by Joanna Lawrence Shenk
As a congregation located in San Francisco we are very familiar with the experience of public parades and marches, yeah?? They happen all the time around here. Let’s just name some of them: Pride, Trans march, Dyke march, Carnaval parade, Chinese New Year, Ceasar Chavez, MLK march, Climate justice marches, Black Lives Matter marches, St. Patrick’s Day, Cherry Blossom. And I kid you not there was a St. Stupid’s Day parade yesterday in the city.
Parades are a celebration of culture and community and some are also acts of resistance to injustice or a way of showing solidarity with a group that is being targeted by violence or hate. Parades and marches can be fun and festive, and sometimes they can be risky. All over the country on Friday there were trans marches, celebrating Trans Day of Visibility. These marches were acts of courage and resistance given the rise in anti-trans legislation across the country.
In our scripture for today Jesus and his followers were in a parade that was both a celebration and an act of defiance toward the political and religious leadership in Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers were not from the city, they were country people. They would have been seen as unsophisticated bumpkins. They were poor. Many of them didn’t have employment and those that did had to work very hard for very little money.
Biblical scholars paint a picture of two very different parades happening in Jerusalem on the day that Jesus came to town. To set the context, it was the celebration of Passover which meant Jewish people were coming to the city from many other places for rituals and festivities. Passover is a time of remembering God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and that was a concern to the Roman occupying forces. They did not want the celebration of Passover to be a catalyst for revolutionary action.
So on the west side of the city the Roman governor, Pilate, was leading a military parade with chariots and soldiers on their war horses. This was a reminder to the Jewish celebrants that Rome was still in charge and would crush any attempted rebellion. The imperial Roman triumphus was both a civil ceremony and religious rite, celebrating and sanctifying the achievement of Roman commanders who had won great military successes.
While that was happening on the west side, Jesus and his followers were entering on the east side. Calling Jesus’s parade a triumphal entry was a total joke. It was a parody of the occupying force and an act of defiance. It also irritated the religious leaders who were politically aligned with the occupying forces.
As a side note, given the pervasive presence of Christian dominance in our world, I also want to highlight that the triumphal entry was not Jesus and his followers coming to Jerusalme to start a new religion called Christianity. Far from it, they were all Jewish people who were part of a Jewish renewal movement rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition.
Jesus was a threat to the status quo because he had amassed a following, especially among the people that were most disenfranchised by the exploitative economic reality in which they lived. His followers were those deemed undesirable by the imperial and religious status quo. They were not only poor country people, but also judged as sexually deviant and unclean in many cases.
So here they were, marching into the city with Jesus on a donkey (the opposite of an impressive war horse), and heralding him as a king, coming in the name of the Lord. Within imperial Rome and its occupied lands, Cesar was the only Lord. It was insurrectionary to call anyone else Lord!
Each gospel has its own version of this story. Today we heard the version from Matthew, and I want to pull out one observation from Luke as well. Given Jesus’ popularity and the revolutionary things his followers were shouting, the religious leaders in Jerusalem were concerned. They told Jesus to make these people shut up. But Jesus said, if they are quiet the rocks will cry out!
In this response I hear Jesus saying that the land is part of the movement too. If we think about Jesus’ prophetic ministry, he was articulating an ethic that was liberating for the land as well as the people. With the mustard seed he spoke against industrial agriculture by likening the kindom of God to an invasive weed. He talked about a Sabbath year for the land and for the people, calling to mind the Jubilee practice of breaking up monopoly land holdings and canceling debts. He spent extensive time in the wilderness. He calmed the stormy sea. His teachings were nature-based, inviting people to tune into the wisdom of creation.
This understanding is true the world over in Indigenous communities. There is and has always been a recognition that nature speaks to us and that we are in relationship as fellow creatures. It’s the lack of awareness of this interconnectedness that has led to all types of exploitation and extraction.
What a sick irony that the teachings of an earthy, feral Rabbi severed from the ecology of first century Palestine, have been used by imperial Christianity to uphold domination and exploitation for centuries. This is one reason why it is so important for non-Indigenous people to be learning from Indigenous communities about the inherent interconnectedness we have as humans to the natural world.
This is a path toward healing that can also make relationships of solidarity possible. It is also a path that can help Christians come to our scriptures in new ways and notice what has been obscured by centuries of dominant Christian theology. What Jesus and the prophets before him were proclaiming is good news for the earth. It is good news for ecosystems of which our bodies are a part.
I’m sure many of you heard this week that the Vatican officially repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery which were a series of papal bulls undergirding global Christian colonization. This repudiation has been long called for by Indigenous groups and allies, including the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition of which our congregation is a part. The repudiation is sorely overdue. It is a first step and it needs to be backed up by action. Specifically this means the protection of Indigenous land and land return. Sarah Augustine, director of the Coalition, points out that the Catholic Church is one of the largest landowners in the world.
