I. Supporting Leaders Who Make Decisions We Do Not Understand
A mature way of deciding whom to support as leader of some group small or large is to elect or show public support for the person we believe to have the values and the courage to make the decisions necessary to benefit the greater number of people in the group or society or nation. That is a more reasonable political commitment in the case of those of us who are permitted the democratic processes than the age old political promise charade, which almost never works.
The politicians in order to be elected give promises about what they will do to better the economy or to better the joblessness situation or to minimize the possibility of war. And we keep going to the polls voting for people who tell us what we want to hear in their political promises only to be disappointed in many instances because when a person takes the reins of leadership of whatever organization she or he heads the reality is perhaps quite different than what that the person who aspired to office understood or expected.
That being the case, I say again, the mature way to select a leader whether it’s by voting or simply showing support is to elect someone or endorse someone or stand with someone whom you believe has the grit and the foresight to make the best decisions that she or he can make given the curveballs that affect institutions as well as individuals. In the case of a first term senator or congressperson or president in this country, there is no way even with involved briefings to know what it’s like to face the barrage of challenges to the well-being of the nation that must be dealt with on a daily–well, an hourly–basis. And so making promises about what will be done specifically at every turn is naïve.
Some years ago in either a Sunday morning Forum when we had those after Gathering or at a Wednesday night discussion, Dr. Steve Fifield who was actively attending our meetings in those days introduced us to an Oklahoma pastor, kind of a radical charismatic, fundamentalist, mega-church pastor, by the name of Carlton Pearson. Carlton Pearson was a product of Oral Roberts University, and upon graduating he became closely associated with Oral Roberts himself, and the practice of Pearson’s preaching and pastoral work was very much in line with the conservative, healing-oriented ministry that Oral Roberts made famous.
To Carlton Pearson’s credit he lived by the rule of seeking truth rather than by the rule of coloring within the lines at all costs. And as a result one day, the Reverend Pearson who had done his share of preaching on God’s love woke up and realized that in his mind–and I certainly agree with him–that divine love and a burning eternal hell are incongruous. If one exists, the other cannot. Carlton Pearson, and again we’re on the same page here, went public with his confession that, despite long years of vivid sermons about an eternal burning hell, he could no longer believe in hell or even leave a place for hell in his theological framework.
Pearson thought his congregation–very large, very wealthy, very loyal he thought–would stand behind him and support him in this discovery made as he sought truth, but he was sadly mistaken. And when he told the congregation of his beliefs, all hell–if you please, broke loose. People stopped coming in droves; large numbers attending his preaching services dropped to handfuls. With the people went the money; the building was lost. The church for all practical purposes went out of business.
These days, Pearson after a long struggle has bounced back. He has a new crowd following him who could be conservative theologically but still accept the pastor’s perspective that there is no eternal burning hell.
The dynamic here is very similar to what goes on in choosing a politician in what I called a moment ago the mature way. Someone whom I endorse as my leader, I must support sufficiently enough to allow her or him to make decisions based on the new information that comes her or his way. It’s not about promises. It’s not about performing according to my prescribed expectations. It’s about dealing with the real stuff of life as it comes to my leaders’s attention. In the end, that’s a much stronger leader than one who tries to live on promises that may reflect the circumstances of the past but very well may not anticipate the future.
A real leader makes decisions for my best interest based on the information at her or his disposal, much of which is unknown to me. Same with Carlton Pearson though in a very different realm of endeavor. He had preached a burning eternal hell where so called sinners are punished until it made no sense to him, and he lost a great deal in order to tell the truth to those who had chosen him as their spiritual leader. He lost big time to own his convictions. Even though he didn’t initially think the pain would reach the level it turned out to reach he did not shrink from acknowledging where he believed truth had taken him.
When Silverside Church calls a pastor, and, as far as I know, that isn’t going to happen again anytime soon, the invitation whether it’s spoken directly in this particular way or implied is not to become a dictator, but to join the community for the journey of seeking truth. “Join with us and lead by enthusiasm and conviction, by challenge and loving reminder. Above all, be on your journey to seek truth. Stay on course. Share with us what you see; don’t try to cram your conclusions down our throats, but give us the freedom to agree with you or to disagree with you.”
Now, if you been around Silverside any time at all you know all those things are self-evident and hardly worth saying except to those who don’t know. It’s very important because the pastor who begins a journey with the congregation cannot promise where she or he will be theologically or socially six months down the road or twelve months down the road or five years down the road. If she or he has never changed, never had any new insights, has never had to face the congregation with a potentially unpopular stance that he or she has discovered while seeking, something is wrong.
