Palm Sunday, 2018, And Those Kids

(Editor’s Note: This is a sermon given at North Congregational UCC, in New Hartford, CT)

Wow. I was prepared to describe Palm Sunday to you from the text. I was prepared to explain the different versions in the four gospels, the subtle differences between John’s gospel and Mark’s gospel, both of which were optional texts for this morning. I thought I might add in the versions from Matthew and Luke just for good measure. I thought I might talk about Jesus and revolution, or about Jesus being allowed one good day for all his hard work. I thought I might prepare you for what’s coming later in the week religiously, in Jesus’ day. I expected I would do all of this just to give you a sense of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  And sure enough, I will do all of those things in this service, and this particular part of it. But you have already witnessed Palm Sunday. You have already gotten a sense of Palm Sunday. It’s no longer head knowledge or book knowledge, nor is it “street smarts” and the primal reaction that goes along with them.

If you watched the news yesterday, if you watched any of the protests on TV yesterday, if you went to any of the protests yesterday, you have experienced Palm Sunday. You know, in 2018 America, what it was like to be in Jerusalem in 33A.D. The same Spirit that caused one caused the other. Let me explain. It doesn’t matter what your politics are. It doesn’t matter what your thoughts are, nor does it matter whether you’re on the right side of history. What happened when ¾  of a full million people appear and are united is a force to be reckoned with. It just is. When Martin Luther King held a rally on the mall in 1963 (?), everyone knew that that moment had come. People are still fighting it today, but that moment came… and it changed everything. When, last year, the Women’s March happened, again, everybody knew that the moment had come and that things would never be the same.

If we go back to the Civil Right movement, we can see that it has brought about change. According to a recent study, Overall, nonwhites (including blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans) make up 19% of the current Congress. By comparison, nonwhite Hispanics and other racial minorities make up 38% of the nation’s population.  Now, that sounds pretty pathetic. But prior to 1963, there were probably zero percent minorities.

Minorities, however, account for 20 of 59 new members (34%) of the House and Senate. This represents a notable jump over the 114th Congress, when just 11 of 71 new members (15%) were a racial or ethnic minority and the Senate had no newly elected minority members. This year, three freshman senators are a racial or ethnic minority, along with 17 new members of the House.

If we look at the women’s movement, For the first 150 or so years of our country. We had ZERO women in congress – House or Senate — Until 1917, when Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first. Now, in 2018, There 105  women hold seats in the United States Congress, 22 women in the United States Senate, and 83 women in the United States House of Representatives.

In the 2018 midterm election coming up, twice as many women are running as were running just two years ago.

At least 431 female candidates are running or are likely to run for the House, compared to 212 in February 2016, according to NPR. In Senate races, 50 women are running or are likely to run, compared to 25 in 2016

Their moment has come. This will be, according to an article I read, the 5th wave of women attempting to get into Congress.

So yesterday, when all of those people marched on the nation’s capital and marched on any number of state capitals, a moment had come. What was once unthinkable is now … thinkable. And once it’s thinkable, it becomes possible. Gun control, of one form or another, will become the law of the land, maybe not now, maybe not in the near future – but gun control will come. There are at least a million people who say so, and – of them – some of them will take their place as leaders in our government, and gun control will happen.

Now, back to the original Palm Sunday story and why I said what I said about yesterday… Yesterday, the world stood on its head in more ways than one. For example, silence spoke louder than words. Yesterday, with an estimated 800,000 people in front of her, Emma Rodriguez  said absolutely nothing for 6 minutes. If you know anything about kids at all, you know that it’s hard to get silence in a room full of them, for 6 minutes! This was a crowd estimated at 800,000 people. In an America that’s getting increasingly busy and distracted, yes, the crowd’s anxiety broke in a couple of times, not sure what to do. But it was quelled. And in six minutes of non-speaking, she had the same impact today that Martin Luther King had at his rally 55 years ago. You know the phrase, “If these were silent, even the rocks would begin to sing”? That is what happened yesterday. Just as it had when the women’s march came, and whatever happened when Stonewall happened, and King’s march on Washington. They are all moments in time when the previously voiceless believed in themselves enough to speak The Truth as they felt it. And in their spontaneity, they all spoke as one.  Part of what makes Palm Sunday spectacular is that there were no organizers, per se. The text says that “when people heard Jesus was going to be in town for Passover (“the feast” in the text), they came out and took what they could. Tree branches, coats, etc. Palm Sunday just happened. The disciples might have told people Jesus was coming, but they didn’t tell them that it was important that he was there, and they didn’t tell the crowds what to say. They knew that this man who had listened to them, who healed them, who taught them a new way to live was “He who comes in the name of the Lord!” And to that, they said. “Hallelujah!”.  The interest, the zeitgeist, the Spirit of the times was already there, so when they heard, they knew where they wanted to be. It is the same way that news spread around the Women’s March. People were getting on busses the minute they heard about it. Yes, there was co-ordination, but the crowd was never in doubt. The size of it far surpassed anyone’s expectation, and the crowds in each statehouse were representative of the same Spirit. Women’s speech, oppressed, or repressed or suppressed before this was louder than can be imagined. They had had enough, and with something like a giant “sigh”, they appeared, never to go into the woodwork again. When someone tried to pick on them about the …um, hats, because they were “probably manufactured in China, it became apparent they didn’t understand. All those hats were hand-made by the women who were there.

