march madness: “the madness of fear terribly exploited and the terrible loss of love incarnate,” march 20, 2016, palm sunday


Responsive Call to Worship
This the day we remember—
remember and tell the story
of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—
that time
when the crowds gathered
and called out to Jesus,
“Hosanna! Hosanna!”
“Blessed be the one who comes in the name of God!”—
that time full of deep hope and profound misunderstanding—
of unintended meaning and irony—
that time long ago—
that time so many times since.

This the day we remember—
remember and tell the story
of the Word made flesh
flesh making words—
words maybe even honest in the moment,
but flesh unwilling to risk itself
for words—
even words of hope—
of love and grace and justice—
words of God.

This the day we remember.
This the day we know.
This time,
may it not be so.


Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Isaiah 29:13-16
The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment
learned by rote;
so I will again do
amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Every Palm Sunday, I revisit the image
of two parades entering Jerusalem thousands of years ago—
the one from the west—
from impressive Caesarea-Maritime,
the other from the east—
from the village of Bethany.
The one an imperial procession,
from the seat of imperial power.
The other a peasant parade.
The one a display of occupation power,
the other of pilgrims’ hopes.
It’s an image sketched out by Marcus Borg
and John Dominic Crossan
in their book, The Last Week
(Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan,
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach Us
About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem
[New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006] 2-5).

Pontius Pilate led the one parade
at the head of—well, it’s interesting—
according to another story, as told in Acts,
when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and sent to Caesarea,
he was accompanied by two hundred soldiers,
seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen
(Acts 23:23-24).
I can’t imagine Pontius Pilate would have had fewer
not to accompany one man, but to police Jerusalem
during the Passover festival.
Jesus headed up the other parade on a colt,
dressed in presumably whatever he always wore,
at the head of a group of twelve disciples—
fishermen and tax collectors and a zealot,
accompanied by the other folks on the road
with him into Jerusalem—
either down from Galilee or over from Jericho—
some, maybe, who had listened to him teaching—
who had seen him in his interactions with folks,
but others, surely, just pilgrims
on the journey of faith into the holy city.

Borg and Crossan can’t believe
this was possibly happenstance—
Jesus just happened to arrive this way
as Pontius Pilate arrived that way.
They name Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem
a counterprocession (Borg, Crossan, 3)
that looks like “a planned political demonstration”
(Borg, Crossan, 4).

It is without question a stark juxtaposition
of two very different realities.
And it represents a stark contrast and choice
between a theology of Emperor worship—
a theology of power and glory
that serves as a justification of violence—
politically endorsed/culturally accepted—
taken for granted in and by the culture,
and a theology of service and grace—
serving as a justification of love—
questioned, viewed askance, doubted,
but full of hope and transformational possibility.

The one all about peace maintained by the sword
that is more truly, the lack of overt resistance,
that trusts only the power of the sword to instill fear and crush hope.
The other, peace sustained in non-violent resistance to power—
in and through sacrifice that trusts in the power and story of God
to overcome fear and fulfill hope.

This Palm Sunday, we’re now into the excitement of March Madness,
and taking time in our worship
to consider the various madnesses we take for granted—
madnesses we justify—condone—even anticipate—
wondering what sanity we forfeit
in taking madness for granted.

We’ve considered the madness of our for-profit culture,
and the madness of the restless, relentless pace of our culture.
Today, we wonder about the madness
of the consistent exploitation of fear
and the corresponding loss of a sense of love that casts out fear
(1 John 4:18a).

Some of you may remember
when we did March Madness before
and had brackets and matched Jesus up
against various priorities and realities of our day.
On Good Friday, the final match up
was between Jesus and fear—
not Jesus and power, Jesus and Satan, Jesus and money.
I’m still proud of that.

