All the Right Notes, Wrong Music

Matthew 21:1-11

Robert Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore MD

Palm Sunday

Do you know that you can sing Amazing Grace to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island?

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. . . .

Fun, right? I sing it to my kids all the time. They’ve never seen Gilligan’s Island, never heard the theme song, but they still think it’s funny.

As in, right words, wrong song. The chirpy song doesn’t go with this beautiful ode to grace. That’s funny because we love irony. But maybe we also crave the song – not just the ironic wink, but the simplicity of the gospel. It’s something we may yearn for.

The crowd in today’s gospel have got the right words, but they’re singing the wrong song. But they don’t hear the irony. To begin with, they say Jesus is a prophet. They are not wrong. But they’re not right either. Jesus is the prophet, which they get, but he is much more than a prophet, which they miss.

In contrast to the crowd, Matthew’s readers would recognize this not as a political rally, with a candidate chumming the crowd with slogans, t-shirts, and bumper sticker theology. Instead, this is a royal coronation: Matthew depicts Jesus as the king, in the line of King David, entering Jerusalem. It’s a messianic motorcade (without the bling of worldly power) announcing a victory won.

That’s one thing the crowd doesn’t get. Christ is king already. Another appears in the language of the crowd. They sing out “hosanna” which means, “Save us we pray!”

Yet, according to one scholar, this phrase was meaningless by the time it was being chanted in the first century crowd. It was an empty slogan. It’s like the way we say, “goodbye” – it means literally, “God be with you.” We don’t say it that way, of course. [i]

When we say, goodbye, it’s more like,

Goodbye,

good luck,

         hope you don’t get hit by a truck!

A far cry from, God be with you. That’s the burden of our text – to get us to look at the difference between the reign of God that we proclaim and our living realities. The difference between our “goodbyes” and our God be with yous; the difference between the empty hosannas of the crowd and the fulsome hosannas of the faithful.

But Matthew’s burden is not only to underline the difference, which is easy enough to do, but to form us into a community faithful in word and deed.

That’s the question I want to think with you about. But before we dig in on that topic, I want to assure you that this isn’t the only way to get at this text. You might identify with first part of this text, vss. 1-4, in which Jesus sends the disciples to the village ahead of him, something like political operatives for Team Jesus. They were Jesus’ advance team, if you like. Except, they didn’t actually set anything up. It was all set up for them. All will be ready: simply go.

As in, God does not call the able, but God equips the willing.

I know some of you write notes in your bulletin – you didn’t twist your bulletin into a bit of kindling last Sunday. So, write it in your bulletin today: God does not call the able, but equips the willing.

Next time you get a call, or see an invitation to serve in some way, whether in this church or somewhere else, think about that: God does not call the able, but God — what? – God equips the willing.

Another possibility comes to us from Martin Luther, the sixteenth century reformer. He is intrigued by the two donkeys that Jesus commissions to serve as Jesus’ messianic motorcade. Doesn’t make sense, riding two donkeys. Luther couldn’t figure it out. Too ludicrous, he thought, for Matthew to think of Jesus riding two donkeys simultaneously. So, he concluded, it must be figurative, not literal:

By means of the preaching of the gospel . . . pious, simple folks are gathered into Christendom; these are Christ’s flocks. He himself calls them his sheep, oxen, and asses. We all are the sheep, the apostles and preachers are the oxen, and those who labor and bear their various crosses are the asses. All these willingly and gladly submit themselves to Christ.[ii]

So, the church, according to Luther, is a willing and joyful ass.

And just how might this be relevant to us today? I don’t know of any asses in this congregation. Or at least, I’m not saying out loud. I’ve got to keep such things confidential. But just in case someone speaks of you in metaphorical terms, as in, “You are such an ass!”

You can say, “Indeed, I am an ass for Christ!”  You thought you were a student for Christ. Or an athlete for Christ. Or a teen for Christ. Or a Jew for Christ. But you weren’t any of these. But by God’s grace and to God’s glory, you are an ass for Christ.

And so am I . . . joyfully and obediently, of course.

But I want to go in a different direction today. Are you happy to hear it? I want to visit with this crowd.

Matthew’s gospel includes three mentions of the crowd, compared to Mark’s version of the story, which includes only one reference to the crowd. Why is this significant? Matthew depends on Mark and on what’s called a Q source, a document that included sayings of Jesus that existed at one time, but we only have indirect evidence of its existence now.

But Matthew isn’t simply a copyist; he writes as an interpreter. And so we pay attention to details like this one: why three mentions? Perhaps the crowds were important to Matthew because, at least in today’s text, the crowd includes possible disciples. They are also, possibly a mob. That possibility will turn into a reality, when the same crowd that sings “hosannas” on Sunday will chant “crucify him” on Friday.[iii]

But for now, at this moment, both impulses exist. As a people of faith, we don’t read this text as a toss of the coin– heads you’re a mob; tails you’re a disciple – instead, we read the text as our confession, or proclamation.

When we read scripture, the liturgist concludes his reading saying, “This is the Word of God.” And the congregation replies, “Thanks be to God.” This is confession. This is not a theological coin toss.

So, we read for formation – as people who know what it’s like to go with the crowd, but also as people who have been touched by the saving health of Jesus our Savior. And this saving health is at the heart of Jesus’ peculiar politics. Today’s text is a form of messianic politics. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city, the Roman Empire, shakes with his coming. This is the second time Jesus has shaken the establishment.

