People Power! Mark 11:1-11

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
March 24, 2024

People Power!
Mark 11:1-11

In September of 2003, the Dalai Lama visited Washington, DC, and offered an address at the National Cathedral.  It was the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and, as I was living in DC at the time, I knew I needed to be there to hear him.  The sun was shining brilliantly, the sky was sparkling blue as I got off the metro. Walking toward the cathedral, the sidewalks began to be crowded with people – all heading the same direction, walking to hear the Dalai Lama.  When we reached the entrance to the grounds, I realized that the line to get into the cathedral stretched down the driveway, through the gate, and out to the street – then curved down the sidewalk and around the corner!  So, we kept going, walking another two blocks to join the end of the line.  Then, we waited, slowly winding our way along the tree-lined streets, standing in the dappled shade as we inched toward the sanctuary.  It took more than an hour to get onto the grounds of the cathedral, and by that time the nave was filled to capacity.  So as the organizers set up loudspeakers outside, we found a spot on the lawn, and sat down crisscross applesauce on the grass amidst the crowds of others to listen.  If I’m honest, I don’t remember much about what he said.  I had to strain to hear, to sort through his accent and the echo of the loudspeaker.  An article in the Post afterwards said that there were more than 3000 people sitting outside in overflow – what I remember is the hush that fell over the crowd that day –  it was as if together we held our breath and leaned in, just hungry for words of hope from this wise teacher.

At that time, the horror of the war on terror was just beginning to unfold.  The Bush administration was spinning the tale about yellowcake uranium that would become their justification, their fabricated justification for invading Iraq.  They’d just outed Valerie Plame.  I was 22 years old, simultaneously brimming with idealism and furious about the drumbeat for war that was reverberating in Washington at the time.  So I leaned in, we all did, listening so carefully, for a world leader to guide us on a path to peace.  We needed it.  I needed it.

Who have you joined a large crowd to see?  Who have you waited in a ridiculous line to hear, or stretched on tiptoes by the side of the road just to catch a glimpse of, to draw near to?  Politicians draw a crowd.  Some musicians do.  4.35 million people saw the Taylor Swift Eras Tour, that’s almost the entire population of Los Angeles.  They say you can hear the roar of the crowd by a red carpet from blocks away.  Fans flock to see the Ravens and the Orioles and the athletes who play professional and collegiate sports… all people and events that may require a bit of patience to witness.  The biggest crowds I’ve been in lately have been political demonstrations, the street theatre of protests and pride parades.

If you’ve been in a crowd like that, you know the tenor changes based on the message of its leadership.  The Dalai Lama, three thousand people sit quietly in the grass.  The Rally to Save America led some 2000 people to storm the US Capitol, wreak havoc and interrupt the certification of electoral votes.

I can’t help but wonder what the tenor of the crowd was that day in Jerusalem.  The city would have been overflowing with people, peasants who poured in from the countryside to celebrate Passover, to make their sacrifices in the temple.  Remember that Israel was an occupied land; there would’ve been a lot of Roman military presence for the festival, to keep order, to prevent a revolt.

But that doesn’t stop Jesus from continuing with his plan. Christ’s followers line the street down from the Mount of Olives, they wait for hours – no dappled shade here, they stand in the sun by the rocky road.  They wait, and shout and stand on tiptoes in the dust just to catch a glimpse of him.  Their hope nearly crackles in the air – Hope that Jesus would save the people from Rome, end their suffering, and rule as King over Israel.

When he finally comes into view… what must they have thought?  This?  This is our savior?  A man riding a donkey?  No saddle to sit on, just the draped fabric of a cloak?

We’re too far removed to realize this, we don’t have a good frame of reference, but people of that time would have known that Jesus is engaging in carefully calculated political theatre here.  This is a protest, one that pits the power of the people against the power of Rome.  When Roman generals returned from war, they would ride their chariots through the city gates with throngs of people cheering their return.  Prancing white horses led the marching army straight to the temple of their war god, where the general would make a sacrifice.  Ched Meyers points out that Jesus is entering Jerusalem as a conquering hero, a general returning from war.  Instead of a chariot, Jesus rides a donkey – evoking the promise of the prophet Zechariah, who predicts the savior of Israel will come on a colt.  Jesus has no crown of laurel on his head, but he will soon wear a crown of thorns.  Rome ruled through military power, oppressing the people through taxation and the threat of violence.  The kingdom Christ brings is different than that.  His is the way of peace, and solidarity.  The way of love – the only power that is stronger than hate, able to survive anything – even death.

Though they understand him to be their messiah, it’s clear that the crowds don’t fully understand who Christ is and what he came to do.  His ministry has offered healing, and wisdom, calling people to life abundant.  But we are schooled in the ways of death.  We believe in fire power, not people power; we bow to the rule of violence.  And so that is what many expected, and hoped he would bring: a violent uprising to overthrow their oppressors.  But Jesus and the drama of holy week teach us that God won’t swoop in to smite our enemies.  God will not singlehandedly undo wrongs wrought on the world, God needs our hands for that.  The divine is not a conquering hero.  God works in humble ways, sitting us down, criss-cross applesauce in the grass to break bread together, to share abundance, to hear words of peace even when we have to listen hard, even when we have to strain to hear them.

There are churches that call this day “palm and passion Sunday” – the idea being that we read all of the holy week texts today, so we don’t jump from the joy of the palm parade into the joy of the resurrection and miss all of the pain of Holy Week in between.  But we aren’t going to do that.  One, because I hope you’ll find a way to be part of our observation in the days ahead, gathering for a meal on Thursday, coming here to remember and hear again the story of the crucifixion on Friday, making space for prayer and reflection on Saturday, before we gather again in hope on Sunday.  But we’re not rehearsing the passion story today because we live in a good Friday world.  We don’t need to be reminded of the suffering around us, we feel it in our very bones.  130 dead at a concert on the other side of the world, in the nation of our sworn enemy, and still our hearts ache for those families, their community.  What we need to hold onto this holy week is God’s promise in Christ not to abandon us here, in the midst of our grief, stuck in the jaws of disillusionment and war.  But to face the reality of evil and sin and death with quiet courage, committed to walk the way of peace.  No matter what.

Thanks be to God.