Prisoners of Hope
I think it's interesting that so much of our tradition around Palm Sunday includes children, even though not one of the gospels mentions any. All three of the official Palm Sunday hymns that we're singing today have at least one line about children, singing and dancing. Sometimes it sounds like they're improbably well behaved children, but even so our imagination for this day seems to demand kids. There's something about what we're celebrating today that needs the kind of rambunctiousness, the joyful chaos that only children can bring to the party. There needs to be some skipping and running and jumping. There needs to be laughter and a hint of mischief today. There's no pretense; only celebration!
We know that children played a special role in Jesus' ministry, so it's not a stretch to imagine them weaving in and out, in front of the lumbering donkey, running ahead like a kind of ridiculous color guard, bearing witness to just what kind of king is on his way. We know that Jesus welcomed children eagerly, especially when they undermined his disciples' sense of what was right and proper; we know that he gave his healing attention to children, and insisted that his kingdom belongs to them--that if we want to get in on what he's doing our first responsibility is not growing up, but growing down.
Perhaps it's not just the sweetness of their hosannas that inclines the Church to think that children must have been there, but the likely recklessness of their hosannas! Maybe it's their complete lack of embarrassment about the silliness of it all--their indifference to the scoffing Roman soldiers, watching from the walls of the city; their ability to ignore the eyebrow-arching and indignation of the religious elite. Perhaps it's their ignorance of Roman military displays in the midst of the Passover celebrations--Rome was always keen to remind rebellious Jerusalem that while she might celebrate God's deliverance from Egyptian slavery, she was still under the thumb of another king; freedom was being celebrated in the midst of an occupation that didn't have to be peaceful. Kids don't tend to let such political posturing get in the way of their playfulness. Perhaps it's their capacity to let their imagination outweigh what they've been told is the way things are. Maybe it's all of the above that has us so certain that kids must have been there; maybe of all days it seems clear that if we're going to get what's going on we're going to have to learn to grow down a bit, let our own childlikeness have its way.
Let's pray: Loving God, open our hearts to you this morning. Ready us to receive your word. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight. Through Christ, Amen.
Maybe we hope that there are kids there, because John tells us straight up that the adults didn't really get it. The adults are surely caught up in the moment, but they're going to need some time to process and understand what maybe the kids know intuitively: that something amazing and impossible is happening; that somehow this parade changes the world.
The disciples don't understand and won't understand until after Jesus is glorified, by which John means brutally killed and impossibly raised from the dead. The disciples seem glad enough to be part of the show--there's something in the excitement of it all that's put a little skip in their step. But it's hard to think that they're altogether unaware of the soldiers watching this gaggle of nobodies dance their way down the Mount of Olives and up to Jerusalem's gates. It's hard to think that at some point they're not wondering just what Jesus thinks he's doing, and even though it's pretty fun, when he's going to bring out the big guns, call down some heavenly wrath. Clearly this army of fishermen and prostitutes is not going to be very much of a challenge for a squadron of Roman soldiers. This confrontation that he's marching them into is pretty lopsided. Maybe the children's songs keep them distracted just a little longer.
Because, at some point, this is obviously going to catch the eye of the powers that be. You can't sing and dance about a new king, a holy saviour, without drawing the attention of folks committed to the current administration. This is just the sort of thing that they're on the lookout for--people getting a little too caught up in the story of salvation and redemption celebrated in the Passover, when God delivered God's people out from under Pharaoh's hand.
The official eyes are watching for people getting carried away with the notion that maybe God's way of radical freedom and covenant faithfulness is actually more significant than the glistening swords of the Empire and the heavy chains of the way things are. Maybe the children's beautiful indifference, their irrelevance in the current order of things--their complete lack of the things that matter (money, power, authority, education)--is what makes the whole thing actually, maybe...if we tilt our heads and squint just right...possible. Maybe we know we need something the kids do have, if we're really going to join this protest parade.
Whether or not his disciples get it, clearly Jesus knows what he's doing, with this bit of donkey-riding street theatre. He knows that he's making a claim about who he is and what he's about: that in him God's dream, not just for Israel but for the whole world, is taking shape; that in him, there will be a winner-take-all confrontation between God's way of love and justice and righteousness, and what St. John calls the ways of the world--violence, injustice, and brokenness. When he gets on that donkey and lets the people sing hosannas--shouts of jubilation about the saving action of God--to him, welcoming him to God's city, as the One who comes in God's name, as God's conquering hero, this is a radical political statement.
Everything he does in this moment is designed to reveal that he is about an alternative kind of kingdom that is coming--not just a different political idea, but a fundamentally different way of living and moving and having being in this world. 1) John's gospel colleagues tell us that the parade flows down from the Mount of Olives, which awakens a biblical imagination for the time in which God will judge the world before assuming royal kingship (Zechariah 14:4): perfect freedom and covenant faithfulness are on the move! 2) Incidentally, it's the opposite side of the city (east) from which the Roman military parade will enter (west), to remind the people of who's really in charge, which is a nice bit of visual poetry. 3) When he climbs on the donkey it's both a reminder of the prophet Zechariah's promise that the king after God's heart comes as the Prince of Peace, and that power in the kingdom of heaven looks awfully different than Roman chariots and war horses.
