Toolkit for Change: Holy civil disobedience.
Sermon from the lay-preaching series, "Overturning Justice: Looking at justice in ways we don’t always do, or don’t do deeply" at Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church. August, 19, 2018.
Readings: Exodus 1:15–22 and Mark 11:1–11.
People are often surprised to learn that I still go to church because they see it as irrelevant, illogical, or detrimental to society. Some folks carry a lot of anger and pain in their bodies from hurtful experiences with Christians and the church and they can’t understand how or why I would want to align myself with Christian faith. Still others are confused because it always seems like the loudest people in the faith are those wielding it for personal gain. But the thing is, I’m still part of the church because it has taught me that faith is a radical business.
I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up, I sometimes felt like the church was a little selfish in the way we talked about the Gospel. I hated that it felt like we focused on ourselves when it was so painfully obvious that we had some real work to do out in world. For this very opinionated teenager, we never seemed to hear an explicit call to action enough times from the pulpit. Christians and our Christian church it seemed, wanted only platitudes, and I was not here for it.
That angst-filled teenager grew up to be a strong-willed woman, just with a bit more patience and compassion. It seems I’ve learned as an adult, that life can in fact be hard and indeed personal struggles sometimes must come first.
But it still feels like Christians can have tunnel vision—that we are reading the Gospels to be about personal salvation rather than as a call to action to create the kingdom of god here on earth. We read the Gospels to be about personal salvation, not action.
We are called to be more.
The Bible contains countless examples of God’s direction to love our neighbor, seek justice, and serve others. My frustrated teenage alter-ego may have been right: beyond our personal salvation, we do indeed have a higher calling and a lot to do.
But in times like these, where we are constantly bombarded with news of pain and trauma, where we have to fight to keep vulnerable families together, we constantly give into unyielding fear of our neighbors, we fail our environment left and right, we’ve lost trust in systems we thought to be infallible, addiction is destroying communities, black and brown children are at risk of having the cops called on them for just living their lives, people are judged by what bathroom they choose and who they love, women can be attacked in the street or online or in their homes and people in power can still commit rape and assault, kids bring AR-15s to school and gun down their classmates, where our neighbors are living in tents by the road in the city we call home…
What are we supposed to do about all of that? Beyond the struggles of our own lives, what does God expect us to do about all of that?
Toolkit for change: Holy civil disobedience.
Despite what it may seem, we are not actually helpless or alone. We don’t live in a hopeless age.
In times of great darkness, we are taught that we are never abandoned by God—she is always here. Now while that buddy system is great, it doesn’t always help us fix things in tangible ways. But then again, isn’t that exactly why God became human? To live among us? To suffer with us? To set an example and teach us? God has given us a toolkit for change.
Our Bible is full of examples of God herself, through Jesus, working to make change. In fact, one could say that Jesus spends a lot of time disrupting the status quo—he says things that make government officials angry, he questions the religious leaders, he hangs out with “questionable people.” And it’s because of all those disruptions, those actions against the status quo, that he made—God made—the ultimate sacrifice.
But it’s not just Jesus. In fact, the Bible was celebrating civil disobedience long before he was even born. In the story of the Hebrew Midwives, we hear of women making the life-threatening choice to go against Pharaoh and let Hebrew babies live. It is during the retelling of this act of resistance that the first Israelites are named in Exodus—and they are women. And it is in this story that we see civil disobedience in action, as those women choose God’s will over the State’s. What's more, we learn that this moment is the first mention of God in Exodus. God is named because of their witness, because of their disobedience.
We also have stories where people disrupt the status quo by serving others society would prefer we overlook, like the story of the Good Samaritan. And we have stories where Jesus performs very direct, public, and political acts of civil disobedience like when he angrily turns over tables and chases the money-changers from the Temple.
And then we have Palm Sunday.
In their book The Last Week: What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, lay out the political context of Palm Sunday. Their research shows that when Jesus marched into Jerusalem, it was as a counter protest to the annual military march and display of power happening on the other side of the city. That military display was meant to reinforce the idea that Caesar was the both the ruler of Rome and the Son of God—an Imperial Procession versus a counter protest.
Borg and Crossan state that the two processions would have entered at approximately the same time. Pilate’s would have been a triumphal show of power and Jesus’ would have been small and humble. Through this lens, we can see that Jesus did not go to the temple that day to defend it as an institution. He went there to disrupt it.
Palm Sunday is a Tale of Two Processions. One procession is the way it is, the other is the way it can be. Because remember, through Jesus and through his actions, we are shown a new way of living. Jesus’ teachings went against the Empire and institutions and Jesus imagined a better way.
In this context, Jesus’ actions on Palm Sunday are in fact a model for civil disobedience and disruption for us. Jennifer Henry the Executive Director of KAIROS, a Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiative, wrote: “When we walk, wheel, kneel, or stand in public space…when we proclaim truth and offer an alternative way—a demonstration of freedom or justice, or compassion, or reconciliation—we get closer to the meaning of the action of Jesus in that Palm Sunday procession.” Think about that. Through protest, we get closer to the meaning and action of Jesus!