Prevalent in our society—
it’s part of the fear—
going hand in hand
with the myth of redemptive violence,
is the myth of scarcity
in a world of abundance.
We live in fear—
are encouraged to live in fear,
that there’s not enough—
that we won’t get enough—
that we won’t get ours,
which is particularly sick
in a culture like ours in a world
in which over half the population—over 3 billion people
subsist on less than $2 a day
(Michael Schut, ed., Money & Faith:
 the search for enough
[New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008] 13 and 18).
“[T]he average amount of pocket money for American children—
$230 a year [my daughters are now doing math!]—
the average amount of pocket money for American children …
is more than the total annual income
of the world’s half-billion poorest people”
(in Michael Schut, ed., Simpler Living: Compassionate Life:
a christian perspective
[New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1999] 24).

Walter Brueggemann makes no bones about it,
“We must confess that the central problem of our lives
is that we are torn apart by the conflict
between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance
and the power of our belief in scarcity”
(Walter Brueggemann, in Schut, Money & Faith, 11).

We tell the story of a parade through history—
a parade described in our sacred texts
that begins with a liturgy of abundance and blessing—
a parade full of songs of assurance—
of providence—of God providing.
Do we trust the stories we tell, in truth—
or not?
That is the question.

Jesus did.
He came down from the Mount of Olives,
plunging into the fierce, strong currents
of “the whirlpool of popular misunderstanding”
(Shusako Endo, A Life of Jesus
[New York: Paulist Press, 1973]108)—
the so easy to accept misperception
of God recreated in the image of Caesar—
all mighty—all powerful—
ruling by decree—turning history upside down.
It’s part of Passover hopes, right?
Remember when God intervened in history
defeated Pharaoh
led us into freedom—
provided food for us through the wilderness—
always just enough for one day, of course—
never enough to keep—to hoard—
and then established us in our own land—
a land of milk and honey?
We want God to do that again
defeat Caesar—
return to us our land and our freedom—
the prosperity of old.

Jesus entered Jerusalem
to confront the story accepted, but not true—
too shallow for truth—
too small—too easy.

Our whole approach to worship this year,
is premised upon the idea that our faith, and so our worship,
confront the stories of our world and our culture—
confront in contrast—
in stark juxtaposition—
that our faith, and so our worship,
present us with a stark choice—
which parade—which story—which God?

And we should note
there are always representatives of the religious institution
in Caesar’s parade—
always those understandings of God
more like Caesar than Jesus.

So I invite you to imagine Pontius Pilate this morning—
an impressive figure, I’m sure,
bedecked in ceremonial garb or armor,
leading a selected to be impressive
contingent of military resources and personnel—
representing those who conquer by might.
And I invite you to hear the implicit message of this parade:
“Be afraid!
Be afraid of who we protect you from,
or be afraid of us.
We don’t really care.”

And I invite you to consider the fact
the there are those in our country
who feel that way about our military,
and others who feel that way about our police.
Not everybody.
Maybe not even most of us.
But too many.

There’s an irony that those who so prominently display their weapons
and their aggression
unintentionally reveal their fear
and their investment in fear.

Imagine in contrast, Jesus.
And what do you hear when you try and hear his message?
“Fear not.”
Oh, it’s not that there’s not a lot of which to be afraid.
It’s that God is with you.
And shouldn’t that assurance bring with it a measure of comfort?

Since his death, I’ve been rereading some Pat Conroy,
I was struck last week
by this sentence: “It was not that the other prisoners
were godless men that disturbed [him],
but the fact that their belief in God
gave them so little comfort”
(Pat Conroy, Beach Music
[New York: Dial Press, 2009] 760).

To look at Jesus is to see assurance—
one comforted through it all.
Certainly not always comfortable through it all.
Confident though—
enough to see it through—
assured enough for integrity and consistency.