Years ago, the brilliant New Testament scholar, Frank Stagg, was chatting with some folks at a coffee event, and I happened to be in the conversational circle when somebody asked him why he refused to sign the document Southern Baptist fundamentalists were forcing all seminary professors to sign if they wanted to keep their jobs. Dr. Stagg responded by saying, “Even if I believed all of those creedal statements, which I do not, if I’m open to the pull of God I might be at a different place tomorrow. So let me not make promises today that the new insights of tomorrow could force me to change.”
II. Bittersweet with Barely a Hint of Sweet
Why was Jesus on the way to Jerusalem the last time he, unbeknownst to him in all probability, made the journey up to the Temple and the holy city? Passover.
As Jesus made his way into Jerusalem giving the foundation for what we now call Palm Sunday or as more modern liturgical scholars call it Passion/Palm Sunday, the crowds that formed around him and made a pathway for him and waved branches and shouted out praises to him did so only because they thought Jesus might well be the one who could give them what they wanted: a militaristic Messiah as many of those in ancient times had envisioned a Messiah. They wanted somebody who could marshal the forces in some kind of way, someone who could redouble the potential impact of the Jewish minority in the face of mighty Roman power. They wanted somebody who could lead them to defeat Rome and therefore to claim hopefully, once and for all, freedom for the Jews.
The irony in the story, and by the way the story is filled with irony, the irony at this point in the story is that Jesus hears the shouts of a crowd of people, not a throng and not an innumerable sea of faces and voices and branches, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” For them, he was only as good as his ability to fulfill their expectations, only as good as his willingness to be who and what they demanded that he be. One wrong move, which by the way didn’t take very long, and he was nothing. He was nobody. He wasn’t worth their time or effort, much less their hope.
He was on his way to Jerusalem to commemorate the feast of Passover. To say he was going to celebrate the feast of Passover would be to give a nuance to the event that could be called into question. Certainly there were aspects of the history of his forebears and their path to liberation worth celebrating, but in the midst of the celebration shadows were immovable. The feast of Passover was a formal recalling of the bloody, narrow escape of the Hebrews from the control of Egyptian overlords. The liberation involved a dark side; they jumped from the frying pan into the fire as it were. They were in agony because of the maltreatment they received as slaves to the Egyptians, and they’d suffered plenty before their unusual pathway to freedom opened up to them. Nor would their freedom be instantaneous. They left the slavery of Egypt and found themselves as the story is told on a forty year journey before they found the place that according to their interpretation God wanted them to plant themselves. Before and after their full liberation, let me remind you, the shadows were immovable. With the sweet came much bitterness.
If you have ever participated in a Seder meal with Jewish friends or family members, you know what the core of Passover is all about. It relives through the symbolism of food items the various aspects of the very risky Hebrew escape from Egypt. On the Seder plate there must always be some bitter herbs to stress the bitterness of that set of experiences. Horseradish is often used for this aspect of the symbolic meal. It is no feast they are eating.
Matzah is almost always served. The Hebrews fled Egypt so quickly, there was no time to wait for yeast bread to rise. They originally woofed down unleavened matzah in their desperate attempt to escape bondage. Moderns remember that precarious window of opportunity with matzah.
Chariest is a mixture of apples, cinnamon, wine, and nuts. It is symbolic of the mortar the Hebrew slaves used when being forced to build Egyptian structures. The hint of sweetness, just barely there, acknowledges that freedom did finally come.
Karpas is a vegetable, celery for example, dipped into salted water–symbol of the rivers of tears shed due to abuse, fear, pain, hopelessness. The participants at the Passover Seder taste the pain of their ancestors.
Zeroah is the only meat included in the meal if any at all. Sometimes, it is only a shank bone of lamb. In ancient Jeruselum, the Hebrews recalled the Passover by sacrificing a lamb in the Temple, roasting it, and consuming it on the eve of the Exodus. The sacrificial mutton was eaten quickly, again. When the word or signal to leave came, they had to go in haste.
Beitzah is an egg roasted in its shell and placed on the Seder plate to symbolize an ancient Jerusalem sacrifice in addition to the lamb. The egg symbolizes mourning; the egg also symbolizes new life, but it doesn’t eclipse the long season of mourning that preceded freedom.
Jesus is not entering Jerusalem in a festive mood. Yes, there is the warmth of fellowship he will undoubtedly enjoy as the Passover meal was typically celebrated with one’s family and/ closest friends. But the somber underpinnings of the event as I’ve already described with participants throughout the period of commemoration.
This was not the coronation for Jesus; this was not a confirmation that he was the long anticipated messiah. This event commemorating agony in the past would be the catalyst to death.
When Jesus ate the last supper with his closest followers in an upper room somewhere, rented space seasonally available for small groups of those commemorating Passover, the mood was not upbeat, and though the food might have been plentiful served around the Seder plate, it was a somber gathering. Topics of conversation included how to serve others including outcasts, who would stay with Jesus and who would betray Jesus when times got tough, some hints of what life might be like Rome did what Jesus expected they eventually would do–namely, do him in; this Passover, next Passover, sooner or later. It did surely seem inevitable to him.
