Sunday sermon from Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
In the summer of 2009, the state of California found itself in a serious financial hole. You may well remember the market crash of 2008, and the ripple effects that brought state and municipal budgets around the country to their knees, perhaps nowhere more so than in California, which, by the end of the next summer, had completely evacuated its cash reserves and had begun to pay its own bills with IOUs. And the state was hamstrung not only by the tidal wave of national financial meltdown, but also by its own cumbersome legal system, a state constitution that failed to give state leaders enough room to maneuver their way through the crisis without the whole thing crashing to a halt. Public opinion began to shift past the usual cries of “Throw the bums out” and towards the conclusion that the system itself was flawed beyond repair.
And so during that long summer, voices around California began to call for a statewide constitutional convention, a kind of democratic Hail Mary whereby a group of citizens unencumbered by the burden of actually holding office might do the kind of drastic revisiting of the state constitution necessary to let the state move forward. And of course the magic of a constitutional convention would be that you wouldn’t just send the folks who were already deadlocked in the state senate; no, you could just send regular people. Individual cities and counties could appoint their own delegates. Or they could elect their own delegates. Or, in my personal favorite, you could just put all of the Californians into a computer and let some algorithm pick them out of a hat, like jury selection. And then you’d have a few dozen or a few hundred random people, farmers and teachers and doctors and tradespeople and probably a few lawyers thrown in for good measure, all of them outsiders to the political process, all of them entrusted with rewriting it from scratch. Who could think it would ever work? – except, of course that it’s the story of how this country got made in the first place.
And a powerful story it is, a story of government by the people and not by an elite political class. A story so firmly-entrenched that even now few things attract voters like the claim of being a political outsider. Let’s just pause and consider the irony of that for a moment: if you’re applying for a job as an accountant, I presume that prior experience in accounting generally counts in your favor. So it was, once upon a time, in our national elections: the New York Times observed that four of the five presidents to be elected in the years prior to Vietnam and Watergate had served in the United States Senate prior to their election – the fifth being Eisenhower, who has little claim to outsider status. But in the years since those seminal events marked the corrosion of public faith in the institutions of our democracy, four of the six men elected to the oval office had never previously served in Washington and made systemic reform a hallmark of their campaigns – and one of the other two is of course our current president, whose tenure in the senate was historically brief and whose 2008 campaign was no stranger to populism.
Suffice to say that we are in love with political outsiders — or, at least, with the belief that government has been removed from its people and that only periodic injections of real people back into its veins can somehow right the ship. And so we want candidates who seem like those mythical “real people.” We want candidates who see Washington not from the inside but instead can sit alongside us on the couch and watch the news with heads shaking. We want candidates whose political naiveté we can mistake for inoculation from the inside baseball influences of corruption and money. We want a bit more Frank Capra and a bit less Frank Underwood. And, Vietnam and Watergate notwithstanding, we’ve wanted it this way for a long time, back before Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and articulated the ideal of a government by, of and, for the people, back before those first farmers and teachers sat in Philadelphia and signed those ideals into law, all the way back, at least, to the story that we tell on Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus Christ, our first populist hero.
You already know the story well enough. Jesus and his disciples have made the decisive turn towards Jerusalem to be in the city for the Passover festival. He’s already been throughout Galilee, of course; he’s fed the multitudes; he’s healed the sick and the blind; but, of course, he’s also stood on the Mount and said some rather uncomfortable things about the Jewish authorities of the day; of course he’s taken more than a few opportunities to levy his complaints about the current establishment, both the Jewish high council and the Roman imperial delegation. All of which is to say that Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem isn’t simply the next stop on the wandering tour of some mystic healer. It is in no uncertain terms the decisive end of something that strongly resembles a political campaign. And when the text says that a “very large” crowd was set before him, and that the crowd streamed behind him as he processed and sang “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which, you know, in a land where David is the only face on Jewish Mount Rushmore, that’s kind of a big deal, and when the text says that the whole city was in turmoil – actually the Greek says that the city was shaking, quivering because of his coming – it is in no uncertain terms because this outsider – this Jesus from Nazareth – has won the hearts and minds of the people. His people. And now he comes to the capitol.
I wonder what they really thought was going to happen. What did they want from this Holy Week? What’s the plan here? He’s supposed to walk into the temple and give that one great sermon and then the Pharisees and Sadducees and all of the religious authorities will just have this transformative moment and give up centuries of authority and control just because, you know, he talks nice? The chief priest isn’t a democratically-elected position, no matter what this crowd thinks. Or perhaps their dreams are more explicitly political? Perhaps they imagine him not seated in the temple but rather unseating Pilate and loosing the reins of the Roman state? And how exactly is that supposed to work? They call him Son of David, but at least David was a military man. David knew his way around a battlefield. If you’re going ten rounds with a Roman phalanx and you’ve got your choice of David or Jesus on your side there’s no military textbook in history that would choose Jesus. So I’m just not sure why the crowd is so eager, I’m just not sure how this is supposed to work, when the deck is so stacked against him. When the system is so stacked against him. And yet the city trembles with anticipation because the people finally have their hero.
For a few days. In fact it’s hard in Matthew’s Gospel to pinpoint the exact point that the crowd turns against him. Perhaps it’s as quickly as in the verses that follow today’s story, when Jesus immediately goes into the temple and casts out the money-changers. Perhaps it’s later in the week, when he begins to preach about the whole city falling to pieces. But somewhere along the line, in some whisper campaign hidden from our view, somewhere along the line as you well know the public opinion changes and by time Pilate brings him before the huddled masses they are shouting “Crucify Him” even while the Hosannas still echo through the valley. Which means that it is not simple enough to say that Jesus the outsider gets chewed up and and destroyed by the intractability of the system. That story is surely the one we most want to tell, where Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Washington is just too much. No, the story is here is something different: where the people who crown this outsider hero themselves become complicit in his destruction – without a hint of self-awareness, without a hint of reflection or contrition. This is some dark twisted version of Mr Smith where at the end all the calls and letters are asking for Jimmy Stewart’s head on a platter. Who would be the man of the people if the people tremble only in bloodlust?
