Look, Your Anti-King is Coming

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Sean Lanigan on Palm Sunday.

[sermon static=”true” url=”//www.buzzsprout.com/22019/499690-palm-sunday-look-your-anti-king-is-coming.mp3″]

“Tell the daughter of Zion:
look, your king is coming.”

“Tell the daughter of Zion:
look, your king is coming.”

I have to say that I think I understand Palm Sunday a bit better this year than I ever really have before.

In my community back in California, we sang a song on Palm Sunday that was quite a bit more blunt in its address to God than most of the songs we sing here at St. Peter’s.

It went like this:
Hosanna, save us,
blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.

My congregation really got into it, with more than the usual crowd raising their hands in the air and nearly everyone singing with a level of yearning that surprised me. I remember feeling a little sheepish about it all. “I’m way too competent to need saving,” I remember thinking. Crying out to God in need was still something of a foreign concept to me. As was raising my arms and hands in church. I wondered, too: “What could one dude really truly do to save me—to save us—anyway?  How do the mechanics of this salvation thing really actually work?” Seminary hadn’t quite cleared all of this up for me. And, in that moment, it all just felt a bit silly.

But as we kept singing, I felt myself melting more and more into the freedom of knowing and expressing my need—our need—to be saved. It was strangely liberating to sing, over and over, the humble words: save us, save us, save us. Because we don’t think we’re supposed to need saving. We’re supposed to be able to keep everything under control. Supposed to be able to orchestrate our lives and our world— without God’s help…without anyone’s help. Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s alternate gods who are supposed to do the trick, rather than no God at all. Substitute gods of all shapes and sizes.

Because deep down, I think, most people really aren’t atheists. But a whole lot of people—both religious and non-religious—are, in fact, idolaters.

Now idolatry is an old, old word—not a word we tend to use all that often—and most likely not a word that’s been used to describe you lately. But I think we’re all idolaters in one way or another, most often quite unintentionally. Because idolatry is not just about golden calves, as many of us were taught in our childhoods. Idolatry is about way more than worshipping statues. …It’s about putting anyone or anything in the place of God. And, if we’re honest, I think a lot of us tend to put power in that place of privilege, as an approximation or substitute for God.

We tend to think that power can solve all of our problems. We think: “if only my political party had all the power, the world would finally be put aright and justice would prevail.” We think: “if only I had all the power, I would make my godforsaken workplace happier and more efficient. I’d cut all the crap.” We think power is the primary thing we need more of to shape a better world. So we look for ways to grab power or attach ourselves to power or simply to sidle up next to power. We’re convinced that when WE have more power, we’ll use it ethically and for the common good, unlike the bad people who have all the power now.

But it doesn’t work quite like this, does it? The old adage isn’t far off base: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Human beings really do tend toward selfishness. Now, I know some of you have a rosier understanding of human nature, but I really think selfishness is the name of the game for the vast majority of us, if we look at ourselves closely and honestly. And God knows this, too. God knows that humans are endlessly jockeying for power in one way or another. We can’t help ourselves. We all want more control than we have. We want to make the world in our own image. And God knows this. God knows that we would expect any legitimate Savior to ride in on a stallion and grab power in some sort of “not-too-violent” but “violent-enough” takeover. God knows that we would expect salvation to necessarily involve a transfer of power to a more benevolent ruler, while still keeping the whole system of governance more or less intact.

But as we have heard in the story of the first Palm Sunday, God simply doesn’t play by our rules. God, in Jesus, is playing a completely different game, in fact. In Jesus, God is trying to get out of the power game altogether.

You see: Jesus rolls into Jerusalem on a donkey, a beast of burden—not the typical mode of transportation favored by potential Saviors. A stallion would be more appropriate. Or a caravan of some sort. Furthermore, Jesus comes into town, not with an army or a retinue, but with a ragtag gaggle of disciples. He doesn’t really have much to show for himself. He certainly doesn’t seem like a viable candidate for the role of “Savior of the World.”

We like to imagine huge crowds coming out for Jesus, but it probably wasn’t so. There likely wasn’t all that much fanfare. This definitely wasn’t a royal or military procession, even though we sometimes fabricate a memory of something quite grand.

Because there’s something in all of us that wants it to be so; that wants our God to be conventionally powerful: powerful enough to really save us and to save the world by conquering the forces of death and destruction that are always looming round about us.

And, of course, the truth is, God DOES save, but God does not save through a raw exertion of power. Instead, confoundingly and maddeningly, God saves through weakness. God saves by holding back. God saves by changing the basic rules of engagement

And we are taken aback, even offended, because God really doesn’t seem to be doing God’s best for us. God’s method of salvation just doesn’t seem quite up to par. For what God is doing, in Jesus, is staging a drama: a drama that unmasks the Powers-that-be and invalidates their claims to authority—but does not actually topple them. Yet, in actuality, what communicates more powerfully? Toppling an unjust power in order to replace it with yet another corruptible power; or altogether delegitimizing and undermining an unjust power by refusing to be afraid of it, by refusing to buy into its conventions and by demonstrating—in word and deed—a radically different way of organizing human life. THIS, this is the drama that Jesus is performing.

Which brings us to the humble donkey parade of Palm Sunday. A tactical strategy of resistance. A subtle mocking of imperial claims to power. And an assertion that even the threat of murder, the Roman Empire’s number one strategy for social control, was not going to cow Jesus into submission… into renouncing the radically inclusive Kingdom that his Gospel proclaims as the “realest” reality.

And this is just it: we are saved by being given better vision—Kingdom vision. We are saved by being given a vision of human life in community that does not require coercive forms of control—because there is enough for all, because everyone has what they need, and because, as a result, it is not necessary to exert power to subdue the impoverished masses. This kind of Kingdom vision frees us by dismantling the seeming solidity of the oppressive web of power relations in which we live, and move, and have our being. This Kingdom vision enables us to begin to imagine something different, something freer, something better.

Not only are we saved by new vision, then, but we are also saved by the reality of divine weakness: by the fact that God does not swoop in, an almighty force to be reckoned with, and save the day. Weakness is such a confusing, and even appalling, divine strategy. Indeed: it’s unexpectedness surprises us into re-examining the very basis of everything we believe. It forces us to re-think power. It forces us to re-think violence. If forces us to re-think how change actually happens, and what a better way of life would actually look and feel like.

And finally, we experience salvation by and through Jesus’ courageous refusal to participate in the power games of Empire… even though it means putting his own life on the line. Through Jesus refusal, a space for alternative possibilities is opened. And in that open space, where the boundary between heaven and earth thins, all manner of things become imaginable. Life beyond death becomes imaginable. “Enough for all” becomes imaginable. Living in peace becomes imaginable. We could actually dream a new world into being!

And this kind of imagination is salvific. This kind of imagination is more powerful than any army. This kind of imagination can create the world anew.

If we let it, of course. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear when something completely unexpected comes riding in on the back of a donkey.

Amen.

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The Rev. Sean Lanigan

The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the Associate Rector of St. Peter's Church.

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