Trading Our Palm Branches for Tomahawk Missiles or White Helmets? – a Palm Sunday sermon

In the wake of a week that saw sarin gas released once again on the people of Sryria, followed by the firing of U.S. tomahawk missiles, parading around waving Palm Branches seems as foolish as it did when Jesus lead a parade into Jerusalem to face the Roman Empire on an ass. Today’s gospel picks up where the Gospel According to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem ends, when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple – Matthew 21:12-16. Listen to the sermon here:

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! This morning, as we shout our Hosannas to the world, the world remains entangled in a vain attempt to achieve peace through violence. The two most powerful nations on earth are leading the charge: as I speak the United States has dispatched an aircraft carrier-led strike group to the waters off the coast of North Korea, while the Russian Navy has dispatched a frigate to the Mediterranean Sea so that its cruise missiles will be in striking distance of Syria. We’ve been here so many times before; seeking peace through violence.

On Friday, according to CNN, “Raytheon, the company that makes the Tomahawk missiles used in the air strikes on Syria by the United States, saw its stocks rise. Investors seem to be betting that President Trump’s decision to retaliate against Syria after the chemical attack on Syrian citizens earlier this week may mean the Pentagon will need more Tomahawks. The US Department of Defense asked for $2 billion dollars over five years to buy 4,000 Tomahawks for the US Navy in its fiscal 2017 budget last February.

Nearly five dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched at military bases in Syria from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea late on Thursday. Raytheon wasn’t the only defense stock that rose sharply on Friday. Lockheed Martin which partners with Raytheon on the Javelin missile launcher system and also makes Hellfire missiles, gained nearly 1%. Defense stocks General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman also rallied Friday, a day when the broader market was flat due to a mixed US jobs report. It’s unclear whether President Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis will ask for a lot more money for Tomahawks once they officially submit a fiscal 2018 budget request. But Trump said in his preliminary budget blueprint last month that a brad increase in defense spending was needed.  A sizable chunk of that was earmarked for upgrading warships, fighter planes and missiles. So it should come as no surprise that defense stocks are among the top performers on Wall Street not just on Friday, but for all of this year.”

What this CNN report doesn’t say, is that according to his own disclosure forms filed during the election, Trump hold a substantial amount of stock in Raytheon.   Now, the cynic in me can’t help but marvel at the Commander-in-chief’s selection of Tomahawk missiles as the pathway to peace. If I only I could figure out which tables to over-turn I would lead the parade.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! Over and over again, the world has put its faith in military might hoping against hope to achieve peace through victory. Over and over again, the rich and the powerful have profited from the violence perpetrated upon the oppressed and the powerless.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! Today the nation of Syria, is a microcosm of our madness. At last count, there are eleven wars being fought in Syria. Over half a million people have died since the hopes of the Syrian people for freedom, were raised during the Arab Spring of 2011. The pundits call it a civil war, but there is nothing civil about war; especially this war! In addition to half a million dead, five million people, most of them women and children have fled Syria, over six million people are currently displaced within Syria, more than 2 million children cannot go to school.

Over and over again, the international community has insisted that there is no military solution to Syria’s problems. Since 2014, the US along has dropped 50,000 missiles and bombs over Iraq and Syria, that’s one bomb every 20 minutes for two years, add to that the tens of thousands of Russian bombs, together with the various explosive devises utilized by the numerous factions in Syria and it is easy to see why the manufacturers of these weapons are rolling in profits while Syria is reduced to a pile of rubble.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! Peace through victory! Images of dead and dying children, slaughter beyond biblical proportions, cannot seem to halt our military parades designed to intimidate and terrorize the masses into submission.

We’ve been here before. Two millennia ago, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Pilate left his seaside home in Caesarea and marched in grand military style to his palace in Jerusalem. Determined to parade into the city in a grand show of force designed to terrify the oppressed people of Jerusalem. Pilate used all the force available to him to ensure that everyone knew the military might of the Roman Empire. Each day hundreds of rebels were crucified.

Historians estimate that tens of thousands were executed by crucifixion. Pax Romana, peace through victory, this was Pilate’s mandate.

