Palm/Passion Sunday
March 20, 2016

Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!

The Gospel of Jesus 21:1-12
Led by one of Jesus’ disciples, the police show up at the place Jesus and the rest of his followers were gathered. Because Jesus had often gone to the place, Jesus’ followers knew the place too. And the police seized Jesus and held him fast. And the disciples all deserted Jesus and ran away.
They brought Jesus before the high priest.
The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified.
And the Roman soldiers bring him to the place Golgotha (which means “Place of the skull”. And the soldiers crucify him.
Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. These women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.
Then Jesus breathed his last.

On Sunday the crowd welcomed Jesus with palm leaves and shouts of, “Hosanna!”

On late Thursday night or early Friday morning the crowd shouted, “Crucify him!”

Why is that?

Many sermons and commentaries explain the why by saying that the crowd was fickle or fearful. Usually the sermon emphasizes our sin and how we human beings aren’t to be trusted. We follow Jesus when the going is fun and easy and abandon him or even crucify him when the going is rough. Because of that Jesus dies alone without a friend.

And so on.

I always found that depressing.

Actually I find most theological reflection on the cross to be depressing. The whole debt of sin thing, for instance. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden, all human beings are stained with original sin. We are totally depraved and must face God’s righteous punishment, which is eternal damnation. But God is merciful and sends Jesus to die on the cross for our sins thus paying our debt for us. Those who believe that story will be saved. Those who don’t will be damned for all time.

That’s one way to look at it. It is not the only way. You won’t find that theory in the Bible even. Called the substitutionary atonement theory or the satisfaction theory of the atonement, it was developed in the 11th century, 1000 years after Jesus by a theologian named Anselm.

Did you know that Christians never even depicted Jesus on the cross in their artwork until the 10th century? Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker searched through early Christian artwork for images of Jesus dead on the cross and couldn’t find them in any artwork within 1000 years of his death. Images of Jesus for early Christians had him in front of an empty cross or as a shepherd, teacher, or healer. The images were of a restored creation, not an other-worldy realm. The sense was that through Jesus, creation itself is restored to justice and peace. You might be interested in their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire.

We have most certainly traded the historical Jesus with his teachings and his healing for theologies of crucifixion. It is good for crowd control.

It is true that Jesus was crucified. He along with thousands of others were tortured and executed by the Roman Empire in collaboration with local political and religious leaders in order to bend the population to Rome’s control.

A modern parallel to that was the lynching of African-Americans from the 1870s to the 1940s. Between three and five thousand African-Americans were lynched by crowds outside the law but blessed by the law and custom. The reason? Crowd control. They wanted to make sure that African-Americans knew and kept to their supposed place.

Theologian James Cone, author of The Cross and Lynching Tree is surprised throughout his book why it is that African-Americans made the obvious connection between the cross of Jesus and the lynching tree and Whites couldn’t. It depends which crowd you identify with, he decides. Or in the words of Jesus,

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

African-Americans sang songs about the cross of Jesus, songs like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” They knew the terror and the fear of the lynching tree and they found in Jesus someone who had gone through it. They saw in Jesus, the face of God who identified with them in their suffering.

My ancestors, my great-great-grandfather John Shaubut and his brother Henry Shaubut were likely present at the largest mass execution in United States history. Not a lot of people know about this. It happened the day after Christmas in 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota. The United States government had made treaties with the Sioux that the United States government decided were not expedient to keep. The Sioux were in the way of white progress.

In response to the violation of treaties as well as famine, there was a revolt called the Sioux or Dakota uprising. It climaxed on December 26th, 1862 with the public hanging of 38 Native Americans. Following the execution, The U.S. Government expelled all the Dakota from Minnesota. A newspaper reported that a crowd watched the execution from my Henry Shaubut’s store. I imagine his brother, my great-great grandfather, John Shaubut, watched the spectacle as well. They were good Presbyterians and law-abiding folk. I am sure they saw the execution of these 38 human beings as the execution of justice. That day, they were part of the crowd.

My two nieces’ grandmother on their mother’s side is a Sioux Indian. We have a photo of her father, on a horse and in a full headdress. My nieces don’t know their ancestry beyond that, but it would be likely that they are related to those who were executed. My nieces have ancestors in both crowds.

