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Things That Make For Peace

Sermon - 3/28/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 19:  29-44

The text that I'm going to read from this morning is the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And since I was there a two years ago, I thought I'd share the picture of the city from the perspective of approximately where this story takes place, coming from the direction of Mount Olives:

From where I'm standing, actually the Mount of Olives is a little bit to my right, but that in essence is the scene that would have confronted Jesus when he entered into Jerusalem. Just like that -- of course, minus the Dome of the Rock, but you can imagine the temple of the Lord, the 2nd Temple, that Herod built, right around the birth of Jesus. That was one of the wonders of the world, right there where the Dome of the Rock was. Otherwise it was just like that :). Minus all the church spires, and apartment buildings and other modern buildings, but you get the idea, of the view of the city coming in from the Mount of Olives.

So we read text from the 19th chapter of Luke's Gospel:

When he had come near Bethpage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,

‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!’

39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
   but you have made it a den of robbers.’ ’

 

If you go to Jerusalem today, you can walk through one of those gates through which Jesus would have entered the city. But Jerusalem today is surrounded on three sides by a new wall:

Or, as the Israelis prefer to call it, the 'security barrier' that was erected during the intifada as a means to stop some of the acts of terror that were being inflicted upon them. And inside, from the Jerusalem side, it's very nice and neat and clean, with nice banners with peaceful messages. But when you cross to the Palestinian side, it is covered with all kinds of graffiti:

 

Indeed, it reminds me of the Berlin wall from my days of living in Berlin during that era. And much of it very artistic and well done, and much very poignant with powerful political messages.

But the one that really stopped me cold as I was going back to the other side and walking through this area, there's fences all around it, there it says "Jesus wept for Jerusalem":

And I wondered, this graffiti precisely on the Palestinian side of that wall, facing Jerusalem -- is that a statement of compassion for the city? Or condemnation?

Would Jesus weep today for Jerusalem, or from Bethlehem, on the Palestinian side? Would he weep for Baghdad? Or for Washington?

Just how do we understand these tears of Jesus? This scene of Jesus weeping for the city is only found in Luke's Gospel. It's one of the reasons why we think that Luke most likely wrote after the disruption of the city by the Romans in the year 70. And that's not to say that this scene is the creation of Luke's Gospel, but that this particular memory of Jesus weeping for the city, whether history prophesized or prophecy historicized, took on a much greater significance after that disastrous event. And therefore was included by Luke here in this point of the story.

And it is a classical lament, reminiscent of Psalm 137, composed during the Babylonian captivity (about six centuries before). Some may recognize it, set hauntingly to beautiful music, in the musical Godspell: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept. Sing us one of the songs of Zion", the tormentors of them ask of them.

Now there is of course a terrible irony here with Jesus weeping for the city where he is about to suffer and to die. And further, it's most certainly the actions of Jesus that immediately proceed this event (the weeping and those that follow) which cement his fate. And I would propose to you that those three events -- the triumphant entry, the weeping for the city, and then the cleansing of the temple -- are not three isolated events combined by the happenstance of geography and chronology (like some kind of road trip -- we're heading north and stopped in Albany for ice cream like we always do, and then we got gas in Salem, and had a nice dinner in Portland), it's not that kind of story, where these things are united purely by proximity of time and place. Rather, the connection is much deeper than that. And to make that connection, I need to supply a little more historical and geographical background to the story.

Jerusalem was at this time under the Roman occupation, ever since about 60 years before the birth of Jesus. And the main garrison of the Roman troops, once the country had been pacified, was stationed on the coast at Caesarea Maritima, a new city built by Herod the Great, where the governor and his primary residence (not in Jerusalem). Thus, whenever the governor (and of course in this story Pilate is now the governor) comes into town, he comes from the West moving East. And that turns out to be hugely significant, though the significance of it was not recognized by scholars until recently.

There are three holy days, 'high holy days' when Jewish pilgrims traditionally come to Jerusalem. Feast of Weeks, we know as Pentecost at the beginning of summer. Yom Kippur, the the fall, the day of atonement. And Passover in the spring. And by the way, Passover begins with sundown tomorrow evening, so once again this year Passover coincides with holy week in our tradition, though that does not always happen.

Think about the significance of this. Passover is the biggest of the three, it marks the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt

It was and remains the time when Jews celebrate their identity as a people called by God, retelling that story -- 'a wandering Aramean was my father'. And they recite a litany of how they came into captivity and how they were led freedom under Moses and came into the promised land.