The people longed for freedom: freedom from the brutality of their Roman rulers, freedom from the ravages of poverty, freedom from the strict oppression of their religious authorities, and freedom from the fear of illness and death.  Life among the conquered peoples of first century Palestine was cruel, oppressive, impoverished and filled with fear and suspicion. Whatever hope of deliverance there was, was all too often false hope.  Among the oppressed there are always calls for revolution and the conquered people of first century Palestine had seen more than their fair share of wanna-be saviours.   Some of their young people had fallen prey to the incitement of the Zealots and in youthful, exuberant, impatience had taken up arms against their Roman oppressors.  Some of their neighbours had betrayed their own people and taken up whatever crumbs the Romans were offering, sold their souls and become collaborators, lining their own pockets at the expense of their own people.  But far too many people had given up and given in, settling for whatever life they could eke out under the cruel regime hoping against hope, that someday, someone, somehow would come along and save them from the horrors of life. And so, they longed for the good old days; the days when their people and not the Romans dominated the land, the days when one of their own was king.  But not just any king, they wanted a king like David; a king who would ride at the head of their army full of pride and power and conquer all their enemies.

The elders, the wise ones, pointed to the past and heralded David as a Messiah; an anointed one; anointed by God to lead the people.  How they longed for such a messiah to rise up among them and lead them; lead them to victory against all their foes and save them from their miserable existence.  One by one, they’d hear these wanna-be messiahs, these trumped up saviours, call the people to rise up.  But they knew, with each successive saviour, there was no hope that they could triumph over the mighty Roman army and so over and over again, they hunkered down, waiting and watching, longing and hoping for the one who could save them. Then along comes Jesus a wayward worker from up in the hill country. He doesn’t look or sound like any of the would be messiah’s except maybe John the Baptist, but everybody knows that John is religious fanatic, shouting down by the river and calling people to turn from their way of living and turn back to the ways of God.  Religion can’t save anyone.  Just look at the Sadducees and the Pharisees why they’re in cahoots with the Romans; as corrupt as the day is long. Why would we return to religion?  What good can those priests, preachers, and fanatics possibly do us when they can’t even take care of the synagogues or the temple? They’re a bunch of corrupt collaborators who’d sell their own souls for a whiff of power.

But the word on the street is that this Jesus fella is different than John the Baptist or any of the other religious fanatics.  Sure, he talks a lot about God, and the reign of God and he’s always talking about money; but what he says is different somehow.  And sure enough, from place to place, town to town, person to person, this Jesus breaks through all the nonsense that’s flying about the place with a message that makes sense somehow; a message that sounds like good news, a message that offers hope, a message that offers life as opposed to merely existing, a message that calls for peace not through war or violence, but through justice; a message that calls people out of themselves, beyond the cruelties of the day, toward a new way of living in the world; a way of trusting that there is more to life than meets the eye; a way of knowing that they are part of something so much bigger than they had ever hoped or dreamed; a way of understanding who they are and whose they are, a way of knowing their God that is intimate and tangible.

So, as the news spread and people began to hear bits and pieces of the news about Jesus, they began wonder.  When the news came that Jesus was approaching the city, they felt the hope rising in them once more and a whole lot of people made their way to the outskirts of the city to take a look for themselves. They half expected him to ride in triumph into Jerusalem.  After all, it was almost Passover and the place was full of pilgrims, the timing couldn’t be better for an uprising.  If he really were the Messiah, the anointed one, the one sent by God to lead the people, to do battle with their oppressors and free them from the cruelty of their lives, well surely, he’d make an entrance worthy of a hero.  They certainly weren’t expecting an ass; or the colt of an ass.

While some in the crowd shouted, “Hosanna, save us!” and meant it, I’m sure there were others who shouted their hosannas with more than a hint of sarcasm; as if this itinerant preacher, riding in on a donkey stands a chance against the Imperial Army of Rome!  What exactly was this guy trying to prove? What was this Jesus trying to say? I wonder how many in that crowd understood? If they’d heard anything of what Jesus had been saying for the past three years they might have guessed that Jesus idea of a saviour wasn’t exactly the same as the people’s desire for a saviour.

Jesus knew that violence was not the way to freedom.  The reign of God would not be ushered in at the point of a sword. Justice was the only way to peace, justice for the poor meant freedom for the oppressed and the oppressor alike.  Justice was the way. Justice was the way to peace.

The mighty Romans had their Pax Romana; peace through victory; conquer the people, secure the land, enforce the law with violence, terrorize the people if you have to, but maintain order and then you will have peace and prosperity for the conquerors.  As for the conquered, well as long as you tax them up to the point that they can pay, and keep them afraid of your might, they’ll tow the line; and if they get out of line; punish them swiftly, publicly and brutally so that everyone knows not to mess with mighty Rome.  Pax Romanna: peace through victory. Against the mighty power of Rome, Jesus comes riding in on the colt of an ass.  No white steed for Jesus.

