(This is the correct video, although the preview image looks like the wrong date.)
Human nature and human societies run on the idea of retribution: an eye for an eye, if you hurt me then I’ll hurt you. But all of history shows us that fighting fire with fire leaves the whole world burned. The alternative is the nonviolent Kingdom of God, where we follow the way of Jesus in loving our enemies. Throughout this season of Lent we have learned Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s six principles of nonviolence and also explored Jesus’ parables of God’s nonviolent Kingdom. We are trying to learn how to be nonviolent people, to be saved from our instinct for violence. This way of life challenges our egos as we are confronted with the idea that the world really could change, but only when we are willing to release some of our comfort, safety, and power.
The first of Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence is that “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”
The second principle is “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.”
The third principle is “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims.”
The fourth principle is “Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence willingly accepts the consequences to its acts.”
The fifth principle is, “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence to the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is active, not passive. Nonviolent love does not sink to the level of the hater. Love restores community and resists injustice. Nonviolence recognizes the fact that all life is interrelated.”
The sixth and final principle is, “Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win.” The universe is on the side of justice, and those who choose the way of nonviolence do so with deep faith that justice will eventually win.
Friends, this is exactly what we see during Holy Week, which begins today. This is the week we Christians tell our biggest story. Days and days of storytelling. Stories matter. They shape us, as individuals and as a community. We tell stories to make sense of what happens to us and around us. So let’s begin the story with the version of Palm Sunday that we find in the gospel of Matthew, in chapter 21.
Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God … head’s up – you’re gonna need those palms.
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
… These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
What a story. Maybe you’ve heard it dozens of times, maybe you’ve never heard it. Some year we will pick the whole thing apart and I’ll tell you about all the Old Testament references and cultural cues because you know I love to do that. But that is not our task for today.
Today at the beginning of Holy Week, what you most need to know about this story is that this is Jesus provoking what happens next. He is an innocent yet willing victim, and none of this was a surprise. He knew what was going to happen, maybe not every minute detail, but Jesus knew the world well enough to know how his actions would provoke the state and the church. During this holy week, the city is a powderkeg and Jesus is the spark, and I think he knows it. I think he does it on purpose.
He provokes the state by stirring up all the ideas of kingship and salvation and victory during Passover when the Jews are celebrating their liberation from the Egyptian empire. The Roman empire is sure to crush any sign of revolt among the people. And he provokes the church. He goes through the city, straight to the temple and messes with the system of sacrifice. Not just with the sellers, in this version of the story he drives the buyers out too. He attacks the system that says violence is required to appease God. That’s not a new idea; the Old Testament prophets said God does not want sacrifice but does want us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. Jesus messes with the system that says “It doesn’t matter how you live; just come here and do the religious things and you’ll be fine.” We cannot do whatever we want and then come to church and expect to “get right with God” and then go back out and do whatever we want. Jesus attacks that way of thinking.
I think Jesus knows exactly what he is doing when he issues these very public and dramatic challenges to the status quo. And when he challenges them, he paints a big ol’ target on his back. So why in the world would he do that? On purpose? It’s because ultimately, Jesus believes in peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus knows that God is bending the universe toward justice, and that Jesus’ laying down his life is part of that plan.
The system of this world, both the state and the church, is built on the belief that the way to defeat something, the way to change something, is to attack it. If you want something to be different, you use the power of force to make it happen. You use some kind of violence. But what Jesus shows us throughout this Holy Week is that doesn’t actually work. We can’t defeat the system by attacking it. We can’t overcome a violent system by being violent. Remember the Audre Lorde quote from several weeks ago?
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Jesus shows us that the way to bring about genuine change is not to attack, but to submit. It’s actually nonviolence that overcomes violence because when the system is violent against nonviolent resisters, everyone sees how morally corrupt the system is. When you refuse to use violence against violence, you refuse to play by the system’s rules. You are free from the system’s control.
Now as we will see during Holy Week week, that kind of nonviolence resistance through submitting might kill you. Yet even aside from what happens after the crucifixion (come back next Sunday!), consider the power of the death of an innocent person. Remember the examples of Dr. King. Oscar Romero. Ghandi. Jesus insists all the way through the gospels that God can accomplish more with our willing sacrifice than we can accomplish by trying to protect ourselves.
But that’s a hard word to hear. To so trust that the universe is on the side of justice that you are willing to put yourself on the line for it? To so trust that justice will eventually win that you are more ready to die than to commit injustice yourself? That takes courage. We certainly can’t do it alone. And thanks be to God, we don’t have to. To live as a Christian is to be in community. We become the people we want to be by doing it together. As part of the same church, as members of one body, as the New Testament says. And this morning, we have seven people who have decided that Zion is the place where they find the companions for the journey.
Becoming a member of a church is not like becoming a member of a club; it’s like becoming a member of a family. When a family gets a new member, like a new baby or someone who marries in, that new member doesn’t just assimilate to the family’s way of doing things. The family actually changes because of this new member. So while our new members today will learn some of our family’s traditions, we will also be changed by our new members. We welcome their different perspectives, we will listen to their wisdom, and we will grow and change because of their gifts.
Church membership is not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who wants to be in a relationship. In church, we are invited to share life with people who are different from us: theologically, politically, racially, economically, sexually. And when we choose to be together, even when we disagree, we all grow in grace and love and humility. Church membership, committing to one another, is how we manage the tension between community and individuality. We don’t allow ourselves to be absorbed and used up by others. But we do make ourselves available to others, remembering that our lives are about so much more than just our own comfort, safety, and power. This is the beautiful invitation of church membership.