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On the Road Together

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Apr 01

The Sixth Sunday in Lent - Palm Sunday
Mark 11: 1-11

Just after Christmas this past year, Nancy and I visited some friends in LA where we had the chance to take in the landscaped sculpture gardens and world-class art collection at the Getty Museum, a sprawling center for the arts set atop a hill overlooking the Pacific.  Tucked back in a second floor gallery was one of the Getty’s prized pieces, a huge, wall sized, 8 ½ by 14 foot painting by the Belgian artist, James Ensor.  Its called Christ’s Entry into Brussels.  I had read about it before, I have even mentioned it to some of you before, but I had never seen it with my own eyes. The piece is somewhat satirical take on the Palm Sunday procession we just read about in Mark. 

I knew from seeing images online that the figure of Jesus riding on the donkey is intentionally and almost entirely absorbed and obscured amidst a sea of colorful faces who are joining him in procession down a gently sloping city hill.  He’s set way back in the middle of the painting with seemingly hundreds of people in front and behind him, all coming towards to the viewer.  But for a blurry, almost imperceptible halo of yellow light and the little bit height he gets from riding the donkey, he barely stands out from the others at all.  I take this as a statement about Christ’s humility and solidarity with the masses.  What I didn’t realize from the relatively small-scale reprints was how staunchly political Ensor’s depiction of this procession is.  The parade has an almost carnival-like atmosphere to it, with people in masks carrying political signs and slogans, standing alongside uniformed military.  As the Getty’s own description of the painting reads, “Ensor's Christ functioned as a political spokesman for the poor and oppressed--a humble leader of the true religion, in opposition to the atheist social reformer Emile Littré, shown in bishop's garb holding a drum major's baton leading on the eager, mindless crowd.”  And as another art critic has noted, “Ensor is in fact celebrating a radical egalitarian vision, close to the Catholic working-class anarchist and socialist values strongly present in late 19th-century Belgium. Christ enters Brussels on a donkey: Palm Sunday becomes a carnival of masks on the centenary of the French Revolution.”

So let me tell why I like this painting so much and why if you have the chance to visit LA you should see it for yourself.  I love the way it interprets the story of the Palm Sunday procession that we ourselves are re-enacting today.  Christ’s Entry into Cambridge, if you will!  Left to our own imaginations, we might conjure a scene of Jesus set apart from a crowd that is sidelined by his presence, a crowd that upon his approach parts like the Red Sea, bowing and bending with his every move.  As the painting depicts though, and much like the crowd that was with him at his Baptism in the Jordan – recall that reading from the beginning of Lent -- Jesus chose to be with and to stand with God’s people, not over and apart from them.

At the same time, there he is riding alone on a donkey, instead of a stallion.  There he is leading this crowd in boldly mocking the establishment, turning all imperial processions of pomp and powers over, whether Roman, French or Belgian, into a mere masquerade! He knew that God’s power is never the power over of domination but always the power with of solidarity and genuine, egalitarian community.  We have to remember that the first Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem was a carefully orchestrated, providentially staged, counter-cultural, anti-establishment drama.  More than any other scene in scripture, it established the long foretold procession of God’s kingdom of peace and mercy as a stark alternative to the seemingly inevitable procession of Caesar’s empire of power and militaristic might.  What’s more, all of this is just a set up, a mere prelude, to the events of this Holy Week now upon us.  For it was precisely the threat that Jesus and his followers brought  - of a new way, a new path, a new and non-violent road of welcome and inclusion for all God’s children – that ultimately got Jesus killed by way of state-sponsored execution and that would ultimately change the course of history.  And it’s precisely this ongoing threat to the powers that be, by way of this new community, this new table where all are welcome, that is raised and that lives on at Easter.

Politically charged as the Palm Sunday procession surely was and should be to this day, its important for us not to get too carried away with images of Jesus as mere community organizer, staging an action against empire.  Jesus would not have been riding that donkey in the first place were it not for a deep spiritual conviction about the power of God’s love made known in Jewish scripture and in community.  Jesus’ every step on that road, however politically calculated, was rooted in a profound and intimate knowledge of Jewish tradition.  He knew the writings of the great prophets like Isaiah and Zechariah who foretold that a Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey.  They practically wrote the script for this scene. Sealed to his very heart was the great story of his people’s Exodus from bondage in Egypt, and of the Passover that he and his fellow pilgrims were there in Jerusalem to honor.
Here in this powerful scene, history and religion, politics and spirituality, individuals and communities are fused in the most amazing of ways.  Here, ancient and contemporary narratives are merged into one very powerful drama that holds our very soul’s salvation in dynamic tension with systemic transformation.  We can’t have one without the other.  Here there is a call to be equally attentive to our spiritual practices, on the one hand, our keeping a prayerful humility, our reading scripture, our building communities of shared faith and values, with our political practices, on the other, our organizing with all kinds of people speak the trust in love to imperial power!   Without the rootedness of his own story in scripture, without the spiritual wells and water of surrounding community and friends, and of course without a generous dose of God’s help through it all, how could Jesus ever have mounted that donkey and marshaled that legendary parade to begin with, especially when we have reason to believe that he knew it would lead to his eventual suffering, persecution and death?