It is the equivalent of July 4, Independence Day. And here we have thousands of Jews coming into Jerusalem during a time of foreign occupation. It literally is a very explosive atmosphere. In fact, we know of several times when there were uprisings during Passover, during this period all Roman occupation.

So it's imperative the Roman governor display a show of force, to maintain control, to show who is in power. And it's not hard to imagine the scene of Pilate coming in on his mighty warhorse, leading hundreds if not thousands of well armed troops, all marching to the beat. The armor clamoring, coming into the city. Coming from the west into the East. Imagine the sound of those stomping boots, imagine most likely the silence that greets them from a very resistant population.


Now Jesus enters Jerusalem, from where? Mount of Olives, from the east, from the other side, moving west. Comes not with well armed troops, but a raggedy band of fishermen and largely peasants. Riding on what? Not a mighty horse, but a colt, a very humble animal, a donkey Mark says. And his followers shouting "Blessed is the King! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!".


 


This is most deliberately an act of street theater at it's very best. It's designed as a parody of that procession coming from the other direction. And it probably was very comical in appearance. Had it ended there, the Romans could have laughed it off as offensive perhaps, but harmless, surely. What follows, however, could not be ignored. To successfully rule a foreign country, you need more than a big army. You need a certain amount of cooperation and collaboration from the local population. The war in Iraq shows this -- Saddam fell 7 years ago, but troops are still there. Why? People ask that question, obviously because it takes a long time to build that kind of cooperation.

In Jerusalem, the key to the collaboration was the high priest. And if that high priest was not cooperative, he could easily been removed by the Roman governor. Caiaphas, who is the high-priest of this time, had one of the longest tenures on record during the Roman occupation, which gives you a good clue as to the status with his Roman rulers. You know, coaches who do not please their athletic directors do not last long :)

That doesn't mean that Caiaphas has to be a good pal of Pilate, but they have a solid working relationship. And along with the high priest comes the Temple establishment, the other elite families of the city, including the merchants doing business in the temple. They are there in the courtyard to provide needed services to the pilgrims -- small animals to sacrifice, exchanging money (because you could not bring Roman money into the temple), exchanging it for Jewish coins and the like. Nothing sinister or improper about it. But like all economic activity, it would be taxed in order to pay the tribute due to Rome. And that's what makes it a den of robbers.

The destruction, then, caused by Jesus, symbolically cleansing the temple of those merchants, could not be tolerated because it challenged the very basis of the entire system of collaboration and the power of the ruling elite. Had it caught on, it would be like a Boston tea party. Although I'm not sure that's a comparison that I want to make in the current political climate. All we need now is a tea party with messianic overtones of some kind, but we dare not go there, I won't suggest a names :).

Between these two events, quite intentionally, I think, Luke inserts this account of Jesus weeping for the city. He puts it here between the two to make it clear that the lament tied to this twin rejection, of and by the political and religious authorities. The city built to be a beacon on the hill for the way of God in the world had become a vassal to the military industrial complex of the Roman empire -- the way of the world against God. It is simultaneously a judgment as well as a lament.

Would that you knew, for the things that make for peace.

A judgment not so much against the city as against the whole system of militarism, domination, and oppression that too often comes with empire. If only Jerusalem knew. If only Rome knew. If only Beijing knew. If only Berlin knew. If only Baghdad knew. If only Washington knew.

The lament of Jesus for his beloved city is the lament of people everywhere when peace is not known. Would that any of us, would that all of us knew.

So just what are those things that make for peace? Ever since the time of Emperor Augustus, the answer was clear: Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome. Which translated means: you do what the emperor wants you to do. You follow the will of the emperor. And we know how well that worked out for the Roman Empire, right?

Well, we've gotten smarter over the years. We submit not to the will of emperors, not to the will of Kings, not obviously into the will of Presidents. But to the will of the people -- that's what democracy is all about, right? It'll bring peace. Kind of like reforming health care will bring peace to our country, right? Have I mentioned the tea party yet? They will tell us what the will of the people is. And it sure as heck isn't what the democratically elected leaders have decided. So I don't know why we bother having elections when so many others seem to know what the people in this country really want. I won't go there anymore :).

So, maybe submitting to the will of the people isn't the answer either. Of course, the religious response is to submit to the will of God. Regardless of what your religious tradition, peace is obtained by submitting to the will of God. Of course, hundreds of wars and millions of people have died precisely for the right to define what that will of God is. And even in spite of the fact of Jesus defined that will as 'love', love God, love your neighbor, even love your enemy. Ever since the time of Constantine when he marched his armies under the banner of the cross, Christian rulers and nations have behaved no differently than any other.

