Yes I understand
That every life must end
As we sit alone
I know someday we must go
Yeah I’m a lucky man
To count on both hands
The ones I love
Some folks just have one
Yeah others they got none
Stay with me
Let’s just breathe
These words, from up there on the stage, in Buffalo, New York. Crowd singing, waving cellphones where once they waved lighters. Everyone swept up, including my sister and I, attending a Pearl Jam concert, but where others were just swept up in the hit song from the new album, Amy and I, and no doubt some others among the thousands, had tears in our eyes, for the song “Just Breathe” is about a life coming to an end, and it had not been that long since we had buried our father, who died of congestive heart failure and COPD. Just breathe indeed.
We were in that greater story, yet also in our own story, swept up, and also apart. Which is to say, we were human, fully human, in that moment.
On their feet, singing together: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!
Swept up, each one unique, each one part of a bigger story that stretched back to the dawn of time, that would continue to spin out into the future, for as long as Jews tell the story of their faith, as long as we tell the story of one Hebrew prophet we experience as God-with-us, then we are swept up in something bigger, something not of one time, one place, not of Blue Hill, not of 2017, but of those who follow Jesus in every place and every age, those who tell the story of a God that liberates, that sides with the oppressed. We are part of something bigger. We are story.
The events of Palm Sunday have been interpreted, poorly I believe, through the lens of later theology, and specifically through what is known as a High Christology. In this way of thinking about Jesus, he is fully divine and self-aware of that divinity at every moment in his ministry, bearer of the “omnis,” omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent.
Human agency is meaningless in this context, everything unspools according to a divine script, mortals mere puppets in a metaphysical play. This Jesus is two-dimensional, Ancient Near Eastern kabuki, of no use to regular humans. Add a layer of messianic expectation shaped by the Hebrew belief in a warrior-king messiah, and the events of that long ago day in Jerusalem are seen as a coronation march, the entry of the rightful divine king. That he would wear a crown of thorns by the end of the week just seems like confirmation.
The great Roman historian Tacitus was born just two and a half decades later, and there has always been history, but that discipline has advanced so much in the last century that we actually know more about the events in 30 CE than were known in the Fifth and Sixth centuries, when so much orthodox Christian theology was developed. We know now, for example, that the Hebrew people, both the Judeans and the Galileans, were a stiff-necked people that did not live easily under the yoke of foreign rule. There were constant rebellions, sabotage and banditry. More than once they declared their willingness to die rather than to worship foreign gods. And no time was more dangerous for those who would dare rule Jerusalem than passover, when thousands poured in from the countryside to celebrate God’s great partnership with human agents to liberate the children of Sarah and Abraham. Leave those Hebrews to their own devices, and they might start getting new ideas about liberation.
Given these tensions, it became standard practice for the Roman legion to garrison additional troops in the city, troops that would arrive in the days before passover with a powerful general on horseback at the head of the column. Often the governor would come as well, including that vicious man in this week’s story.
We’ve told that story so many times, seen it on screens so many times, that we think Pontius Pilate lived in Jerusalem, but the governor’s residence was on the more temperate coast, at Caesarea Maritima.
This happened every year, this entry of power and pomp. The entry into Jerusalem by another gate, the entry of a Hebrew reformer on a donkey, an animal associated with peace and humility, accompanied not by laurels but by palms, a branch associated with death in many ancient religions, was not a spontaneous recognition of Jesus as divine king. It was a planned protest march. It was not a coronation. It was an occupation, Occupy Jerusalem.
It is not about power. It is not about rules. It is not about purity. It is about love. It is about compassion. It is about a God that cannot be controlled by priests and courts, contained in laws and buildings. It is about these ordinary people singing hosanna, and the holy that is in them, that spills out of them, that they experience is the person of Jesus. It is about God-with-us, very much with us, and the way that changes us, moves us out of our selves and ties us together. Not just transcendence, but loving transcendence, sacrificial transcendence, as we will see as the events of the week unfold.
This last is crucial. Transcendence alone means nothing. Art can displace, shove us into the transcendent, and thank the Creator that that is possible, for we sometimes need a holy push to move us out of the swamp of our never-ending internal monologue and lift us into the real. Amy and I experienced transcendence at that Pearl Jam concert. But soccer hooligans experience a sort of transcendence as they rampage through a rival’s city. There is artistic transcendence in Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” a masterpiece of Nazi propaganda. Transcendence requires a move out of the self, but what you move into very much matters. An article in April’s Atlantic by Peter Beinart wrestles with the decline in religious affiliation among white working class men, and the ways these men, less successful in life by every standard, marriage, employment, lacking the transcendence and connection of a faith community, fall prey to the transcendence offered by hucksters at the political extremes.
But there is also transcendence when ordinary people get into their cars and drive to Louisiana after a hurricane. There is transcendence when the chorale comes together to create something that is more than the sum of the parts, that creates a thin place between the human and the holy.
There is transcendence in love, in the first time you see that baby and your life in no longer your own.
What will we allow to move us beyond ourselves? That is a good question when we watch secretly recorded videos of Americans doing the Nazi stiff-armed salute.
We get swept up. Sports team transcendence seems mostly harmless, but we should ask ourselves how much of our souls we are willing to give over to huge and extremely rich corporate brands, even more questionable when the behavior of those corporations is objectionable, from the looting of the public purse to the overt racism of the NFL. And don’t get me started on that baseball team on the Charles, because my rich baseball corporation is more worthy than your rich baseball corporation, and I will experience a crushing transcendence this week as I watch my Toronto Maple Leafs crash out of the playoffs.
What do you give your heart to? What will you allow to sweep you away?
And here is this guy, courageously, foolishly riding into Jerusalem to denounce everyone who has power, everyone who has the power to crush him and those who follow him. This man who said “Your armies don’t matter. Your piety doesn’t matter. Your buildings don’t matter. What matters is your love. What matters is how you treat the poor. What matters is how you welcome those that society has rejected. Your welcome must be as extravagant as mine, and everyone is welcome at my table.”
This is King’s Poor People’s crusade sixteen centuries early.
This isn’t a coronation march. A donkey, a non-violent revolutionary, the poor.
It is courage. It is transcendent love.
If you are not swept up by anything, may God help you, for you are mired in the swamp of self. What do you give your heart to? What will you allow to sweep you away?
Courage. Love. Selflessness.
You want to know where Palm Sunday is happening? Look around. It is happening every day.
We imagine Jesus as quiet and dignified in the face of conspiracy and brutality. Jesus can be seen today in Ieshia Evans, in that now iconic photo, standing calmly in a flowing gown in front of riot police in tactical gear in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last July, the day after you called me as your minister. She, every brown female body in America, those who dare to mother a child that might die at the hands of the state, bodies broken just like that brown-skinned man, son of a brown-skinned mother, riding on the donkey, that would die at the hand of the lighter-skinned legion.
She’s just ordinary people, this Mary. She’s just ordinary people, this Ieshia. The folks in the street shouting hosanna were just ordinary people. They were swept up and became more, became a movement, but not swept up in the bread and circuses of Rome. They were swept up in a revolution of love, a daring and courageous love. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!
This band of fishermen and tax collectors, of women and sinners and the cleansed and the healed, would get swept up and others would get swept up so that this improbable religious reform movement from the sticks, from the backwater of Galilee, would change the world.
Swept up. Palms in the air. Cell phones in the air. A flowing dress. Hands in the air… “hands up, don’t shoot.”
Sacrificial love. Love even at the moment of death.
Nothing you would take
Everything you gave
Hold me ’till I die
Meet you on the other side
Lyrics to “Just Breathe” by Eddie Vedder.