The first time he shook the establishment of Roman power was when he was still a baby in his mother’s arms. Now, he shakes the city as the Lord who has turned his face towards Jerusalem, as the anointed one of God. Anyone who wants to say that Jesus has no politics doesn’t know Jesus – even so, I will grant that his politics are peculiar.

For one, he does not trade in empty slogans, though the crowd often does – they’ve been trained to respond to such rhetoric. Jesus doesn’t shame them for singing “hosanna” – he lets them sing, even though they don’t fully grasp what they are singing. Perhaps he prays for them in their singing. . . .

For another . . . Jesus’ political significance is connected directly to his merciful deeds. You learn Jesus’ politics by paying attention to his deeds.

And what precedes today’s text and what comes after are Jesus’ acts of health care love. What precedes today’s text and what follows are Jesus’ acts of food security. What precedes today’s text and what follows are nothing less than Jesus’ acts of inclusive love.

When Jesus goes to the temple, in this chapter, he turns over the tables of the capitalists who had got religion and the religionists who had got capital – he turns over their tables of capitalistic syncretism, he scorches their conceit, and he drives them out – and who does he let into the temple, free of charge?

The lame. The poor. The sick. The addicted. The outcast. The hungry. The thirsty. The homeless. The debtor. The alien. It’s the house of the crucified and all his neighbors.

Jesus’ politics isn’t a platform of ideas – even good ideas – but rather it is a narrative of faithful actions.

St. Francis said that we should preach at all times. Use words only when necessary.

Jesus’ politics derive from his faithful obedience – look for Jesus’ actions. His politics grows like a weed in the cracks of the powers and principalities.

When Jesus talked about the church, he talked about her with this less than flattering metaphor, that you will grow like a weed.

You want to become a weed for Jesus? We make a lot out of being members of the church. I’ve been a member of the church for all of my life. I think it’s done me good, mostly. I highly recommend it, mostly. But when I think of a member, I think of neatly manicured bushes on Park Avenue. But when I think of a weed, I think of some crazy exuberance for life in a place where it doesn’t belong.

I would rather our members were first weedy people rather than manicured people.  You know, one of your pastors, back when, he used to hang out at the gay bars here in town. Other pastors and probably church folk took a dim view – hanging out with weeds — he ought to be ashamed of himself!

He did it anyway.

She’s not a member of the church . . . at least not yet. But one Sunday, I was walking home down Howard, and there she was, and she took my arm and said, “I want you to meet my friends.” And so, on a Sunday afternoon, she’s leading me along, knocking on the doors of different businesses on that back-alley street, introducing me to her friends, handing out our bulletin, sending our love to the neighborhood.

How many of us know who works on Howard? How many us think the dandelion is beautiful?

My children do.

And maybe they’re on to something. What do you think? Our peculiar politics grows out of our faithful obedience.

Jesus’ coronation ceremony looked something like a weed looks to a Monsanto or a DuPont. They sprayed their Roundup version of political poison on Jesus – they saturated the political atmosphere with alternative facts and fake news, in 140 characters or less they promulgated their lies – but Jesus keeps rising from the dead. Almost like a weed.

Weeds show up in the darndest places. Have you ever noticed that? I think mercy shows up in the darndest places. Audacious in its exuberance. Outside the Federal Building of Baltimore. I tell you, they’ve got a weed problem.

But they’re such happy weeds. Media calls them protesters. But they pray. Hate radio calls them leftists, but they sing. Certain presidents call them professional activists, but they hug and their babies play.

And other weeds, people facing deportation orders by Immigration, Control, and Enforcement, they call these weeds who stand with them mi hermanos y mi hermanas. They say things like mi casa es su casa. And “juntos podemos” – together we can!

Singing like a tongue that doesn’t belong. Like love illegal. Like love without papers.

Like love creating space where there was no space. And you? In this space? Do you have papers to be here today? Are you a Christian with a pedigree? Is it your degree? Is it your ethnicity? Is it your sexuality? Is it your income bracket? Is it your profession? Come on, show your papers. You can’t.

All of us are illegal. As illegal as God becoming sin. And there’s nothing more illegal than that. And we are accessories to a resurrection experience. And this is some kind of detention center turned inside out — Jesus is raised from the dead, not as a slogan but as our savior, our health and redemption.

Mi hermanos y mi hermanas, Jesuscristo dice, mi casa es su casa y juntos podemos!

Maybe you heard the story out of Amsterdam. It’s a weed story. A story of coronation proclamation. But it’s got a cross-shaped tragedy in the middle of it. A gay couple were set upon, attacked because they were two men holding hands. Weeds.

Someone wanted to kill them. Exterminate them. And I’m sure there were DuPont and Monsanto pew-sitters and their preachers (bought and paid for) ready to support that extermination. But something like a coronation began with a Tweet, 140 characters or less. A nasty woman journalist, the very definition of a weed, called “all men (straight and gay) please to just walk hand-in-hand.”

It’s gone viral. Like a weed. Dutch politicians, straight and gay, women and men, children, too – holding hands.

Maybe we don’t always know the whole reason why or even what we sing. But maybe the dandelion’s king will continue to teach us. Christ will teach us, by God’s grace and to God’s glory, to hold hands. Amen.

[i] M. Eugene Boring, “Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 403.

[ii] Martin Luther, “Selected Psalms II” in Jaroslav Pelikan,  ed.,  Luther’s Works, vol. 13  (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 11.

[iii] Boring, “Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 403.

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