No matter whether you supported the movement or didn’t, you had to take notice of it. That same thing was true as Jesus rode through the gates of Jerusalem. Whether people disagreed theologically, like the scribes, Pharisees and Saducees, or felt like threatening Jesus with  political violence, like the Roman Occupation Army, you couldn’t help but know what was happening. Victor Hugo is quoted as saying, “There is nothing so powerful than an idea whose time has come”. The idea that gun violence has to end – its time has come.

Now, if we look at the different versions in the Gospels about Jesus’ march into Jerusalem, you can see that no one knew what to make of the energy of the day. This morning’s text says that Jesus’ disciples took a donkey for him to ride on. That’s in John. In Mark, the disciples take a horse/colt. In Matthew, as my professor used to say, we have “Jesus the trick rider, who rides both a donkey and a horse, at the same time. In Luke, it’s a “colt that’s never been ridden” – a wild animal.  Which of these is true? Each storyteller wanted to tell you something about Jesus. Mark wanted to have him be the triumphant (or ironic) military challenge to Rome by riding on a horse. John wants him to be humble, riding in on a donkey – a beast of burden. Matthew can’t make up his mind and takes them both. And Luke wants him to be slightly out of control.

At a moment of high energy like this, people don’t know what to expect, ot what to make of it. I’ll bet there were people at yesterday’s march that wanted to storm the NRA offices to prove they had the power now. There were people that are generally quiet and made a fuss because they had to. Violence is never going to be an option for them. And  there were those who understood the anger, but actively chose non-violence.  Some version of that happened in the crowds on Palm Sunday. Which one is “true”? Whichever works for you.

Now finally, about the title to this morning’s sermon: For years, when I have read the story of Holy Week, I wince and think, “Oh, Jesus, man.… It’s a great day, and you deserve it, but if only you could do something different, Good Friday would have been better for you”. We see that in hindsight, knowing how the story ends. But today, I wanted you to experience Palm Sunday as those people on the streets of Jerusalem did. I wanted, as Shirley can tell you, for Jesus just to have his big day, with no worries about the future… riding in to town on the biggest day of his life. All of this morning’s songs are glorious, upbeat songs today. The psalm gives you some understanding of what the people thought was going on. If something were to happen to Jesus now, after this point in the story, it’s going to really hurt, really be a blow to the disciples, and us. Just when we think good has triumphed, evil will raise its ugly head once again, in the pendulum sweep of history. On Good Friday, it will feel like evil has won. But it hasn’t. What once was a group of 12 guys is now approximately 2.1 billion Christians around the world (about one third of the total population of the planet)! The number of people worshipping Zeus and Athena and all of the Roman Gods is now down considerably, and no one is afraid of Caesar anymore. On that Palm Sunday, 2000 years ago, Christianity was an idea whose time has come. Amen.

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On School Safety, Guns, and Us…

I’m writing this to sort things out in my own head. Today, the son of my cousin went to school with his normal head-load of issues. I’m not totally sure of it all, but — in addition to school subjects and being a teenager, I think he has trouble with change and he doesn’t particularly like people. So, in addition to four things making his life more complex, some idiot added a fifth today by shooting up his school, and dying at the hands of a gun-using school resource officer. I want to change the debate to terms that make sense to me: sin, freedom, community, and our responsibility to one another. Politics, it seems to me, asks the wrong questions and therefore, yields the wrong answers.

