Rev. Teri Peterson
Cheerleaders and Naysayers
24 March 2013, Palm Sunday C
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Many of us have spent this past week trying to see the world through different lenses—trying to see what God is doing in our midst. The prophet asked us “do you not perceive it?” and sometimes our answer has been “no”—but we keep trying. We’ve made lists of things for which we are grateful, we’ve tried to keep our eyes open to new things, we’ve prayed for open hearts and open minds. We’ve met together in parishes and as leadership teams, and looked intently at our church and our world trying to see what God sees.
And now we come to this day, to a procession that looks to us for all the world like a parade of joy and excitement, the beginning of something big. Even though we know how this story is going to turn out, we find ourselves lining the streets of Jerusalem, waving branches and cheering like children, shouting for Jesus to finally become the king we’ve always wanted. Come in! Take over! Make life better!
In Jesus’ day, the Messiah was expected to be a warrior king, who would use his power to oust the Romans and restore the rightful way of things. He would cleanse the nation of corruption and set them back on the right track. He would be the one who took the country back.
But even as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on his colt, Pilate, symbol of all that is wrong with the world, accompanied by a legion of the formidable Roman army, comes sweeping into the city, ready to keep the peace for Passover—by any means necessary. When the most powerful military in the world takes up residence in your city, it’s probably a bad time to stage a protest that involves words like “king” and “peace.” Or it’s a very good time, depending on your perspective.
And, as we learned last week, it’s all about perspective!
There are of course plenty of cheerleaders in this crowd following Jesus. Luke tells us there’s a multitude of disciples—so probably not just 12, but a bunch. It’s likely the women who’ve been so faithful throughout Jesus’ ministry were there, and probably some townspeople, and who knows how many others. Seeing a man riding a colt would likely bring people out of their houses too, if for nothing else than the sheer novelty factor. Of course, novelty wears off fast when you recognize the symbolism that’s in front of you.
Since every Jewish boy learns the scriptures backward and forward, seeing a rabbi on the back of a donkey, with people shouting “Hosanna!” or “king!” or “peace!” all around him would instantly call up the prophets. Make no mistake: this is a carefully planned event on Jesus’ part. He’s staging a protest and wants to make sure everyone understands what is happening: that he is proclaiming himself to be the fulfillment of the scriptures, in opposition to the parade of powers on the other side of the city—all without ever saying a word himself.
No wonder there are so many cheerleaders in the crowd.
And no wonder the naysayers came out of the woodwork so fast.
The Pharisees, and others with a lot invested in the status quo, got the message right away. Their ability to maintain their power depends on their ability to stay in bed with the Roman governor and his puppet king, so they’re not amused by this display. “Tell them to be quiet!” they ask Jesus. Or maybe they even order him. Or maybe they plead. “Teacher—order them to stop!!” It’s dangerous enough to be a part of a crowd these days, but to be part of a crowd openly committing treason is a whole new level of danger. This kind of parade could bring the sword of Rome down on the whole population, not just those involved in it.
But Jesus knows there’s no stopping this news. Even if the disciples would shush, the very stones of the city would pick up their cry for justice, for peace, for righteousness, for hope.
And here is where the story’s deep irony becomes apparent. Because we know what is coming. We know that in just a few days, the disciples will in fact stop their praising and fall silent. Both the cheerleaders and the naysayers will disappear, leaving the One who called them to face the powers of this world by himself.
The way that violence works is, in part, by silencing. That was never more true than in the act of crucifixion—a torture designed to be so shameful that the one facing it would be left to decompose and his family would never speak of him again. Crosses lined the roads of the Roman Empire, testament to the power of violence.
But Jesus refuses to give violence that power. Even if everyone else’s voice is cut off, God’s will still speak—through stones if necessary. And on Friday, when this story comes to what seems to be an end, Jesus will not suffer silently. He won’t be a Messiah who breaks the power of the Empire with a sword—he will be a Messiah who breaks the power of the empire with a Word.
He will speak from the cross, reminding those who witness its horrors that he is a human being, beloved of God, not an object to be cast aside. It is so easy for us to dehumanize others, even Jesus, to make them into things we can play with or break or idolize—but Jesus refuses to be an object, no matter how convenient it might be for us.
Jesus will speak from the cross, insisting that those who use violence do not understand what they are doing—because this time it won’t work. It will be different. The powers of this world can never win, because we insist on using flawed tools. And we deceive ourselves if we insist that we would never do this. The reality is that we are constantly complicit in a system that would be just as quick to torture and kill the Son of God today as it was 2,000 years ago, because we continue to believe that violence can save us—or even, that violence has saved us. We continue to believe that our way is better than God’s way. We continue to believe that loving our enemies is impossible, that God belongs in the church building and nowhere else, that the goal of life is to have the most, no matter the cost.
Jesus will speak from the cross, forgiving the people even as he condemns the horror. Though even his cheerleaders will be nowhere to be found and his naysayers will be congratulating themselves at a distance—still we, who are both, will hear those words and wonder about God’s new thing.
And when there’s nothing left, Jesus will speak from the cross, proclaiming that God’s love has the final word…and when even he falls silent, the stones will cry out, shaking and breaking and waving their own branches and making the point: there is no stopping God.
We stand on the cusp of the Holiest of weeks. This is one of the few times when we so blatantly remind ourselves that the line between good and evil, between cheerleader and naysayer, between disciple and Pharisee, runs right down the center of every human heart. And ultimately, we all fall silent, because Jesus did not call us to be cheerleaders or naysayers, but disciples who live and speak good news in the midst of the world, ambassadors for God’s kingdom.
May the stones pick up the song until we can sing it again.