“The Coming of the Human One” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers 3/25/2018

“The Coming of the Human One” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on March 25th, 2018.  (Readings for Palm Sunday-B: Mark 11:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2,19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:15-47)

 “Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:19-24)

Sometimes we read things without ever really stopping to think about them. In this case, what are the gates of righteousness and how do they relate to the stone that the builder’s rejected?

You can find the phrase “the stone the builder’s rejected” written over the front door way to this chapel.  This text is the guiding vision for how this chapel was built using building materials judged not worthy of new construction and built by African American young men who are so often rejected in our society.  It’s a text that captures so much of what the beloved community is to be about: a gateway to salvation, a gateway to people knowing themselves and others as beloved, a gateway to people helping bring about the reign of love here on earth. Today we see this text come to life in all its fullness.

Palm Sunday is the day where we see clearly how different Jesus was then so many religious teachers, miracle workers, and church leaders. Jesus could have stayed a religious teacher and built up a group of disciples who learned and practiced his teachings. Instead he chooses to confront the powers of domination, embodied in the religious-military state, to reveal them for who and what they are —knowing that his actions will likely result in his own death.

Today, the last Sunday of Lent, we see the clear difference between the self-denial the church so often likes to hold up as the way of Jesus and the way of the cross.  Practices of self-denial can be helpful, but notice that when we’re practicing them we’re still in control.  In many ways they are often about giving us more control.  I can live with less food, less sugar, less alcohol, less sleep.  But crucifixion is all about the risk of losing control, the risk of others gaining control over our bodies, our needs, our feelings.

There is a way in which choosing the way of the cross seems almost impossible for it goes against so much that is so important to us.  You can understand why churches would prefer to talk about self-denial.  People that practice self-denial can learn to be more loving, more kind, they may even be able to give more to the church!  But the way of the cross –that’s not likely to be in your institutional self-interest.   By definition it’s about something scandalous, something that seems shameful, something that provokes conflict.

Society honors those who are simply kind or charitable towards others.  But if you challenge injustice, if you challenge domination and exploitation, they are going to say vicious things about you—at least until your dead.  Go back and look at how most newspapers in our country were speaking of Martin Luther King in the year before he died as he was trying to challenge the economic caste system in this country through the Poor Peoples’ Campaign.  The nicer ones talked about him condescendingly like he had simply lost his mind or become a fool.    You poke a hornet’s nest like the Roman or American Empire and you are going to suffer real consequences.  You start to become successful in challenging the status quo and the powers that are profiting from the status quo will do all in their powers to shut you down–one way or the other.

Here I want to give a shout-out to the protests yesterday and the youth who are leading the way towards greater sanity around gun ownership.  For myself, I don’t think it’s the 2nd Amendment that’s the problem, it’s the fact that it’s been turned into an idol.   All the rights outlined in our constitution are a careful balancing of different rights.  For example, we freely accept that there are qualifications to our freedom to speech.  You cannot shout fire in a crowded movie theater.  You cannot say false things about people in a way that harms them. We regulate different kinds of hate speech.  But even though the second amendment speaks of a well “regulated” militia we have many people who interpret this to me that there can be no restrictions placed on gun ownership.  Now when people turn something into an idol—and you challenge that idol—they will feel like you are threatening their fundamental well-being. If we begin to be successful in having more sensible gun regulations—I suspect we will see some of the kinds of violent responses we saw when the idol of segregation was challenged.

Jesus actions today are one of the significant roots of the philosophy of non-violent resistance that Gandhi gleaned from the New Testament and that Martin Luther King came to understand through Gandhi, and that many parts of the world have now come to understand through the teachings of Martin Luther King.  It’s a philosophy that says that you must bring the inherent conflicts that underlie any domination system to the surface through actions that provoke a response.  It’s in the system’s response that the truth that has been hidden, or denied, is hopefully revealed for all to see.   The powers continually claim that their use of violence is always a response to violence, but because you do all this non-violently their violence is revealed for the evil that it is.   Through this whole process, the oppressed recover their humanity as they are no longer being controlled by the shame and humiliation which you feel when you cooperate with evil and your own oppression because you are afraid.   Far from being some kind of naïve willingness to be slaughtered, because non-violence helps resurrect conscience in the population at large, generally far fewer people are killed in non-violent struggles than are killed in even small wars.

This is what Jesus is about on this day.  While on the surface, it might appear Jesus and his disciples were simply engaged in some nice spontaneous religious procession (which is how the church often wants to portray it) this whole procession has been carefully planned and thought through.  Arrangements like having a donkey have been set up in advance.   It is timed to happen as large crowds are gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Celebrating that story of deliverance while living under military occupation and domination produced all sorts of tensions that frequently led to riots and even uprisings.  One this same day coming through another gate on the opposite side of the city the Roman Legion is having a strikingly different kind of procession– a large military parade— partly as a warning to the population about their need to keep their anger and frustration in check.

It’s in the midst of all this dramatic tension that Jesus acts out a messianic prophecy from Zechariah (9:9-12).  As seen in the response of the crowds, everyone recognized this prophecy which says:  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass.”  (When Kings approached a city with war on their minds they would ride on a horse, but if they were approaching in peace they would ride on a donkey.)  This prophecy goes on to speak of how God will act through this messiah to “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”  The Romans would have greeted this kind of message of an alternative empire, one built on peace not war, with about as much enthusiasm as Herod must have felt at the news of a new king being born.  The prophecy goes on to say: “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope: today I declare that I will restore to you double.”

