Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, March 25, 2018
Today I ask you to use your imagination: to think about Palm Sunday as if you were there. To wonder, who would I be in the story? Would I be marching along with Jesus, or in the crowd cheering him on? Would I be hanging back, worried that this was going to get me into trouble? Would I be one of the religious leaders, saying “This is not how we do things”? Or one of the soldiers, trying to maintain the status quo? Today I ask you to imagine Palm Sunday as not just an old story, but as a reality that happens again and again.
Jesus had been traveling around the countryside of Galilee with his followers, teaching and preaching, stirring up trouble with the authorities. People were asking, “Who is this guy, who makes me feel more alive, more hopeful, more free?” His disciples sensed his power, and started to think it was good that they had gotten in on the ground floor with him—and that when Jesus became a king, they would have a place in the palace too.
But Jesus tells them they have it all wrong; that to follow him means suffering, and maybe losing their lives. And then, they start to head toward Jerusalem, and when they get there, their entrance into the city is what becomes known as Palm Sunday. This ragtag group of outsiders, heading into the heavily-defended capital, is often called “Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem,” but I’ve always wondered, what’s so triumphant about it? We know how things end. To me, it seems more like the gauntlet of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where police used force to beat and turn back civil rights marchers, than, any kind of triumph.
One of the truths of human history is that imperial power never relinquishes its power willingly. You know how this march ends: Jesus gets arrested, his followers disperse, he’s unwilling to fight back or defend himself, and he is crucified, killed on a cross, the capital punishment of those days. What is there to celebrate here?
But this year, it finally came to me. The victory in Palm Sunday, the victory in the marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the victory in yesterday’s March for Our Lives, in Washington, and in the 839 other locations around the world; the victory is in the marching itself. It is in the recognition, the realization, the courage of people who, yesterday and down though the ages, have been compelled to put their bodies and sometimes their lives on the line, to stand for what they know is right. With no assurance that they are going to prevail or win, especially in the short term.
When you choose to march, you are saying, “I may not be able to control the outcome, but I can control is what I do with my own body, and my own life. And I choose to act. I choose to show up.” The victory is in joining the fight.
Of course there are different ways of showing up. There are many different ways to fight for what is right. However you do it, there is something powerful in voting with your feet, in joining with others, saying, “We are here! See us, hear us, join us and be part of the change we need in our world!”
Sometimes it seems there is so much power arrayed against what is good and true and right. It’s easy to feel resigned to how things are. But human history has been shaped, again and again, by people who used the power they had, their bodies and their voices and their presence, to stand up and change things. Who trusted they were part of something larger than their individual lives. Back during the Civil Rights Movement, Medgar Evars said, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”
We need young and fearless prophets, like Jesus and Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., like Medgar Evars and those young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We need them to show us the way. To speak truth to power, which is what prophets have always done. And why it’s such a risky occupation. Because power doesn’t like to be criticized or threatened.
You heard Emma González criticize our leaders when all they are willing to offer is “thoughts and prayers.” Sometimes all I have are thoughts and prayers; sometimes all I can do is pray and hold people in my heart and mind. But that’s kind of my job! We didn’t elect our leaders to pray—we elected them to do things, good things and right things. Not that we need to wait for the leaders to lead—we each have have things we can do! There’s a piece of artwork in my office, a gift from Richard Smyth. It’s a African proverb; it says, “When you pray, move your feet.” When you pray, then do something, put your prayers into action, see that you are meant to be God’s hand’s and feet in the world.
It would be easy to be discouraged these days. Our world is kind of a mess. There is so much that is broken and in need of repair. But has there ever been a time this was not the case? Each age has its struggles. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to resign ourselves to these troubles, and say, “What can I do?” or are we going to be people of faith and hope and love? People who walk the talk?
In the Jewish tradition, there’s an understanding that the exodus from Egypt, the long walk from slavery to liberation, was not a one-time event: Michael Walzer wrote, “Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt. That there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”
This journey, from slavery to freedom, from brokenness to healing and transformation, calls us to leave what we know, to walk away from what is safe and predictable, to join with others as we make our way thorough the wilderness and toward the promised land.
There comes a time when you finally know what you have to do, and begin. You start putting one foot in front of the other. It's why Jesus and his followers left the safe countryside and went to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to speak truth to power. It’s why civil rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and why Martin went to Memphis, where he was killed. He went there to stand with striking garbage collectors, to lend his voice to their cause. He went because he had to, and because he could. It’s why so many people took to the streets yesterday, because they had no other choice but to stand up, and march for their lives, and say, this madness of killing our citizens, of killing our children, this madness has to stop.
None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. If you can’t march, you can write letters. You can lift your voice. You can support the activists and the marchers. You can send money. You can reach out to someone in need. You can be kind. You can be a force for peace and goodness. You can have faith, that though the journey may be long and hard, we will get there.
But you know, the critical moment isn’t when you arrive. It’s when you decide to begin. “Let no one be deluded that a knowledge of the path can substitute for putting one foot in front of the other” (Mary Caroline Richards). And if you feel tired, if you need some inspiration, look to the young and fearless prophets, who, through the ages, have appeared to lead us on on the way: Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. In our own day, Emma González, 11 year-old Naomi Wadler, all the other young people who are leading us out of this dark night of violence.
Our human history is a long struggle of people to be free. Remember the recentl example of South Africa, where a minority population of European immigrants invented a system called apartheid to oppress the African majority, put systems in place to make that oppression last forever. But though injustice may have its day, there is a longing in the human heart for freedom that will not be denied forever. Though the arc of the moral universe may be long, it does bend toward justice. This was the faith of South Africans, who struggled and marched and resisted and suffered, until finally that oppressive system came tumbling down, and they earned their freedom. Along the way, as they marched they sang freedom songs that expressed their faith and helped them keep their courage, songs like “Freedom is Coming,” and “Siyahamba,” “We are marching in the light of God.”
Let this be our faith too. That when you march, when you take a stand for justice and for truth, you never walk alone. That you have companions on the way, and that you are marching in the presence of that power which is always on the side of love and justice. That the only way to get from here to there is by joining hands, marching together. Marching in the light of God.