As he sits on the young donkey, are his feet dragging? It's not even full-grown. The image is ridiculous, and yet somehow makes Caesar's pomp and ceremony laughable. Jesus' downward mobility makes the world's power-grasping look silly. His parade of improbable soldiers--women and children, gluttons and drunkards and sinners, fishermen and tax-collectors and working girls, impetuous teenagers, healed lepers and former beggars--makes Caesar's military show look like the testament to paranoia that it really is. I think it's significant that John tells us that many of the folks who've gathered around Jesus are the ones who've seen and heard that he raised Lazarus from the dead: this is the King who invites our allegiance through resurrection, not fear; love, not compulsion.
So, what is it that the disciples don't understand? Jesus seems to be making the terms of his rebellion pretty clear, to anyone with eyes to see (and ears to hear what the children sing). Maybe they didn't catch the biblical allusions, which is an interesting possibility.
Or maybe they just struggle to actually believe it. Maybe they see what's happening and are happy enough to get caught up in singing and dancing, happy to be part of the celebration, but hard-pressed to trust where it's heading. Maybe they've seen the miracles and heard the sermons and it all sounded marvellous in the moment, but the truth is that their imaginations are still captive to the current order of things; their enthusiasm runs out about the time they see a Roman sword and get the official "cease and desist" notice. Maybe they just don't really believe, lovely as it sounds, that this downwardly mobile kingdom that Jesus is on about is practical, let alone possible or permissible. John doesn't say that, exactly, but I don't find it all that hard to imagine, myself.
The evidence that it might be so will come on Thursday night. The writer and pastor, Brian Zahnd, makes the point that if Jesus had changed his mind in Gethsemane, if he had chosen to stand his ground and fight, the disciples probably would have fought and even died with him. The evidence is there. At the first sign of conflict Peter will have his sword out. He'll manage to nick the ear of servant boy, which suggests that he's not especially good with his sword, or discerning in his strikes, but also that he can't imagine any other response than self-protection by means of violence and power, when push comes to shove. In other words, his imagination is still captive to the way things are, to what is possible and permissible in the current order of things. He, and the others, can't imagine that the alternative way that Jesus has called them into--a way of relentless peace, unflinching love, breathtaking forgiveness--is really and truly the trustworthy way of God. So they scatter and run.
They won't understand until he's glorified in a way they can't imagine and surely wouldn't have chosen. They won't understand until the cross makes a mockery of worldly power; they won't understand until they see him alive, bearing the marks of his kingdom, the scars of his love, the evidence that God's way of grace is wildly true and unbelievably trustworthy.
And yet, today, even though they don't understand, Jesus lumbers on, on his ridiculously small mount, with his ludicrously powerless army, announced not by trumpets and banners, but children and palm leaves, his red carpet strewn peasants' cloaks. Even though they don't yet understand, he will continue to embody the wild truth that St Paul will sing: that though he was equal to God he didn't see that as something to be grasped at, or exploited, but humbled himself and showed the world what real power looks like. As the week goes on, he won't call down angel armies, he'll stand silent, staring down the futility of the way things are and letting the way they will be come to life in him.
I think that's one of the most remarkable things about what Jesus does today. He acts out what he believes. He embodies what he knows to be true, in spite of the evidence presented by the keepers of the way things are. When he climbs on that donkey, it's not a happy coincidence that Zechariah suggested, a long time ago, that God's own king would come riding on a donkey. He didn't need to ride a donkey to make his mission and ministry more true. But he enacts what he knows to be true. The peace of God, the humility of God, the love of God for the least and the lowly, the passion of God for rambunctious righteousness and joyful faithfulness, the strange beauty of downward mobility and the unexpectedness of divine irrelevance to the ways of the world, finds shape and form in Jesus' body. These divine and illusive truths find form; God's word of love for all things becomes flesh.
At the end of the day, perhaps what's quite a bit more interesting than the fact that the disciples don't get it is the promise that they will. When Jesus is glorified, when his will and way is vindicated on Easter morning, they will get it. Not perfectly, and not even immediately (Peter's first response to the resurrection, according to John, is to go fishing, back to what he knew before he got all tangled up with Jesus). But, by grace, they will get it. The revolution that today's parade signals, the ultimate victory of hope and peace and joy and love, will start to take shape in their bodies, in their lives. We read in Acts that they begin, in big ways and small, to give bone and muscle and flesh to the truth that in Jesus a new kingdom is come, that allegiance to this King frees them perfectly to live in faithfulness to God and neighbor, to love God and neighbor with everything they've got. They will begin to embody, in their homes and workplaces, in palaces of power and houses of poverty, wherever they find themselves, in whatever they do, that God's way and truth and life, is trustworthy above all else.
That's got to be something like the mission of the church, doesn't it? Are we not called to be a people who make real in the world the things we believe about things like grace and peace, joy and love? It's not good enough to know that the Bible says these things are worthy and good. We're called--like the kids who marched defiantly on Washington yesterday, while the current administration went golfing--to embody what we believe to be true, irrespective of what we're told is possible or permissible in the current order of things. We're called to live for the kingdom that's coming, not the ones that are crumbling.
Zechariah has this beautiful line in the donkey-riding passage (ch. 9) where he calls "prisoners of hope" to take up their posts, because God's kingdom is on the move. Prisoners of Hope. We're called to be "prisoners of hope," people who are learning to do nothing else but what Jesus calls us to do, come what may--because we know what's coming. We are resurrection people. By grace, we are heaven's kingdom people. We're called to downward mobility, divine irrelevance, to righteous foolishness and holy mischief--stuff that perhaps only kids can take really seriously. That's why the kingdom belongs to them.
Maybe that's to say, that we're called to sing with our whole lives: "See what love we have been given, that we should be called the children of God."
Hosanna in the highest. Amen.