while claiming that we’re not.
    Rather, let’s just be honest about which political framework
        we use as we engage each other in the household of faith.
        Do our politics look like Jesus?
            Do we encounter the other with an open-armed posture
                of deep listening,
                respectful and vigorous engagement with the other,
                and sometimes, a willingness to yield,
                    for the sake of love.
        Or are we invested in a partisan play-to-win framework
            where we do whatever it takes to achieve our objective,
                and ensure our ideology comes out on top?

        Partisan politics are ultimately coercive politics.
            They are not cruciform.
            They are not, and never will be, cross-wise politics.

    So maybe the word to the church on this Palm Sunday
        is for us to accept the profoundly political implications
            of Jesus’ march into Jerusalem,
        to recognize the reality that we,
            as a community of belief and practice,
            are a political entity.
        And to accept that we need to sort out how we live together—
            how we make decisions,
            how we distribute power and resources,
            how we collectively discover the will of God.

    And, may we embrace a cross-wise character for our politics.
        May we vigorously reject the ways of our culture,
            and its political pattern of play-to-win-at-all-costs.
        And rather, adopt a cruciform political posture,
            to show love at all costs to
            to love our neighbor as ourselves,
            and to open our own hearts and minds and spirits
                to the possibility of dying to self,
                and letting the life of Christ transform our lives.

        That is what the cross does.
            It saves us.
            Maybe not in the way we expected.
            But it saves us.
                    “Jesus, the crucified one, save us!”

I invite us now into the “second look.”
    We will hear read to us again, just part of the Gospel story,
        verses 8-10 of Mark 11.
        We will hear the “hosannas” again,
            but perhaps in a different light.
    And then we will observe a long moment of silence,
        to reflect on those “hosannas”
        and open ourselves to where they might lead.
    Following the silence,
        we will hear two more scriptures,
            one from the prophet Isaiah,
            and one from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
        These texts will complete our second look
            and help us turn toward the week ahead,
            a week to remember Jesus’ suffering
                and death and resurrection.
    Let us open ourselves now, to the Spirit and the Word.

Mark 11:8-10
8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
     “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
     10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
        Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Isaiah 50:4-9a
4 The Lord GOD has given me
     the tongue of a teacher,
  that I may know how to sustain
     the weary with a word.
  Morning by morning he wakens —
     wakens my ear
     to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
     and I was not rebellious,
     I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
     and my cheeks to those
    who pulled out the beard;
  I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord GOD helps me;
     therefore I have not been disgraced;
  therefore I have set my face like flint,
     and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
     8 he who vindicates me is near.
  Who will contend with me?
     Let us stand up together.
  Who are my adversaries?
     Let them confront me.
9a  It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
     who will declare me guilty?

Philippians 2:5-11
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
  And being found in human form,
     8 he humbled himself
     and became obedient
    to the point of death —
     even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
     and gave him the name
     that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
     every knee should bend,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
     that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

—Phil Kniss, March 29, 2015

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