(Not) business as usual | Palm Sunday | April 14

Text: Luke 19:28-48

Speaker: Joel Miller

This is how it works: When the ruler or conquering general comes to town you run out to meet him.  City leaders and citizenry surround the procession.  There are songs and loud acclamations.  You reach the entrance of the city and the pageantry continues through the streets.  You hail the general’s greatness.  You welcome him as god’s own, sent to you.

This is how it worked in the ancient world.

The Greek biographer Plutarch writes this about the entrance of Mark Antony into Ephesus:

When Antony made his entrance into Ephesus, women arrayed like Baccanals (Bacchus the god of wine and revelry), and men and boys like satyrs and Pans (part goat part man), led the way before him, and the city was full of ivy and (decorative wands) and harps and pipes and flutes, the people hailing him as Dionysius Giver of Joy and Beneficent.  For he was such undoubtedly, to some.  Plutarch, Antonius, 24.3-4

Another flourish was for the visiting ruler to enter the local temple and make a sacrifice, claiming his god-ordained authority in that space.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes this about Alexander the Great’s entrance into Jerusalem:

Then all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him..[then] he gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city.  Then he went up to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 11.332-336

That’s how it works.

This is how it goes.  When the Passover approaches, you get ready.  You prepare your house, you prepare your heart, you prepare for a trip.  A pilgrimage to the temple.  You and your whole extended family.  It could take several days, so you pack what you need.  But you can only pack so much.  There’s no need to bring the lamb that will provide the ritual meal.  That would make for quite a trip.

There are plenty of lambs in Jerusalem.  They know you’re coming, know it’s impractical to bring your own.  Shepherds around the city have been raising these lambs since last year for this very purpose.  They’re ready for you.  Just don’t forget your coins.  And don’t worry about having the right currency.  You can exchange it in Jerusalem for the shekels that will get you what you need.

This is how it goes every year.  When you celebrate the Passover.  You remember that you are a free people.  That the Lord delivered you from bondage in Egypt so many years ago, and will deliver you from your current bondage.  You remember that your bond to God cannot be broken, no matter who’s running the show.  But you have to be smart about it.  The Romans are keeping close watch.  They too are ready for the occasion.  It’s all a bit tense.  How would you like to be put on security duty during a festival when the people whose land you’re occupying are celebrating their deliverance from people like you?  From the powers that give you your daily bread, your paycheck?  But everybody has to make a living.  It’s tense.  And, for the most part, everyone stays in line, and gets through the festival, and everyone returns home in peace.

This is the world Jesus lived in.  It’s the world he grew up in.  What he saw year in and year out.  The world into which his mother echoed her poetry: “The Mighty One has shown strength with his arm; has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart.  Has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 2:51-52)

Jesus had made this pilgrimage many times.  But this year will be different.  Very different.

We know what he did.

How, when they were getting close to the city, he had two of his friends go ahead of them and fetch the colt.  How they brought it back to him, threw their cloaks over it, a soft saddle.  How he sat on that colt and rode it all the way into the city – with loud shouts of Hosanna, of praises to God, and everyone in the caravan laying out a peasant’s version of the red carpet, the brown tunic.  Tunic upon cloak upon leafy branch upon palm leaf upon more cloaks, spread out, all the way along the path down the mount of olives, and back up into the city.

It was a familiar scene with a twist.  It was street theater.  It was a parade without a permit.  It was prophecy – acting out the words of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.”  (Zech 9:9)

There it is.

And there he goes, the victorious, humble one, on script, up to the temple.  So massive.  Then, off script.  He’s making a scene now, driving out some of the vendors.  Making a proclamation about the temple being a house of prayer.  A house of prayer.  These are borrowed words from the prophet Isaiah.  Then he borrows some other words, this time from Jeremiah: “But you have made it into a den of robbers.”

It’s a Zechariah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Alexander the Great, Mark Antony mash up.  It’s Jesus mashing up the drama of human longing and human folly.

