Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
Transgressing the Boundaries
Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11
Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
As they approach Jerusalem, Jesus’ voice gives way to the people’s voices. Those voices are powerful because this is the first time that the people come together and acclaim Jesus out loud. They are joining their voices together to praise this prophet whom they have seen perform miracles with their own eyes. Miracles like feeding so many of them when they were hungry after they heard about a new way of treating each other. He talked with them about forgiveness, and caring for the least of these, including children and women. Miracles that healed people and brought them back into community. He upset a very carefully structured system of keeping those with the least, down, while those with wealth and power, continued to be above all others.
Jesus was dangerous to the authorities because what he was teaching was subversive. He transgressed the boundaries by going against the Imperial Roman government. He did not just bring a spiritual revolution. He brought a political one as well. He was a threat to the establishment and it was dangerous for anyone who was seen with him. Remember Nicodemus, one of the chief priests? He came to Jesus at night, sneaking around so that he would not be seen entering this rabbi’s dwelling place.
There was something about Jesus that infused people with the courage to transgress the boundaries. These were common people who were used to being the lowest of the low. So, they must have experienced a presence so powerful, a message so compelling, and acceptance and love so complete, that they were willing to risk everything to make this journey to Jerusalem with Jesus. They were willing to put aside their fears, their insecurities of being arrested and being ostracized by the religious leaders.
There was something about wanting, perhaps needing, to grasp onto the love and acceptance that Jesus so freely gave to them. He had nourished their souls, fed them, healed them, touched them physically and spiritually, as they listened to the gospel he proclaimed. It is unusual when we find someone who listens to us, who supports us, who helps us over the difficult things in life – perhaps not alleviating them, but walking with us through them. Because of that, we are willing to support that person, even when it is not popular to do so. Even when it might mean retaliation. We are willing to take that risk, mostly because the person showed their love and care for us, above all else.
The people knew that Jesus was considered dangerous to the religious authorities, and yet they could not help but cry out, “Hosanna” – a cry that echoed through the hills and streets of Jerusalem and in the ears of the authorities who heard the threat loud and clear. Matthew describes this scene with Jesus as similar to the Prophet Zechariah’s godly warrior, who enters on a donkey, not on a steed, symbolizing peace and reconciliation, not war and hatred. As one bible commentator puts it: “…peace and reconciliation become possible when common folk with uncommon courage oppose exclusionary practices and policies and together stand with the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
We know about this kind of courage from more recent history both inside and outside of the church. The courage to march with Jesus was shown by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others in the Confessing Church in the 1930’s. They took a defiant stance that their faithfulness was to Jesus and not to Hitler and the Nazis.
We saw this in the youth in South Africa, who stood against apartheid and formed the African National Congress Youth League in the 1940’s with Nelson Mandela as one of their leaders. They envisioning a world in which racial domination would be replaced by equality for all. And, as we know, it took more than 50 years for that to happen, but it did.
Here in the US, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, the men and women who ran the Underground Railroad showed how people could work together to help those who were shackled by slave-owners so that they could be freed from slavery and begin new, free lives. People like Harriet Tubman and Levi Coffin were more concerned about doing what was right and just and less concerned for their own safety.
In 1963, 250,000 men, women and children of all different races, religions and social backgrounds came together at the US Capitol, united in an abiding faith in justice and human dignity. Their lives were at personal risk, just as those walking with Jesus risked their lives.
And, now, in 2017, even though most of us are not worried about retaliation for standing up for our beliefs, between 3.3 and 4.6 million marchers – women, men and children of all different races, religions and social backgrounds once more made their presence known, but this time, all across the United States, the day after the inauguration, marching for the rights of all people in our country and around the world.
Transgressing the boundaries was important in Jesus’ time and continues to be important in our time, as we stand up to injustice, to violence against women and African Americans, Muslims, the LGBT community and those who are or may appear different from the image we Caucasians see when we look in a mirror.
This past Friday, the Coalition for Youth met here at FCC. This Coalition is made up of various groups in the town who interact with and support our youth. I asked for this meeting to specifically talk about the hateful graffiti that had been found at both 7 Bridges and Bell Middle Schools over the past month or so. We heard from the Acting Superintendent and from the Principals of all of the Chappaqua schools about what is being done to address what had happened. We also heard what the curricula in the schools has been in past years, in order to raise awareness of the importance of difference and how it is to be celebrated and not feared.
During this meeting, people kept talking about tolerance and the importance of tolerating difference. As I listened, I recalled the words of The Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin who was Senior Minister of The Riverside Church in the 1980’s, when they were having major pushback to accepting lesbians and gays as full members of the church. Dr. Coffin got up in the pulpit one Sunday and said something like: We have been debating the issue of gays and lesbians, and many of my dearest friends are gay and lesbian. As I have thought and prayed about this, I have come to realize that I have been tolerating them, which is not acceptable. Tolerance is not enough, Dr. Coffin acknowledged. He noted that tolerance was not enough for Jesus. Jesus accepted people for who they are, and, he said, that is our goal as well. Acceptance, not tolerance.”
Well, I took a deep breath and shared this last part of his insight with those present, saying that tolerance is not enough. That we must come to accept all people as they are and for all that they are. There was silence, which felt like forever to me, and then people started talking and that statement led us to a deeper conversation and realization that we need to change our language and stand up against those who would try to marginalize anyone in our community. I was pushing them to transcend a boundary of letting it be okay to just tolerate difference, instead of embracing it.
Unless we are willing to stand up and not fear retaliation or judgement, things won’t change in our world. However you feel about what is happening in our country and in our world, I encourage you to stand up for what you believe, remembering Jesus’ call to us. Jesus taught us that we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must stand up and transgress the boundaries that define us while at the same time, upholding the tenets of our faith – the tenets of love, acceptance, and humility; the same tenets that Jesus showed to those in his time who were being oppressed and treated inhumanely.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons people were drawn to Jesus. The people who experienced a presence that was so powerful, a message that was so compelling, and a love so complete, chose to transgress the boundaries of religious and civil acceptability to make this journey to Jerusalem with Jesus.
But, as we know, they end up being disappointed. They showered him with Hosanna’s as they entered Jerusalem. They expected him to overthrow the Romans. And, over the course of the following week, he doesn’t do what they expect him to do. He does go to the Temple and overturn the tables of the moneychangers. He does raise the level of awareness of who he is. He escalates his actions against the Roman authorities. And yet, when questioned, he chooses not to fight back with the anger that he showed when he overturned the tables in the Temple. Instead, he does what the people do not expect him to do.
And, in their eyes, he fails them, just as sometimes we think that God has failed us. God’s ways are not the ways of our world. More and more, we can see that. We hope for certain things and they don’t go the way that we wanted them to. And we are puzzled by that. Jesus did not approach things as we might – Jesus approached things with mercy, generosity, compassion, peace and humility. Friends, these are the marks of God’s domain and are countercultural to our world today.
So, this morning, I wanted to remind you of the stories of others who stepped up, as well as those who came into Jerusalem with Jesus, so that we too, with palms in our hands, may find the courage to march with Jesus and proclaim a world of peace and reconciliation. Jesus’ followers possessed no formal authority to change their world. But, adults and children, neighbors and strangers marched into the city gates with Jesus to contest the exclusionary practices that had so long defined their own existence. So, when asked “Who is this?” they proudly and openly replied, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna to the one who comes in the name of our God. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God.
Resource: Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.