This is not what you would call an innocuous text. When Jesus turns it into a kind of public art which engages all those who witness it—he’s clearly provoking a response. Romans and their proxies in the Temple-State would not allow this public witness to a different value system and so you know that from the time of this parade they must have been plotting for when and where they could capture and dispose of this threat.

By the way, we call our form of worship liturgies. Liturgy is a Latin word meaning “a public work done at a private cost.”  For example, in the Roman empire private citizens paid for and built public roads at their own expense.  This was called a liturgy.  This Palm Sunday liturgy that Jesus enacts was indeed a public good done at a private cost.

“Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

 This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:19-24)

So today we see Jesus enter through the gates of Jerusalem witnessing to a different value system and a different kind of social order, but what are the gates of righteousness and how are they related to the rejected stone? Today I want to suggest that those gates and the rejected stone are our humanity.

It seems to me the military-religious paradigm of domination is based on the premise that being human is a problem. It needs to be rejected. It needs to be overcome.   But Jesus shows us that this rejected humanity is the chief cornerstone on which the new heavens and the new earth are to be built.

Thus when Jesus enters that armed fortress city we call Jerusalem, simply as a vulnerable human being who comes in peace, without any army, without any power over others, he is fundamentally challenging the foundations of the military/religious state. He is revealing how our vulnerable humanity is the gateway through to being able to in right relationship, is the gateway through to being able to overthrow the domination system, is the gateway through to being able to able to release those the domination system holds as captives.  As the prophet Isaiah says: “Thus says Yahweh ‘Those captives to the mighty will be retaken; the prey of the strong will be rescued.’” (Isaiah 49:25)

Jesus has been talking about the way of the Human One. It is about loving and service—not power over others. It is about knowing God’s glory through sharing and caring—not  wealth or through putting ourselves above others.  It’s about letting ourselves be loved and helping others know themselves as beloved.  Now we see Jesus take this to a whole new level.

Today we see Jesus, the embodiment of the Human One, the embodiment of God’s beloved, confront the greatest power on earth, confront the greatest gods on earth, openly and joyfully.  Though our songs may sound triumphant they are not the triumph of military songs, they are the triumph of jubilant children, they are the song of truth and human dignity over the power of wealth and the wealth of power.

By approaching them non-violently and with songs of love, Jesus calls the powers to account in the way we hear Isaiah speak of today: “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting…who will contend with me—let us stand up together.”   Jesus forces the powers into a truth struggle they are not prepared for because their power is ultimately based on lies, denial, and coercion.

And here, those gates that Jesus is entering become not just the gates to Jerusalem, as the embodiment of the domination system, but also the gates to the domination system as it is embodied in us, the ways those systems have programed us to act and think and feel. Here it is not just the powers that Jesus won’t let off the hook, but we ourselves and all our stinking thinking about who we need to be and how we need to act in order to be successful, in order to be respected, in order to be effective. As our gates rise to open to the vision of the Human One, it is our captive souls that are freed.

As I look at our world, it is still clear to me Jesus’ vision of the Human One is still struggling to be born.  Humanity has made some significant progress in how women and children and the poor and the ill are viewed and treated, but we still have far too go.   We can see the vision of the Human One in so  much of our art and music and literature and what we proclaim in our various religious faiths, but at the same time humanity continues to hold onto the paradigm of domination as seen in the fact that at the end of the day the majority of all the discretionary  income our government receives through our taxes  still goes to our military, another huge percentage goes to incarcerate more people on earth than any other country,  and so much of our public and personal wealth goes to sustaining institutions that create and perpetuate elites and other institutions that keep people down.

In the midst of our divided humanity, Jesus comes to us who have been taught to deny, disconnect and disassociate ourselves from our humanity, because we are ashamed of it,  saying open the gates of your hearts and I will enter them and I will teach you how, through embracing your humanity, you can become a temple of the Holy Spirit and you can come to know the glory of being a child of the Most high, a co-creator of a new heavens and a new earths.

Like the disciples most of us don’t feel ready, but as Annie Dillard said:

There is no one but us.

There is no one to send,

Nor a clean hand

Nor a pure heart

on the face of the earth,

Nor in the earth

But only us…

…unfit, not yet ready,

Having each of us chosen wrongly,

Made a false start, failed,

Yielded to impulse

And the tangled comfort of pleasures,

And grown exhausted,

Unable to seek the thread,

Weak, and uninvolved.

But there is no one but us.

There has never been.

               (Excerpt from “No One But Us”  from her book Holy the Firm)

And so, ready or not, it’s time for us to go.  It’s time for us to follow, as Jesus leads us into all the world and in the process helps us to recover the fullness of our humanity and the life of our souls.

The domination systems that promise to save us, protect us, make us thrive, are what are keeping us from discovering, and recovering and living into the fullness of the incredible divine gift of being human.  As we enter this holy week, let us embrace the rejected stone  of our humanity and help give birth to the new earth and the new humanity struggling to be born and on this day cry out with the children and the stones themselves:  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”   For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

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