So what does Jesus, or earthy Rabbi Yeshua have to teach us on this Palm Sunday? He came marching into Jerusalem knowing his connection to God, to the land, to his community, and to his prophetic calling. He was a human fully alive, experiencing this interconnectedness and that was what made him such a threat to the established order. Within the context of our Lenten series on the warrior, mystic, and monk archetypes, Jesus’ aliveness integrated all three.
As a warrior he was prepared to confront the violence that he knew was coming his way. His entry into Jerusalem was strategic and succeeded in capturing the attention of his movement’s targets – the political and religious leaders. He was unafraid to face them.
As a mystic he knew his connection to the prophets before him and he knew his connection to God and the Divine presence in all things. This spiritual power gave him clarity of purpose and an awareness that the good news he brought was actually liberating for everyone, even those who were set against him.
As a monk he knew that the movement was bigger than just his leadership. Although his disciples did not always understand his teachings, he trusted that they could carry on the movement, even if he was killed. He was not alone.
As people following in the way of Yeshua we are called to full aliveness. We are called to be a part of the funky parade that is proclaiming joy and resistance in the face of violence and exploitation. At times this can literally mean joining parades and marches. And even more so it means the daily and weekly and monthly practice of organizing our time and money and relationships to undo systems of injustice and work for transformation in the world.
Right now it means confronting those who are targeting transgender people, especially those doing it under the banner of Christianity. It means sharing the good news of the kindom of God that celebrates the amazing spectrum of genders and sexual orientations. It means speaking out against ideologies that protect the profits of gun manufacturers rather than the lives of children. It means standing with the Apache Stronghold to protect their sacred place of worship at Oak Flat. It means supporting the Muslim and Arab community in San Francisco when they are targets of Islamophobia. It means getting to know the land on which we live and recognizing our interconnectedness to all life.
Just as Jesus was confronting the political and religious institutions who were exploiting vulnerable people and the land, we are called to the same bold witness. With Christian nationalism on the rise, we must boldly articulate the way of love and justice embodied by Jesus and his movement. I truly believe this is central to our calling as Christians in this time and in this place. It is a part of our healing and the healing of the world.
I had a glimpse of what this feels like a few weeks ago when I participated in the press conference to support the Muslim and Arab students in the San Francisco Unified School District. At the press conference they were calling on the district to uphold their commitment to add the Eid holidays to the school calendar.
I arrived a little early and checked in with the organizer, Sharif. He said, “oh I was thinking you could speak first.” I was planning to speak on behalf of clergy members who had signed a letter in support of the students. I felt a little daunted to go first, but said that would be fine. Then he said, “could you also offer an opening prayer?” Inside I was freaking out a bit, but I said, “yes, I’d be glad to do that.”
I had a few minutes before the event started, which gave me time to freak out a bit more, I mean brainstorm about what to say in the prayer. Although I have often prayed in interfaith settings, I had never led a prayer in a majority Muslim space. I wanted to be respectful and not say anything that would be perceived as weird or insensitive.
Then I had a wave of emotion hit me. I grew up as a Christian missionary kid to Muslim people. That was an experience that has taken me decades to make sense of and heal from. This opportunity to stand with the Muslim community as a Christian leader felt like such a balm to my soul. It is exactly what I want to be doing as a Christian, in public and bold ways. My eyes filled with tears as I recognized the gift that had been given to me, a greater gift than the organizers of the press conference realized they had offered.
May we continue to live more deeply into our calling as a Christian community to stand with those who are marginalized and join the funky parade proclaiming the good news of the kindom of God. Don’t be surprised if you hear the rocks crying out along with us and the trees clapping their hands in support. May we ever more deeply join with creation for liberation and healing in our world. May it be so. Amen.
Prayer for Trans Day of Visibility
by Mr. Barb Greve
Blessed are the trans trailblazers,
who brought us this far,
and are still trailblazing…
Blessed are the drag queens and kings,
who remind us to not take life too seriously.
Blessed are the gender benders, non-binary, and gender fluid folk, those who challenge us to reframe our gender paradigm.
Blessed are the young ones, who present fearlessly from the start.
Blessed are their parents,
who make space for freedom,
and love their children fiercely.
Blessed are the siblings and relatives,
who educate, support, and love us as we are.
Blessed are the gender queer youth,
who are struggling and persist.
Blessed are the 90-year olds just coming out,
and those who have been out decades.
Blessed are those whose lives were cut too short,
may their stories live on through us.
Blessed are the survivors, may they keep on living.
Blessed are the allies, learning to be accomplices.
Blessed are those gathered here today,
Witnessing, learning, celebrating.
May we all commit to continue showing up,
fighting for justice, celebrating all the genders in life.