And so for us, to enter into the full force of the meaning of this Holy Week story, of this divine human drama, to have any part in it, we too need to find the balance between our outward, socially and politically directed selves and our inward, individually and spiritually oriented selves.  Do you see what I’m saying here?  We need to do as Jesus did as we prepare for this week, and find that sweet spot between humility and courage, between the gentleness of doves and the wisdom of serpents, between our private and our public selves.  As we walk our own paths later in the service, we need to be aware of what is the right pace, and the right gate, so that we can both honor our particular God given place and purpose in the line without jostling our neighbors who need to be there just as much as we do. If we find ourselves leaning too much in one direction, we’ll be limping our way into Holy Week.  If we find ourselves favoring too much those parts of ourselves that want to systemic injustice in the world, the spiritual depth and muscles we need to see us through our deepest fears may not be enough for what comes later in the week.  On the other hand, if we find ourselves favoring a more inward and individual focus on our own lives and stories, we may lose that solidarity and radical inclusion that reminds us we are not alone, that we are on this road together!  In the end, if we find ourselves limping one way or another, rest assured we will be in great company with so many other pilgrims who have struggled to find the balance between inward and outward expressions of our faith.

As we walk our path here at First Church, more than anything, we should be mindful that Jesus did not enter that last week of his life alone, though it may well have started to feel that way as the betrayal and persecution, even of his friends, began to pile on and weigh down his soul.  He too made his journey, as our Lenten Theme suggest, On the Road to Jerusalem, from Wilderness to Community, from being alone to creating and modeling and living in a new community.  By virtue of his teaching, he showed us that life lived for oneself, and not merely for ones family and ones tribe, is not enough. By virtue of his life, he taught that our souls and our world need larger communities in which to practice God’s loving kindness, mercy and justice.  By virtue of his love, he showed us that he needed his enemies close if only to teach him all the more about Gods love.  And by virtue of his table fellowship, we know he ate with the outcasts, the lepers, the prostitutes and sinners of every stripe) so as to invite the strangest of strangers into his very heart in order to reconcile, and build peace and justice for all God’s children.

And so, from the wilderness of loneliness, fear, or self and other loathing, we make our way on the road into an ever wider and more glorious and loving community.  We walk together, in solidarity with Christ our brother. We eat and find bread for the journey, together.   We share the life that is really life, together, in this household of unconditional love.  The pending sorrow and suffering of this week reminds us of our human resistance, of our penchant to tough it out and to go it alone.  It also reminds us of our deepest fears – of loneliness and of death.  But it is in the midst of these reminders, where Jesus needs us, where we need each other and where we all need God the most.

As you listen to the music, I invite you to prepare your hearts for the procession that begins here today.  Ponder how you want to walk the path today, on this makeshift road here in our chancel.  Pray about your walk through this week, how you can be mindful of what you need to find balance between your self and all those walking around you, mindful both of whatever pious expressions and whatever political convictions you bring.  How can you walk this walk attentive to both what is in your heart and what you are carrying, while remember what is on the hearts of those behind you and before you.  Be attentive to your pace! Walk tall and by all means walk strong but always with awareness that the person by your side is trying their best to do the same.  Conjure in your mind’s eyes, if it helps, the example of Ensor’s painting, in which the colors of Jesus own face and clothing blend into the painting, where the one stands with and among the many! 

Only with this kind of intentional and prayerful preparation for the road ahead will we be able to set ourselves in stride with Jesus who by grace found that exquisitely soft and sweet spot that allowed him both the humble, soul-grounded solidarity on the one hand with the determined, driven ego-strength to face all human fear. With that balance of grace and courage, we too can together face our individual and collective anxieties and fear, enough to stand up against any power that would seek to separate us from each other and from the love of God, even the power of death. Amen.

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