Some of the people understood what he was saying and they welcomed him like a conquering hero; waving their palms as if Jesus was about to lead them to victory; knowing all the while that the way of Jesus was dangerous.  Others misunderstood Jesus, and waved their palm branches hoping against hope that Jesus had some plan up his sleeve to save them from the mighty Romans; some secret army ready to ride in behind him and conquer their oppressors. But I suspect that there were some in that crowd who waved their branches and shouted their hosannas mocking this so-called Messiah, knowing all the while where this madness would lead.

The powers that be will kill anyone who stands in the way; their way to victory, their way to peace, their way to profits, their way of grabbing more power.

We’ve seen what happened when Jesus turned over the tables of the money-lenders. Jesus sealed his fate then and there. The powers that be ordered his execution. Jesus’ grand act of resistance ended in death. Only power and might can defeat power and might.

The events of this week which have seen power and might reign down on the Syrian people in the form of saran gas and tomahawk missiles and the untold suffering is almost too much to bear. Maybe just maybe it’s time for us to abandon the teachings of Jesus about loving our enemies and non-violent resistance to achieve peace through justice.  Maybe what we really need is to flex our muscles and take out the bad guys and establish peace through victory. It is so tempting to just prop up the tables of the money-changers once again, and take up arms and fight for peace through victory. We can worry about justice later. But as the various war ships steam forth in their various naval parades, there’s a big difference that ought to be clear to all of us between our military parades and the Roman Empire’s military parades. Oh sure, the intent is the same, scare our enemies into submission. But the weapons are different. Unlike so many generations who have gone before us, the weapons we parade about with, don’t just scare our enemies. The weapons that are on high alert all over this planet have the power to destroy this planet and are designed in such a way that they not only scare our enemies they frighten the life out of everyone with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

If peace could be achieved through victory we would have established peace generations ago. Peace can only be achieved through justice. Yes, striving for justice can get you killed and that’s precisely what this Holy Week is all about. If Jesus teaches us anything it is that death is not the final word.  Death cannot kill LOVE. LOVE will always rise up.

In the midst of the carnage that has been infected in Syria, there is a glimmer of hope. In a place where death should have conquered all hope, LOVE is being resurrected. LOVE in the guise of men and women who are known by the white helmets they wear each time they race into the destruction caused by the incessant bombing to rescue those burred in the rubble. The white helmets of the all-volunteer civil defense workers, who could have taken up arms to defend their people. But they know all too well that taking up arms will not save them. So, every day against all the odds teachers, doctors, carpenters, young people don their white helmets and risk their lives to save the victims. When one of the White-helmets was asked to explain why he cried: “Every child we save from the rubble gives me hope. Every child that escapes this horror is a beacon of hope.”

After working for two hours while bombs continued to rain down upon him, one of the White Helmets, as these brave young people are affectionately known, described how he felt when he finally managed to rescue a one month old baby from the rubble, “When I held her in my arms it was as if she were my own daughter.”

The White Helmets are LOVE in a world of pain. The White Helmets are like palm branches waved in the face of military might. Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! Save us not with more bombs, not with tomahawks, aircraft carriers or more parades designed to terrify. Save us with LOVE. LOVE that has the power to turn over the tables of power. LOVE that provides hope for peace each time a baby is pulled from the rubble, each time a child is rescued from the sea, each time a refugee is welcomed, each time arms are opened wide to embrace.

Death will not have the final word. We’ve waved our palm branches. Death will not have the final word if we are prepared to follow Jesus into the halls of power and turn over the tables of the money changers. It will be risky. Striving for justice has always been risky. But justice is the only way to peace.

Yes, working for peace through justice will put us at odds with those who are convinced that peace can only be achieved through victory and we are going to look oh so foolish turning over the very tables that have lined our pockets and made our lives so rich. We’ve waved our palm branches and cheered Jesus on as our champion, our saviour, but are we prepared to follow Jesus in the risky work of turning over the tables of the money changers? Are we prepared to exchange our palms for White Helmets? Remember death is not the final word, LOVE is; the LOVE that never dies.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us!

Only LOVE can save us from ourselves!

The LOVE that refused to die upon the cross.

The LOVE that will never die!

May that LOVE live in, with, through, and beyond us!


2 thoughts on “Trading Our Palm Branches for Tomahawk Missiles or White Helmets? – a Palm Sunday sermon

  1. In this profound Palm Sunday sermon Pastor Dawn presents the Gospel of Jesus in one of the most extraordinary and timely introductions to Holy Week that I have ever experienced. Her insights and conclusion that “Love never dies” parallels St. Paul’s preaching regarding “Love never ends” (I Corinthians 13:8 NRSV) and “Love never fails” (I Corinthians 13:8 NABRE).
    Pastor Jon Fogleman

  2. Pingback: Palm Sunday Sermons | pastordawn

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