Mark 11:1-10 When a pastor is dependent upon human interaction for their sermon illustrations, social distancing can be alarming. I never realized just how dependent I’d become upon the Clayton Café for inspiration. But I stayed away from others the entire week, except to buy an oil filter and oil for my lawn mower, and would have been better staying home, given the discussion I was privy to at the auto parts store.
Another customer asked the cashier if she thought the Coronavirus was God’s way of punishing America for our sin. I could tell by the way the customer asked, that he himself believed that to be the case. I felt sorry for the cashier, who apparently hadn’t been told when she’d been hired that a theological degree might be useful. She looked at the man, and said, “How should I know. I’m not the Pope.” Which I thought was the best answer ever.
Then the customer turned and looked at me. I prayed, “Please ask me, please ask me. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for 36 years. Please ask me.” But he didn’t. He paid for his stuff and left.
There are people who interpret every event not as an arbitrary act of nature to which we are all vulnerable, but as a premeditated act of God intended to punish. These are the folks who believe that when something catastrophic happens, God must be behind it.
This past week, I dug out a book called The Last Week, written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. It’s a day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. Borg and Crossan do a wonderful job of explaining the historical background of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, all of which were initially political events, though the Church would eventually overlay spiritual themes on top of them. Incidentally, we do this all the time. Some profound shift or calamity will happen and before long people will begin saying it’s God’s plan, part of God’s great design. This happened almost immediately after Jesus was killed. What was clearly a political assassination became something God required in order to save the human race from our sin. But these are not acts of God, they are acts of humans. That was clearly the case with the murder of Jesus. The political elites, the wealthy, the religiously powerful, the privileged few who stood to benefit from things remaining just as they were, the caretakers of a system of domination, could not abide the challenge of Jesus, so silenced him. The murder of Jesus was not a sacrifice for our sin, it was a political assassination intended to keep people in line.
Into this system of domination came Jesus—lifting up the poor, stirring their imaginations, talking of a God whose ambassadors weren’t the folks in high places, but were the meek and lowly, the lovers of peace, the friends of justice. He told how when God threw a party, he didn’t consult the Social Register, but went out into the highways and hedges, opening heaven’s gates to the have-nots, has-beens, and homeless.
Jesus entered Jerusalem at the start of Passover, the largest Jewish holiday. Jerusalem was the epicenter of the celebration, and the Temple its Ground Zero. During Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell with people, think of the Indianapolis 500 and the Super Bowl held on the same weekend in the same city.
Into this mob of people, came two processions, as different as could be. One procession was small, led by Jesus riding a donkey. The other procession was larger, an occupying force of Roman troops, sent by Pontius Pilate, to maintain order in what was typically a politically charged and explosive week in the furthest corner of the Roman Empire. Those two processions met later in the week, the folks with the biggest army prevailed, as they usually do, and Jesus was murdered.
As I said, the Church, in trying to make sense of Jesus’s death, reinterpreted it, giving it religious and spiritual significance. That is natural when we experience something devastating, to try to discern God’s role in that event. Just like the man I overheard at the auto parts store.
But sometimes we imagine God where God isn’t. This requires us to reconsider what we’ve been taught about God, which can be difficult and painful, especially if we’ve gotten comfortable with our faith and don’t want it to change. But it can also be exciting and invigorating to look at God with new eyes. It can open our lives to fresh possibilities, and help us understand ourselves and the world in a more helpful, healthy way.
When we read the Palm Sunday and Easter stories this week, we don’t have to interpret those events the way we always have—as a blood sacrifice demanded by God so we could be forgiven. We Quakers, with our testimony of peace, need to be especially careful about suggesting God had to resort to violence to accomplish his purposes. We can instead read and hear these stories and understand them in fresh ways. We can, for instance, be deeply moved by the courage of Jesus, and ask God to help us be daring and bold, speaking and acting with moral clarity whenever we see injustice. Just like Jesus did.
The pilgrims who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem believed he would lead them in a violent overthrow against a despised regime. But regime change can be a tricky matter and doesn’t always lead to a Promised Land. We’re seeing that now, aren’t we?
During his life, but especially in his last week, Jesus showed us how to battle injustice—not with violence, not repaying evil with evil, but engaging the world with equal measures of compassion, straight-talk, good-will, and courage. When we do that, we won’t need to count on God to intervene and set things right. We will do that ourselves, transforming the kingdoms of this earth into the Kingdom of our Lord, where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like everflowing streams.