Palms, Protest and Passion – Caroline Dean (4/9/17)

“Palms, Protest & Passion”

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

April 9, 2017

A reading from Matthew Chapter 21:1-11

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say, “The Lord needs them.  And he will send them immediately.”  This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, they put their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat upon them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed Jesus were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Let us pray:  God of radical love, give us open hearts this day – may we have the courage to follow you in radical love - to find healing, hope & salvation – that we might work for justice and peace we pray – Amen.

 

Can you imagine the two disciples that Jesus recruits to “borrow” a donkey.  They sneak into the night, dodging in & out of shadows.  Avoiding Roman guards, using the crowds gathered for Passover for cover.  When they reach their destination the “momma donkey” is stubborn & protective of her colt (which is perhaps why they couldn’t leave it behind).  Despite their best efforts to get the animals back unnoticed – they create a scene, the donkeys “hee-hawing” bucking & braying the whole way up the road.

I also like to imagine, early the next morning, Jesus gathering at dawn with his closest followers.  The donkey & her colt have settled considerably by then.  Jesus gathers by the “Beautiful Gate” to enter Jerusalem.  The disciples elbow each other with knowing smiles & whisper “the prophecies, they say that the Jewish Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the ‘Beautiful Gate.’”  Word spreads and the crowd multiplies.  Some have heard Jesus’ teachings or know of someone who has crossed paths with Jesus.  Some are curious & others are “Jesus fanatics.”  One of the latter jumps in the procession with Jesus & begins shouting “Hosanna, Save us! Son of David, Save us!”  The crowd joins in.

One problem is that the road through the Beautiful Gate is unpaved, so the Donkey stumbles under Jesus’ weight.  It occurs to someone to cut down a branch and use the leaves to ease the footing of the pilgrims.  Others take make a more sacrificial move and they spread their cloaks on the path.  The Jewish crowds are gathering for Passover, so the word spreads quickly and so soon the whole city is shaking with the news of Jesus’ arrival on a donkey through the “Beautiful Gate.”

This news is shocking because on this same day, suggest scholars suggest (Borg & Crossan’s book “The Last Week”) there was another procession on the opposite side of the city.  The Roman Governor arrived every Passover through the “Damascus Gate” on a war horse, with an impressive army, decked out with weapons at the ready.  In fact citizens were required to attend this processional, honoring the Governor with branches and flowers (sound familiar?).  The road was paved & the Damascus Gate was wide enough to accommodate a legion, 5,000 marching in an orderly display of imperial power.

Both parades are demonstrations of a sort.  You see, each year the Roman Governor of Judea rides into Jerusalem, from his residence in another part of the region, in order to quell potential riots during the Jewish Festival of Passover.  This is the most “politically volatile” of the Jewish festivals.  There is a “tinder box” atmosphere as the Jewish people celebrate their “freedom from Egyptian oppression, during a time of severe Roman Oppression” (Borg & Crossan “The Last Week”).  Despite a Roman policies of zero toleration there were two recorded riots during Passover in the first century.  When you consider that Jerusalem, a town of 40,000, welcomed 200,000 pilgrims on festivals such as these, it makes sense that the Romans needed to call in the troops.

On the other side of town Jesus’ demonstration is a satire of sorts, certainly a political counterpoint to the Roman Imperial march.  Jesus embodies humility as he rides into the city on a donkey – a female nursing donkey at that!  He evokes imagery of the Jewish Messiah from their sacred texts.  And in contrast to the governor’s majestic war horse, leading thousands of soldiers, Jesus marches amidst peasants, tax collectors, religious leaders, fishermen, prostitutes, whoever happens to show up that day.  The Governor’s procession is ordered, easy on the feet, predictable, those gathered are compliant, albeit a bit resentful.  Jesus’ procession is more organic & at times a bit out of control with excitement & expectation.

You see during Jesus’ time, the Jewish people were highly taxed & faced great oppression under the Romans.  They were eager to welcome a Jewish Messiah.  One who would save them from their suffering, grant the Jewish people freedom, and rightful claim over their sacred city.  They were ready for Jesus to step into these shoes.  They could close their eyes and imagine Jesus on his own war horse surrounding by legions, guarding and guiding the city in prosperous, righteous rule.  The peasants in the parade were inspired by Jesus’ humble beginnings, but eventually Jesus would need to lead them up a higher road, to power & privilege, wealth & prosperity.

The only problem with this plan, is that it didn’t quite pan out this way.  In fact, the Jewish people were quite shocked by a portrait of a Messiah who was the complete opposite of their expectations.  Spoiler alert: the humble trajectory of Jesus would only tailspin into humiliation, torture and death.

So what?  What do these dueling demonstrations have to do with humility & power in our own day?  What powers & principalities do we seek to bring us salvation?  Do we think that we are protecting ourselves against suffering with money, success, and power?  Do we think that we can climb the ladder high enough to save ourselves from the suffering and death that Jesus lowered himself into?

And if we are called to follow Jesus through Holy Week does that mean that we have to sign up for radical sacrifice, torture or death?  Can’t we cling to Jesus’ coattails and glide into salvation on the merits of his courage, faith & sacrifice?  Do we have to embody this path of “downward mobility” (a phrase coined by Henri Nouwen) in order to be faithful Christians?

Beverly Wildung Harrison, who is known as “The Mother of Christian Feminist Ethics” writes (in her book ‘Making Connections,’ pages 18-19) “those who love justice and have their passion shaped toward right relation, act not because they are enamored of sacrifice.  Rather they are moved by a love strong enough, to sustain their action for right relation even unto death… Jesus’ paradigmatic role in the story of our salvation rests not in his willingness to sacrifice himself, but in his passionate love (of right relations) & in his refusal to cease to embody (radical love) in the face of that which would thwart it.”

Jesus’ life & death is a radical display of love, right relationship, & justice.  Jesus’ life is also a critique, a counterpoint to empire.  He speaks truth to “the powers that be” critiquing their abuse of power and the everyday ways that injustice & broken relationship are perpetuated by human institution & limitation.  This is the path that Jesus asks us to follow – a radical commitment to love, justice & right relationship even in the face of great trial.

You see, on our protest march we hit the ground running, with perhaps more in common with those who gathered at the gate awaiting the Governor.  We like order, power & safety, even if it comes at a cost for ourselves or for the vulnerable in our society.  We like our Messiahs to be strong.  We like them to embody the wealth, privilege & success that we seek.  If I am honest I prefer the majestic war horse to the humble donkey.

In the life of Jesus we hear a strong call to those of us who carry any kind of privilege or power to leverage these resources for the good.  We are called to bend our “ladders of success” back against themselves to care for the vulnerable & receive our own spiritual healing along the way.  Jesus says, “To whom much is given much is required.”

And Jesus’ call to us this day is also gentle & gracious.  Jesus would sit with us, all of us with different kinds of privilege & access to wealth, power and success.  Jesus would say, “Beloved, follow me, march with me.  Bring me your gifts, resources, passions & possessions, your full self – and together let us create a more just, beautiful & loving world.

Jesus would say, “Yes, this may entail giving some things away or putting ourselves in uncomfortable places.  It may entail speaking truth to power & yes at times great sacrifice.  But, beloved, truly I tell you, this path is the beautiful path – it is the true, life-giving, healing path, for your soul, for the soul of your community and for our world – it is the way, the truth and the life.  The true path of salvation.”

Jesus says, “Come, march with me.  Come, follow me.”  Amen.

 

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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