That’s the problem with populism, of course – a voice in American political history with which I am very sympathetic. But in practice it so often proclaims that the roots of our problems lie with corrupt institutions and that if we can only inject into those institutions people heretofore uncorrupted – you know, people just like us, regular people – then we can magically transform them into kinder, gentler, more honest institutions, more worthy of our public trust. But you and I know different. You and I know something more fundamental about sin. You and I know that institutions don’t corrupt people; people corrupt institutions. You and I know that the roots of our problems lie in the fundamental brokenness of all of God’s creatures, and that populism affords us little but the occasional opportunity to lie to ourselves and tell ourselves that we’re not the problem. That Washington is corrupt and we aren’t. That Jerusalem is corrupt and we aren’t. That it’s just the system, man, and we deserve better. That what we want on Palm Sunday, this illusion of a day, the Feast Day for the Myopic, that what we want from our leaders this Holy Week is for God to come in from the outside and clean things up and even if he dies, better that than implicate us in the process.
Only a small fraction of you would ever have had the occasion to try and navigate the official website of the Presbyterian Church USA. It’s not an experience I recommend. It’s unintuitive. It’s poorly designed. Woe to the visitor who simply wants an updated Book of Order. One gets the sense of competing organizations and competing perspectives all trying to coexist in one space. It’s not clear which agency serves what governing body or which program staff are meant to be the lead on what mission field. It is something of the butt of jokes, at least in the strange world of professional Presbyterian humor, and I admit that from time to time in the past I have fantasized about having the opportunity to just fix that website right up, to just put everything in its right place so that it wouldn’t be so hard for people to find the information they need. And then maybe two years ago I was at a denominational event and someone from the national office was taking questions and someone in the audience asked about the website and why it was, point of fact, so terrible, and the man explained that the website isn’t terrible at all. It’s just that it perfectly communicates the national structure of the Presbyterian church. It perfectly encapsulates the entangled mess of competing bureaucratic agencies that we as a denomination have voted into existence. So the problem isn’t the system, man. We have the system we deserve. In fact we are the system we deserve.
No wonder the whole city trembles. Except that there’s yet another way to read that verse. It doesn’t just have to be anticipation. It doesn’t just have to be bloodlust. In fact the literal rendering of that verse – that the whole city was shaking – shows up again two more times in Matthew’s Gospel. In the first instance, in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s death, when the temple curtain ears itself in two, Matthew recounts that the earth itself shook, trembled. In the second, one of our reading for next Sunday morning, when Mary and Martha go to the tomb early on the first day of the week, and suddenly an angel of the Lord appears in front of them and Matthew says that “for fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” Which is to say that this is something of a special-occasion verb. It’s not something Matthew casually throws around. And nor is it just a Palm Sunday verb.
No, this shaking, this trembling, occurs in this text in precisely those moments when God most profoundly invades God’s creation. It’s what happens when God’s plan for the fullness of time is on its most naked display: when Jesus breathes his last upon that Good Friday cross. When God cracks open that Easter morning tomb. And here, on Palm Sunday, when the Messiah rides into the city with the look of a simple man on a donkey and the feel of a cosmic collision. Which means that the scope of this moment is bigger than Jewish religious infighting. That the scope of this moment is bigger than Roman political maneuvering. Yes, Jesus rides into the city as a man of the people, a man on a mission, but he’s after more than the keys to the city. He’s after more than the corruption of Jerusalem herself. He’s here to break open the most corrupt system in the land. He’s here to conquer us.
The question, one last time: what do you want from this Holy Week? Here on Palm Sunday it is always so easy to imagine ourselves sitting back to enjoy a show, that we can watch Jesus disappear through the gates of the city and then go find a good spot in the bleachers to watch the rest of the week unfold. You go, Jesus! You get those nasty Sadducees! But if the story of Holy Week isn’t about Jerusalem on the inside and the people on the outside; if instead it is about the great collision between the force of God’s will and the relatively insignificant scope of God’s creation, then for the week ahead there’s no place to watch from the sidelines. It means Jesus isn’t just here for the Sadducees. He’s here for you. He’s here for us. He’s after the most intractable sins of the human condition: he’s after all of our pride and all of our greed and all of our petty jealousies. He’s after the powers that have us most stubbornly in their grasp: he’s after the addictions, the demons, the voices that whisper from the shadows.
The people’s hero, maybe, but not because we chose him. Rather because he chose us. Rather because the great ends of creation are God choosing us, walking with us, suffering with us, and then suffering for us once and for all time. Because the story of Holy Week doesn’t just happen in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It happens right now, this week, and it happens right here, in the deepest places of the human heart. It’s the story of God dying for us and for our redemption. It’s the story of God living for us and for our transformation. It’s the story whereby anyone in Jesus Christ is a new creation; the old life has gone; everything has become new. It’s the story of God’s grace refusing, refusing, refusing to let us go. So no matter what you want from this Holy Week, remember that this Holy Week isn’t about what you want. It’s about what God wants, not first a God of the people, nor at all a God by the people, but fundamentally and to the last day God for the people, for all the people, for Mr. Smith, for Washington, and even for us. Amen.