March 20, 2016, Palm Sunday

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Isaiah 61 and Luke 19:28-42

Care to Make a Statement?

A little over a year ago, some of the pastors in the Quad Cities received word that a church group was coming to town to protest several of our congregations. This is a church group that seeks out publicity for things like opposing the inclusion of gay and lesbian people and opposing women in roles of leadership. You’ve heard of them. They’re known for protesting the funerals of soldiers, and now they were planning to show up to protest several churches here.

This news invited a critical, soulful conversation among local pastors. Would it be more helpful for us to organize a counter-protest to show support for the targeted churches? Or would it be better for us to ignore this group and not give them extra publicity? Or would it be better for us to ignore their protest but pray for this group and these churches (which is what we finally decided to do)…

This scenario provoked a question I wrestle with often. As the nation’s political fervor intensifies, it’s actually a question before us all: Whichever side you’re on, when is it best to jump into the argument to express an alternative perspective? And when is it best to ignore the ranting? And really, are these the only two choices?

On the one hand, there’s a strong case to make for opting out. See I’m not going to jump into the debate because I don’t agree to its terms. Arguing against mean-spirited ranting serves to validate this rhetoric as worthy of debate. That’s why they say, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Which means if someone is commenting on your blogpost, and they’re just set on stirring up trouble, the prevailing wisdom is: don’t reply to their comments; don’t give them attention, don’t feed the trolls.

On the other hand, opting out of the argument comes at a cost. It allows the expected story to emerge and resound without interruption, even if the expected story is not true. In this age when we are flooded with public communication, not saying something is, in fact, saying something. We’ve seen it on TV when a reporter asks a pointed question and the response is “No comment.” Of course “No comment” is a comment that leaves the unspoken implication hanging in the air.

Given these two choices, it’s a tough call, and one I don’t always get right. But what if there is a better choice? What if there’s a way to interrupt the expected story, not to argue back, but to introduce a new possibility?

What if we could make a statement that interrupts the expected course of events and turns the story toward God’s strange and soaring compassion? Because I’m thinking this is something that could happen; because I’m thinking we could be the ones who do it.

Our first scripture this morning comes from the section of Isaiah after the exile. In this passage, the first thing the prophets do is speak up. The second thing they do is interrupt the expected course of events and turn the story.

“The spirit of the LORD God is upon us, because the LORD has appointed us. God has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…”

Now if things went according to the expected story, a person might go to people who are oppressed and say, “I’m sorry you’re being exploited. This is awful.” A person might visit those who are in prison and say, “It’s terrible that you’re locked up; I wish you could come home.” A person might go to somebody who’s mourning, and sit with them, and let them cry. That is tender, and loving, and exactly what might be expected.

Or this could happen. We could talk with those who live in poverty and promise them good news. We could promise rescue to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and bring the oil of gladness to those who mourn and the mantle of praise. So you see why I find this scripture terrifying; what if we make this promise out loud and then can’t deliver?

Thankfully, Pastor Lynda Sargent takes a different approach to this passage. She is quick to point out that this is God’s promise and our call to help it come true. This scripture was instrumental in inspiring her to found Heart of Hope Ministries, an organization a few blocks away that proclaims the promise of liberation then does the work to deliver it.

Pastor Lynda’s commitment reminds me that saying something out loud makes it become more real, kind of like putting something in writing or going on the record, kind of like “If you believe and I believe, and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must come down, and set God’s people free.” Sure God knows our prayer before we speak it, but saying it matters. Speaking up changes things.

So of course, there is risk in proclaiming God’s promise of good news, because what if we can’t deliver. But what if the greater risk is hearing this promise of God then withholding it from the people who need it? Because then what? Then the very rocks and stones would have to cry out from the walls…

Friends, this year during Lent, our congregation has been learning about the criminal justice system from a variety of perspectives. In this study, we’ve been hearing strains from the expected course of events. If you ever watch the news, you know how the expected story goes.

The expected story says if someone is in prison, she has done something to deserve to be there. Later on, if she has trouble finding a job, that’s her own fault.

The expected story says police officers are heroes more than human beings. Which means it is all right for them to die in the line of duty, but it is not all right for them feel guilty or have a bad day.

The expected story says that victims’ families will be helped by the state seeking revenge on their behalf, that if they just help the prosecution, and come to court every day, the verdict will bring them closure.

The expected story says when it comes to human beings, violence is inevitable.

The problem with the expected story is not that it’s always wrong; it’s not always wrong. It’s that it often goes unquestioned, and it often misses what is possible. I know there’s another story that proclaims pardon to the guilty and liberation to the punished, that speaks comfort to those who mourn and promises good news to the oppressed. And if I know this compassion of God, what right do I have to withhold the truth…

Now it’s not a matter of whether I care to make a statement. We’re always making a statement with our lives; everything we do makes a statement. The miracle happens when sometime, on a great day, the statement we make interrupts the expected story and shines a light toward the strange and soaring compassion of God, toward the peace of Christ we’ve just begun to see.

Maybe this has happened to you. When a child has been taught that he is a troublemaker, then a caring adult says to him, “I appreciate you, and I’m glad you’re here,” that changes his story. When a family member appears in court to make a Victim Impact Statement and says, “I forgive you” that changes the expected story. Ultimately, that changes the world.

In just a minute, we will hear the story of this day, Palm Sunday. On this day, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was riding into town on a war horse in a military processional. He was arriving in Jerusalem to, get this, keep the peace for the Passover. His arrival occurs in accordance with the expected series of events.

What was unexpected was the episode of street theater being staged at the same time. To counter the military fanfare of Pilate’s entrance, a group of thugs and protestors stole a colt and threw their cloaks on the ground and shouted out words of blessing as Jesus comes riding into town on nothing like a war horse.

On the night Jesus was born, the angels appeared to the shepherds keeping watch in the fields and they told them, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on the earth, peace…” (Luke 2:14). Now on this day, the people shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven” (Luke 19:38). They don’t call for peace on earth. Even on this day, they do not see the things that make for peace.

We know exactly why, because we know what is coming. Every year we rehearse the same story. Today we shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” On Friday, we’ll shout “Crucify him!” Like there is nothing we can do to stop the impending violence.

But what if it’s not too late to interrupt the expected story, to disrupt the inevitability of violence? Because we already know the cross does not win… Because the world is longing for a word of compassion, and if I can speak that word, if you can speak that word, what right do we have to let it go unspoken…

Today our Savior comes into town while the people are shouting praise, and he weeps. And somebody needs to bring him the oil of gladness and the mantle of praise. Somebody needs to tell him: “Oh Jesus, Blessed are those who mourn. For you will be comforted. And they won’t be able to shush us away, because even the stones in the wall will join in.”

And it’s not too late for God’s promise of peace. It is not too late to interrupt our own story and turn it toward the compassion of Christ. May this compassion be the statement of our lives.

May God give blessing and light to the reading and hearing of the Gospel…

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