Palm Sunday, we must remember, was actually the first day of the work week after the Sabbath. Jesus had rested on the Sabbath in a small village on the East Side of the Mount of Olives. On Sunday the first day of the week he started his march along with a crowd of followers and stopped in the village of Bethphage long enough to borrow a donkey and catch the attention of the thousands of Passover pilgrims, who were camped out on the slopes of the Mountain. His followers waved palm fronds and some even placed their cloaks in the road as they shouted, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Now in Sunday School I was always taught that Jesus meek and mild rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. But if we remember Israel’s history, Kings were anointed and proclaimed at the brook Kidron in the Valley at the base of the Mount of Olives. Jesus’ entering into Jerusalem in this way was a politically provocative act. At the same time he was leading his parade of peasants into the Eastern most gate of the City, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was leading a squadron of cavalry through the Western most gate of the City to reinforce the garrison for the Passover celebration.
Jesus not only led this march of resistance against the foreign occupying power – Imperial Rome – his first act after entering Jerusalem was to go to the Temple and over turn the tables of the money changers. The Temple was part of a conspiracy with wealthy members of the priestly class to loan money to peasants with their land as security, and then when they could not pay, foreclose and push the peasants off their land. The record of debts was kept in the temple, and when the zealots took over the Temple precincts in 68 AD, the first thing they did was to burn all of the debt records. So on this first Palm Sunday, Jesus was leading the resistance to the Roman occupation, to the Priestly ruling class who colluded with the Romans, and to the money lenders who were squeezing the peasants off of their land. Is it any wonder Jesus was popular with the crowds? And his popularity with the crowd explains why the Temple authorities did not attempt to arrest him until they could do so in the middle of the night in secret.
Now given the Jesus meek and mild image we were taught in Sunday School it may be hard to imagine him leading the resistance against both the civil and the religious authorities. He was advocating non-violent resistance and civil disobedience like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the 20th Century. Like Dr. King Jesus was killed in the effort, and like Dr. King, Jesus’ memory inspired a non-violent movement, indeed a faith, that continued to challenge the Roman Empire until Emperor Constantine co-opted the Church in the 4th Century of the Common Era.
The reason I lift up Jesus as the leader of a resistance movement this Palm Sunday is because we in America are faced with a similar challenge in our nation today. The Trump administration appeals to the dark side of our American character: fear of others who are not white or Christian, pandering to the rich, the 1%, gutting our social safety net for the poor, disparaging people of color, and calling developing nations “shithole countries.” Our nation has seen an incredible rise in the number of hate crimes, attacks on mosques, synagogues and African American churches. The alt-right marchers in Charlottesville were chanting: “The Jews will not replace us.” Here in Huntsville Temple B’Nai Sholom’s preschool – the PRESCHOOL – had a bomb threat. Every Friday night, the synagogue hires policemen to stand watch outside of the Temple while the congregation worships behind locked doors — right here in Huntsville. White Supremacy and anti-Semitism are alive and well in our nation and here in Alabama.
Not content with restricting legal immigration, Donald Trump has fired most of the top leadership in the Department of Homeland security because he wants Immigration and Customs Enforcement once again to unlawfully separate the families of asylum seekers at the border. Ignore the law, ignore the courts, double down on brown people who seek refuge in this country from chaos and murder after cutting off aid to the very countries these refugees are fleeing – it’s just pure unadulterated meanness. Our own Roland Edwards can testify to what is going on in Honduras.
Oh Bob, some will say, you are criticizing the President . That is politics from the pulpit. Well, leading the resistance against inhumane and lawless government actions against refugees that are motivated by white supremacy lies is no more political than Jesus leading a Parade into Jerusalem in resistance to the Roman occupation on Palm Sunday. This morning after the worship service we have an opportunity to listen to representatives of the Etowah Visitation Project who are organizing people to visit people who are being held in detention in the Etowah County jail, sometimes indefinitely, before they can receive a review of their petitions for asylum. The Etowah County jail is the facility in Alabama designated by ICE to hold immigrants awaiting processing. The Visitation Project seeks to visit over three-hundred detainees to provide them with hope and human contact, and to distribute toiletries, snacks and other items these people need. ICE pays Etowah County for the housing and feeding of the detainees, but the Sheriff of Etowah County has personally pocketed 1.5 million dollars of the inmates’ food money. The Visitation Project advocates using some of the money ICE provides for the benefit of the detainees, not the Sherriff’s pockets. They are also advocating granting of asylum status to many of the detainees, detainees who have fled their homelands because they were threatened with murder.
The work of the Etowah Visitation Project is not political, it is humanitarian, in the best tradition of the followers of Jesus: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me, and I was in prison and you visited me.”
Also, I thought we had finally settled the question of opposing white supremacy. If opposing racism is political, then I guess if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to be political. I want to remind you of the witness of our founding Pastor, Ray Berry. Ray had been the room mate of Andrew Young at Hartford Seminary Foundation. After graduation Ray Berry became the founding Pastor of the United Church of Huntsville, while Andrew Young became Martin Luther King’s chief lieutenant. One day in 1965 Ray received a telephone call from his old roommate, “We need you in Selma, Ray.” So Ray went to march beside his old friend Andrew. Another person who was in that march is here with us today – Frank Levy. Frank drove down from Chicago with his Rabbi to demonstrate for racial justice and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. I am hoping the Diaconate will invite Frank to fill the pulpit during this interim time to share with you his work with Rabbi Rami Shapiro and the One River Foundation, The One River Foundation works to establish groups that meet for interfaith dialogue. Some of you may remember we studied Rabbi Shapiro’s book Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent.
In retrospect, I thought the fight against white supremacy and for civil rights and voting rights was a battle already fought, already won. Frank never gets tired of reminding me how naïve I am. Perhaps racism and human rights are perennial struggles we must face anew in each generation. I believe, on this Palm Sunday, Jesus summons us to resist hatred and oppression. That is why I have chosen William Sloane Coffin’s favorite hymn for our closing song: “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
Verse 1: Once to every man and nation, Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the Choice goes by forever, ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Verse 2: Then to side with truth is noble, When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue Of the faith they had denied.
Verse 3: By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth.
Verse 4: Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.
This is the time and the hour, when God calls upon those of us who want to follow Jesus to make a decision. We are called upon to resist – to oppose – the poison of white supremacy and just plain old meanness. “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in prison and you visited me. Be agents of God’s love.