"A PROCESSION FOR FOOLS"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Palm Sunday - March 29, 1999
Text: Luke 19:28-38
There are, within the scriptures, two kinds of fools. First of all there are the fools we all know of in every day language: the people who just don't quite have a grasp of reality, those who might be morally deviant, socially insensitive or spiritually irresponsible, people whom we would call idiots or fools (although Jesus warns us never to call anyone a fool.) Within the scriptures there are the fools, as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 14, who say in their hearts "there is no God." The fool who just doesn't want to grasp reality or that which is right or self-evident. Even religious people are depicted as foolish in the negative sense of the word in the scriptures.
This was brought home to me in a story in a magazine from Kentucky. It was the story of a young woman who goes to her Presbyterian minister and says, "Reverend, my dog has just died and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind performing a funeral for him." The minister thought about it for a second and said, "I'm sorry but we don't do that kind of thing in the Presbyterian Church. Have you tried going to the Baptist Church?" Then she said, "I could do that Reverend, but before I do, could you give me some advice? Should I pay the minister for performing this service in the Baptist Church $500, $800, or $1000?" The minister said, "Just a minute now! You didn't tell me that the dog was a Presbyterian too!" Even the most religious can be expedient.
That's the underside of foolishness. But there is also a positive side to foolishness. The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, talked about foolishness in contrast to the wisdom of the world. He asks the questions, " Where are your great minds, where are the philosophers of this age? Has not God made the foolish things of this world wise and the wise things of this world foolish?" Then he says, "God chose the foolishness of this world to shame the wise and God chose the weak to shame the strong." The Apostle Paul turns this word 'fool' upside down. It is a word in Greek moros and it means a 'fool' but in the positive sense. Certainly the way in which Paul uses it, 'the fool for God,' 'the fool for Christ.' Not the fool in the negative sense. Paul turns on its head all the understandings that we might have of foolishness.
I do not know whether Zechariah had this in mind some 500 years earlier when he wrote the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem. But certainly those who gathered and received this great message of Jesus riding into Jerusalem thought this. They said, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Here comes your King, just and endowed with salvation, riding humbly on a donkey." The moment on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem he did so as a fool - a fool in the Pauline sense of the word, the positive sense of the word. For he turned upside down all the world's images of what is wise and what is foolish. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day all four gospels paint a wonderful picture of what I call the Procession For Fools. (Fools in the positive sense.)
Look at the story. People who saw and witnessed this great moment of Jesus riding into Jerusalem thought in many ways that he was crazy, a fool. Here was a man who was being echoed as a king but coming into a city that was controlled by the power of Imperial Rome. Here was a man who was coming in the name of the Lord and yet he was the Messiah contrary to all the anticipated views of what a messiah would be like. Here was a man who was eccentric, an idealist, a man who was followed by deviants, prostitutes, outcasts and Galilean. Here was a man who had no social standing; here was a man who owned no piece of land. Here was a man who was riding in on a coronation with people throwing down palm branches. How absolutely pathetic and absurd, they must have thought.
To those who were his followers it was the exact opposite. To those who were his followers they sang, "Hosanna," which means "pray, save us." Those who lined the streets understood the wisdom of what was going on. They saw, in this Jesus who was arriving, the triumphant Messiah. They sang, "Hosanna!" They took palm branches which were normally reserved for the feast of Tabernacles and God's saving power to show that they believed that Salvation was riding into Jerusalem. They said, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord." Yet they knew this man was homeless, didn't own property, a man who said that he had no place to lay his head. But they understood that when Jesus of Nazareth came into Jerusalem he was coming as the King and Messiah and Saviour of the city and the people. Here was a man who came with the greatest claim and people made great claims about him. He knew the Father and the love of God. Here was a man who could turn water into wine and transform the lives of lepers and the blind.
As the theologian P.T. Forsythe said, "If these claims had been made by any other man it would have been egoism carried to the point of imperial megalomania. But in Jesus Christ it was performed in humility." In Jesus Christ it was the coming of the King as a servant. In Jesus Christ it was the coming not in power but in love. Those people who lined the streets knew exactly who he was. You can't look at Jesus Christ from the outside and understand Palm Sunday. You can't just analyse it and cut it to shreds and try and figure out what it means. The only way you can understand Palm Sunday is to be one of the fools who lined the streets and see it through the eyes of faith and then you understand. You can see in this man coming in on a donkey in the most pathetic of ways that here is the wisdom of God that confronts the foolishness of the world at the point of its disbelief.
This past week I was sitting in a bus station waiting for my cousins to arrive and had consumed copious amounts of coffee and donuts and didn't know what to do with my time so thought I had better read. I picked up NewsWeek Magazine and on the front cover is the title 2000 Years of Jesus and I was deeply moved by one passage in this article. It talks about how this procession of fools turns upside down the world in which we live.
The cross of Jesus Christ signified more than Christ's victory over death. It also symbolised an inversion of accepted norms. Suffering was noble rather than merely pathetic when accepted in the imitation of the crucified Christ. Forgiveness of one's enemies became the sign of the true Christian, more radically Jesus taught that in the kingdom of God the last will be first and the first last. In the New Testament you find Jesus more among the beggars than the rulers, the sick than the healthy, the women and children than the conquerers, the prostitutes and lepers than the holy people. Christianity also challenged prevailing notions of virtue. Where Aristotle had touted prudence, justice, courage, temperance as the virtues proper to the good life, Jesus emphasised the blessedness of humility, patience and peace making. Where the Buddha taught compassion as an attitude of the enlightened, Jesus demands 'in truth I tell you insofar as you did this to one of the least of these my brothers you have done it to me.'
