Text: Luke 19:28-40
As a kid, when grown-ups would ask me that nonsensical/foolish/silly question that adults ask little kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I alternated between two responses. Some days I would say that I wanted to be the girl Evel Knievel jumping over cars and canyons on my motorcycle. On other days, I would answer that I wanted to be a famous basketball player. No ballerina, tap dancer, baton twirler, or concert piano player – all activities my mother enrolled me in as a kid– showed up on the screen in my mind’s eye as a viable future. I will say that I regret giving up on the piano lessons; but certainly not any of those other options. Not that there is anything wrong with being a ballerina, tap dancer, baton twirler, and definitely not a concert piano player. And the good lord knows that neither preacher, nor pastor, nor jailbird was in my sights either.
I’m not sure why we ask kids this question. Sure there are those exceptional kids who at two or three say they want to be a firefighter or ballerina or lawyer or doctor or teacher and go on to be that. But most of us at ages two and three and four when we get asked that question are still trying to figure out how to go potty successfully or how to get the food on the fork and in our mouths. What do you want to be when you grow up? Seems more like an adult question to me. But really, how often do you get asked as an adult what you want to be when you grow up. And yet, if we are honest, many of us are all still trying to figure that out to some degree, especially when it comes to who and what we want to be as persons of faith. Do we take on the contemplative life? The life of an activist? Will I worship in a sanctuary with walls or the sanctuary down by Jordan Lake or the one in Umstead Park? When I grow up do I want my faith to be defined by what I believe about God or Jesus or heaven or hell or the virgin birth or resurrection? Or do I want my faith to be defined by how much compassion and grace and radical love I am able to muster up while loving my neighbor?
Every time I read the stories of our faith I try and discern not only their original context but also their relevance for today. I find that I never tire of listening for what the story is saying to us today – for the world that we are living in. And once again, as we come to this very familiar story that begins our high holy days of the Christian faith, in addition to setting it in its original context, I am also listening for what stands out in the text for us Christians today. And the question I hear is this: What or who do you want to be in the Holy Week drama beginning right now, on this Palm Sunday?
The drama for the last week of Jesus’ life is set as he makes his entry into Jerusalem. Christian tradition calls it his triumphal entry but as we break down what is actually happening it might best be called Jesus’ un-triumphal entry or better yet, his anti-triumphal entry. Because we are inclined to spiritualize the gospel, our eyes are not trained to see what is really going on as Jesus makes his ride into Jerusalem on the east side of town. His entry into Jerusalem is not part of a salvific plan to be crucified on a cross in atonement for our sins. This is part of that over-spiritualizing of Jesus’s life that Christian tradition has preached in order to hold onto its power over people rather than teaching folks the gospel message that sets them free – that Jesus’ life and ministry was about addressing systems of domination that perpetuated political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation (meaning that religious language was used to justify or legitimate the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable). Sound relevant to our times?
What Christian tradition and the Christian church has failed to teach is that Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on a donkey on the east side of town is a political statement. Today, we would call it a political demonstration, a rally on Jones Street opposing the oppressive and regressive actions of the General Assembly. We might even say that Jesus’ entry into the city was carefully planned street theatre. It was all staged. Orchestrated in opposition to the other parade taking place on the west side of town – the entry of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate displaying all the power and prestige of the powerful Roman Empire.
The drama of Palm Sunday sets the scene for the week to come. It is set with the necessitates of any good story: a compelling protagonist, a lively central scene, and a supporting cast of characters including disciples, street crowds, donkey’s and a donkey’s owner, cloaks, religious leaders, and yes, even stones. And so, this year, this story is asking each of us: What role will we play as a member of the supporting cast in the coming of God’s commonwealth here on earth, today, in 2019?
The story is asking: Will you play the part of one of Jesus’ disciples? Will you journey with him knowing that his path often leads to places of pain and struggle but also fulfillment and purpose? Or will you play the part of someone in the world who spreads their cloak of compassion to soften the road for those in our society who represents the face of Christ today just like those who lined the streets as Jesus made his entry into the city? Our world is in desperate need of cloak spreaders – those who offer compassion and grace to soften the road for those who have walked for days and weeks and months and miles upon miles across dangerous territory just to seek safety and asylum for their children and for themselves.
The story is asking: Will you use your agency, what you possess, for God’s commonwealth as did the owner of the donkey? Imagine someone coming to your door and saying to you, “I need to use your car because my child is sick and I need to get her to the doctor and I don’t have a car and God told me to ask for what I need and that God’s people would provide it.” Would you hand your keys over as the donkey owner did? I know that is extreme but sometimes to be in the supporting cast of Jesus’ triumphal entry we have to prepare for the extreme.
Maybe you will choose as your supporting role that of the donkey. And if you take on this role, you are saying that you are willing to be the carrier of Christ in the world today? If you choose to be the donkey, you will carry on your back resistance, non-violence, and peace. You will carry women’s rights, healthcare for all, and protection of voting rights for all. You will carry truth to the empire. In the first century, donkeys were work animals. If you choose the supporting role of the donkey you are saying that you are willing to work to establish God’s kin-dom here on earth for all people, especially the poor.
If there is a role in the supporting cast of this drama that I don’t want to be a part of it is that of the Pharisees – the religious leaders. And yet, well here I am one of those. It was the religious leaders who try to tame and shame Jesus’ disciples as they shout out praise for Jesus and for justice for the poor and the displaced – the very reason Jesus was riding into town on a donkey? It was the religious leaders who said to Jesus, “Order your disciples to stop their shouting for justice.” Calm them down. Silence them. How often do we want those shouting for justice to calm down and be silenced? Black and brown people shouting out in the streets for police accountability. Students shouting out for gun control legislation. Poor people shouting out for a living wage and healthcare. Women shouting out for control of their bodies. And Jesus says, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.
And that brings me to the stones as part of the supporting cast. This drama played out today will need stones to shout out when the church, God’s people, fail to speak out for the people and issues that Jesus went to the cross for. When the church is silent on issues of racial equity, inclusion of the LGBTQIA community, ecological justice, the evils of militarism and economic inequality, peace, and justice-love the stones will need to shout out. To be a stone will potentially require speaking out, shouting out against the very institutions and domination systems that we are a part of – the church, white privilege, academia, economic systems of security just to name a few. Stones will be needed in the ongoing drama of God’s work in the world. Will some of us be those stones?
Disciple, cloak, donkey owner, donkey, the religious, stones – What do you want to be when you grow up? At age 2, 3, 4 and 5 it is a foolish question. As a person of faith living in our world today it is not only a relevant question, it is a critical question. The drama of the first Palm Sunday is still being played out in our world today. And the question for each of us individually and for us as a church is this: What role will we play as the supporting cast as Jesus makes his way into our city?
Auditions are now open with one exception. No more Pharisees needed. The world has enough religious leaders wanting to silence those shouting out for justice. What cast member will you be, will we be in this Holy Week drama?