I must admit that I was hesitant at first to combine Palm Sunday with Stewardship Sunday but the more I thought about it, and about the times in which we find ourselves, the more it seemed a natural fit. The Palm Sunday message is about promise, promise destroyed, and promise reborn. And its about Power.
I want to speak first this morning about Power. The very word makes you want to say it loud. POWER! What do you think of when you think of power? Maybe you think of great armies marching en mass across continents, or nuclear missals poised and ready to wreak their havoc, or Presidents, Kings and Dictators with the ability to bend the wills of masses of people by force, personality or persuasion?
On a more personal level, when do you feel the most powerful? When you have closed a big business deal or achieved a long held goal? Perhaps when you have just won an argument with a perfect and unassailable line. Maybe it is easier to think about power by thinking about the times we feel most powerless, when, perhaps, we feel ourselves in the grip of an addiction, uncertainty or fear.
Much has been thought and written about power, its sources, its uses and abuses and its durability. Great treatises have been written on international power between empires and hundreds of books are published every year explaining how we can gain power in the workplace, the home, or over our own minds.
I read or heard somewhere that the world can be divided into two kinds of people, people that divide people into two different types of people, and people that don't. Usually, I am in the latter category but today I want to tell you an old story that lays out two types of power. I will call them the power of the hour, and the power of our.
As I said, it a very old story (almost 2000 years old). It is probably pretty accurate historically, and I am sure it will be familiar to most of you. In fact, as I tell it I would like you to imagine that you have never heard it before, and try to put out of your head the doctrines, institutions, and creeds that have sprung up around it, often obscuring its meaning and its, well…power.
Our story begins with a people that have endured a long history of enslavement. Though they have a strong sense that they have been especially set aside by God, they have been subjected by Egyptians and Persians, and are currently occupied by the vast Roman Empire. Though these Roman occupiers generally allow them to practice their religion, they are, in most respects with very little power over their own destinies. Many of these people long for and anticipate a Messiah who will lead them out of this bondage and institute a time of freedom and plenty.
From a small town in this land comes a young man, born to a carpenter and his wife, who has a mission. He is baptized in the Jordan River by a radical apocalyptic prophet and then becomes an itinerant teacher and a healer. Using short pithy sayings and teaching stories that make his listeners think about common situations in new ways, he spreads a message of hope for the hopeless and, most importantly for our theme today, a new kind of power for the powerless. He also gains a reputation as a healer, someone who, by his very touch can make people feel better. Even this is a radical action as many of the people he touches are the untouchables of his time and place-people who are cast aside by their society. Well, predictably, many are strongly drawn to his vision but many others are threatened. He begins to make some enemies.
One year, as the great yearly festival celebrating the liberation of his people from previous bondage, this teacher and healer decides to go to the capital city, the religious and cultural center. And that sets up the scene that we remember on Palm Sunday.
Many pilgrims are coming to the city from all around the countryside to observe the holiday and they are all remembering how God had rescued them from bondage to the. This makes the Roman occupiers very nervous. Remember, their empire is far-flung and to keep it in order they rely on displays of military power and very public, very brutal punishments to all who threaten that power. Each year for the festival, the Governor would ride triumphantly at the head of a great army through the west gate of the city during the festival to reinforce the troops already there. They would have horses, and ordered marches, waving banners, beating drums…all very visible signs of imperial power.
Our teacher, in sharp contrast, planned a very different entrance into the city. Requesting his followers to find a donkey he rode into the city from the east with only a few followers straggling behind. Word of his teachings and the healings has spread, however, and many people greet him on his entrance by laying their coats and palm branches on his path while shouting, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father." It is clear that some people believe that here, at last, was the promised messiah who would lead an uprising and drive the Roman oppressors from their land. Here may lie their freedom and salvation.
You know the rest of the story. A few short days later, our teacher would be tried, sentenced and executed, hung on crossed wooden beams to die an agonizing and very public death. A Roman Crucifixion. Hopes for another Messiah gone. Another clear victory for what I earlier called the power of the hour. So what is this kind of power? What is its purpose?
