Let me set the scene.
It is Passover week in about the year 33 in the common era. Passover, a festival celebrated by the Hebrew people since God commanded Moses about 3500 years ago, is a week long celebration culminating in the feast of unleavened bread. And it was commanded that the people, long ago, should celebrate in the promised land, Jerusalem. That is exactly what Jesus was preparing to do.
As he headed towards Jerusalem, there was a stream of people also heading towards Jerusalem and the Temple. So many people that Jerusalem would swell from a population of about 30,000 people to about 180,000 folks.
Imagine that so many people were coming into the city during a time of Roman occupation and political unrest. A time when Jewish zealots were actively plotting the overthrow of the government. A time when the Roman leadership would feel a little anxious.
Now, who enters the scene?
Coming in from the east, you have Jesus on a donkey. According to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, He entered on “the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.” A visual display that is almost a political joke. A baby donkey, palms on the ground, people’s ragtag belongings spread before him. No decorations, gold, or wealth on display. The sounds would be the braying of a colt, the rustling of palms, the joy of a people ready for another way. The eyes of the onlookers, some curious, some awed, and yes, some resentful.
Coming in from the west, ready to quell any potential protest, road Pontius Pilate in an imperial procession. “A visual display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. The sounds of the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
On the same day. At the same time. Both intent on delivering their message. Pilate clanged and crashed his way into Jerusalem while Jesus looked, by contrast, ragtag and absurd. The triumphal entry of Jesus was an anti-imperial, anti-triumphant one. A deliberate counterpoint of the conquering emperor entering on horseback through gates that were opened in abject subjugation made by the prince of peace promising non-violence and glorious emancipation.
It is almost as if Jesus did this on purpose! Setting up a contrast between subjugation and emancipation. Violence and peace. Captivity and freedom.
While I cannot know what it would be like to be caught between the powers of an oppressive Roman system and a Jewish march towards peace, I did experience a little bit of what it was like to make such a journey when I was at General Conference 2019.
I went to GC2019 with the specific task of tracking legislation proposals. I literally sat at my computer when I was in the stands and typed everything everyone said regarding legislation and amendments. When I was there, in St. Louis, I would journey back and forth every day walking from my AirBnb to the America’s Center where the St. Louis Rams used to play football.
The first day, the journey was uneventful. The second day, folks from Westboro Baptist started to show up. They stood on the corners waving hateful signs and yelling horrible things. Trying to create hearts of war within all of us. Entering through that triumphal display was daunting. One day, I was on my own. I needed a little introvert recovery time at lunch. At that time, I had to traverse the gauntlet of street corner preachers yelling their own version of a Christian God that hates people. I must tell you that I was intimidated. I tucked my head down and walked quickly past with more than a little resentment and fear. I witnessed the visual display of triumphalist hatred and the sound of amplified voices. It was as if Pontius Pilate was standing on the corner inciting hatred against those who were not committed to Caesar, the God of Rome.
And then, what was perhaps worse, was encountering the groups such as the IRD, Good News, and the WCA. IRD is the Institute for Religion and Democracy. That sounds good, right? Democracy is supposed to lead to freedom? Not in this version. They were created to act against liberation theology – theology that developed out of the Black experience during a time when they were treated as separate but equal. The IRD rose up from outside of the Methodist tradition and gave way to Good News, which then birthed the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Good News was a newsletter born to counter progressive theologies that were leading to things like destruction of the Central Jurisdiction in the US, where Black churches were held apart, separate but equal. They brought their first charges against a person in the United Methodist Church in 1971. And they have been working to create a more punitive reality ever since.
Encountering these folks, folks who don’t only want to not give freedom but want to severely punish people who act according to their conscience, was a total bummer. We were standing in line and I made a joke about football—I mean, it was America’s Center where the St. Louis Rams played—and they were not even willing to engage on the level of superficial humor. I mean, there is a lot to joke about regarding the Rams, am I right?
And when I was in the stadium, I generally sat with folks I knew. But I had to get up and search out another person who was tracking legislation and it led me into a section of folks that weren’t friendly to a live-and-let-live approach to life. I sat down and tried to appear very small while I waited. I was never so glad to leave a section in my life! I ran back to Taylor and Laura who I had been sitting with and at once felt relief to be with people who I knew loved me.
We are better together. And that is a little bit of what Jesus is teaching us on Palm Sunday! Without the crowds and their palms and jackets and willingness to procure a colt and donkey, there would have been a tame counterpoint to Pilate’s military parade happening at the other end of town. Jesus’ actions were better because of the community he was in. We are better together.
