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A Little Song and Dance

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

April 9, 2017
Mathew 21:1-11

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

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 fulfill 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.”

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which means I’m not entirely sure why I keep reading the news.

Every morning I open it up to see the latest, and every morning the barrage continues. Tuesday we all woke up to pictures of the horrific aftermath of a chemical weapons attack ordered by the Assad regime against a town of Syrian rebels. By Thursday evening the United States had undertaken its proportional response, more than fifty cruise missiles launched against Syrian military targets, causing just enough damage to make a scene and not enough to deter another strike, as yesterday Syrian warplanes again returned to the scene of the crime, adding two more bodies to the original eighty-seven. Wednesday morning of course it was North Korea’s missile test, Friday morning it was a terror attack in Stockholm, just this morning it was news of a horrific bombing at a Coptic house of worship in Cairo. Not to mention that every morning brings the latest from our own governmental circus. It’s been a long week. They keep being long weeks. And I keep reading the news. Over and over. And I may be losing my mind.

They keep being long weeks. The world feels like an exceptionally fragile place. There is such a quantity of news, and so little of it reassuring; I confess to you that I no longer know how to take it all in. Maybe the insanity is taking hold. There is some equation where the sheer amount of tragedy that happens in the world on a daily basis is multiplied by the historically unprecedented scale of the information available to us moment to moment to yield a quantity of anguish that is simply more than my brain can process and handle. There is not enough of me to have the full breadth of appropriate emotional response to all of the shock and tragedy that each morning’s briefing brings; I do not have enough grief to go around. I do not know how to ration my outrage. I do not know how to wake up in the morning and read the news with my humanity still intact; not to do so feels like dereliction of duty; but to do it again and again, to wake up and tune in day in and day out somehow expecting different results, it feels insane. And still the weeks get longer and the world feels more fragile and I think we all feel more fragile.

And then we come here, at the end of our long fragile week, and we have a parade.

I mean, every week here we have a parade, a processional with the choir and the vestry and the clergy and the cross, we parade up the center aisle as we open our time of worship together. But of course today we had a very particular parade, a Palm Sunday parade, you were all there, you don’t need me to tell you, we marched our way from the courtyard into the sanctuary and you all did very well with the singing and the Hosannas and the choreography. Nicely done. It was a beautiful thing. But I think if we’re honest, it also feels like a small thing. A cute thing. And against the horrors of the world around us. Against the inexhaustibility of the week just past and surely of the week yet to come. Against such evil. Each of us, every one of us here today got up this morning and in full recognition of the horrors of the world, whether you read the news or not, whether you listened to the latest on the car ride in or just showed up blissfully unaware. Every one of us rose today in the face of such evil and decided to come to church and have a parade. We may all be insane.

But we would not be alone. The first Palm Sunday parade, after all, took place in no less a time of political anguish. The Gospel writers don’t spend a lot of energy rehashing the current events of the day largely because their original audiences wouldn’t need the reminders, but sometimes we do. The Jerusalem that Jesus and his disciples enter in our text this morning is no less a political volcano then than it is today; then as now it sits as the cultural heart of the Jewish people but of course in Jesus’s time it also stands occupied by the outer grip of the Roman Empire. As these things normally go, there probably aren’t a ton of Romans in Jerusalem — just enough to keep the population under control. But Passover is different. During Passover, thousands, tens of thousands of Jews would flock to Jerusalem from all over the eastern Mediterranean. And of course any time you gather that many oppressed people in one place the oppressors tend to take note. And so when Passover came around, just to make sure that all those extra bodies stayed in line, Rome would send a few of their own, namely Pontius Pilate, prefect of the entire Roman province, and all the soldiers that followed under his command.

So this is the backdrop for our Palm Sunday parade, for the first Palm Sunday parade. We tell the story of Jesus and the disciples and the donkey and we do it so well with the Hosannas and the choreography and a little song and dance. We do small and cute so well. But in fact our story takes place in a moment that is neither small nor cute. Because at the same time that Jesus is riding into town on this donkey, at the same time that Jesus and the disciples enter into Jerusalem overstuffed with Jewish pilgrims strewn like kindling through a city looking only for a revolutionary spark, here comes Pilate himself, on the other side of town, riding through the main gates with a whole garrison of soldiers alongside him, just to give second thoughts to any of those tens of thousands of pilgrims who might be considering a bit of misbehavior. His will be a magnificent parade, if you go in for opulent displays of military power; after all, that’s the whole point of the thing, and no one does opulent displays of military power quite like the Romans. So what we have this morning in fact are two parades. On one side of town, we have the might of the Empire on full garish display, nothing small or cute about it. And on the other, a little piece of performance art, a little street theatre, a little song and dance, this self-proclaimed Messiah parading in on a donkey. It’s a mockery, of course. It’s a protest. The only problem is, it’s not a very good one.

Early last October I spent a few days at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico with a group of preachers and colleagues who had come together for a few days of preaching feedback and support. On our way out of Ghost Ranch, we spent a gorgeous crisp Saturday afternoon in Santa Fe, peeking into art galleries, savoring the street musicians, and generally wandering with the crowds around the old historic plaza. And then all of a sudden this trailer came around the bend, an old beat-up pick-up truck pulling a little flatbed float behind it, and on the float was this kind of public art mockery of then-Republican-nominee Donald Trump. It was made out of what looked like papier-mâché, clothed with a few scraps from Goodwill, his features as you would imagine done in exquisite caricature. It was not attractive; it was not meant to be. He was sitting on this kind of gilded Styrofoam throne, and the whole thing was clearly meant to be a farce. All of which was even clearer two minutes later when around the bend came another old beat-up truck with another flatbed behind it and this time Hilary Clinton was the guest of honor, the same papier-mâché mockery, the same Styrofoam disdain. Someone had put a remarkable amount of work into these pieces and I suppose put together they made a little parade of protest but it was hard to imagine how effective that protest might be.

