Posted by: dacalu | 26 April 2011

Overwhelming Force

Sermon at St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, Tucson, AZ

Palm Sunday, 2011


Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2: 5-11

Matthew 21: 1-11, 26: 1-25

Entering Jerusalem.

What must it have been like for the disciples to enter the city?

With cheering crowds and waving palm fronds?

Would it have seemed like a fulfillment of their discipleship?

The praise they and Jesus deserved

after years of tromping around the countryside like vagabonds?

Would if have seemed like entering the lion’s den?

With the Temple and the priests and the authorities

breathing down their necks.

Did it feel claustrophobic?

I can’t imagine the intensity of that experience.

A huge crowd shouting Hosanna as they walked into the capital.

This is how Holy week should feel:

the crush of expectation, not knowing how everything will end,

but knowing something big is about to happen.

Like the drop in pressure before the rain starts,

or the charge in the air before a thunderstorm.

Holy Week is about anticipation.

Can you feel it?

We have a tendency to avoid conflict,

in religion, in politics, in relationships.

Sometimes this is good.

It can give us a chance to cool down and look at things rationally,

take time to see things from another person’s perspective.

Sometimes it’s bad.

Our country has a lot of the bad kind off avoidance at the moment.

It sounds like we’re confronting difficult issues,

but more often we find groups of like minded people

and complain about the opposition,

rather than confronting them.

Few things distress me as much

as the rise of partisan news reporting in the US.

No matter what your opinion is,

you can find people who agree with you,

people who will reinforce your opinions,

so that you can avoid actually talking with the other side.

Even our language has become polarized.

We use words like Pro-Life, Obama-care, Liberty, and Class

more for propaganda than for communication.

Jesus did not avoid conflict.

Jerusalem then, as Jerusalem now,

was a hotbed of conflicting ideologies.

The Romans wanted control over the region

and saw Jerusalem as a strategic hub for the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Zealots wanted the Romans out,

by whatever means necessary.

The Priests in the Temple,

whom we call Sadducees after Zadok, the high priest at the time of David,

wanted to retain control over the religious and economic life of Israel,

by managing the Temple.

The Pharisees, or “separatists,”

wanted to end the Sadducees’ monopoly on religious power

(and possibly the local royalty’s monopoly on secular power).

Entering Jerusalem meant more than going to the capital city.

It meant that Jesus was going to find his greatest supporters

and his greatest enemies.

It meant that Jesus, the Prince of Peace,

was entering into chaos.

For Zealots this meant great opportunity.

Maybe Jesus would cast out the Romans and retake the city,

as scripture said the Messiah would do.

For the Pharisees this meant that maybe

someone would finally stand up to the Temple

and get people thinking more about God than about power.

The Romans and the Sadducees were a good deal less happy.

Literature and movies have tropes:

recurring themes or scenes that appear over and over.

One of my favorite tropes is the story of overwhelming force.

You’ve all seen it.

The pauper, through a twist of plot, turns out to be the King

and, once that’s been revealed, he punishes the evil Duke.

King Richard returns from the Crusades to reward Robin Hood

and marry him and Maid Marion.

The bully who discovers the little old Chinese man

he’s been harassing is really a Kung Fu master

You know the drill.

It’s all very satisfying to see good triumph over evil,

by the use of overwhelming force.

Justice wins in the end

and the villains are properly chastised by the might of the hero.

The trope of overwhelming force appears again and again in Christianity and Judaism.

We tell tales of God striking down unbelievers with lightning,

of fire and brimstone,

of the rapture.

If you’ll excuse my language, they are stories of God

being a bigger bad ass than the competition.

And that makes me think,

Because the trope of overwhelming force is just as satisfying emotionally

when it’s the villain who wins.

We cheer Darth Vader in Star Wars, Severus Snape in Harry Potter,

and a host of others who use overwhelming force with style.

Inglorious Bastards, and for that matter anything by Quentin Tarantino,

is really popular in the movie theaters.
It’s harder to sympathize with the bad guys,

but there is something satisfying

about seeing someone be overconfident and lose.

Overwhelming force is a trope,

even a trope that appears occasionally in the Bible,

but it is not a Christian trope.

Jesus steadfastly refuses to act this way.

Jesus does not enter Jerusalem to conquer.

Jesus enters Jerusalem in order to have a real conversation with the people there.

I have no doubt that Jesus expected the results he got,

but expectation is not the same thing as certainty,

and can never be actual relationship,

because overwhelming force never solves conflict,

it can only eliminate one of the sides.

When Jesus died, there were still Romans and Zealots,

Sadducees and Pharisees, followers of Herod,

and hundreds of others.

When Jesus rose again, the same was true.

Whether or nor we find it comforting (I do),

whether or not we find it emotionally satisfying,

Jesus entered Jerusalem for the sake of all the people in it,

just as Jesus entered the world for the sake of sinners,

and for all the people of Israel, and for all the people of the nations.

No doubt some of the people lining the street knew this.

They were rejoicing that the Messiah, the light to the nations had come.

Others most certainly were rejoicing because they expected Jesus

to obliterate the opposition.

I invite you to enter Jerusalem with me this Holy Week.

No more avoiding, we must enter into the conflict

with honesty and humility,

because that’s the only way we can form actual relationships.

We live in the city of Tucson and the state of Arizona.

How many of you actively talk to people of another party about politics.

Yes, you should really raise your hands.

The big issue on campus has to do with concealed weapons,

but budget issues are huge everywhere,

as are border issues.

The wonderful thing about communicating with the opposition

(not just talking at each other) is this:

if you convince them, it’s evangelism –

if you don’t, it’s education.

But it’s going to require an open mind.

I’ve had many conversations where neither one of us

changed our position substantially,

but both of us came to understand the other,

and our own thinking, better.

How many of you have looked at the Anglican Covenant?

Or talk to people you disagree with about church matters?

I won’t ask you to raise your hands this time,

but I know St. Philip’s has had some conflict over the budget.

How many of you have had real conversations with the people you disagree with?

How many of you have been open enough to express

not just what you think,

but how you feel about it all,

to those who think and feel differently?

How many of you talk about your faith with atheists,

or fundamentalists, or Muslims, or even the local Presbyterian.

Who makes you grit your teeth?

Who makes you angry that they could even say such things?

These are the people to talk to –

in addition to the people who agree with you,

and the people in between.

I like to quote John F. Kennedy, who said we do these things

“not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Even when we ourselves are clear of conscience and unconflicted,

we enter into places of strife and discord because God needs us there.

We have a message that is more than something to believe or something to do,

it is something to be –


We walk in the path of a man who entered Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago.

We go where people cannot speak to one another

and hear their voices.

We go where people cannot face one another

and see them,

and look them in the eye.

It is Holy Week,

and we are entering Jerusalem with those confident, confused, and brave souls

who followed a man on a donkey,

not knowing what would happen next,

but knowing something big is about to happen.

We are entering Jerusalem to see the people who live there,

those who praise us and those who would see us obliterated,

because both groups are dear to us,

both are our brothers and sisters,

both are children of God.

To everything there is a season.

This is a time of waiting, a time of bated breath,

but it is not a passive time.

This is a time to hear the wind blowing,

to learn what the world is saying and to ask why.

This is a time to look for peoples hearts

to learn who they are.

And, in the midst of all this chaos,

to follow Jesus.


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