Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Way of Peace is the Way of Love (Mark 11:1-11)


Our Gospel text today is Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. Mark’s telling of the story implicitly alludes to Zechariah 9:9 (which Matthew makes explicit in his version). The passage in Zechariah reads: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The text doesn’t make any sense really. No king comes riding on a donkey. A king rides on a white stallion or in a chariot high above the crowd. The next verse from Zechariah clarifies the kind of king this is: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” Zechariah’s un-king is going to abolish all weapons of war. No more war, no more cruelty, no more violence. This no-king is humble and peace-seeking. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called the children of God.” The reason they are called the children of God is because they reflect the disposition and actions of God, who is all about peacemaking.

It’s clear from the text that this procession into Jerusalem was not a spontaneous event. Jesus planned and prepared for it. The instructions Jesus gives the disciples about where to find the donkey makes this quite clear. This is a staged event designed as both an act of protest and a proclamation of the gospel of peace.

It’s not hard to imagine the sort of people who would have made up this procession into Jerusalem: the formerly diseased and demonized whom Jesus healed and liberated; the poor – materially poor as well as those poor in spirit; the  marginalized and disenfranchised whom Jesus accepted and welcomed; Jesus’ closest associates – the Twelve; perhaps even a few people of means who supported Jesus’ mission. Jesus had to get financing for his mission from somewhere and Luke tells us about some women of means who gave to Jesus’ cause.

Now, contrast this procession with another procession coming from the west side of the city led by the Roman governor Pilot, who, of course, represents the imperial power of Rome. Pilate and his troops would have departed from Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and would have entered the city with calvary and foot soldiers to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount. During these Jewish high holy days the threat of insurrection was always greater than other times of the year. So this was Pilate’s way of trying to squelch any thought of violent uprising, and just in case, he wanted to make sure that any actual attempt at insurrection would be met immediately with violent force.

So what we have here are two very difference kinds of processions that exhibit two very different kinds of power, symbolizing two very different kinds of kingdoms. The kingdom of God is not really a kingdom at all, in the way we think about kingdoms. Worldly kingdoms (such as the kingdom of Rome) operate on the basis of dominate power – often characterized by violence. Jesus modeled and taught the way of love and service which is the essence of spiritual power.

In talking about the kingdom of God Jesus drew from common language but invested the language with a radically different meaning. That’s the irony and the mystery. The kingdom of God as embodied and taught by Jesus was not a kingdom at all in the traditional, worldly sense. Some interpreters like to paraphrase it as the kin-dom of God. It’s about belonging and becoming.

Practically every story in Mark 10 just prior to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem are stories that emphasize a different kind of kingdom and power. Jesus rebukes the disciples for trying to stop the little children from touching him. Jesus says, “Let them come, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He takes them in his arms and blesses them.

He tells a rich man to give away all his wealth, and tells the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus warns them that in God’s new order the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Then, still thinking God’s kingdom is like worldly kingdoms, and that Jesus is going to reign like earthly rulers, James and John want to sit on Jesus’ left hand and right, occupying positions of prominence and power. Jesus asks them if they are able to drink the cup he is going to drink or to be baptized with the baptism he will be baptized with. They say they are able, but have no idea what Jesus is talking about. Jesus tells them that in the kingdoms of the world rulers lord it over their subjects, but then he turns to them and says, “It is not so among you.” Jesus rebukes them and admonishes them that whoever among them wishes to become great must give up the very notion of being great, and become the servant of all. Then Mark tells us that the Son of Man par excellent, the fully human one, Jesus of Nazareth, did not come to be served, but to serve and give his whole life in service to God and others for the liberation of humankind.   

This is a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of power. Those who are truly led by the Spirit of Christ demonstrate this power.

The late biblical scholar and social activist, Walter Wink tells about an experience he shared with a large crowd of both black and white activists during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the South. The story vividly illustrates the difference between spiritual power and dominant power.

They had gathered singing, when suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capital just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback. With all escape barred they were cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. The one who reported this to the group in Selma was one of the ambulance drivers. After the incident he had driven straight to Selma to tell them about it.