Crucifixions, executions, and lynchings of various sorts have always been popular. They are entertaining. A spectacle of supposed justice and identity. A way to ward off fear of the other. A way to project fear and rage onto an enemy. There are people who are lynched and there are people who do the lynching.

That takes us back to the crowds.

I was relieved when I learned that there were two crowds in the Holy Week story. The crowd wasn’t fickle, praising Jesus on Sunday and calling for his death on Thursday. There were two crowds. The crowd that welcomed Jesus with palm branches was made up of those who were poor, who were landless, and who were pushed around. They were the lame, the blind, and the outcast. They were illiterate. They also included some who had means and who, perhaps for matters of conscience, identified with them. They saw in Jesus, hope, dignity, and possibility. This crowd was more likely to be lynched than to be cheering on any lynching. For them, crucifixion meant terror, pain, and death, not law and order. They were 90-95% or so of the population.

The crowd that cried out for his lynching was made up of the religious leaders and the political leaders, those who had been the enemies of Jesus all throughout his ministry. They were the urban elite. They are the ones who wanted him dead. They wanted to make of him an example. For them crucifixion was a way to control the other crowd so that their dreams of liberation and dignity wouldn’t mess up the good thing the religious leaders had going with Rome. They made up at most 10% of the population, probably closer to 5%.

The second crowd that called for the execution of Jesus did not have a heart for the first crowd.

They couldn’t see another’s suffering as their own. They instead saw the other’s liberation as a threat to their own way of life.

Here we are in 2016 hearing once again this story of Jesus. Why? It is not an easy story. It is not a light and happy story. Why tell again the story of the torture and execution of Jesus? What purpose does it serve? When the powerful tell the story, that is, when organized religion and empire tells and interprets the story, it is about keeping people obedient. The dominant story of paying the debt of original sin and what all keeps people in a continuous state of dependency. You are guilty and you are bad and we have the solution.

This dominant empire/organized religion story of Jesus also takes the focus away from what is real. The torture and execution of people for the purposes of greed and power is as real as rain. Whether that happens in 1st century Palestine, 19th century Minnesota, 20th century Alabama, or 21st century all over the planet, this story is real.

We bomb people. We imprison people. We assassinate people. We kill them with drones. We fix and control elections half-way aground the globe, supporting dictators and tyrants when it suits us, demonizing them and stirring up drums of war it doesn’t. We even crucify Earth itself for our greed. When I say “we” I mean we citizens of one domination system among many. That is why Holy Week invites us to answer the question,

“Who are we?”
Who are we, really?

A question for Holy Week is

“Whose crowd is your crowd?”

If we are going to wave the palm branches that puts us in a crowd. That is the crowd of people in Jesus’ time who suffered directly and personally from the forces of greed. As we wave the palm branches we are making a commitment as well.

I included the reading from the Diary of Anne Frank, because I especially loved the hope in her voice. For Anne Frank, hope is a verb. Her hope was connected with her commitment, as she puts it,

“to hold to my ideals.”

Holding our ideals is the hope and the challenge of Holy Week and of Palm Sunday in particular. That is why we tell this story. We tell it to be honest. Kind of like an AA meeting. We tell it because it is true. We tell it because it empowers and encourages us to show our heart.

When we wave the palm branches we are saying that we have a heart for those who suffer needlessly.

That we are the Dakota lynched and driven from their lands…
That we are African-Americans enslaved, lynched and segregated…
That we are those who live in polluted waters and denuded forests…
That we are those who hunger and thirst for real food and real drink…
That we are those who lack access to real health care in a land of plenty….
That we are children, neglected and abused…
That we are the elderly, alone and forgotten…
That we are transgender people asking for simple equality and respect…
That we are Muslims and Latinos afraid that some politician’s rhetoric could stir up acts of barbarism toward them.

That we are those who give their lives for others at the cost of their own…
That we are the possibility of sharing and forgiveness…
That we are the makers of a just peace and a whole Earth…
That we also are the greedy, imprisoned in our fear,
but who can be touched, liberated, and healed…

This is the story of Jesus.
That is the story of the kingdom of God among us.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Yes, we were.
We can feel across time.
We can feel across space.
We can feel across language.
We can feel beneath skin color.
We can feel pain.
We have heart.
We can love.
And we will.
Where love and sorrow meet.
We are there.