Sunday, April 10, 2022

Phil Kniss: The Giving King

Lent 6 (Palm Sunday) – “Hosanna turns to Crucify: The Crucified Messiah”
John 12:12-19

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Today we have one of the most interesting Gospel stories about Jesus,
and one of the most misunderstood.
It was grossly misunderstood by the crowds
watching Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.
And it is equally misunderstood by us modern readers of the story.

And to be honest, I probably greatly misunderstand it, too.
So take what I say this morning, and examine it, test it,
and then, still, take it with a grain of salt.

Let me first lay out a quick summary of the story . . .
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey,
permitting, if not encouraging, the crowds’ shouts of Hosanna.
The people want to make Jesus into a political King,
but Jesus subtly refuses by riding a humble donkey,
showing that he was a servant to the poor, not a mighty king.
Then in a matter of a few days,
this same crowd turns against him and try to crucify him,
because he is not going to rescue them from Rome after all.
And we find out,
after his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection,
that what he is after is a heavenly kingship,
not an earthly one.
And we are invited to
receive Jesus as our spiritual savior,
and worship him with a pure heart.

Does that basic summary sound familiar to you?
Now, let me explain why we need to take
virtually every element of that summary,
and rethink it,
because we have them all wrong—
mostly, if not entirely.

Let’s start at the beginning.
Why a donkey? And not a white horse?
I didn’t go back to my old sermons to confirm,
but I’m almost positive I’ve preached some sermons
that portrayed the donkey
as a humble animal of the working class, the farmer.
And that when Jesus choose a donkey,
a lowly working animal,
riding atop it with his feet almost dragging the ground,
he was rejecting the effort to make him an earthly King.
He was presenting himself not as King,
but as Servant to the poor.

All sounds good.
But it’s unquestionably bad biblical interpretation.
Because we have extensive evidence—
both in the Bible, and in other literature and archeology,
that donkeys were highly regarded in the Ancient Near East.
Maybe we’ve been led astray by Eeyore,
the donkey in Winnie the Pooh,
who hangs his head, and talks in a low voice,
as if he’s not worth much.
Today, for some reason, we associate donkeys
with being dumb or submissive or timid.

Not so in the time and culture of Jesus.
Because of their ability to provide
reliable transportation for long distances,
donkeys were sometimes even given semi-divine status.
And . . . they were often associated with royalty.
Jesus was by far not the only king to have ridden on one.
As a matter of fact,
it was customary, when a king returned to his city,
after victory in battle,
the steed of choice for the victory parade into the city
was a donkey.

So it is simply wrong to suggest
that Jesus was rejecting earthly kingship by choosing a donkey.

It would be more accurate to say
that Jesus was giving a signal, both to the Jews and the Romans,
that he was coming in peace, not to take over with violence.
Kings rode horses when leading their armies into battle.
They rode donkeys when they were coming in peace.

So it seems to me that what Jesus signals here,
is that he is coming into Jerusalem as a king,
but not a king who will seize political power by force.
Rather, a king who exercises his power by giving it away.
He is the Giving King.
As the week unfolds, that message in reinforced in many ways.
Jesus’ power is manifest by acts of self-giving.
Whether in the upper room, washing his disciples’ feet,
or in the garden, condemning Peter’s use of violence,
or in the High Priest’s chamber,
responding with transparency and wit,
without belittling his accusers,
or before Pilate,
sometimes silent,
sometimes answering with respect,
but always true to himself.
Ultimately, he gives up his own life—
not as a helpless victim,
but as a king—the Giving King.

A little reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree,
about the tree who gave its apples, its branches, even its trunk,
for love of the boy.

Jesus is the kind of king that is willing to give whatever it takes,
to bring life to those he loves,
and who are subject to his reign.

In contrast to the power of the Roman Empire—
whose power was expressed by acts of
taking and accumulating—
taking money, freedom, dignity from others,
and gathering it all to themselves,
so they could lord it over others . . .
In contrast to the power of the religious hierarchy—
whose power was likewise exerted on others by coercion,
in order to maintain what little power they still had . . .
In contrast to all that, Jesus enters Jerusalem—
the center of religious and political power in that region . . .
and says, let me show you the nature of royal power,
the power of God that has been shared with me.
This kind of power may not save my earthly life,
but can save the world.

So yes, true enough, there is humility in his choice to ride a donkey,
instead of a war horse.
But Jesus is by no means rejecting kingship.
He is redefining kingship.
And it’s still a political kingship, in the sense that
this divinely-ordained power of giving
is meant to be lived out in human community now.
It’s not just for some age to come.
Giving, rather than taking and accumulating,
is an organizing principle for Jesus’ disciples,
then and now.
It’s how we are called to be formed as a people,
as a community in this world.
Therefore, it’s inherently political—
in the best and truest sense of the word.

And now let’s consider the notion
that these people shouting “Hosanna” are fickle,
that they turn on Jesus.
That the very crowd that one day
was shouting the praises of Jesus,
was now shouting just as loudly to crucify him.
I know I’ve suggested that from this pulpit.
I’m not so sure any more.

