Palm Sunday: What kind of Savior?
Text: Luke 19:29-44
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During our years in the Middle East, Cindy and I twice attended the Palm Sunday procession from Bethany to Jerusalem. It is a festive occasion. Christians from around the world retrace the route that Jesus took some 2,000 years ago – each pilgrim waving palm branches and singing hymns in their language.
Palestinian Christians are the local hosts and lead the procession. Many Palestinian Christians -- like Bshara Awad, who Pastor Phil interviewed the Sunday before Christmas -- live in Bethlehem, only six miles from Jerusalem. But they must get permits from the Israeli government to travel to Jerusalem. Those who can get permits walk with others from their village. Each village carries a banner saying how close their town is to Jerusalem – and yet so hard to reach.
The walk from Bethany to Jerusalem is about two miles – the same as walking from one end of College Avenue to the other. The crowd walks up the backside of the Mount of Olives, along the ridge, then down a path through the Garden of Gethsemane and up into Jerusalem.
The story in Luke’s gospel begins with Jesus sending several disciples ahead to secure a colt. Matthew’s gospel says the disciples secured both a donkey and a colt for Jesus to ride. But the point is this: It was a humble mount – not one typically associated with a powerful leader, certainly not a king.
I have witnessed many Presidential motorcades in Washington, DC. They are anything but humble.
• First comes a posse of police motorcycles followed by police cars. Their job is to clear the path.
• Then comes a phalanx of black Suburban’s filled with Secret Service agents surrounding two identical limousines -- one of which carries the President.
• Then come more cars carrying White House staff and members of the press. Then comes a large communications van.
• Next comes an ambulance with medical staff.
• And, finally, more police vehicles.
Presidential motorcades are a far cry from the Palm Sunday procession. Jesus had no security detail. He rode a small colt through the middle of a shouting crowd – knowing that he was entering the city where he would be condemned to die.
While the crowds knew that Jesus was someone special, they were divided about his true identity. Some thought he was a prophet from Nazareth. Others believed he was a king. But they were united in recognizing that Jesus had come in the name of the Lord.
In Luke’s account: “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.”
This was too much for the religious leaders. They rebuked Jesus for not silencing the crowd. But Jesus would have none of it. “I tell you,” he responded, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Jesus knew that he was riding toward his death. But he was not focused on himself. As he descended the ridge from the Mount of Olives, he paused and wept over the city of Jerusalem.
“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
So, what are the things that make for peace?
God’s vision has always been for peace, for shalom – for the thriving of all people – for right relationships, health, and well-being. The prophet Micah summed up the essentials for shalom in this way: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The dominant narrative on Capitol Hill, where I served as Director of MCC’s Washington Office for 13 years, is that peace and security are the fruit of military might. Oh, some believe that diplomacy and development are also important. But the greatest of these is defense – military power. Indeed, our nation spends more than the next ten countries combined on national defense.
I made many congressional visits with the late Marian Franz – former executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. Marian, better than most, melded the pastoral and prophetic in her advocacy. She showed genuine concern for legislators, but she was not soft when advocating for justice and peace.
Every session of Congress, the late John Lewis would introduce the Peace Tax Fund bill. The bill would allow conscientious objectors to war to designate their tax dollars only to nonviolent government functions.
Hill staffers sometimes told us that Mennonites were freeloaders who want the security of living in a nation with dominant military power --without paying for or participating in it.
We responded that Mennonites believe in preventative defense. We mentioned the hundreds of MCC workers worldwide who contribute to human security by promoting relief, development, and peacebuilding projects that prevent conflicts from escalating into war. And that Mennonites do this defense work at no charge to U.S. taxpayers.
So, what are the things that make for peace? To Micah’s list – do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly -- I would add “telling the truth.” Let me touch quickly on each of these. Jesus modeled all four in his life – never more compellingly than during the Holy Week we are entering.
1. Tell the truth
Peace begins by telling the truth. Telling the truth about harms caused, injustices committed, and relationships broken. Truth-telling is the first step of repentance. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The good news begins with repentance. And repentance begins with telling the truth.
In 2004 – after things started unraveling badly in Iraq – then MCC Iraq worker Peter Dula came to Washington, and I took him to the State Department for a meeting. The Iraqi desk officer asked Peter a shocking question: “Peter, “What do we need to do to convince Iraqis that the United States may be stupid but that we are not mean-spirited?” Peter paused, then gave a great response: “I suppose we could start by posting billboards all over Iraq, saying, ‘We’re sorry, we blew it!’”
Apologies are rare in the political world. Sadly, like child’s play, politics has become a land of make-believe – spinning narratives that have little connection with truth and reality.
But I am encouraged by some of the recent national efforts at truth-telling. They are planting seeds of peace:
• The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004 and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.
• The increasing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in more recent years.
These seeds of peace tell a more truthful story about our nation’s history with dispossession, enslavement, and racism.
We cannot build peace upon a foundation of falsehoods.
2. Do Justice
It is not enough to simply tell the truth. We need to act on that truth. Jesus criticized the religious leaders for tithing down to the last sprig of mint while neglecting justice and God’s love. (Luke 11.42)
In 2004, five Iraqis attended the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU. During this time, they came to Washington, where I set up visits on Capitol Hill. The most memorable visit was with Rep. Jim Leach – a Member of Congress from Iowa and the only Republican to vote against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Rep. Leach apologized for the damage that the United States had caused to their country, and he asked them, “What next steps are needed in light of the damage caused?” He spent 45 minutes listening to their responses. It was a sacred conversation.
Truth-telling acknowledges the harm that has been done. Justice seeks to heal the damage. Healing justice. Justice that restores.
Peace cannot grow where injustice abounds.
3. Love kindness
The essence of Jesus’ ministry was empathy – healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching those who had lost their way.
We cannot build peace on a foundation of indifference and coldness.
The events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol are a stark reminder of the deep divisions in our country. Studies from the Pew Research Center indicate that partisan gaps in the United States have grown dramatically over the past twenty years. Fund for Peace is an independent non-governmental organization that focuses on conflict early warning. They produce an annual Fragile States Index. While many states are improving, the U.S. is 12th on the list of “most worsened” countries over the past decade.
What an incredible opportunity for the church to model kindness that connects with the humanity in those with whom we sharply disagree.
4. Walk humbly with God
I always liked visiting the office of the late Rep. Andy Jacobs, Jr. – a representative from Indiana and a supporter of the Peace Tax Fund. Most Congress members plaster their office walls with pictures of themselves with the President and foreign leaders and celebrities. Andy covered his office walls with pictures of himself with children.
What an important reminder to walk humbly, paying attention to the small ones, the vulnerable ones.
As we enter this Holy Week, are we paying attention to the things that make for peace -- in our relationships and our national politics? Or would Jesus still pause on the Palm Sunday to weep?
Following the example of Jesus, may we renew our commitment, to tell the truth, do justice, love kindness, and walk – or perhaps more appropriately on Palm Sunday -- ride humbly with God.
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