And so when we mark Palm Sunday, Passion/Palm Sunday with elation we are grabbing hold of a very tiny part of the experience from Jesus’ perspective, and we often forget that the elation turned to stagnation when Jesus didn’t act on cue from would-be followers. They needed to hear him talk of weapons of war and strategies for defeat, not about washing the feet of the people no one wanted anything to do with. All or almost all the voices having claimed as he entered Jerusalem that he was the one who had come from God quickly resented and/or forgot him. Except for his dying moments on the cross, the pitiful procession into Jerusalem followed by several days filled with sadness were the lowest moments of Jesus’ short life.
III. Justice and Juxtaposition
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are remarkable contemporary New Testament scholars who specialize in the study of Jesus and his teachings as well as his historical and cultural context. A few years ago they wrote together a study on the last week of Jesus’ life, and in that book some specifics about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which previously to my knowledge had only been hinted about and not studied with depth for the most part, were powerfully clarified. It is my understanding that while writing the book Drs. Borg and Crossan were actually in Jerusalem.
As to the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which has been touched on in some of the earlier readings in today’s Gathering, everything about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was carefully planned. That much is not new. A significant amount of that scholarly investigation goes back a long way and in particular to what was a very popular book by Hugh J. Schonfield in the 1960s titled The Passover Plot. In that book Schonfield discussed in detail how every single aspect of Jesus’ plan to enter Jerusalem was carefully thought through but kept under wraps for fear of Roman interference. Details were laid out in advance and then carried through when the time was right–everything from the time Jesus would make his entry into Jerusalem down to who would provide the donkey on which he would ride. It was planned with intricate care and detail by Jesus himself; his closest followers knew nothing until the time came to put the plans into action.
What was new for me was the detail that Borg and Crossan added in their book, proposing that Jesus’ means of entry into Jerusalem was as intentional as the time of day he would ride. They proposed that he intentionally planned to juxtapose himself and his mission over against Pontius Pilate and Pilate’s mission. Jesus enters in a powerless and pathetic manner–but peacefully. How Pilate enters in dramatic contrast is with all the military trappings imaginable both to underscore the power at his command as the Roman Emperor-appointed Governor over the Jews and to underscore Roman military power in general.
Get the picture in your mind, and once you do you’ll likely never forget it. Jesus appearing pathetic, really–utterly powerless-looking, riding a mother donkey with her baby colt tagging along beside her–enters on one side of Jerusalem. On the other side of Jerusalem at about the same time or at exactly the same time Pilate rides in astride his mighty steed with his personal and military entourage tagging along behind him.
We can imagine it, but we can’t see it. Borg and Crossan help us get the point. Pilate had all the signs of massive military power at his disposal. Jesus, said our team of scholars, is riding a little donkey–recently a mother and still nursing her colt. Jesus wanted to present the most unmilitaristic image he could present.
Jesus was literally living out his, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” beatitude. Also he was showing Rome, his already committed followers, and those who would follow him IF he promised to be what they wanted him to be exactly what he was about. This donkey ride was his powerful nonverbal confirmation that he was not militaristic in any way. Rome had absolutely nothing to worry about in that regard; those who wanted a warrior Messiah or a new king did.
The enthusiastic group of people outside Jerusalem who for a while believed he was the militaristic Messiah their ancestors had longed for and taught them to long for quickly realized, though not instantly for some reason, that Jesus was not about their intention for him. In hours or days, as I said earlier, he was nothing to them. This is not to say they wanted him to die. That was not the case. They simply had no use for him anymore because he didn’t fulfill their expectations as a potential leader.
They did not trust him to make the decisions that had to be made in the face of the realities he had to deal with. Even in his own inner circle there were those, notably Judas, who would not give up on the idea that Jesus really was the militaristic Messiah longed before from olden times and that when the going got tough enough Jesus would show his true colors by coming out fighting and gathering armies all over the place to support him.
Let us not focus too much on how the people at Passover misunderstood Jesus. They were not the first to misunderstand him, and they have not been the last to misunderstand Jesus. We know in our own time how widely Jesus is misunderstood, how his teachings are twisted and abused for personal gain and manipulation of blind would-be devotees. There are those who still believe we can turn Jesus into a militaristic figure, one that blesses their war efforts. The enemies may change, but the crusade mentality still pops up now and again.
Jesus is not a Rorschach figure, someone we can shoot up on the screen of our imaginations and see him as whomever we want him to be for our purposes, blessing our concerns and our efforts and our hopes and aspirations as if he had no identity other than what people in his time and people since then have superimposed upon him. If you want to benefit from Jesus’ legacy, you must remember the Jesus on the little donkey communicating nonverbally, rejecting his finest opportunity to become a super power.