We are at the time of year that is called Holy Week in the Christian calendar. It is called Holy Week because it recounts the story of the end of Jesus of Nazareth's ministry - his betrayal, his capture, his arrest, his trial, his execution, and the miracle of his post-death appearances, or resurrection. Some Unitarian Universalist congregations don't observe Palm Sunday at all, or find it necessary to mention Holy Week. We do so here at First Parish out of a strong sense of tradition - this congregation has a long tradition of observing Palm Sunday - but beyond tradition there is the deep worth of this ancient narrative for our lives today. There is our ongoing need for spiritual teachers who can point us away from selfishness, despair and annihilation and toward wholeness and hope. Jesus is one of those teachers. It is not Jesus' fault that so many Christians pervert his teachings and make a mockery of his message.
What is life-giving about Jesus is not the truth or legend around certain details of his biography, but his teachings and his very being. His quality of presence. His commitments. We heard earlier some of his teachings, teachings that are particularly about what creates a sense of security. Today, more than ever, we need a good word about what security means, and where it comes from. I think of that old hymn, "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms," ("safe and secure from all alarms"). Among Jesus' clearest goals as a man of God was to bring a kind of reparation, healing and integrity to individuals and community so that no matter what happened to them, they would know themselves to be unbreakable, unviolated in their deepest being. No matter what happened. And a lot was happening to the children of Israel, which was Jesus' community. The Jews were an oppressed minority living under Roman rule. They had very little influence or voice in a corrupt government system. They suffered wide unemployment and were underpaid and exploited in the work that they were able to do. They were crushed by excessive taxes. They were lucky to be tolerated by the Romans, let alone respected. However, even under fairly tolerant emperors, they could be murdered at any time – they were totally expendable. When they tried to rebel in any way, they were brutally suppressed, oftentimes with mass crucifixions as punishment.
So we must note on Palm Sunday that Jesus' teachings, therefore, were political well as spiritual. We cannot separate the two. He was not just ministering to the soul of a people, but within a political climate and situation that was constantly tense and dangerous. And so we meet him today on the road to Jerusalem. He's heading in with his crowds of followers to the Temple for Passover. Caesar, you must understand, has made his triumphal entry coming from the East - with his fancy retinue and shows of imperial power. It was important for the Romans to be there to remind the "rowdy peasants to know their place." (David Henson) As I said, things are tense. Jerusalem is on Orange Alert. The Romans and their Jewish client rulers have major crowds of frustrated people around them, poor, extremely unhappy Jews who are gathering for one of the most important religious observances of their year, and a festival that commemorates the Exodus, their deliverance from slavery under the Egyptians. It's a volatile situation.
And Jesus of Nazareth, in this sort of guerilla street theatre - an Occupy Jerusalem protest, really - is riding in from the West on his donkey, an animal that symbolizes work and humility (as the horse that Caesar is riding symbolizes military power). He rides in as a parade of one, mocking the imperial rule, pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, as it were. His followers are waving palms and singing "Hosanna, Hosanna, here is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."
I would like you to take a snapshot of this moment. A man on a donkey, maybe on a wool blanket, no saddle. Wearing a simple robe, cotton, leather sandals. Waving. Smiling. Maybe laughing. Looking out over these cheering crowds, seeing people he knows, many whom he doesn't know, all of whom adore him for the witness he has made in their lives, for his willingness to heal them, to touch even the untouchables, the women loving him for honoring them along with the men, the children gazing at him with worshipful eyes, remembering all the things he has taught about how important it is to be like a child. Perhaps he sees this all through tears. Tears of grief, O Jerusalem. How he loves them. He knows how Homeland Security works under the Roman Empire - and he knows, therefore, what he is in for. This is a political situation. He is in trouble with the authorities. Already, he is in trouble: before his betrayal that will come later this week, before his arrest, before his mockery of a trial, before his hideous punishment and crucifixion. At this moment of entry into the holy city, he knows the Romans have him under surveillance, that the Jewish religious authorities are angry at him, and that they all consider him a dangerous character, a rabble-rouser. He knows that they are going to coordinate efforts to put a stop to him.
But, "how can any of you, by worrying, add one hour to his life?" He had said that, he had taught that. And in saying so he was not counseling us to avoid reality or to stick our heads in the sand, but to face reality as it is and to choose to place our security in God's hands, not in Caesar's. To trust in God's kingdom of peace, and equality - not in the military. Not in drone missiles or a bigger intelligence department or a gun in the sock drawer or in an armed neighborhood militia.
And it is in this distinction that we most misunderstand and misuse Jesus. If we have an image of him as a gentle, lamb-petting camp counselor figure with children on his lap, with his long, blow-dried hair and shiny, beatific face - it is because we have been schooled to think of him thus, we have been handed a domesticated, sanitized Jesus because the real one is too dangerous to the social order. As he rode into Jerusalem, he may have worried. Not worried that he would be arrested and killed. He was right with God, secure in his soul, so no fears there. Even knowing what he would physically endure, he had no reason to fear for the integrity of his being, which was inviolable, unbreakable. Nor was Jesus worried that he would offend people by throwing around the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple: Jesus never hesitated to offend that which needed offending. He knew that love required challenging and offending in order to bring wisdom. What would Jesus have worried about, then? Well, we know what he worried about, he said it frequently: his only insecurity lay in the fear that his community was not hearing - not getting - his real message, which was:
"Which one of you by worrying can add an hour to your life? Peace I give you. The peace of God, which the world can neither give nor take away."
We still need this. We still don't get it.
In closing, I must share with you the words of a pastor named David Henson. I read this two days ago on the website www.Patheos.com and I can think of no way to improve upon his words.
"If we are to be in solidarity with Jesus during his last week, we cannot mark Holy Week as his followers without standing — publicly in protest — against oppression, even when and especially when it comes from the hands of our own governments. On Palm Sunday, protest the imperial power of our day that exploits the poor, the earth and our humanity. Protest the imperial power that would strip us of rights, of our dignity, of our voice. Protest it with mockery and reveal its nakedness for all to see. Laugh in the face of those who seriously think they can own humanity's future. On Monday of Holy Week, protest corruption and the whoring of democracy to wealth. Make a holy mess of things and show others that the system feeds on the souls of humankind. Live in park if you have to. In a tent. Occupy a space that isn't intended to be owned: a tree, a blanket of grass, earth. On Wednesday of Holy Week, cook a meal and share it with the miracle of friends. Do this and remember all that is good in this world of suffering. Do this and remember that this world is still worth the fight. Do this and remember. On Thursday of Holy Week, wash the feet of the homeless. Stay awake with them, as Jesus asked his friends to stay awake with him. Learn what it is like to sleep out of doors, to sleep in a doorway. Learn what it is like when where you make your bed with a pillow of stone is against the law. On Friday of Holy Week, visit the captives and prisoners and remember the innocent. Protest the injustice of the prison state in America. Protest the death penalty and the unbroken line of state-sanctioned murder that killed Jesus. On Saturday of Holy Week, grieve. Because when we see the world as Jesus saw it, when we experience the passion of Holy Week as Jesus did, we will need to grieve at how things have not changed, at how things have remained."
To honor the best that Jesus gave us, let us spend at least a portion of the coming week reflecting on this: our greatest security may come from attitudes and actions that are anything but safe, and certainly not comfortable.