I don’t know how my cousin, or the community she and her son live in, feel about guns, so I will not claim to speak for her. Personally, I hate guns when they are used to huntpeople. It doesn’t much matter if it’s a handgun, a rifle, or a sub-machine gun. My grandfather hunted most of his life, and fired 1 million rounds in his 30 years as a gun tester at Remington Arms. He had a giant bullet trophy in his living room when I was young, so I know. His idea of fun on a Saturday afternoon was to go to the Rod and Gun Club in town and shoot skeet, so I understand there are safe gun owners, or there used to be. My grandfather stopped hunting in the woods near his house in about 1972, because there were two many idiots out there who would shoot at anything that moved. Shoot first, ask questions later. It was a stupid idea with deadly consequences then. It hasn’t gotten any better since. It seems to me that his was a different day, when people respected forces more powerful than them — oceans, storms, and bullets come to mind first among them. When people started thinking they were more powerful or more important than nature is the day that death came to America. When ego overcame reality, reality, not surprisingly, fought back and continues to not give in. This is the sin of pride and we make mistakes as soon as we indulge in it.

Jimi Hendrix once said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, we’ll have peace”. He’s right. What do we chase? Power. Not internal self-esteem, but power over others. My grandfather was a man. He peed standing up. He put in his pants one leg at a time. He knew he was a man, so he didn’t need to prove it. When men use a gun to impress you with how powerful they are (we don’t have a lot of women mass-shooters), they tend to pretend that gun is their penis. It makes them feel manly. My grandfather kept his penis in his pants. Using a gun to prove your manliness is idolatry: you are substituting a representative object for the real thing. Idolatry is a sin. If someone thinks a gun makes them manly, or proves how manly they are, they are already mixed up. Mixed up people shouldn’t have guns.

Killing, (actually murder, or intentional killing), is wrong. It’s in the 10 commandments. All those Bible thumpers who enshrine the 10 Commandments need to remember that when they think the NRA’s thoughts on AR-15s is the right way to go. Killing is a sin. Here’s the problem: in America, we don’t take sin seriously. We’re number 1! There is no sin! We’re above sin! We’re number 1… except that we’re not anymore. Not in much of anything. We don’t live in reality. We live in image — the image of propaganda and sales. If we were above sin, if we lived in reality, kids wouldn’t be getting shot at school.

So, let’s acknowledge sin — that there’s a part of us that gets it wrong, that makes nasty, petty, or violent choices. And when we acknowledge that, the simple reality of that, let us make laws and regulations that say that we don’t want to make anger permanent, or psychosis real, or vengeance a value of ours. There are those who say, “You can’t legislate morality”. In fact, morality is the only thing worth regulating , especially when we’re this far from where we should be, when it becomes a life-and death issue. That’s where we’re at.

That said, school safety is about more than guns, as I’m coming to understand. For instance, there are ways you can build a school, and certain materials will make the place safer — bullet proof glass, for instance. Certain designs of buildings make school safer regardless of how crazy the person is. That would be possible to implement — if we supported our schools with real funding. We don’t. If it’s a bomb, it gets money. If it’s a student or a school, it doesn’t. When we’re willing to actually prioritize education enough to fund it, our schools will become safer. Any time we want to decide to do that, I’ll be happy. Until then, no.

A couple more points, from friends. My Facebook post about the shooting brought out many sad faces. At first, only one friend — one who works for peace — used an “angry” emoticon . As the days go by, more and more angry faces show up. We should be angry that this continues to go on, even as people organize against it this week, as Congress hasn’t refuses to deal with the issue. I’m writing this because I’m angry about kids dying. Let my cousin be sad. She has every reason to be. Let the people of St. Mary’s County be sad. They have faced tragedy. I may get to that later, but right now I’m angry. I’m sick of seeing traumatized children grow up to be traumatized or traumatizing adults. As a therapist, I have more clients than I can handle now. I don’t need more.

Oh, speaking of that, we need more therapists, and more therapists need to be paid, so if somebody could make that happen, that would be great. If we’re going to create monsters, we should have some way to fix them as well… preferably before they shoot up a school. One more thing on mental health: Chuck Grassley and Donald Trump and anyone who supported giving guns back to mentally ill people ought to be ashamed of themselves. Have they fixed that mistake yet by re-instituting that law? I don’t think so. Vote them out!

