Message: "Self-evident Truths"
Scripture: Matthew 21:8-14
I’m thinking this 4th of July weekend
about the relationship between church and state, between faith and empire. 244 years ago, our founders signed the Declaration of Independence. It states the ideals on which America was born:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
On the one hand, these are the ultimate American values, but on the other hand, they have yet to be fully realized. Systemic racism has infected America from its beginning. The murder of George Floyd was another episode in an endless series of crimes against African American citizens.
Americans are now standing up in protest and calling for transformation. Perhaps we have turned a corner. Perhaps, as Michael Martin said, this time we actually can take hope.
But something else that has been troubling me these past few weeks, a violation of another self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence: Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. This is the whole basis of American democracy, and I would argue that when the people exercise their first amendment rights and petition their government for a redress of grievances, it is the sacred responsibility of our leaders to listen to the voice of the people. It may not be a legal obligation, but I believe our leaders have a moral obligation to listen to us, to hear our concerns, to engage with what we’re saying. They don’t have to agree, but there is an obligation to listen and to dialogue.
This doesn’t always happen; perhaps it rarely happens. It didn’t happen in the 1960’s, and it hasn’t happened in 2020, at least with this President. Some leaders have listened, but the President has closed his ears. He has responded with insults. He referred to protestors as “anarchists, agitators, looters, and lowlifes,” a direct quote. I don’t care what your politics are; whether you call people “deplorables” or call them “lowlifes” this is no way for American leaders to speak about American citizens.
But even more than what he said, I am troubled by what he did. I found myself at first unable to put my finger on exactly why I was feeling so upset. My spiritual practice, when I feel this way, is to journal, to write. As I started typing, as my words poured out onto the screen, I found my thoughts and feelings clustering around a surprising nucleating point: Matthew’s story of Palm Sunday, of all things.
I’m well aware: Palm Sunday was three months ago, but please bear with me, because when I get to the end of the story, you’ll hear why it has spoken to me and hopefully it will speak to you as well.
So Palm Sunday… it was the first day of the last week of Jesus’ life. It was also the beginning of Passover. Because Passover was a holiday that celebrated freedom, that celebrated God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery, it was a time when the apocalyptic passions of the people grew especially intense.
Israel in Jesus’ time was under Roman occupation. Many people considered that occupation as a travesty. If God is just and if God is all powerful, how long will God continue to tolerate this? Apocalypticism was the expectation that God was about to act. It could happen at any time: God would send the Messiah, to overturn the Empire, to restore God’s rule.
So at the Passover, with all these passions burning in people’s hearts, Jesus chooses to come to Jerusalem, into this volatile situation. You know the story: Jesus rides into the city on the back of a donkey. He is acting out what some thought to be a messianic prophecy (and Matthew quotes those verses from Zechariah). Jesus rides into the city, and the crowds lay palm branches on the road ahead of him (a literal green carpet). And, in Matthew, they cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” “Son of David” is a messianic title. The Palm Sunday crowd is literally welcoming their Messiah. This was a very public event, and you can be sure it did not escape the notice of those in high places.
Notice what happens next, another detail that’s unique to Matthew: Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, goes straight to the temple, and overturns the tables of the money changers. It didn’t happen this way in Mark; in Mark, he doesn’t overturn the tables until the next day. It didn’t happen this way in Luke; in Luke, Jesus didn’t overturn the tables at all.
But in Matthew, we have this one continuous sweep of action: Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and goes to the temple, and enters the Temple courtyard,
and drives out the buyers and sellers, and overturns the tables of the money changers. So he’s got a problem with the money changers. Why? Because for Jesus, it was vivid evidence of collaboration with the evil, hated empire.
Remember when Jesus was asked, “Is it legal to pay taxes to Caesar?” He says, “Show me a coin. Whose face is on it?” “Caesar’s face,” they say. “Then render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but unto God what is God’s.”
Jesus implied it’s perfectly OK to use Roman coins for secular purposes, but when you use Roman coins for sacred purposes, like using a coin with Caesar’s face to buy a dove to sacrifice on the temple altar, that makes the sacrifice unclean.