The crowd, which had gathered outside of Ebeneezer Baptist Church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind them, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord” they sang. Then, without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark, the sheriff?” Certainly, Lord” came the somewhat stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love, Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,” they sang.

The Rev. James Bevel took the mike. “We are not fighting for our rights,” he said, “we are fighting for the good of the whole society.” That is restorative justice sisters and brothers – the good of the whole society. And this was at the heart of the gospel of Jesus who preached and embodied the kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness/God’s restorative justice.” Rev. Bevel said to those gathered, “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.” Then he said, “We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.” That’s the only way any lasting change occurs.

This is a point that Dr. King tried to drive home repeatedly with all civil rights activists. Their goal, he said, was not to defeat or destroy their enemies. Rather, their goal was to destroy the enmity, the prejudice and hate that fueled their enemies. Dr. King kept preaching that the goal was to turn their enemies into their friends.

The civil rights movement led by Dr. King was, I believe, the greatest spiritual movement, the greatest demonstration of spiritual power our country ever witnessed. And the sad thing, the thing that should break all our hearts, is that white evangelical Christians, and many mainliners, just stood on the sidelines. And you know why we stood on the sidelines? Because American Christianity became the religion of the establishment and became enmeshed in privilege and place and worldly power.

What should be our response to all of this? Repentance should be first on the list. Mark introduces the preaching of the good news of Jesus by saying, “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and trust in the good news.” We need to repent sisters and brothers. We need to change our minds and hearts and turn from our love of power and start living by the power of love.

It was the power of love that led Jesus to stage this peaceful march into Jerusalem countering the display of dominant power by the Romans. It was the power of love that enabled Jesus to confront and challenge the religious establishment of his day that set up a worthiness system determining who was in and out. It was the power of love that led Jesus to be the provocateur he was regarding Sabbath law and the laws governing the meal table. It was the power of love that compelled Jesus to take the side of the poor and the downtrodden proclaiming that they were the ones who were truly blessed. It was the power of love that inspired Jesus to not only be healer of the sick and broken, but to be a teacher of an alternative kind of wisdom that said, “Love your enemies, pray for them and do good by them.” It was the power of love that empowered Jesus to be a reformer and prophet who spoke truth to power. So, you see, it was the power of love that made his cross, his death, his execution at the hands of dominant power inevitable.

We need to repent, sisters and brothers, of how often we have resisted the power of love in favor of dominant power. We need to repent and join Jesus on his march to Jerusalem. The true king is not really a king at all in the worldly sense. He is the suffering servant who was despised and forsaken, beaten and rejected and hung up on a cross by those in the halls of power. He was made a scapegoat bearing the angst and animosity, the prejudice and hate of all those who love privilege and position and worldly dominance

All of us establishment Christians have a lot to repent of. When Dr. King was preaching his dream of a just society, we sat on the sidelines. Our parents sat on the sidelines. Our spiritual mentors sat on the sidelines. But even much worse, some of our parents, our preachers, our churches, even joined and cheered the forces of Sheriff Jim Clark.

Can we hear the good news of Jesus who says, “The kingdom of God has come near? Repent, and trust in the good news.” The good news is that we don’t have to keep living that way. We don’t have to bow or cower to those of privilege and prominence. We don’t have to share in the injustices of the establishment. We can repent. We can resist. We can change. We can overcome evil with good. We can be different. We can give up our love for power and surrender to the power of love. We can join Jesus’ rag-tag band of misfits as he makes his way into Jerusalem. It’s not easy. We have to count the cost. A part of us will have to die there with Jesus on the cross. But we can then join the Christ on Easter morning in joy and hope of a new kind of world where the royal law of liberty, the law of love of God and love of neighbor is written, not on stone tablets, not in a nation’s Constitution, not even in a holy book, but written on the heart and soul and human spirit by the Spirit of the living Christ.

O God, may those of us who have ears to hear, hear. And bear mercifully with those of us whose ears are still deaf. Amen.


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