Next, my friend Joe Roberts said it’s about kids getting revenge for being bullied. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that bullying destroys lives. People who have been hollowed out by years of abuse begin to feel they have nothing to live for, and they’re angry enough about the abuse, they don’t care if they die and they’re sure as hell going to take someone with them into that “great beyond”. Whether there’s a direct correlation between bullying and mass shooting or not, bullying is wrong, it hurts, and it must be stopped. Hollowed out children are no fun. We should stop making them that way.

Lastly, as I said already, we need to fund mental health services, so that the wounded in all of this can get un- wounded. Until we do that, our schools will never be safe. Also, something that covers physical trauma, like universal health care would be nice. Do kids who get shot and have no insurance get what they need, even if it’s not their fault. I don’t know, but I suspect not.

All of this is about priorities and will. So let’s get our priorities straight and use our will to make laws that care about people more than guns.

There. I think I got it all out now. I feel clearer, and thus, better. How about you?

Resisting with Peace,

John

The Will To Live: A Political Platform

I was listening to a podcast of “Morning Joe” this morning. It was from a few days ago and they were complaining about how the Democrats didn’t have a message but “You’re oppressed. These people did it” and they related it to “identity politics”. While I have my own misgivings/questions about “identity politics” , the idea that there’s no clear message that could unify the country is simply false, on a gut level. Gay rights, Black Lives Matter, the kids in Florida and gun rights, unions and their right to exist, the women’s march, income inequality and the tax cut, medicine, college, and so on…

What’s the common theme that binds all of these together? The will to live. Of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, it’s not Liberty (gun laws and the right to have guns) anymore. People think about the “pursuit of happiness “, regarding social issues, but something is wrong there: people in this day and age take it to mean “The pursuit of pleasure”. and one side of culture wars wants pleasure and convenience and the other side complains they do. So what’s left? Life — the will to have it, and maybe, just maybe, to have a good one. In the meantime, the great movements of the last few years boil down to the same thing: the ability to stay alive. This was brought home to me by one of my clients who has $90,000 in student debt — and I thought, “how does anybody live like this?”. My client has a full-time job.

In the same vein, my wife said to me the other day, “well, we have had health insurance for two years. That’s about the best we can say for now”. My wife and I both work, and work hard, and make good money, I think. Still, I wonder, “How does anybody live like this and send their kids to college, besides?” When I pay for my meds every month, I think, “If we can’t pay for this, I’ll die”…and I immediately think of my clients who are poor, or senior citizens, or children with illnesses. How can they afford their medicines? If they don’t get them, they, too, will die. None of us wants to die if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

Let me go down a list of movements and their causes:

Black Lives Matter — they don’t want to die if it’s preventable … and it clearly seems to be.

Parkland: Student Lives Matter — they don’t want to die if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

The Women’s March and the MeToo movement: Women’s Lives Matter –they don’t want to die. Women’s Bodies Matter — they don’t want to die, either mentally or physically, if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

Trump voters and poverty — The White Poor Matter — they don’t want to die of starvation if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

The Poor People’s Campaign — The Diverse Poor Matter. They don’t want to die, if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

Occupy Wall Street– the majority of us matter — we shouldn’t have to die when 5 or 10 people have more resources than all all of the rest of us together do. We don’t want to die if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

Teachers in West Virginia are on strike, (Teachers Lives Matter) because they and their students can’t afford to live. Hey shouldn’t have to be poor while they’re making the world better… If it’s preventable … and it seems to be. While they are on strike, they feed the kids lunches to replace the ones they would be getting if they were in school. Hungry Students Lives Matter and they shouldn’t starve or die if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

LGBTQ students and anti- bullying campaigns (Gay Kids Matter, Nerdy Kids Matter, Unpopular Kids Matter) None of them want to die (and, yes, it’s a genuine fear that they might) if it’s preventable … and it seems to be.

Our present government doesn’t seem to think anyone’s life matters, and frankly, we’re fed up. So there it is, the theme for any politician who wants to get elected: The Unifying Theme for any leader that wants to get elected– Democrat or Republican, I don’t care though I don’t hold out much hope from Republicans really. Look at the people you represent and say, “Your life matters. You don’t deserve to die if it’s preventableand it seems to be. Here’s how we’re going to fix it…”

If you can’t say that and mean it, get off the stage, get off the ballot. You’re wasting my time and you don’t deserve to be elected.

Resisting with Peace,

John