Palm Sunday at church can feel a lot like a party, where Hosanna is treated like just another Alleluia. But that was never supposed to be the case. In the words of Ched Meyers, an American theologian, “We need to undomesticate Palm Sunday.” And to some extent we need to undomesticate our church and undomesticate our faith. We must move beyond just our own salvation and move toward the holy work of striving for justice. As Meyers says, we need to “put our witness back in public spaces.”
Invited by Christ to imagine a greater world.
Christ has shown that together we can create something so much more compassionate, but only if we are willing to name the ways we’ve failed, take responsibility for the ways we’ve destroyed, and finally dismantle the systems we’ve built to oppress. You and I are more powerful than we know when we start looking beyond ourselves.
But how do we know what needs fixing? How do we, living comfortable lives know when we need to step up and put in the work? Well, we have to listen and be ready to feel discomfort and compassion when we hear real-life stories of pain and frustration and anger from our neighbors. We have to remember that legality does not equal morality. That the actions of the state are not always right. Laws, although legal, do not always align with what we as Christians are called to do. And we must remember that transformation happens in those moments of disruption and discomfort.
I know a lot of people worry about the church dipping into something that feels political. But let’s be very clear. Just because something gets airtime in political arenas, doesn’t mean it should be off limits. Human rights, justice, respect, and compassion—those things are not inherently political. In fact, we know that love is not a policy and cannot be governed. We know that justice is a calling and no law can stop us from achieving it.
The Gospels invite us to imagine different things—bigger than anything governments, businesses, schools, or communities can imagine alone. The Good News has never been their promise. It has never been the promise of our own institutions. The Good News has always been God’s promise.
We may have been invited to imagine a greater world through Christ, but we had to know it was never going to be easy, right? We can make signs and hats and march in the streets and still not see change. We can call our leaders and never get a response. We can knock on doors around our community over and over again and never have one open. We can get frustrated by the pace of change. Or the lack thereof. But even Jesus could not change the world with one march. Even he couldn't do that. He entered Jerusalem, rode to the Temple, saw there wasn’t a lot going on and that it was getting kind of late, so he turned around and went back to Bethany to break bread with his friends.
We don’t have to do it all. We were never expected to do it all. But are expected to at least try.
Working to realize the Kingdom of God.
Faith, Christian faith, is radical love and a fierce fight for justice. It’s turning over tables in the temple and holding demonstrations with palms in the face of a formidable Empire. Think about it—the holiest things happening our world right now are not happening within the halls of power. They are happening right outside of them: acts of resistance, citizens roaring, and amplified demands for justice for every single one of our hurting neighbors that we have willfully and systematically ignored and left on the side of the road.
I know we are called to be part of something bigger than ourselves. I am called to love unconditionally and to fight injustices, not to use the political power of the church to spread hatred or manifest some man-made destiny. I don’t recognize that brand of faith. I fundamentally reject the watered down version of the Gospel that takes us directly to the redemption of Christ’s resurrection on Easter without first calling us to carry palms in protest of empires, or telling us to put in the compassionate work of washing another’s feet, or reminding us to share the struggle of Good Friday by shouldering the crosses of our neighbors. We have to put in the work to make the Kingdom of God real. It won’t happen any other way.
At the end of the day, I’ve been taught that our moral compass should have no borders and the strength of our compassionate justice is more than enough to topple every single institution of oppression, no matter how far-reaching, powerful, historic or well-meaning. This faith, this church, our God have all taught me that.
We can change the world. We know we can because God showed us that we can. Jesus showed us another way to live and to love and invited us to create that world with him. Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote, “The resurrection is the ultimate victory and vindication of the way Jesus lived—justice, love, and peace over wealth, violence, and power.” We must not forget that Christian love—that love we sing about as children and cling to as adults—that love has always been a radical, transformative, insanely powerful, and undying love.
Dear Friends, please ACT upon these things.
- Aumentado, Joe Santos. "Palm Sunday: A political protest." Medium, 2016.
- DeLong, Michael. "The Hebrew Midwives, Morality, and Civil Disobedience." Medium, 2016.
- Henry, Jennifer. "Spirited Reflection: The Palm Sunday protest march." KAIROS, 2017.
- Meyers, Ched. "Palm Sunday as Subversive Street Theatre: Sixth Sunday in Lent." Radical Discipleship, 2015.
- Thomas, Debie. "Parade or Protest?" Journey with Jesus, 2018.
- Wallis, Jim. "An Anti-Trump Easter Awakening: Christians must wake up and see the threat the President poses to their values." New York Daily News, 2017.
A huge thank you to Korla Masters and Pastor Susan Debner.