Christians sometimes emphasize that the temple system was rotten to the core and Jesus is exposing it for what it was.  Amy-Jill Levine has another take.  She’s one of a very few Jewish New Testament scholars.  She teaches at Vanderbilt.  She has dedicated her scholarly work to helping people who call themselves Christians better understand the Jewishness of Jesus.

Her point is that there’s nothing morally corrupt about the selling of goods and animals around the temple grounds, the currency exchanges that enabled people to get what they need for the festival.  How else are those pilgrims traveling from so far going to have a lamb for the meal?  This is all very normal.

She suggests that what Jesus is doing is disrupting business as usual.  He’s urging people to wake up, to stop business as usual, even if it seems benign, and pay attention.  She writes, “There are times, we may find, that business as usual is not only inappropriate, it is obscene.  Something has to be done.” Entering the Passion of Jesus, p. 51.

Jesus has had enough of business as usual.

If there’s one thing humans are good at, its adapting to whatever kind of usual we find ourselves in.  We’ve adapted to different climates, different cultural norms.  We adapt so well we get used to going along with business as usual.

This is why we adults have no good answer when, for example, a child first discovers the existence of homelessness.  The child is completely scandalized that there are people without homes.  We try to explain the income gap, mental health, lack of affordable housing, but it doesn’t work.  We have an explanation, but the child refuses, at least for a while, to accept that business as usual means that some people don’t have homes.

But they’ll learn.  They’ll adapt.  Over the years, they’ll come to accept business as usual, just like us.  Unless they don’t.

This week I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our friend Ruben Herrera, who died a week ago.  His funeral was yesterday and we’ll have a time of remembrance for him here this evening at 7.  Ruben didn’t adapt well, and I mean that as the highest compliment.  Ruben organized against business as usual.

I wonder which of Jesus’ disciples was his Ruben.  The one who arranged in advance for the colt to be in the right place at the right time to be picked up and ridden.  The one who brought extra cloaks and palm branches to the march and handed them out so everybody got involved.  The one who led the cheers and got people shouting Hosanna till they started losing their voices.  The one who kept pushing and pushing to the point of sometimes straining relationships even with his closest friends, but was one of the first to show up when one of them needed a listening ear.

The one with the queer eye for the business-as-usual guy, who saw clearly the great gap between that which is and that which could be.

And who loved so deeply it hurt.

Toward the end of the triumphal entry but before Jesus’ entrance into the temple, there is a great pause.  Luke’s is the only gospel to include this.  All the commotion goes quiet, and we’re given a glimpse into the heart of Jesus.  It says: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”

Behind the pageantry, underneath the public demonstration, at the root of all Jesus is doing is the heart of one who loves so deeply it hurts.  We must see this, or we miss everything.  Jesus longs for peace for his people, his beloved city.  He loves.  He longs.  So deeply that he’s willing give up any claim on his own life.  He walks toward that which he loves, that which does not yet know the things that make for peace.

The crucifixion of Jesus becomes the ultimate disruption of business as usual.  If the parables didn’t get your attention, if you missed the parade, or were off getting groceries during the temple demonstration, the cross will get your attention.  The temple curtain tears down the middle, the earth shakes, and humanity is given an image of love plus suffering, forever seared into our consciousness.  And there it is.

This is how it works.  The Christ parades into the world without a permit.  Gathers those for whom business as usual is killing them.  Marches straight into the muddle of our lives. Gazes lovingly at the whole mess.  Pauses.  Finds the silence under the commotion.  Wages peace.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with your enemy.  Peace on the Jews.  Peace on the Romans.  Peace on America.  The Christ weeps, cries out, loves.  Disrupts.  Turns over some tables.  Are we paying attention yet?  Renounces the robbers, then invites them over for dinner.  How about now?  Asks for everything, keeps nothing, not even his own life.  Gives it away like bread and wine.  Here, you be my body.  This is for you.

No more business as usual.  Creates a new usual out of the shell of the old.  Sets down the path and invites anyone, anyone, to follow.

Despite reports to the contrary, love’s victory parade marches on.

El desfile de la Victoria del amor marcha adelanta.

Love’s victory parade marches on.