Text: Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
If you felt spiritually challenged by our Palm Sunday procession this morning, imagine what it feels like to spend Palm Sunday walking behind a live donkey and a marching band into Davis Square Somerville. I will tell you, it is bizarre and wonderful, ridiculous, ironic, and provocative. Jesus sometimes comes along in the form of a child light enough to piggy back on the donkey. The ecumenical crowd that gathers year after year for this protest/parade dutifully depicts the peasants and pilgrims in Jerusalem waving and shouting Hosanna! The robed and vested clergy walking along perhaps want to be identified as the disciples in the story. And passersby who have no idea what is going on unknowingly enter into the reenactment as the unknown questioners in Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"”
But there are people missing from this reenactment and they are key to the story. Let’s go back to Jerusalem, the City of Peace that knows no peace. Let’s go back to the Pax Romana. Let’s go back to a spring day in the early decades of the Common Era, a day of two parades.
In the city that day, there were:
Pilate and his soldiers
The chief priests, elders, and temple leaders
The peasants and pilgrims come for the Passover
The zealots and rabble rousers
And Jesus, with his friends and followers.
Jerusalem was the center of Judaism, home of a re-built / soon to be destroyed temple. Home of the temple priests who were also Roman appointees. The place where liberation was remembered and liberation was longed for. The city of peace, the city that knew no peace. And every spring, preparations for the Passover evoked it all.
Pilate led the first parade that day, “from the west, the Roman governor coming into the city to keep order, during the Passover, the Jewish high holy day celebrating Israel's long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire. "Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city...A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses (horses were only used for war), foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold..the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”" Rome had power over the people, and a theology of power that said the emperor was the son of God, and every governor, every soldier, every war horse was sent in God’s name to maintain God’s power over the empire. If they’d carried a banner, it would have said: We are the strongest and the greatest. Only we can save you. You are a conquered people, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
There were also in Jerusalem that day, chief priests, the temple elders, perhaps they watched from the center of the city as Pilate marched in. The Romans had given them just a touch of power. The governors gave power to the priests so there would be “Jewish” religious legitimacy for Rome’s control. Lead your people, the Romans said, keep them safe by keeping them controlled, passive, and out of our way. If you do this, we will give you land - taken from peasants who couldn’t pay their Roman tax - we will give you power and wealth. Pilate’s parade kept the priests in line.
There were also in the city that day, peasants including farmers who grew the food that went to the city, that went to the priests, that went to the soldiers; by the toil of their hands they created the wealth which fueled the Pax Romana but they did not keep it. Landholders who could not make ends meet and lost their land to empire and temple. Rural peasants were ninety percent of the population around Jerusalem and they came, near the Passover, to the city of their ancestor David, to Jerusalem the city of peace that gave them no peace.
There were also in the city of peace that day, zealots and rabble rousers who sought to overthrow empire and take power.
And then there was Jesus.
He came from the east, on a donkey, with no horses or swords, no drums, no soldiers, no prestige, no intimidation, no might. No symbols of power over. Just people, peasants, pilgrims, disciples, calling out, Hosanna, Hosanna. Save us. Kings who have already known victory, they come in on humble animals because the victory is already won. Even without the symbols of war, they knew him to be king: palm branches and cloaks on the road - that’s how, in Jewish tradition, they welcomed the king. Here is the king Zechariah described: “victorious...ushering in a kingdom of peace, where all former enemies become equal members of the kingdom of God.”
But still the people expected him to take power.
I asked two colleagues to tell me their experience of a group I was part of organizing recently. We sat together on Friday morning and began with coffee and chit chat. Eventually I said, well, we’re here to talk about your experience in this group, I wonder, what would you share with me? One of them said, Reebee, let’s start this with prayer. Well, I know them well enough to know that they start most meetings in prayer, but we were a half hour into our time together and this felt suddenly formal. In that moment I realized the conversation was about to take a ninety degree turn. So my own prayer, even as they were asking for God to be in the room to us, was for me to be open. To just listen. To lean in with wonder, to not cross my arms and not to ready my own reasoning before I heard their experience.
They didn’t only want to share their experience of the group, but also…they wanted to deconstruct the very framework the group had been based in. This was not about a small change or tweaking. They held a mirror up and showed me an image I had not previously seen: the very framework of the group maintained the dominant value system the session sought to set aside; by making our learning dependent solely on heady vocabulary and carefully outlined structures we precluded radical personal and spiritual learning.
It is is so much easier to tweak an existing system, than to set an entire system aside.
It is so much easier to transfer power than it is to transform what power means.
Rome, and the United States, and most of the world in 2017, are built on power-over. Power is a possession and those who have it win. Fear is intrinsic to this model, because power is used to control. But there is another concept of power, power-with - a collaborative model of power. “Power-with is not a property or a possession. It arises from what we do rather than what we have.” Jesus, I propose to you, came in to Jerusalem to declare the kingdom of God, which looked like no kingdom ever before seen by human eyes. Jesus came in to Jerusalem not to take power but to preach an entirely different concept of power.
When we describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a protest against the oppression of the Pax Romana, or as a rejection of the chief priests’ collaboration with Pilate, we are not thinking radically enough to see what Jesus was really up to. When we say, well the donkey was a symbol of humility in contrast to Pilate’s warhorses - we are staying too close to the framework set up by Rome. Jesus was not just protesting the oppression of Rome - he was mocking the notion of earthly power. He was not just claiming power for the powerless, he was redefining power. He was not just allying himself with the peasants in contrast to the priestly class and the Roman occupiers (although let me say clearly Jesus was always on the side of the poor and the oppressed). Jesus was calling all of them away from the power structures that human beings so consistently cling to, calling them toward the power of love.
“Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it.”
The people cried out, Save us, Hosanna, Save us, blessed is the king, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, blessed is the Son of David, give us the power. For some folks there is comfort, in a system that you know and understand even when it is a system that hurts you. Because, you think, if I could just switch places. If I could just take power.
But in response, Jesus proclaimed: The system is broken. “We do not find our collective salvation in a political system. We find it in the radical gospel of love.” Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
And is it any wonder, that in a system built on power over, leaders who used power to control, would want to kill this radical vision? Wouldn’t it go down this same way today?
Perhaps it only seems possible to change the players - perhaps it seems impossible to change the system itself. Well, we’re moving toward Easter, a day when nothing is deemed impossible. So maybe we need to write the story of the power of love overcoming the love of power, and believe that it could be.
Here’s the question I invite you to walk through Holy Week pondering. What is the power that would save you right now? What is the power that would save our world right now? What is the story of the coming kingdom of God in this moment? And who are we in that story?
I close with a word from Kate Huey:
“For a while, it will appear that the empire, that violence and suffering, injustice and greed have won. But on the third day, we know, that God will say no to this kind of power, and yes to the power of love and justice, compassion and peace, yes to the power of new life.”
Hosanna, Jesus, save us! Give me Jesus: You can have all this world, give me Jesus. Amen.
Let’s sing together. (The response hymn is Give Me Jesus.)
Benediction: In the words of William Gladstone, let us “move forward to the time when the power of love replaces the love of power. Then our world will know the blessings of peace.” Amen
 Kate Huey, quoting Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, The Last Week
 Hosanna: A Spiritual Journey Through Holy Week by Carol Miller
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy
 Sarah Dylan Brewer, blog post
 The Rev. Amy Butler, The Riverside Church (NYC), Palm Sunday Sermon 2016
Kate Huey, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_9_2017