I won’t say some of them don’t do an about-face.
I’m sure some do.
We know that mob psychology is a real thing.
It can make people do something in the heat of the moment,
that they couldn’t have imagined doing,
even days earlier.

But this notion is at best a half-truth,
is not supported by direct biblical evidence,
and does not take into account the complexity
of the power struggle at work in Jerusalem.
I talked about this in a sermon a few weeks ago,
pointing out the clear social and political differences,
between the rural north (Galilee and its region),
and the powerful, more urban south (Jerusalem and Judea).

If there is one thing that stands out as a newer, stronger
impression on me in this journey through John,
it’s that the way Jesus was received varied widely,
according to culture, geography, and social status.

In John, there is this repeated back-and-forth
between Galilee and Jerusalem,
which reveals as much about the people as it does Jesus.

In Galilee, Jesus regularly crossed religious and cultural boundaries,
with very little push-back.
He offered healing to Gentiles and Romans and Jews alike,
and no one mounted an objection.
His popularity only grew.
The crowd size grew,
so much so he could hardly find a quiet spot to pray.
But back in Jerusalem, among the power elite
(both religious and civil powers),
it didn’t take much to get them upset.
A man unable to walk for decades was healed
when Jesus told him to pick up his mat and walk.
The ruling class of religious folk blew a gasket over that,
because Jesus told someone to carry their mat
on the Sabbath!
I can’t even imagine something like that happening in Galilee.

When Jesus returned to Galilee,
after his bold move
to clear the temple of the animals and moneychangers,
he was welcomed like a hero
by his fellow Galileans who heard what he had done.
While back in Jerusalem, in smoke-filled rooms (so to speak),
the elite were conspiring to find a way to kill him.

Here’s the thing—during big religious festivals,
Jerusalem streets were filled with all kinds of people—
both the rural northern folks who feel the brunt of oppression
and were angry at their oppressors (Roman and religious)
and are looking for someone to save them,
as well as local residents of Jerusalem,
many of whom, along with the priestly class,
along with scribes, Pharisees, and the Sandhedrin,
have found a way to thread the needle, politically,
to stay in the good graces of Rome,
and keep the peace,
so they can maintain their religious power structure.
It is any surprise that Jesus wasn’t popular
among residents of Jerusalem?
Most of them either had family in the religious ruling class,
or were neighbors to them,
or did business with them.
They were enmeshed with the power structures.

In today’s text, Jesus entered Jerusalem
during one of the biggest religious festivals—Passover.
People from every part of Palestine were there.

How do we know it wasn’t primarily his Galilee supporters
who came out en masse and waved their palms
and shouted “Hosanna,” which means, “Save us!”?
It would make perfect sense to me.

And how do we know that the crowds shouting “crucify him!”
a few days later, weren’t primarily residents of Jerusalem,
whose resistance was stoked by the religious ruling class,
who they were deeply connected to,
and easily influenced by?

Thing is we don’t really know.
But I’m beginning to assume
that is the most reasonable description of what was happening.

This pivotal story in John’s Gospel,
which appears in all four of the Gospels in much the same form,
is a profound lesson to us as a people,
as a community of Jesus followers.

Who do we surround ourselves with?
Who do we shoulder up next to when we want something to happen?
What kind of power are we willing to wield
to get the outcome we want?

There is nothing inherently wrong
with holding positions that are politically powerful.
The question is how we are stewarding that power?
Is it the power of the empire—the take and accumulate kind?
Or is it the power of kingdom of heaven—
that reveals itself through self-giving love.

It’s a question I need to ask of myself, of course,
living as I do in one of the “Jerusalems”
of the Mennonite Church,
and being a 60-something white male senior pastor,
who has been in my role long enough
to have gathered a good deal of knowledge and influence.

Am I using my power to hold on what I have and what I want,
to secure my position?
or do I exercise my power and resources
by giving them away to others who need them more?

Am I surrounding myself with others in Jerusalem
who hold power like mine?
or do I open myself to what the spirit may be doing up in Galilee?
even if I don’t fully understand it or appreciate it?

I think many of us can ask the same sort of questions.
Just change the context a bit,
and you can probably find yourself in this story.
Are you with the crowd of outsiders shouting “hosanna”
at the beginning of the week?
Or are you with crowd of insiders protecting the status-quo,
and shouting “crucify” at the end of the week?
I imagine we can find ourselves in both places at times.
We are the ones who need to be humbled by this story of Jesus.

As you consider where you find yourself in this story,
let’s all join in calling on God’s mercy and forgiveness.
We will begin by singing again, the “Kyrie,”
translated simply, “Lord, have mercy.”
Then we will read the words of confession together, in unison,
Then repeat the Kyrie. Let us sing.

God of the foolish cross,
you are not the savior we expect.
     Your power does not look like the power
          we want our God to demonstrate.
     Your wisdom makes no sense to us.
We are happy to join the crowd,
          waving branches,
     but not so sure we want to follow you
          into the temple courts
          into the upper room
          into the garden of Gethsemane
          to the foot of the cross.
Forgive our false assumptions.
Clarify our clouded vision.
Free us to relax into the foolishness
     of your love and grace

—Phil Kniss, April 10, 2022

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