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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Whose Power and Whose Glory?

Matthew 21:1-11
"Whose Power and Whose Glory?"
Sunday April 13, 2014
Rev. Susan Cartmell
Pilgrim Church in Harwich Port, MA


Palm Sunday is one of the most dramatic days in the whole Christian year. After talking about going to Jerusalem for months, Jesus actually rides into one of the city gates. When he appears his followers go wild. His reputation has preceded him and the people line the city streets that day and shout their praises. Children shout "Hosanna"; adults climb the palm trees to rip the branches off and wave them in praise. Men remove their cloaks and throw them in front of his colt. Everyone who has stood on the sidelines of a parade can imagine the scene in the ancient city.

But it is also a day of questions. Jesus arrives at the city riding on a colt, which is odd. It was not an inspiring mount for such a commanding religious leader. He comes into the city with his head bowed, instead of being held high. Then there are the questions about the week that lies ahead. We all know what is coming this week in Jerusalem. We realize that this week will be Jesus' last one. Surely he knew that he was riding into danger. Under the noise of the crowd was he hearing the noise of his own heart or the surging pulse of fear. He must have felt such a complex set of emotions as he entered Jerusalem that day. Why doesn't the crowd sense the danger? Why do they greet him like a hero when he is riding to his own death? Why do they cheer him on? If they really care about him shouldn't they be warning him to turn around and run for the hills?

Two Biblical scholars, John Dominic Crossen and Marcus Borg have written a book about Jesus' last days, entitled The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach us about Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem. They have an explanation for Palm Sunday. It is one of the only ones I have ever read that makes sense. Let me share it with you. Jerusalem was full that day because the Jews had gathered from all over Israel to celebrate Passover. On Passover the Jews commemorated the story of how they escaped from the Egyptians. It is a story with a definite anti-empire theme to it. Passover celebrated the way the Jews threw off the shackles of oppression years ago. For many Jews it served as an inspiration of what they should do to the Romans now.

The Romans hated Passover. So, the soldiers were edgy and the Governor came to town, with added legions of soldiers to control and intimidate the crowds. Pontius Pilate particularly hated the holiday. Pilate was governor of all of Judea, under Emperor Tiberius and he normally lived in a villa on the Mediterranean. But every year for the Passover he had to leave his villa on the sea journey inland to the hot crowded city where he and his soldiers encamped to keep control over things. All you needed was one firebrand to ignite these crowds, and they you had to start crucifying people. It was the only way to assert order.

Pilate entered the city every year by the main gate on the biggest stallion in his stable. He was escorted by his meanest military, armed to the teeth. His parade was slow, somber, regal and meant to instill fear. It was more of a warning than a celebration, a show of force designed to crush the spirits of the people.

On the other side of town there was a very different sort of event. Jesus put on some street theatre designed to poke fun at Pilate and cause people to laugh at the Roman governor. Just as Pilate's military parade was getting under way Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt. Where Pilate was haughty, Jesus came humbly with his head bowed. Where Pilate was surrounded by soldiers Jesus came alone with a disarming vulnerability. Where Pilate came to subdue the crowd, Jesus came and ignited the people. Where Pilate aimed to eradicate their hope of rebellion, Jesus came to remind them that they could laugh at the Romans, and remember that no empire could control their minds or their souls. Jesus' demonstration was so delightfully subversive that the crowd came to life and their enthusiasm could not be contained. As the Romans tried to assert themselves, Jesus undermined them. How? How did he do it?

By making a statement about power and glory. For the Sundays in Lent you have been looking at the lines of the Lord's Prayer, and taking this familiar prayer apart to examine the meaning of each line. Today we look at the last line - For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. What does this last line really say, and what does it mean for us today. I believe that Palm Sunday will help us to really understand it.

In the first place, Jesus says that God's power is the only power you can trust. The Romans were the most powerful empires in the history of the world. They knew how to subdue their enemies. They knew how to fight efficiently. They knew how to maintain their dominance over many lands. But Jesus says that all that power is no match for the power of the living God.

They were the ultimate power brokers and planned and staged Pilate's entry into Jerusalem for weeks ahead. The Romans never felt secure about their power. Any mob could throw the city into chaos. Any firebrand with a following would have to be stopped. As much land as the Romans captured, they were always ambitious for more. Though they ruled the world there was no rest for the Romans. That kind of power is always hungry for more.