No surprise, then, that we have seen, especially in the last decade, since 9/11 the growing number of popular authors (media stars) who seriously contend that belief in God is not a solution but the problem. That only science and reason will offer lasting solutions to global challenges we face today. And that's not to pick on on any of those particular authors, they are part of the conversation that we need to include. But folks like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and many others, have made it not only acceptable but made it fashionable to ridicule religious belief as antiquated if not dangerous. In the view of those thinkers, the will of God leads not to peace but leads to holy crusades and violent jihads. And if you listen to the fundamentalist preachers of any religious tradition, you'd probably agree, it does.

So, given the ways in which Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (three Abrahamic traditions) have all been used to justify war, slavery, domination, homophobia, sexism, and many other social sins, can we seriously say that we know the things that make for peace better than anyone else?

And even if do, even if we can get all Christians to agree with us (you know, we who obviously know the right answers), peace is never made by one side, by one group, by one nation. Takes two to tango.

We may come to peace with God, we may find peace within ourselves, all of that is good, but peace for Jerusalem, for Bethlehem, for Ramallah, for Baghdad, for Beirut, for Tehran, for Moscow, for us only comes when opposing sides come to a mutually agreeable resolution. So if our faith as Christians, or the Jewish faith of Jews, or Islamic faith of Muslims, is going to contribute to peace instead of adding to war, then we must find things that make for peace upon which we can all agree. That our greater than any one of our separate perspectives. But is that even possible? Is it conceivable?

Robert Wright, the author of a new book "The Evolution of God", is an unlikely proponent for such a solution. And such a book, with that title, Wright is a former professor of religion and philosophy, but is an agnostic. He's ambivalent towards the whole idea of God. Thought he was baptized as a youth into Christian faith. If you want to deepen your own faith, if you want to deepen your belief in God, if you want to deepen your spiritual life, this is not a book I would recommend :) So why am I reading it?

Well, it had an intriguing title and it was a Christmas gift. In it, Wright traces the development of the concept of God through the three Abrahamic traditions, and shows how that concept has changed over time. Evolved, if you will, as notions of God matured over time from a God who had no concern for human welfare (in the primitive traditions) to a God concerned first of all just for the welfare of the tribe. Then a God concerned for the welfare of the nation. Then a God concerned for the welfare of the Empire. And finally a God concerned for the welfare of all humanity and even the entirety of creation.

Along with that evolution, so to speak, of God comes the emergence of a moral order with ever increasing boundaries. Thus the killing of women and children of another tribe was not only permissible but commanded (read your scripture, it's there) when God was conceived as a tribal God but became unacceptable once God was perceived as their God too. And just as creation has evolved over millions of years, Wright contends that human culture has also evolved in very discernible ways in the last 10 to 20,000 years. And religion has been an important part of that. Not seriously the God changes, but that our concept of God has changed.

As with Darwin's idea of natural selection, this increasing moral order is built into the system because we gain more from peace and cooperation than we gain from war and domination, there is, he writes, an incentive to acknowledge and respect the humanity of an ever widening circle of humans. This cultural evolution, this ever widening circle of humanity, Wright says, gives us a choice: between progressing morally, and paying a price for failing to. Hence the pattern over the millennia of people placing larger and larger numbers of other people within their circle of moral consideration. And hence the burst of suffering for failing to do that.

And hence the current culminating moment in that pattern, a moment when the only way to avoid great and possibly catastrophic harm is to expand that moral circle across the whole planet. The only way, to avoid great and possibly catastrophic harm, is to expand that moral circle across the whole planet.

Indeed. If there is one thing that will make for peace, it is this: that the welfare of our enemies is in our own self interest. And recall what the Apostle Paul said: If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals on their head. And who does he write that to? He writes it to the Christian community in the city of Rome. The very city where tradition says Paul and many other Christians would sacrifice their lives to the Roman empire under the fanatical Emperor Nero.

I suggest to you therefore, that the lament of Jesus makes most sense paradoxically not as a Jew expressing love for the city of his ancestors, but as a victim of political execution seeking a higher moral good. To include his enemies rather than to demonize and destroy them.

One thing that would make for peace is simply this: the recognition that our God is their God. Their welfare is our welfare. Wright calls this moral imagination. Such is the kind of imagining that Jesus dared to do.

Can we, dare we, do the same?

 


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