So here’s something I’ve been mulling over in recent weeks.
I believe one of the critical challenges facing the church today
is the expectation of consistency—
the expectation people have—especially those not of the faith—
the expectation of a consistency with Jesus.
Because just a cursory reading of the gospels—
just a familiarity with them—
even just a vague, culturally informed understanding of Jesus,
is enough to have a sense of who Jesus was—
what his life was about—
what his priorities were—and would be.
And then it’s fairly easy to extrapolate—
it’s fairly obvious—
if someone’s rejecting people on the basis of race or ethnicity,
that’s not what Jesus would do.
So when followers of Jesus do,
what does that do to the witness of the church?

Jesus would not support a Farm Bill or a trade agreement
that protects wealthy landowners
at the expense of the poor of another country.
So when followers of Jesus do,
what does that do to the witness of the church?
Jesus would not condone hate speech.
Jesus would not denigrate people—
especially people challenged by various circumstances of their lives.
Jesus would not mock people—
least of all the poor or the otherwise marginalized.
Jesus would not build a wall.
Can you imagine Jesus trying to silence someone?
Shouting over them?
You don’t have to overthink any of this, right?
Anyone disagree with any of this?
So when followers of Jesus support what Jesus would never do,
and everyone knows Jesus would never do,
what does that do to the witness of the church?

Jesus would never work to ensure the extremely wealthy
get more and more and more
while children go hungry.
Can anyone really imagine otherwise?
Jesus would never condone the use of drones to kill people—
never accept “collateral damage”—
never gut social programs that benefit the poor
in order to give businesses making millions tax breaks,
or to give the military more money than it even requested.
I’m not sure what Jesus would think
of over 50% of our national budget going to the military anyway.
I can’t imagine him ever celebrating having killed the enemy.

We can make arguments for some policy—some political necessity—
we can justify it,
but not in the name of Jesus.
And even those who know just a little bit about Jesus,
know that.

I’m not making any kind of partisan point here.
I’ve carefully referenced politicians and policies from both parties.

And I know, we’re not voting for Jesus.
Jesus is not running for president.
I don’t think Jesus could.
There are things we expect of our president
Jesus would never do.
What does that do to the witness of the church?
And yet, honestly, if I don’t expect our leaders to act as Jesus—
“Well, in this world of ours,
that’s just not a realistic expectation—
given the problems and choices leaders face,”
then why, when it comes right down to it,
given the problems and choices I face,
would I expect me to act as Jesus?

Wendell Berry writes, “The great obstacle is simply this:
the conviction that we cannot change
because we are dependent upon what is wrong.
But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do”
(Wendell Berry, in Schut, Money & Faith, 11).

It is incumbent upon those of us who identify ourselves
as followers of God in the way of Jesus, is it not?—
not just to be able to indicate how our choices for leaders
resonate in significant ways with Jesus,
but to also acknowledge the ways
in which they do not.
Because everyone knows what Jesus stood for,
and the world is looking at us (followers of Jesus)
wondering about consistency.

Now there are those, more than a few,
who think Jesus should just stay out of politics—
as should those who follow him.
But he made his way into Jerusalem
as a pointed political statement.
I will not fear.
Nor will I accede to those who use fear—who exploit fear.
Mine is not a God who seeks your fear.
So I will love—whatever the cost.

It’s still Palm Sunday.
It’s always Palm Sunday.
And there are two parades.

As they wind through life,
through the very particulars of life—
all the day to day circumstances we face,
even today—the problems—the choices—
no one has any doubt as to where Jesus would be—
just doubts as to where Jesus’ followers are.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Mark 11:1-10
When they were approaching Jerusalem,
at Bethphage and Bethany,
near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples
and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you,
and immediately as you enter it,
you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden;
untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you,
“Why are you doing this?” just say this,
“The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’
They went away and found a colt tied near a door,
outside in the street. As they were untying it,
some of the bystanders said to them,
‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’
They told them what Jesus had said;
and they allowed them to take it.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus
and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut in the fields.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed
were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Matthew 26:14-16
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’
They paid him thirty pieces of silver.
And from that moment
he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.


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