So the Temple and the Empire made an ingenious accommodation. They minted special Temple coins, and money changers would exchange your Roman coins for temple coins… so if you used temple coins to purchase a dove for your sacrifice, that made it all kosher, in the minds of some. But to those who saw the Roman occupation as a travesty, it was a legal fiction, a coverup of an unholy accommodation with Empire.
So this is what Palm Sunday is all about in Matthew. It’s about overturning the tables. It’s about this revolutionary act of protest. It’s about Jesus’ dramatic prophetic statement.
This is what Jesus does on Palm Sunday, and it seals his fate. Let me put this in a larger Matthean context: This conflict between Jesus and empire has been going on in the gospel of Matthew from the very beginning. The Empire has targeted Jesus from his birth. Remember Matthew’s Epiphany story, how when King Herod hears that a child has been born King of the Jews (Messiah), he sends soldiers to find the baby and put him to death. Jesus escaped, for the time, but now the time has come. In this one kairotic moment — Jesus overturning the tables — he seals his fate.
And one more interesting detail that’s unique to Matthew’s Palm Sunday story: After overturning the tables, after driving out the buyers and the sellers, it says… the blind and the lame come to Jesus, And there in the temple courtyard, he healed them.
In other words, not only did Jesus cleanse the Temple by driving out the money changers, he also reclaims the temple as Holy Ground, a place where the lame can walk again and the blind can see again, signs that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
So, what happens next? With apologies to George Lucas, the Empire strikes back.
By the end of the week, Jesus will have been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put on trial before Pontius Pilate, convicted of sedition against Rome, nailed onto a cross, and left hanging on that cross until the breath left his body and he died.
And after the Empire took care of their nasty business, the money changers came back, and the accommodation between temple and empire resumed.
The Empire strikes back.
But think about it, the Empire has never stopped striking back. It’s the very nature of Empire to lust after wealth and control, to do whatever they needed to do to hold onto that control no matter the cost in human life and dignity.
The Empire strikes back.
The date — Monday afternoon, June the first, 2020 The place — the courtyard in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
There in that courtyard, there on that Holy Ground on that holy day…
the church was being the church, the church was doing ministry, the church was witnessing for justice, the church was caring for the needs of people, distributing bottles of water, handing out granola bars, offering first aid — healing — to any with need. Episcopal priests and Episcopal laity were doing ministry in the courtyard, on the holy ground of their Episcopal church.
And the Empire strikes back.
Police in full riot gear enter Lafayette Square, riding horses into the crowd, driving people out of their park, spraying tear gas, firing rubber bullets, intimidating with a dominating show of force, loud, noisy helicopters hovering over the heads of the people.
And the police in full riot gear clear the plaza in front of St. John’s church, driving away clergy and laity from the courtyard of their own church.
And when the courtyard had been cleared, the Emperor himself marched onto the scene, guarded by a phalanx of armed personnel against a crowd no longer there. He headed straight to the church’s courtyard. He was handed a Holy Bible. He lifted it above his head. A photograph was taken. The photo op was concluded. And he left the church, departed the public square and retreated behind the gates of his heavily guarded fortress.
This is the event that upset me so profoundly to the extent that I couldn’t fully comprehend at first what was making me so angry.
Now I think I understand. It was a travesty.
It was Palm Sunday in reverse.
It was the Empire striking back,
deaf to the witness of people who seek justice and love kindness, blind to the self-evident truths on which America is built, that
all men and women are created equal, all men and women, no matter their race or creed, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation or class, all human beings are children of God, endowed by their Creator with the same unalienable rights, to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness, to the freedom to live our lives in peace and security, to the right to be heard, to the right to be respected.
May God have mercy.
Special thanks to... Preacher: Rev. David Ourisman
Contributors: Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Rev. Jerry Asheim, Rev. Carletta Aston, Cathryn Bruno, Sarah Bruno, Annette Cayot, Judy Cayot, Chelsea Eckenrode, Aaron Elliott, Katie Johnson, Chris Poston, Willa Seldon
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
And all who participate by watching from home!