Those who have been the followers of Jesus Christ have in the wisdom of the cross turned the wisdom of the world over and have cared for those who are often outside the realm of religion by drawing them in as fools for Christ's sake.
So in this great moment when those people lined the streets and received Jesus of Nazareth for who he was, I ask you this day, "What kind of foolishness did Jesus teach?" I would like to illiterate the four letters of the word fool, all of which as a gentleman pointed out to me this morning after the 9:30 service, are also in the word 'follow.' If you follow the fool......
The first of these is the word Forgiveness. Jesus entered a world that was often barbaric and slaughtered life, that had the imposition of imperial Roman rule. If you think that it was fairly benign, think again. Because the Palestinians were troublesome, this was a regime that was powerful and deadly and put to death (as in Jesus' case) those it didn't like. This was a society where the religious rulers, not the Jewish people, took the minutae of the law to maintain their own power and oppress their own people into guilt and subservience. In the midst of all this, Jesus of Nazareth rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and does so proclaiming a message of forgiveness. He said things like, "Forgive your enemies, forgive those who persecute you." "Before you come into the temple to make your offering go and put right your relationships with those whom you have wronged or who have wronged you." This is the centre of our faith, the message of divine forgiveness through Jesus Christ. He is riding on to a cross, the ultimate symbol that says 'here I am.' This is forgiveness.
This forgiveness comes alive not only in a procession 2000 years ago but right here and now. This past week I was invited to go to the Survivors' Monument. It is currently under construction and will probably be made public in the year 2000. In the midst of this is the survivors who have suffered sexual abuse in their lives. Those who, as children and youth, were abused by parents or family members. It is one of the most moving things I have seen in years. Many taking part in the art of creating this monument are those who have gone through the suffering themselves. They are putting a hand print in plaster and then it is being bronzed and every survivor of child abuse has his hand imprinted on this monument. Around the hands there is art work, sometimes it's just one simple thing or many different things, all to symbolise the healing that these people have experienced. There was one that struck me particularly: around it was the phrase 'the truth shall set you free.' There were the symbols of a dove, an anchor and a cross. This person who had been abused had had the power to find forgiveness in her heart. Through the cross this truth had set her free.
I do believe that this power of forgiveness is exactly what Jerusalem needed when Jesus came in and the power to forgive was what was needed amongst the people and it has been for 2000 years! That is the why people still receive Jesus Christ with "Hosannas, loud Hosannas!" When you look at the wretched things that are going on in Kosovo, when you look at the ethnic and religious divisions that are taking place, sometimes in the name of Jesus Christ, we know that there is only one solution. Enemies have to sit down and forgive one another for some have in their hearts animosity that goes back 800 years. That's how long the lingering power of anger can sit in the heart. Never mind one generation! The Prince of Peace comes riding in to this world as he did to that world with exactly the same message. Hear this Kosovo! Hear this Serbia! Hear this NATO! Hear it everyone. Forgiveness is at the heart of reconciliation of people.
Jesus also came to bring Obedience. Obedience was being demanded from without. Rome demanded obedience to the emperor, the religious leaders demanded obedience to their own particular take on the law. Jesus comes into the midst of this Jerusalem and he does not look at the outside of peoples' lives; he looks at the inside and says, "If you want to live a life of obedience, follow me. I will show you obedience even to the point of a cross." This is what it means to obey God. It means to follow Christ. That changes not the outside as the wisdom of humanity does, but the inside, where the wisdom of God is in the heart.
Jesus also came to claim another thing: Ownership. When he came down the streets of Jerusalem he was claiming the city back for God. He was saying to all the powers, "This is the humility of God, this is the nature of God. This is how God does things in the most humble of ways. This is where you belong. This is where the ordinary people who are on the outs of religion and have no access to power could be at home."
Many years ago, the University of Cape Town had a programme which helped people who were in the poor black and rural areas. Medical students helped people in medicine, law students in law, and sociologists in social work. I was a political scientist and they asked me to give legal advice to people. That was frightening! I sat down with one woman from a community just outside of Cape Town. She had been evicted from her home because she couldn't pay her rent and she didn't know where to turn. The problem was that because she no longer had an address she couldn't get any of the necessary support. That is one of the revolving problems that homeless people feel all the time. I said to her, "Is there no place that you can put down as your home? Somewhere that you could call home?" She sat thinking and said, "I have no home." I left her and later she returned and said, "Yes I do have a home." She wrote on a piece of paper, Athlone Presbyterian Church. She said, "Now that's a place where I know I'm accepted." For two thousand years the church of Jesus Christ, when it has been obedient, has given a place for people to know the love and grace and power and forgiveness of God. A home!
The one last letter is L. We all know it stands for Love. The people who lined the streets knew who was coming to Jerusalem. They knew the affirming love of God in this man. When the world in that time judged people by groups or by religion or ethnicity or access to power, Jesus of Nazareth lifted up the individual and gave them a place and affirmed that place in the world. When life was cheap and people were put to death on a cross, when wars were fought and numbers tallied and nobody cared about the names, Jesus of Nazareth took the lame and the blind in his hands and healed them. That is love. That is why the people sang, "Hosannas!" That is why you and I should sing, "Hosanna!" We might be fools in the world's eyes but in the eyes of God we know where wisdom lies. Amen.