Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
When New Members join church, one of the questions we ask is this: “Will you join us in our quest to follow the teachings of Jesus, that resist oppression and evil, and show love and justice, furthering Christ’s mission in the world?”
And in baptism we ask the parent of the child or the candidate to be baptized, “Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of evil and to receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”
The up-front recognition of the presence of evil in these question sort of surprises me. Resisting and renouncing evil are central to our membership and baptismal covenants. God gives us life, and love. We know what is of God is life-giving, and what is of evil is death-dealing. We know evil by the way evil deals senseless death.
How do you resist evil? How do we resist evil together? There are ways we can renounce evil our daily lives. With kindness, by dedicating our time and energy to healing, rather than dividing, by sharing time with people who need encouragement… Jesus did this too—he healed people, he called the children toward him, he spoke about the poor in spirit, the physically poor, having special blessing. We practiced doing this kind of healing work last week, but praying with one another, by recognizing that some days we are in the tomb, and other days we extend a hand to those in the tomb. But today, Jesus walks toward the source of the pain that puts people in the tomb to begin with.
Today, on Palm Sunday, Jesus marches into Jerusalem and confronts a source of Evil, the Roman Empire. Some sects of Judaism ran off to the mountains, they renounced the world, they left their Jewish siblings to die, in Appalachia, in Chicago, in Syria, in Hartford, in Bridgeport, they left them to suffer, thinking, someone else will save them, let’s save ourselves. These were the Essenes, the mystics, the one’s so connected to God that they couldn’t bother with the world.
Other sects of Judaism colluded with Empire, they wanted to keep the peace, they wanted to be well respected and regarded by the powers- these were the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, who didn’t question the Roman empire—it is too dangerous, we could lose our lives.
That’s right. When you confront evil, you could lose your life. What are you willing to die for? That question haunts me. The Jesus path is the third way, the path of not running away, of not being brainwashed in by power—of staying present to the reality of suffering without backing down. This is Palm Sunday, this is Holy week, this is what get’s Jesus killed, and this is what God uses to show us that evil, suffering and pain, never have the last word. But we need to stay with it to discover this.
Palm Sunday is a holiday of renouncing evil, of boldly confronting the very powers that deal death. Of course, it wasn’t called Palm Sunday then, 2,000 years ago. Thousands of Jews were coming to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, the holiday where Jews remember being slaves in the land of Egypt and praise God for their liberation. They along with Jesus enter from the East side of Jerusalem, through the Mount of Olives.
And the Roman Empire, led by Pilate, in an act of intimidation, processes into Jerusalem too, from the West side. Intending to keep order and to reinforce violent power. When Jesus tells his disciples to go ahead of him and untie a donkey with a colt, he knows that Pilate will be riding the strongest black stallion. Jesus chooses a nursing mother with child in contrast.
Today Jesus takes center stage, he claims his power, and people praise Jesus, calling “Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” His followers, and on-lookers, see Jesus in his true essence. As the child of humanity, as the anointed one. He is truly the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Did you know that the Roman emperors claimed to come in the name of the Lord? Did you know the emperor claimed to be the son of God? The one who Lorded over all, who ruled the land. Roman foot soldiers would come into towns and terrorize the local people, showing them who was in charge, who was the Lord.
When we call Jesus the son of God, we are calling him so in contrast to the power hungry, keep the order at all costs, evil empire. A Jesus who renounces evil, who mocks evil, who says, there is another way to God, you can’t randomly kill people, keep people poor, keep minorities fighting against one another, and claim you are God. Jesus in his rags, with his absolutely radiant healing powers, with his direct connection to God, he truly came in the name of the Lord, and the people gathered recognize him and praise him.
How do you resist evil? How do we resist evil together? I want to leave you with an image of resisting evil.
Deitrcih Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor during WWII who is adored by evangelicals and liberal Christians alike. He spent time at Union Theological Seminary as a professor, and after Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” Bonhoeffer, like Jesus, believed in walking prayer. That our actions have to line up with our connection to God.
When he returned to Germany, the German state accused Bonhoeffer of plotting to assassinate Hitler, and he spent 2 years in prison writing theological letters. Bonhoeffer coined of the phrase “cheap grace” accusing the German church of a fluffy theology, where he would prefer a “costly grace” that renounces evil— a grace that might cost a Christian his or her very life.
Bonhoeffer writes, “There is no way to peace along the way to safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture.” He also wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
He wrote, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.” Bonhoeffer chose the third way, the Jesus path. He would be following the Essenes had he stayed in America to escape the Nazi regime. He would have followed the Pharisees if he stayed in Germany and tried to keep the peace in conflict. But he chose the Jesus path and went back to Nazi Germany to confront the powers of evil. He walked into Jerusalem, on a donkey, so to speak.
The German pastor was executed by the Nazi regime at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the United States liberated the camp. Do you hear that date, April 9th, that is today. 72 years ago today. When he died he famously remarked to another prisoner, “This is the end — but for me, the beginning.””
I want to leave us with a question, not an answer today. What does it mean for us to claim the power of a loving God? What does it mean for us to renounce evil in our age? What does it mean to make our lives a walking prayer, to “walk with this God and one with another according to the rules of ye Gospell?” Let us go forth, praising Jesus as he walks into Jerusalem on a nursing donkey, calling on the power of God’s love to guide our feet. Amen.