Recently our nation is experiencing the rising of a new movement led by our teenagers. Thank God. Yesterday was the March For Our Lives organized by high school students from Parkland, Florida calling on congress to pass laws that will prevent gun violence. Some of us took part in the sister rally here at Vander Veer Park. It was the chance to get out of the house, to come together, to find ourselves in the outpouring of excellent speakers, and brilliant posters, and oh cold pelting snow!
Being at the rally yesterday stirred up my nostalgia for my younger years when I was a more frequent and more faithful protestor. I was living in DC when we went to war in Iraq for the second time, so as you can imagine, alongside the cherry blossoms, there emerged the springtime season of protest in the city.
I can tell you, finding yourself in the middle of a protest on the best day feels distinctly like finding yourself in the middle of a church service on the best day.
I remember one Saturday parade down Sixteenth Street. There were giant puppets, and parents with toddlers on their shoulders, and I happened to be in front of a flat-bed featuring a well-known protest percussion ensemble —a whole band full of drummers comin’ after me. Sometimes everybody is singing; you know you’re singing yourself, but you can only hear everyone. Sometimes everybody is chanting, and you’re chanting too—but it’s more like the chant is moving through the throng. Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop, don’t stop.
Someone who stayed home and watched the whole thing on TV might correctly observe that we still went to war in Iraq. “What good was your protest anyway?” they might ask. That’s not a question that would come from the middle of the crowd. You have to be there. Come, next time, and you will see the good. You will see some of God.
Dietra Wise Baker is a chaplain and pastor in St. Louis. She was one of the organizers in the protests in Ferguson, and she talks about her work persuading other clergy to join her. “I kept challenging them when things were really, really hot. I said, ‘Just get on the streets. Come be on the streets. Come at least once. Get on the streets. I’m telling you you’re going to meet Jesus there. And you’re going to be transformed if you come to the street. You can’t be transformed in the safety of the pew at the church…” 1Gunning Francis, Leah. Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. Chalice Press, 2015. page 73.
Now I know we are painting one picture; not every protest is led by the sparkling song of the Holy Spirit. But we’ve got to see: Protests are a kind of street theatre. What makes them compelling is when they tap into our collective spiritual power, the deep rumbling of our soul. When this happens, you will find yourself getting swept up in the spirit —and maybe this is the Spirit of the LORD or maybe this is the spirit of the crowd, and sometimes those are the same, and sometimes those are not.
Our world is surging with spiritual power, and it is not only accessed by the people who worship God at church. It is not only accessed by the loving masses with their glitter-painted posters, and pussy hats, and puppets. The Ku Klux Klan also taps in to this same spiritual power. The white supremacists carrying tiki torches and shouting “Blood and Soil” —they are making a spiritual argument, just like their Nazi forebears who claimed to be fighting in the name of God.
All this street theatre is effective because it moves in our soul. It revives passion you might not realize you had in you. So it is sobering and more than a little frightening to realize that the forces urging hate are accessing our same spiritual power as the forces urging compassion. Make no mistake; not every chanting crowd is pleasing to God.
What this means for us is that we still get to make a choice. Even when you find yourself swept up in the spirit, it is not too late to ask, Wait. Is this really the power of God? It is not too late to hear the chance for this choice.
In recent months, the President of the United States has been calling for a military parade to take place in our nation’s capital. He witnessed a military parade in France, he undoubtedly felt the stirring in his spirit, now he aims to bring this experience to the U.S. on Veteran’s Day. Now please understand. A parade honoring our military is definitely different from a DACA protest, and definitely different from a white supremacist rally, but all of these are types of street theatre. The dignity of the military ceremony stirs up our respect for those who serve our nation. There is spiritual power in this.
This year on Veteran’s Day, there’s a good chance the city of DC will have dueling street theatre. While plans are coming together for a military ceremony on one side of the city; you can bet, on the other side there will be counter-protests with juggling, and dancing, and mandolin-playing. If we can imagine this clashing, then we’ll have some inkling of what was going on when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a stolen colt.
Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan posit the theory that this is the day Pontius Pilate rode into town via military parade. He might have been riding a war horse decked out in regalia. He had an entourage of soldiers dressed in armor carrying golden eagles mounted on poles. Pilate was coming into town to quash any riots that might erupt during the festival of Passover. He was appealing to the crowd’s spiritual power to incite respect for his authority. Let there be no doubt about who’s in charge: All hail Caesar. 2Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. HarperCollins. 2006. See Chapter One: Palm Sunday.
Now while Pilate’s parade is moving through the city, a counter-parade is forming on the other side, and it couldn’t be more opposite. Instead of a fancy-dressed war horse, there’s a colt. Instead of dignified ceremony, there’s a group of children shouting Hosanna! And you know they’re not praising the name of Caesar. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna! It means God save us.
So you see, if all we had was a story asking us to choose which side, that would be one thing. Which parade would you go to? Which chant will come out of your mouth? If that were the whole demand —choose which side and choose correctly— we could handle that, no problem. But there is a problem.
There’s always a problem inside our praise on Palm Sunday. It’s this: What if the same people who were in the crowd shouting “Hosanna” turn up on Friday and shout “Crucify him!”
The problem is, what if this crowd is us? Because it is.
You know we will get swept up in the spirit. There is no way to live in this world, and love this world, and not get swept up. There’s no way to stay home and not care. We are the crowd on Sunday, and we are the crowd on Friday, and what if, from the middle of the crowd, we still have a choice…
Imagine this. Here you are swept up and some people are singing, and some people are taking a knee, and from this place in the middle, what are you going to do with your power…
In the days after Jesus rides into Jerusalem hearing the Hosannas and before he gets executed, his authority is put to the test. Right away Jesus curses a fig tree; the fig tree dies the next day. He storms through the marketplace of the temple flipping the tables and shaming the money changers.
Jesus teaches from the temple —taking on the scribes, telling them the greatest commandment is to love one another; he refuses to fall for the trick about paying taxes. He says, “See this widow who gave two copper coins, she gave more than anyone, because she gave everything.” It was not what they were expecting. The people were expecting the Messiah to be a military commander.
As the Psalm proclaims, the LORD our God raises the poor from dust, lifts up the needy from the ashes; God gives the barren woman a home. Now in these days before his death, look at what Jesus is doing with his power! And what if we have a choice about what to do with ours, even now…
I know the Gospel goes and throws us into the scene, like it or not. (There’s not much choice about that!) It provokes us to imagine: On Friday, you and I will be part of a lynch mob, and there’s no staying home. We will find ourselves swept up in the spirit of the crowd so the chant is moving through the throng. The Bible tells me, I will be shouting “Crucify him!” But go on and try shouting “Crucify him!” There’s a beat of silence left ringing in the air.
In that breath, what if we could remember just a glimpse of today. What if underneath the taunting coming out of our own mouths, we could hear, somebody’s crying. Lord come by here. God, they’re putting their hands on Jesus; they’ve got his wrists cuffed behind his back. And somebody pressed up next to you is whispering, Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy upon us.
Under our breath, they’re saying the confession that will turn into compassion. It is not too late to choose. Already there’s a turning in the chant. Somebody here is answering the chorus of “Crucify him!” “Crucify him!” Somebody is saying back, “God save us.” They’re exactly right. O God save us. Amen.