Of course, we all know what Palm Sunday leads to. And that is Friday. General Conference and all its journeys and parades felt a little bit like Good Friday. A time when outside forces overtook the church and put its theology of subjugation onto the people called Methodist. It took 48 years, but they managed it. They marched in like soldiers, put the church on trial, and won. It was the death of many people’s dreams-people who were not hoping for full inclusion but were simply hoping that we would tolerate each other. And the Bishops, people who also wanted one church, did not pause long enough after the vote to pray. They just went onto the next order of business.
That is when it felt like the death of the unified United Methodist Church to me. But since that time, there have been resurrection conversations around the world. Churches in Kenya, Uganda, and Brazil are joining larger conversations. Bishops in the US are talking to Bishops in other parts of the world. Pastor Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the largest United Methodist Church, is leading listening posts across the US—Dallas, Atlanta, and Kansas City so far. UM Forward, co-led by United Methodist people of color, is convening in Minneapolis to find a new way that does not hold power so tightly that we simply go onto the next order of business. But they are searching for a way that embraces the Via de Cristo—the way of Christ. A way that journeys together with those people who sacrifice their shirts and jackets, donkeys and colts but also takes pauses to pray in the wilderness. This is a tense moment in our church’s history. But it is not the end of the story. Because Sunday always comes. Resurrection always rises.
Right before the scripture that describes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a confusing little parable about a King who gets mad at one of his workers. The king puts his business affairs into the hands of his servants while he is gone. Most of the servants do at least a little work. But one of them hides the King’s money and returns it to him when the King returns. The King is angry that no profit has been had. Now, this parable is not about money. It is about the responsibilities that the King entrusts to his people. The King trusts the people to handle his responsibilities. Jesus, our King, our King whose values stand in direct contrast to the King of the Empire, trusts us to handle his responsibilities while he is gone. And the person who is judged is the person who squanders their responsibility. What is our responsibility?
We are called to make a stand for Biblical obedience. “God has already established what is lawful. Paul, in Galatians, asserts that wherever we see the fruits of the Spirit, God is at work, and against this there is “no such law.” We have seen and heard and experienced the fruit of the ministry of people that the IRD would criminalize. People such as Bishop Oliveto, church musician Mark Miller, or home deaconess Helen Ryde. All people, clergy and lay, that would be declared incompatible with church law. And yet their fruits of gentleness, love, joy, peace, kindness cannot be denied. And against such people, there is no such law. According to the Bible. But according to the Book of Discipline and the proposed legislation currently under judicial review, they are, in their very existence, against church law.
That is not Biblical obedience.
Biblical obedience lives into the greatest commandment, love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Gil Caldwell, civil rights activist and United Methodist pastor who lived through a time in our Methodist history that had segregated church–where Black churches were all put into their own jurisdiction—separate but equal—asks the question, “How can we claim to love God whom we have not seen, yet not love those whom we have seen?”
In other words, how can we not love our neighbor whom we have seen?
Love your neighbor as yourself. That is Biblical obedience.
Paul, in Galatians 14 says, “All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.” You may wonder why Paul doesn’t include God in his statement. I believe it is because it is a fundamental Jewish belief to understand that all people are created in the image of God. If you are created in the image of God and I am created in the image of God, then we are God-bearers in the world. God is included within the statement, love your neighbor as yourself because God is never separate from you or your neighbor.
Biblical obedience calls for an inclusion that looks like Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem. Nobody at General Conference expected that a procession would look like sacrifice, palms on the ground, and dirty cloaks. It was created as a display of church power. And nobody during Jesus’ time thought that their story would include a parade of the forgotten—they were ripe for a revolution led by a warrior! But what people got, in both times and places, was a mismatch between their outsized expectations and God’s answer.
I admit to struggling to reconcile the role of God’s will in times such as these. But what I believe is that it was the will of God that Jesus declare the coming of God’s kingdom. A kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of radical and universal freedom. A kingdom dramatically unlike the oppressive and violent empire Jesus challenged on Palm Sunday.
And it is our challenge to do the same. Declare and build a kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of freedom that includes everyone. A kingdom unlike the oppressive and violent empire Jesus challenged on that Palm Sunday long ago.
There are two processions.
Two symbolic journeys into Jerusalem.
A stallion and a donkey.
A military march or a ragtag parade.
Which will we choose?
- The Stallion & the Donkey: on the Triumphal Entry, the IRD, and Biblical Obedience - April 17, 2019
- New Psalms in Hopes for a New Day - August 3, 2018
- Tuesday, February 23 – A Season of Becoming Lenten Devotional - February 23, 2016