Sunday, April 14, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: A subversive choice

Palm Sunday: “God’s steadfast love endures forever”

Zechariah 9:9-10
Luke 19:28-40
Philippians 2:5-11

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A Subversive choice

It is a common experience to relive the events of a loved one’s life in anticipation of an anniversary of their death.  Whether our loved one was sick or died suddenly, our minds and sometimes our bodies relive the events leading up to their death.

And so, Palm Sunday is that for the Christian tradition, a remembering, a reliving of the events that led up to Jesus’ death.  We join in the procession as we wave our branches and proclaim our praise of Jesus.  It is quite easy to skip to next Sunday and just take in Easter, because the story in between is uncomfortable.  Suffering and death is uncomfortable.

Death can feel like a dark and lonely path.  When we remember a death of a loved one, we can be fraught with questions, did I, we, they make the right decisions?  Would it have turned out differently if they would have made a different choice?  These are natural and normal questions and thoughts to experience in remembrance.  What we need to remind ourselves is that we make the best decisions with God’s help.

Would Jesus have done it the same way had he known of all the events that would occur by the week’s end? It is very likely he did know that the situation was ripe for clashing and that there would be a threat to his life soon.  

Jesus was led all throughout his life by God’s spirit to act and speak into the political and religious reality of the day, and to embody a fuller reality of God’s love and peace.  And for that, I don’t think he would have done anything differently.

What we see in today’s passage is Jesus doing what Jesus did.  He made intentional decision of how he was going to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, an annual ritual to remember God’s deliverance of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. 

Growing up, Jesus was accustomed to making this pilgrimage with his family annually.  This was the pilgrimage indicated earlier in Luke when Jesus, at the age of 12, was lost and found by his parents listening to the priests in the Temple.  He would have become accustomed to the sights, sounds, and smells a festival like this brought.  

Jesus would have also noted the cultural and religious changes that would occur year after year.  

John’s maternal great-grandparents acquired a property in the 1950s in the little community of Pinecraft in Sarasota, FL.   Our family, the 4th generation, has made this a beloved vacation spot.  Pinecraft is known most by being a popular vacation destination for the Amish, drawing from various communities from the East and Midwest regions. 

A couple of weeks ago our family returned from another visit.  This being my 8th time there, I am noticing the things that seem to be preserved by time, like the local ice cream shop, the adult tricycles that are the main mode of transportation, some of the old cottages, and the shuffleboard courts that fill with players in the afternoons. 

I also am noticing the changes that are occurring, like when an old home is torn down and replaced by new construction, or more electric adult tricycles that zip around the streets.

Now I clearly understand this is not the same kind of pilgrimage Jesus was making.  For perhaps the few religious things about Pinecraft are the Amish Meetinghouse, the Tourist Mennonite Church, and the regularity in which people make the trip. However, the point I want to make is that changes are noticeable.  If you’ve ever returned to your hometown, a repeat vacation, or retreat destination, you notice how things change.

I imagine it was the same for Jesus.  Jerusalem wasn’t the same.  

Theologian Marcus Borg notes contextually, that the Feast of the Passover at this time had an increasing militarized Roman presence in the city and around the Temple.  Passover had become a time when riots or demonstrations would occur against the Roman rule.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, would make a point to enter Jerusalem with a cavalry of horses, soldiers, decked with armor and weapons, to be a visible presence and enforce order.

Jesus would have been aware of this practice that had been intensifying over the years.  Having known the Hebrew scriptures well, Jesus chose to enact Zechariah’s prophecy.  He made plans to ride into Jerusalem on a young colt sending a different message, with a mass of fellow pilgrims.  

So the same day Pilate rode into the city from the west, Jesus rode in on a colt from the east.  Two different rulers.  Two different directions.  Two different messages.

Jesus was surrounded by his followers who took their cloaks and laid them before him, naming with their actions that this was a royal procession.  People gathered branches available to them and waved them, declaring Jesus as king.  