After all, the folks in the Santa Fe plaza that day were there to peak into art galleries and enjoy the beautiful crisp afternoon and they were not, as far as I could tell, there to reconsider their presidential preferences. And even if they had been, it’s not like New Mexico was much of a swing state and it’s certainly not like Santa Fe was much of a swing district. It felt like something that some free spirit with too much free time had done just to get all the political angst out of their system, a little song and dance, but not a lot of impact, just a cute diversion for a Saturday afternoon. That’s what we decided, as we talked about it, all of the preachers in our group, and then we collectively got up on Sunday morning and made our way home to our churches and got up the next Sunday morning and paraded back into worship and did our little song and dance and sang our protest hymns and did our protest choreography as if somehow what we were doing had so much more traction or had so much more weight to it than that Santa Fe plaza street fair of papier-mâché presidents, as if our protests were any more effective than theirs, as if any of ours were anything more than a curious sideshow to the slow march of empire happening on the other side of town. You see my problem. We are so good at the singing and the Hosannas and the choreography. And yet. Week after week. We keep getting the same results.

Or so it would seem. In fact, our reading from this morning reminds us that this street art parade draws quite a crowd indeed. Matthew remarks at the end of the passage that by the time Jesus enters Jerusalem “the whole city was in turmoil.” Different translations of course will pick up different nuances of the word, but the Greek suggests something like the whole city was shaking, quivering with excitement. Which is to say that as street art parades go, this one actually has quite a bit of traction: Jerusalem itself is bursting with energy over this new self-proclaimed Messiah who would dare enter opposite Pilate himself. But not even just Jerusalem. Matthew uses this same verb three times: first, here, as Jesus enters the city and the crowd quivers. Next, on the cross, as Jesus draws his last breath, and the temple curtain tears from top to bottom and the earth itself shakes. And finally, on Easter morning, when the angel appears at the tomb, and the guards are terrified, and quiver, and become like dead men. All of which is to say that this little Palm Sunday street fair is hardly inconsequential. In fact, it may reach further than any of the disciples lining the road that day can possibly understand. Because it’s not just about the politics of Jerusalem and Rome. It’s not just about the politics of occupation and empire. It’s about the foundations of the earth itself, quivering with anticipation. The crowd does the singing and the Hosannas and the choreography, and the foundations of the earth shake. The crowd does their song and dance. And the foundations of the earth shake.

One of the consequences of waking up every morning in these long weeks to this constant barrage of tragedy is that of course we want just one day off, one day of Sabbath, one day of the week when we can wake up and think about something else, when we can come to worship and do our song and dance and not have to engage with the nasty and grimy and ill-tempered affairs of the day. We want to go to church and spend a few hours thinking about anything but politics. I get it. I feel it. I need that day to recharge, too, so that tomorrow I can wake up and resume feeling the weight of the world with something of a fuller tank. But this story on this day reminds us that the problem with keeping politics out of our worship is that worship has always been a political act. Our little song and dance has always been a political act. Our little street theatre has always been a political act. Despite our best attempts to sanitize it, to whitewash it, and to forget it, going to church has always been a political act. We don’t have to agree on every piece of partisan legislation or every line of the congressional agenda but nonetheless what we do here is inherently political because what we do here is to declare with one voice some king other than Caesar. Because what we do here is to declare with one voice some governor other than Pilate. Because what we do here is to insist on the Lordship of the one crucified and risen, the one parading in on that cute little donkey and singing that cute little song. And because we believe that what we do here, with our cute little song and dance, by the grace and power of God, can shake the very foundations of the earth.

It has been a long week, and the one ahead will be a long one, too. The crowd that parades today is of course infamously fickle; by midweek they will change their minds; by Thursday, there will be talk of betrayal and arrest; by Friday, of crucifixion and death; by Saturday, all that song and dance will be nothing but silence. As political protest movements go, our little parade this morning is dead on arrival. But do not therefore presume it to be meaningless, because this week is in the hands of the one created all things, sustains all things, and redeems all things. So keep singing. Sing Hosannas to the true King, the one who mocks the slow march of empire. Keep dancing! Dance Hosannas to the true King, the one who stands with the poor and with the oppressed and with the forgotten. Nevertheless, keep up with the song and dance, and by his grace, and by his love, and by the power of God who made all things, our songs will echo not just down Congress St. and not just to Washington and not just to Jerusalem but rather their harmonies will sound to the very ends of the earth to interrupt the resonant frequencies of sin and death and join in the sacred music of all creation. This is the Gospel, and it is bigger than we can imagine. And then Sunday morning, we will wake up again, and we will find the tomb empty, and we will find the world shaken to its very core. And God will have God’s victory, now and henceforth.

Of course, it will not always feel like the end. The news will keep happening for now; it always does. The weeks will be long for now; they always are. Sin and death will persist for now in all the earth; they always do. They’ve made a habit of it. They keep doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.