Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Palm Sunday - April 1, 2012
I recently read a wonderful article in the magazine from my alma mater, Kalamazoo College in Michigan. K College has received a $23 million grant from the Arcus Foundation to endow a Center for Social Justice Leadership. The Center has both an academic focus and a leadership development focus. Its goal is to develop leaders whose primary leadership responsibility is to identify and create avenues toward social justice. For the first time since 1976, I wish I could do my college education over again. Imagine an undergraduate life dedicated to learning how to bring about cultural change toward justice. I’ve been tempted to make copies of the article and put it under the windshield wipers of all the cars in our next-door neighbor’s fraternity driveway. Here is a quote from the center’s executive director (Jaime Grant) that sums up the center’s purpose. “The old saying goes, give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Social justice leaders push on this proverb with another line of questions. Who owns these fish? Why don’t we all have access to them? Is eating fish sustainable? Who is this hungry man and what does he have to say about his situation? And where are the women? These are the questions that push.”
The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the more I am convinced that Jesus, when he decided to enter Jerusalem, made a strategic decision to ask the questions that push, the questions that provoke, the questions that reveal profound injustice disguised by acts of mercy. Up to that time, Jesus was wholeheartedly engaged in steps one and two of the fishing proverb – feeding his starving people and teaching them how to fish. He healed and preached and fed the embattled and socially isolated Jews. He taught them how to interpret the Word of God for themselves. He loved them, walked with them, and reassured them that God had not abandoned them. But until he actually could confront the origins of their suffering and isolation, he hadn’t fulfilled his mission, had he?
I’m often caught short when I hear pastors describe their justice work in feeding poor people, developing shelters for the homeless in their communities, providing drop-in centers for the mentally ill – all such important and needed programs. But they are not programs of justice. They are programs of mercy. God knows there is not enough mercy being shown to the least of our sisters and brothers in this nation so I am grateful for every act of mercy shown. But, you know the story of Father Helder Camara, the Brazilian Archbishop sometimes referred to as the Bishop to the slums? He is the one who famously said “When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a Communist.” All of us, including Jesus up to the point when he “turned his face toward Jerusalem” are saints of mercy when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter and warmth and medical care. It’s just that, we will never stem that tide until we, like Jesus, set our faces toward Jerusalem, Washington, Concord, Wall Street, Parkhurst, boardrooms, corner offices, suites, administrative offices, wherever are the seats of power.
Jerusalem was a large, sophisticated city. It was the center of power – Roman power and, what little there was of it, Jewish authority. Jesus came into Jerusalem recognizing that confrontation with Rome and with the authorities of his own faith would have to happen there. His entrance into Jerusalem brought Jesus into the center of the conflicts that turned his ministry to the step beyond mercy – it turned him directly into the arena where justice must be sought. Do you think Rome cared that Jesus went around feeding the poor, teaching them about their own faith, reassuring them of God’s presence and love? Do you think his ministry would have had nearly the traction it eventually gained if he just went about telling Jewish priests they were misinterpreting the law?
In the days after his arrival, Jesus visited the temple, turned over tables, chased the money-changers into the streets and held a mirror up to those who had failed to protect the temple’s sacredness. He told stories in which the bad guys were the Jewish priests. He cast a bright and unrelenting light on the practices of the leaders of his own beloved faith, revealing their profound, self-serving flaws. These were the events that galvanized the forces against him. He pushed the questions no one wanted to ask. He drew attention to the pathetic peace Jews had made with the Roman Guard. There were the scribes, jealous of his influence with common people and resentful of his independent interpretation of the Scriptures and of his criticism of their methods and their traditions, the Pharisees, stung by his relentless exposure of their weaknesses and failures, Herod Antipas, suspicious of his possible connection with the Zealots and John the Baptist, the Sadducees, equally suspicious and embarrassed to fury by his interference with temple worship. And over it all, there was Rome, confident in its power, its right of place, concerned with its own security, which was being challenged by this growing commotion among its Jewish subjects. Rome saw in Jesus someone who was stirring things up. He brought turmoil into the lives of those who were deeply invested in keeping things calm, both Jews and Romans. He was a lightning rod, subversive, counter-cultural, and very, very dangerous, to those who had power. You might say Jesus was provocative.
This is how Holy Week begins. We know Jesus was in Jerusalem longer than these few days before his arrest Thursday evening. He was jailed for a time. He was questioned by Jewish leaders. He was brought before Pilate. He was executed. The Christian Church has designated this week to thinking on all that happened by and against Jesus in Rome. Speaking personally, I don’t think this is nearly enough time to ponder and pray about what our Messiah did, and how he did it, and what it means I should be doing. But it’s a start. It’s a start.
May God guide our steps this week as we walk in our devotion to Jesus, to the centers of power and to the cross. Amen.