These followers were those he healed, saw him heal, and experienced transformation in his teaching.  They were making the pilgrimage together, celebrating God’s act of deliverance for their people.  

Their pronouncement was coming from their depths of healed anguish and pain.  Their cries were coming from Jesus’ forgiveness and love, giving them a place to belong instead of the marginalized status that some of them would have had in their society.  Jesus gave them hope, worth, and empowered them to raise their voices.

Jesus’ action was being noticed and it was calling the attention of all those around.

I can be hard and downright judgmental of the Pharisees. However, in this instance I have some empathy towards them.  They were trying to navigate some tough social and religious realities.  They were trying to provide religious guidance and communicate to government on their religious community’s behalf.  They worked hard at striking deals or at the least negotiating with the authorities in order to maintain the rights the Jews had at the time. They were trying to keep things from getting worse, like, “no new taxes,” ever increasing oppressive restrictions, and infringement on land rights.   As long as there weren’t major demonstrations or disruptions, then status quo would be easier to maintain.

So Jesus wasn’t making things easy.  The shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  called attention and disturbance.  

Pharisees asked for Jesus’ help.  “Just try to keep them quiet,” they requested.

Jesus wouldn’t have it.  “If they don’t cry out, the stones will.”  Creation itself will cry out!  Reminds me of Romans 8 where Paul writes of the whole creation groaning as it waits for redemption. Jesus names that the created order will itself communicate, if humanity won’t. In a time of religious and political injustice, Jesus was lead to demonstrate for many to see, God’s different reign and exhibition of power. 

Jesus chose this time for this subversive act, one of humble boldness, to once again juxtapose ways of living out power; 

one of peace to that of force; 

one of persuasion to that of coercion; 

one of service to that of oppression.

I return to Pinecraft. An adjacent park has 8 meticulously maintained shuffleboard courts. Daily, people from the community gather to play.  When I watched the various matches that were played, I was struck by how many patterns of dress, head coverings, bonnets, trousers, suspenders, haircut, and style of beard were represented.  I could tell there were a number of Amish communities represented.  They may have had separate worshiping communities from which they came, but the courts became a place where friends were made regardless of the differences. 

Our family jokes about what happens in Pinecraft stays in Pinecraft.  Maybe it is a safe place where it was acceptable to establish relationships across boundaries.  They were humanizing the other.

I believe any place we are willing to engage in relationships with people different from ourselves we are making a choice to humanize the other, which can be seen as a subversive choice in our divisive climate. 

A few months ago, our congregation was involved in a collaborative effort to send a team of people to the US/Mexico border.  In their reporting and sharing with us we have heard initiatives locally that are involved in supporting the immigrant population in our community.  This is a subversive choice in the face of demonization and fear.

Faith in Action, an organization in this community with people of faith speaking and highlighting injustices.  This year the focus is on the injustices within our system of incarceration.  This group is making a subversive choice to speak into the oppressive power, humanizing the inmates and their families.

Simply gathering as a faith community to nurture our relationship with God and with one another is a subversive act in our individualistically focused society.

I realize using the word subversive is quite strong.  And yet, Jesus’ message is not of this world.  The messages we send when we act out of our faith filled passions, often bucks the system, stirs things up, or at the very minimum speaks a different message.

My examples of how this community is involved in subversive acts are by no means an exhaustive list.  Nor am I advocating you to go out and make waves simply to call attention to yourself or an issue.  I am rather inviting us into a week of contemplation.  

As we remember Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, may we consider how Jesus’ subversive choice speaks to us today?  

Where are we invited to be a presence of peace in the face of power and dominance?

Where are we invited into conversation with those with whom we have differences?

Where are we invited in our places of influence to act out of a place of servanthood?

We join in the procession crying out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  In so doing, be grounded in God’s love and bold in faith as we relive the coming days. 

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