The archetypal entry into Jerusalem by Jesus and his eclectic followers signified something very new: a radical way to reorganize society, and directed toward a radically new goal.
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“The Founding of the Fellowship”
This morning I want to talk about the spring holiday Palm Sunday. With or without a pandemic, Palm Sunday happens one week before Easter. And Easter is always celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Usually it coincides with Passover. Which makes sense since the Last Supper of Easter week was in all probability a Seder supper. But before I begin, let me invite those of you who struggle with biblical imagery to think of these stories the way I was taught to approach them in my Unitarian Sunday school: think of them as springboards to contemplation. Take for instance, the Passover story recounted in part by Aisha and Amanda moments ago and by practicing Jews the world over during every Seder meal. To understand stories of this kind, we have to think of them—we have to think of all religious literature—as myth. By myth I do not mean “primitive untruth.” I mean epic poetry inviting our imaginative engagement and elaboration. Whatever you do: don’t take myths literally: that’s what Fundamentalists do. They’re metaphorical. Whatever the story under consideration, it’s more than a 1-time event. Moreover, all the parts of the story are all happening all the time. Pharaoh-like despots are exploiting their subjects; heroic leaders are inspiring disciples; these things happen all across the globe every day. While myth tells the story, ritual acts it out. Myth & ritual always go together (myth = Exodus; ritual = Seder supper). It’s a struggle sometimes, but we always have to try to transcend literalism if we want to understand religious literature: when you see Exodus as more than a one-time event, but as a symbol, a paradigm for liberation and change, that’s when you begin to get it mythically. Stop thinking about it historically; the Exodus is happening right now.
It helps our appreciation of the Passover story as metaphor when we learn that the word “Egypt” in Hebrew means “the narrow place”. To be enslaved in Egypt means being bound to a narrow place, to a narrow vision and a narrow politics. We all know Egypt; we’ve all been there and we see it every night on the national news. It’s the rigid world of natives vs. emigrants, gays vs. straights, patriots vs. socialists—a world that passes for respectable propriety among modern-day Egyptians across America. The thing about myth though, all its parts are happening all the time; just as we’re mythically stuck in Egypt when we’re caught up in narrow ways of thinking, at all times there’s also an invitation to leave Egypt behind and crossover into freedom. For our ancestors of biblical legend, that freedom came once they agreed to live by a covenant. Just like our ESUC Covenant*—well, the Israelites’ was more patriarchal perhaps, but a covenant just the same. Here’s my point: from a mythic perspective you leave slavery behind when you bind together with like-minded, imaginative people for creative purposes. When we gather together in the spirit of our Church Covenant there’s almost no limit to what we can accomplish! Until…we forget how to live in freedom and find ourselves wandering in the wilderness again—sometimes for a very long while.
Hundreds of years after the Exodus came the events described in the New Testament: the story of an unofficial rabbi from the provinces who, after a brief ministry in the countryside, comes with his rag-tag band triumphantly into Jerusalem. All four gospels recount the enthusiasm he met that day—enthusiasm that was dashed within a week. I’ll do what I can to make sense of that story (the dashing of their hope) next week. This morning I want to take a look instead at the image of Jesus’ triumphal entry through the same mythic lens with which I just briefly looked at Exodus. Considered mythically, Jesus’ triumphal moment is paradigmatic: it’s the archetypal image of a triumphant reformer. This image is bigger than just Jesus; and it keeps happening. Christian myth—like Jewish myth, like all myth—is never about a single event. Myth happens all the time, and keeps happening all the time. It’s a way of describing life poetically. And as I’ve pointed out before, every aspect of the story keeps happening all the time. So to understand the Palm Sunday story we need, first, to see and understand the archetype. And to crack open any archetype, look to the poets…
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“When you’re lost in the rain in Juárez / and it’s Eastertime, too…” begins Bob Dylan’s masterful Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Amidst sickness, despair, prostitutes and saints, the singer recounts a trip south of the border where he encounters mysterious powerful women like Saint Annie and Sweet Melinda, corrupt authorities, and other archetypal forces until—pulled by gravity, negativity, drink, illness, remorse and memories—he gathers himself together and heads home. (“…I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough.”)
Great song! About a terrifying place: Cuidad Juárez, Chihauhua, Mexico. Four years ago, Pope Frances visited Juárez—just as Bob Dylan had—a few days before Easter. He was there to celebrate the improvement of conditions in that border town over the preceding few years. A few years before that, when I was serving a church in Santa Fe, the UU ministers and religious educators of the Mountain Desert District gathered in El Paso. On a free afternoon, I crossed into Ciudad Juárez, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues echoing in my head the whole time. It was a powerful experience, and troubling: human trafficing, gang, and drug-related activity had left Juarez with the highest murder rate by far of any city in North America.† Dozens of desperately poor children sought handouts. I remember thinking, this has to change…as I looked up to see, in front of me, “Casa de Cambio,” “House of Change.” An Evangelical Church? I wondered. A Community Center engaged in social uplift? Alas, the storefront was nothing more that a currency conversion booth—a convenient place to change dollars into pesos. No matter how poor a community is, there are always entrepreneurs ready to squeeze a few more dollars out of tourists—and anybody else needing to exchange their money.
