April 9, 2017
First Christian Church
Most of us here can remember seeing the first news footage of people dancing atop the Berlin Wall as it fell in November of 1989. For someone of my age, this was phenomenal because as long as I was alive, there was a wall separating the former capital of a unified Germany in two. On that night, people living in East Berlin were able to walk into West Berlin and take in the sights, something they hadn’t been ever able to do sometimes in their lifetimes.
But there would probably be no breeching of the Berlin Wall in November if it weren’t for what took place in the city of Leipzig, a city in the former East Germany in September 1989. On Monday, September 4 in Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas Church. Now the church was well known because it was one of the churches in town where the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the music director. But on this late summer evening, St. Nicholas would be known for starting process that led to the downfall of a nation.
Throughout the 1980s, St. Nicholas held weekly prayer services. The prayer mingled and mixed with protest; because this Lutheran church was a place where people who upset with the communist government of East Germany could come and talk..and pray.
On September 4, out of the prayer sprung peaceful demonstrations. Citizens would take to the streets to protest and demand more rights, such the right to travel abroad and to hold democratic elections.
Going to church became a risky endeavor. No one knew if going to these Monday demonstrations would cause the police to react. A woman commented that she would bring a candle and held it in her hands as a sign to the army and the police that she was unarmed. Protesting against the communist government, one that was well known in monitoring its citizens was bold and scary. But those demonstrations that arose from weekly prayer services had an effect. Other demonstrations took place in other East German cities. Back in Leipzig, the numbers of those protesting grew and grew. On October 9, 1989 around 70,000 people showed up to protest- this in a city of 500,000. A week later that number nearly doubled to 120,000. Two days after this, East German leader Erich Honecker resigned. And the numbers kept growing to over 300,000 in late October. It was this pressure that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By March 1990, the protests ended. These demonstrations had resulted in democratic elections in the spring of 1990 and German reunification in October of 1990.
All of this started in a Lutheran church in one city holding a prayer service. But that was all it took to bring down a totalitarian regime.
Today, is Palm Sunday. We get together, people start to sing, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and we wave our palm branches. We remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem knowing that pretty soon Jesus would face trial, torture and death. If we were honest, we would admit that this day is a harmless day in the life of the church. I’m mean Jesus is on a donkey for goodness sake. It’s the day when we might have kids marching around the sanctuary with triangles and cymbals and the like. Palm Sunday is a nice day, a respite before we head into the heavy holidays of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
But I think that’s the wrong way to look at this. Palm Sunday is not about a cute parade with a middle age guy riding a donkey. In someways, Palm Sunday is about challenging the powers of this world, to say who is really the King around here.
But if this is a direct challenge to Ceasar and all the other rulers, Jesus has a funny way of showing it. Again, the donkey. Why in the world would anyone ride a donkey. They aren’t the most pretty animals, which is just fine because they were considered beasts of burden. You used donkeys to carry loads, it was a real workhorse. Some think the riding of a donkey was a sign of humility and peace. Roman leaders would have rode horses which were bred for fighting. When a Roman general won a decisive battle, he would ride into town with in a chariot pulled by two white horses. Around him were his soldiers as well as the deposed king of conquered territories. The whole thing was an expression of the power of Rome.
So, having Jesus riding a humble donkey didn’t make sense.
So Jesus rides into town with people placing their cloaks on the ground to cushion Jesus’ ride. The disciples didn’t get that Jesus was about to die, but they did think Jesus was king and they led the parade proclaiming Jesus as king, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” The disciples might have remembered what was prophesized by the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. “
All of this king talk was cool, but it was also risky. Since it was Passover, the Romans were out in force. Passover is when Jews remember how God led them out of Egypt. This talk of freedom made the Romans nervous, so they were out in public to remind the people of who is in charge. Maybe that’s why the Pharisees were telling Jesus to keep his disciples quiet. It might be that the Pharisees were folk traveling with Jesus, so they might be telling Jesus to keep quiet of concern for him. The Pharisees were trying to walk a fine line between keeping the peace on both sides.
The Pharisees want to play it safe and with very good reason. The Romans were not above trying to put their boot down through active repression. There had been many who sought to challenge the Romans only to meet a very bloody end.
But Jesus was willing to take the risk, to tell everyone that he is different kind of king, one that is more powerful even than Caesar himself.
This is what makes Palm Sunday a risky and dangerous day. It might seem that a guy on a donkey is’nt that much of a threat to anyone, but looks can be decieving. It was on this day when Jesus made his public decoration that he was king, greater than any other king out there, including Caesar.
Palm Sunday also has a message for us. Are we willing to claim Jesus as our King, one that is greater than any modern Caesar, presidents and prime ministers?
Too often, we have made the Christian life one that is safe. We try to make Jesus fit into our political agendas of the left and right. But if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the king of all, then it means we live at times in defiance to earthly leaders regardless of whether we like their agenda or not. Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, not anyone but Jesus.
Holy Week is a battle between the pretenders to the throne and the real king. The pretenders thought they had put the real king to death on Good Friday, but….well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This faith that we have can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. It was that faith that started in Lutheran church in central Europe in 1989 that brought down the earthly rulers and changed history. It was that same faith, that willingness to follow King Jesus that led Archbishop Oscar Romero to speak for the poor and it was what got him killed as he served communion. It was the same faith that led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak boldy against his opporessors in South Africa that the side of freedom will win so they might as well join his side.
Maybe we don’t have to worry of living in a place like East Germany or aparthied-era South Africa. But we are called to place Jesus first to be able to say that it is Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.
Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not. Jesus riding on a donkey might seem foolish, but so was having a prayer service deep inside the old Iron Curtain. In the end, the man on the donkey will bring down the kingdoms of this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.