Palm Sunday

Exodus; Luke


“The events of Palm Sunday are rife with irony and misunderstanding. The people hold palms in their hands, but then again, the Romans wouldn’t allow them to hold swords. Some perhaps were thinking of the prophesy of Zechariah “Behold your King is coming to you, humble and riding on an ass” (9:9). But most were likely cheering a revolutionary they hoped would throw off the hated Roman yoke.

“Rather than being ecstatic at the size of his crowds, we are told that Jesus weeps. He senses that those who today call “Hosanna” (literally ‘save now’) will turn and shout “Crucify him, crucify him” two days hence.

“Matthew records Jesus speaking one of the most heart -rending statements in all of the Gospels, “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning them threat are sent to you. How often I would have gathered your children unto me as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not. And now, you are forsaken and desolate (23:37-38) And in Luke, Jesus says of the city, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace (19:42)

“How true, for we are a people, now, as then that pray for peace but we pay for war.

“As the Gospel of John puts it so eloquently, “He was in the world, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:10-11)

“At the last supper Jesus says, “One of you will betray me”… and every one of them asked, “Lord is it I?” Jesus replies with an enigmatic phrase, “the one who dips his hand in the dish with me.” That would be everyone. Later on, we will read, “all the disciples forsook him and fled.”

“In a mass mob of misunderstanding, Jesus experiences the worst kind of loneliness. Jesus was a Messiah who preferred to be hated for what he was rather than loved for what he was not.

“Violence always calls upon lies to defend it, even as lies call upon violence to do the same. By contrast, truth comes to us naked, vulnerable as the Christ riding on a colt, it’s only weapon, God’s love.

“We’ve learned that The problem with violent revolution is not that it changes too much, but that it changes too little.

“In Jesus, we are challenged to live the truth in a world of illusions. Truth is vulnerable, disarmed, its only weapon is love.

“We follow from a distance, saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” For he opposes all forms of violence, classism, sexism, all spiritual and psychological oppression. “Blessed is he would come in the name of the Lord.” For he did not inflict suffering but took it upon himself, being obedient unto death, yea even death on a cross.”

“All of us have to look to something above us, or we will sink to something beneath us.

“The story beckons us to find a moral spine. As Edmund Burke once noted “All it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good men and women to do nothing”.

I suspect most of us have a fear of becoming the guy in the New Yorker cartoon that says, “I’ve learned quite a few things in my 63 years. Unfortunately, almost all of it is about aluminum.”[i]

Most of us secretly wish, we could see the world as God sees it and that we would respond with our full humanity. During the 60’s, the Jewish thinker, Abraham Heschel, was protesting the Vietnam War.

He had marched with Dr. King in the Civil Rights protests, so when the reporters saw him at a Vietnam War protest, they were quick to ask him for a comment.

A reporter walks up to Heschel and asks him why he is protesting the war. Heschel thinks for a minute and says “Because I can’t pray.”

        The reporter is incredulous. “What do you mean you can’t pray? What does that have to do with the war?”

        Heschel responded, “Each Sabbath, when I open my prayer book, I see the faces of Vietnamese children running from napalm”.

That is the viewpoint of God the compassionate, God the merciful. The prayer book is supposed to make us see the world with God’s eyes.

Our story from Exodus gives us the example of two ordinary women that do just that. They see the world from God’s eyes and they act on it.

        Pharoah had ordered all the Jewish boys to be killed when they were born. But these two women, Shifrah and Puah, are the earliest examples we have in the Bible of women joining the resistance. They were the nurses that birthed all the babies and they weren’t going to kill any children.

So, Moses lives when he is born. Moses gets adopted by the Pharoah’s daughter.  Grows up on the elite side of town, goes to the best prep school that you could buy back then. But when he was a young man, he saw a slave master beating a Jewish slave mercilessly.

The scene enraged him. Adrenaline rushes. He impulsively hits the slave master, hits him again and kills him. People see it. He has to flee the Captial and he goes to the wilderness. He meets a woman, gets married, has a child.

It is a boy. He names the child “Gershon” which means “Stranger” because he says to his wife, “I am a stranger in a strange land.”

Something just ain’t right here. We can’t keep going on like we’ve been doing. Morally, it just ain’t right. As it turns out, morality is not an option in the human hardware system. We are hard-wired to become moral.

We may fail and have to begin again. But humans cannot live with an uneasy conscience. We cannot continue to live in violation of our inner moral values. If we are forced to, eventually we will start to self-destruct.

It takes Moses a while to find his moral courage. Doesn’t it always! But he finally figures it out and says to Pharoah, “Let my people go!” Henri Nowen once noted that “Compassion without confrontation is merely commiserations-fruitless and sentimental.”

We don’t have to seek out moral confrontation. Given the broken world that we live in, the moral quandry of this age will have a way of finding you. The question is, will you find your voice?

I pray you do. As my grandmother would say, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” And we have more than enough of that going around just now as you know.

As David Brooks is fond of reminding us, the really admirable people in every era are the ones who actually interrupt the path that they were on to respond morally to the issue that has become unavoidable.

They all sound like young Martin Luther, an ordinary scholar and priest standing up to the corruption of the huge Holy Mother Church. “Here I stand” he said, “I can do no other.”

I think of Mary Dyer, one of the first voices for freedom of conscience in our country, who was hanged in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 for advocating the rights of Quakers to dissent from the Puritan majority. Said she before she died, “Truth is my authority, not authority my truth.”

I think of the Danish pastor in World War 2 who said, “I’d rather die with the Jews than live with the Nazi’s”. Tragically, die he did, but with his integrity intact, exuding moral courage.

We see glimpses of it all around us still. I think of Mayor Pete, of South Bend, Indiana, just last week talking about being gay and running for the Presidency of the United States.

He lives in a state that legalized religious discrimination against gays and lesbians just a few years ago. But he found his voice, telling his Truth about growing up gay. He said that people who have a problem with him have a much bigger problem with our Creator who made him the way that he is. And then he went on to say that he has come much closer to God after he married his husband. Moral courage in action.

I close with the most inspiring image of the week which comes from Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan. All week, people have gathered to call for the ouster of the horrid dictator Omar Al-Bashir. This is a photo of the Shiprah and Puah of our time, a young woman named Alaa Salah, aged 22.

In a patriarchal society, where women are second class citizens, she stands on top of a car leading the crowd in a chant, “Sudan is for all”. To me it is full of elegance, grace, the vulnerable humanity of the Christ armed with nothing but the Truth.

And you? You don’t have to go looking for a cause. The cause will find you. I remind you of the last earthly words of Jesus, the last words he says to the disciples before he is arrested. Haunting words, words full of pathos for us would be ‘followers’. The Roman army surrounds them in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus turns to us all and says, “Awake O Sleepers.” Amen.

[i] This sermon is a paean of praise to one of my mentors William Sloane Coffin. I have taken a collection of his sermons on Palm Sunday from 1978-1982 at Riverside Church in New York and reorganized them so that they flow in a direction. He does an eloquent job of describing the moral irony of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

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