The Lord of the rings is this legend about a ring that had special powers. One character named Gollum spent his life finding and pursuing the ring. Over time his single-minded pursuit of the ring this creature has lost all his human attributes and become like an animal. He called the ring precious and no longer walked upright but slinks on the ground. Consumed in his search for power, he has become a pathetic monster. It is a vivid lesson in the lure of power. The legend demonstrates that the search for power can dehumanize you.

I imagine that day in the crowd there were people in Jerusalem who envied Pilate. He was wealthy, important, decked in good clothed, surrounded by soldiers who feared and admired him. It is so easy to feel impressed by people who have the power based on fear or money or influence. It is easy to fall into the allure of this kind of power.

What Jesus demonstrates on Palm Sunday is that there is such a big difference between the two types of power depicted in the Palm Sunday parade. The type of power that Rome had was the power of fear. It was the power of a bully. Most bullies are scared themselves. The Romans were scared of the Jews and so they tried to make the Jews scared of them. It is the power that hides behind terror. That kind of power is abusive but ultimately weak.

There is a courageous young woman in Swat Pakistan named Malala Yousafzai. A Muslim girl whose father ran a local school, Malala was always passionate about education for girls. Though she was only a teenager she was articulate and she spoke out. One day while she was coming home from school members of the Taliban targeted her on a bus and shot her. Malala's story because international news and she was flown to England for surgery that saved her life. She is an international spokesperson for woman's education who addressed the UN once she recovered. She is a contemporary example of the kind of the power of people to overcome bullies, and out run terrorist organizations. Corrupt power is ultimately weak in the face of the strength of raw human courage.

Jesus though unarmed was a much more powerful person than Pilate that day. He came with a different kind of authority, not the authority of a bully, but the authority of one who knew that the power of faith in God. Thine is the power and the glory.

In the second place God's power centers you. Pilate was puffed up, trying to appear larger that he felt. Jesus was humble, not putting on any airs. He was comfortable in his own skin that day. The world's power makes you feel insecure. God's power makes you feel secure.

God's power is shared power. You participate in it. You know you can never own it. So you are humble, but also at the top of your game. You know that whatever success you have is to God's glory and you cannot claim credit. You stop trying to run your life all by yourself and you become part of a team where God is the captain and you are one of the players. Jesus rode into the city relinquishing his power. He humbled himself to God's purpose of his life. In that moment he set the stage to become the Lord of Life.

Whenever people join a 12 step program one of the hardest steps is putting your trust in a Higher Power. You give up struggling about who is in charge of your life. It is hard to rely on a Higher It is a hard discipline and most people have to practice every day. I think it is part of the human condition to worship corrupt power. Probably we should all practice giving our lives to God's power, every day.

Life cannot shield you from temptations. It cannot spare you from disappointment. It cannot protect you from sorrow. But Jesus says that you can make good decisions about who to trust. He says that the world is full of pretenders, people who bully you or seduce you with their power. Trust the one who knit you in the first place. Trust the one who creates and redeems and sanctifies your life.

Finally, God's power is abundant.

A couple of weeks ago Peggy and I had the chance to spend one week with our newest grandchild - Miriam. It is one of life's most compelling wonders to spend time with people at either edge of life - the very beginning and the very end. It is hard for me to be with a newborn and not feel like I have stepped onto Holy Ground. One of the things I marvel at is how trusting they are. Newborns come from God, and they are born trusting us. They need the first people they meet, and it is hard not to love them because they are so needy. But it is a hard hearted person indeed who is not touched by the power of the living God when they hold an infant that young. What a powerful hand curved the gentle folds of these little ears. What a wise and wonderful Creator crafts that symbiotic relationship between a mother and child. What a miracle life is, all around. One of the reasons I think we find ourselves speechless in front of a newborn is because any questions about power are answered.

When God created the world God gave people the ability to name them all. God shares power because God's power is abundant. It flows in endless supply. It is humans who struggle to hold power because we imagine it is a thing to be grasped.

This is God's world. We are privileged to be here. Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.

Posted: Sunday April 13, 2014