Currency conversion… it’s interesting…. It was currency conversion, as it turned out, that led to Jesus’ denouement.
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After a brief preaching and storytelling ministry in Galilee, Jesus, accompanied by a group of loyal disciples, went to Jerusalem—not to die but to proclaim his vision of the imminent Kingdom to the throng of worshippers there for the celebration of Passover. Whatever else this fellow Jesus was, he was definitely a change agent. He probably entered the city largely unnoticed by authorities. However, he soon attracted attention—the next day—by his dramatic purging of the temple. People from all over the Middle East were visiting the temple. Proper protocol required making a burnt offering of some animal, most often (because it was cheapest) a pigeon. The Sadducean temple clique required that these be purchased with coins from Israel. No other kind of coin was permitted, so the moneychangers were there to convert coins from Egypt and Rome and Babylon to the coins of Israel, at high interest. The temple priests also received a kickback from the moneychangers—sort of an “executive bonus.” All this made Jesus angry, and he declared that the priests had turned a house of God into a den of robbers. His act of overturning the tables of the money changers is found in all four gospels, but in Mark—the oldest account—is added Jesus’ remark that the temple was meant to be a house of prayer…for all peoples. In Mark’s telling, Jesus is more than a reformer who wants to clean up temple corruption; the change he has in mind is revolutionary: not only to clean up the temple but to transform it, not just for the people of Israel but for everyone, the whole world!
This act, together with his teaching in the temple area, quite likely added to his popularity with the people, but also incurred the enmity of the Sadducean temple clique. At this point Pontius Pilate, the Roman military governor, probably fearing that a popular religious leader teaching about some kingdom other than Caesar’s could become the center of a popular disturbance or revolt against Rome, had the man arrested. Following a summary hearing, he was condemned and quickly crucified as a criminal. With this abrupt and tragic conclusion to his high hopes, the story of Jesus ends…. Or does it? Finding hope in the midst of such an unexpected and utter collapse is next week’s story—Easter. Today I’m focusing on the high hopes when he and his coterie were welcomed into the city with their new vision of a transformed and liberated faith, and world.
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Ancient Palestine is one thing, but what about here, today? Where have we seen youthful, reformist energy thwarted by an unyielding Old Guard? Where do shame and blame still work to keep Beloved Community at bay? Obsessive observance to the letter of the law over the spirit of the law? The belittlement and criminalization of spiritual renewal? Of liberal reform? These things happen everywhere, everyday. They happen right here in the neighborhoods of King County. In our city halls and in Tacoma. In Washington, DC. And in Damascus, Xinjiang, and Mogadishu, as well.
Passover and Palm Sunday are not about obscure events that may have happened centuries ago. The exodus, the entry into Jerusalem—these things are happening every day…along with other aspects of the story, like betrayal, confusion, and picking up the pieces: all the other aspects of the myth that usually, though not invariably fallow. My intention this morning has been to help us understand the ways in which mythic archetypes like ‘Exodus’ and the ‘Entry into Jerusalem’ are alive at every hand, finding exemplification over and over in the drama of our lives. Think of former President Obama and his liberal allies garnering the political will to pass healthcare reform. As always, the Sadducean-Puritan-Extreme Right cult of Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, Clarence Thomas, and their allies lurks in the wings, collecting their executive bonuses and praying for the collapse of any reformer, young or old—a collapse they would be happy to accommodate, even help bring about, should the opportunity arise.
But for now, today, let us celebrate the triumph of hope and possibility over those forces that always threaten it. Let us admire hopeful and fearless prophets and liberators wherever they find the courage to speak out and lead, and wherever followers find among themselves the audacity to hold such people up as the leaders they are. Like former President Barack Obama. And earlier reformist Presidents of the same mold: Abe Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. Like UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Hosanna! Praises on high! Blessed are they—all of them—that come in the name of peace, and Beloved Community, and change; who proclaim a new era, or Kingdom, or Casa del Cambio, and challenge all of us—and our siblings across the aisle, across town and across the world—to build a new order with them, not of shame and blame any longer, not of power over, not of patriarchy or oligarchy or power clique. But of love and compassion.
Let us celebrate that: the triumph—
when- and wherever it occurs, and
however fragile and temporary it may be—
let us celebrate the triumph of love and compassion and hope.
So May It Be. Shalom. Amen. Namaste.