It is the power that is everywhere and always with us. It is an unstable dictator with nuclear capacity, political parties putting victory over truth and the common good. It is 24 hour news channels fostering adversarial politics and gossip in the name of ratings and advertising dollars. It is in CEO's who so deeply don't get it that they buy $3800 toilets for their offices with government bailout money (your money and mine.)
But the power of the hour is not limited to big nameless forces that control the destinies of thousands. It is also in each one of us. Every time we seek to advance ourselves at the expense of someone else, each time we cut someone else off at the knees in order to make ourselves taller, we are that unstable dictator, that news station confusing gossip with news, that CEO in his ornately festooned bathroom. For the dominant idea of the power of the hour is that it is power that exists to protect and extend itself. This power is not a function of any one ideology or theology and it is not all bad. It often proceeds from the best of intentions and it often seems necessary. It is a fact, however, as Lord Acton famously said, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
All of which brings us back to our crucified teacher. His entrance into the city, his Palm Sunday entrance from the east, signified a new idea of power, a radical departure from the power of the hour. I will speak of just two of the many themes in his life and teachings to illustrate this power and the first is his idea of leadership.
The story is told that the mother of two of his disciples came to him and asked if her sons could sit on his left and right hands after he had ushered in the new kingdom. James and John, who may have been related to our teacher, desired to be leaders with him when they gained control. The other disciples were angry and jealous. Our teacher tells them, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you! But whoever would be great among you must be a servant, and whoever would be first among you must be a slave, even as I came not to be served but to serve.
And this isn't the first time the question had arisen. In the early days of his work as he was walking between villages, his disciples following behind, they began to argue over who he liked the best-who was the greatest. Our teacher took a small child and stood beside him saying, "whoever receives this child in my name receives me…for whoever is the least among you all is the one who is great.
Now I am fairly certain that no-one has ever formed a political action committee, waged a multi-million dollar political campaign, run negative ads smearing the character and judgment of their opponents, or perpetrated a palace coup all in the hopes of becoming a servant or a slave.
The second element of this new kind of power concerns healing. Stories abound of the healings of our teacher and is seems clear that, claims of miracles aside, he was a healing presence. Among those reportedly healed were people suffering from blindness, deafness, leprosy, lameness and much else. As I mentioned earlier, many of these people were the cast-offs of society, considered impure and untouchable. Not only did our teacher speak with them and treat them as fully human, something many of them had rarely if ever experienced, he touched them. You can just hear and see many in the crowd recoil in disgust and many others who see a glimmer of hope and compassion and catch a glimpse of a new sense of their worth. Here is power transformed. Here is power whose purpose is not to protect itself at all costs, but instead, exists to give itself away-to extend itself to all people.
And when has such a power been more needed? We are, of course, living in difficult times. Fear and uncertainty abound and with them a sense of powerlessness that is manifesting itself in ways large and small. A spate of recent mass shootings, and an increase in domestic violence are just two of the most dramatic signs that people are feeling in less control of their lives. In many cases, it is those who felt themselves the most powerful just a few short months ago who have fallen the farthest. We have a desire for great leaders, or great ideas to cure our ills but suspect that many of those people and ideas are the very cause of the problem in the first place. It just may be that the long reign of the power of the hour may be in some decline and a very old, yet very new model, once thought crucified by the imperial authorities, the power that I call the power of our, is on the rise. And where do we find this power manifested? I argue, that, to use the slogan for this year's canvass, now more then ever, we find it in our beloved community.
It is here that we see examples of servant leadership abound in the thousands of volunteer hours that dozens of people contribute to each other in ways visible and unseen. Here we see people who are leaders in their businesses and communities and families who strive to lead by serving. I am not talking about one long continuous Hallmark moment here. It is a model of leadership that requires that we listen too, and work with, people we may have many difficulties with and be very different from. And yet, it is done.
And healing? It is the work of the church to provide the healing of love and comfort, balm for the body and the soul. Again, this means sometimes helping or accepting help from people who are outside of our regular comfort zone. It means fear of not doing or saying the right thing. And yet it is done.
So on this Palm Sunday/Stewardship Sunday, I ask, through which gate do we want to enter the city? Now more than ever, I say that together on a bed of palm leaves, it is time to enter from the east. Its time for the power of Our.