“In Triumph or Tragedy”
A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church – UCC
based on the theme: Where Your Journey Meets Jesus
April 10, 2022
Luke 19:28-40 NRSV
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “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. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As 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, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Almost everyone has experienced both triumph and tragedy on our journey of life. Live long enough and bad things will happen. Live long enough and amazing moments, moments that feel like you’ve won the National Championship of Life, happen. If we listen carefully, the Scripture this morning puts triumph and tragedy in a different perspective than we may.
The story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey has been called the “Triumphant” Entry. Most of what I hear and see people define as “triumph” I believe God would call “tragedy.” As people of faith hopefully we can examine our assumptions and be open to new understandings so that we can grow in faith and more clearly see where our journey meets Jesus on his journey.
As I listen to too many voices claiming to be Christian I fear the American Church has sold its soul to a false image of the meaning of triumph. Many have confused faith with “God, guns, and guts.” A significant minority have politicized religion and made politics a religious test of citizenship. Some are so unaware of the level of privileges that their life begins with that they fear letting anyone else have equal rights. They are armed, and dangerous and they are rabid about passing laws that express their contempt for gay people, their disdain for justice for persons of other races and nationalities and their refusal to accept equality for women. They have turned back the clocks on freedom while screaming that they are the ones protecting freedom. What they mean is they are protecting the privileges of those just like them. They do it by wiping out decades of progress in justice for minorities, for those at risk, and those who have been marginalized. I believe God would call this a tragedy.
The American version of Christianity seems to be raging with a last gasp attempt to define Christian faith as a violently hateful, exclusive religion. I doubt Jesus would recognize it if you asked him. Some have spoken of the American Church as the Militarized Industrial Consumer Cult. It seeks to sell a Jesus that is triumphant over all enemies by force and power. To hell with the commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” They sell religion using the best marketing schemes of Madison Avenue. They offer glitz, glamour, rock concert theatrics, and shameless demands for more money, not to give to the poor but to buy bigger mansions and jets for their preachers. And then they need to pay the lawyers to cover up the scandals of those rock star preachers. Their triumphs are in reality a terrible tragedy for the gospel of Jesus Christ which is founded on the commandment to “love one another, as I have loved you.”
And, as I have said before, they are masters at reversing the narrative. They accuse those of us who believe in an extravagant welcome, a mission of generosity and service, and a Lord who said, I came to serve and not be served, of being the heretics and blasphemers. They seem to believe we deserve to be executed by God and sent to eternal suffering for our misguided faith.
How do I justify my belief in a different God than the reigning image of God of American Christianity? I read the Scriptures with an understanding of its rich truth and powerful symbolism. I listen to the challenging words of God’s prophets, apostles, and of Jesus himself. This morning’s Scripture is a rich tapestry challenging our notions of triumph and tragedy. Take a brief journey back with me to Jerusalem around the year 33 and look at what took place according to Scripture. Then listen as we discover what those who studied life in Jesus’ time when Jesus rode a donkey into the city. His parade was in fact a kind of living parable challenging our understanding of triumph and tragedy.
Look first at the other end of the city from where Jesus entered that day. There you will see the Roman Empire’s definition of triumphal entries. For years Pilate had seen the disruptive rioting, and revolutionary explosion of violence as the religious pilgrims came to town to celebrate their holiest of weeks –Passover. He was determined to show that the might of the Roman Army would suppress any opposition to Caesar. Pilate was entering Jerusalem at the head of an army on horses, armored to the hilt, armed with sword and shield and enough soldiers to quiet any zealots who would try to stir up trouble.
In contrast the Scripture tells us Jesus chooses “street theatre” over power dramatics. He chooses irony and satire to deflate the triumphalism of Pilate. His ride into town on a donkey at the head of his own parade is almost comic. Jesus knows that the religious leaders of his day were controlled by the politics of their power. They feared any disruption in the status quo would cause Pilate and his army to destroy their city leaving them with nothing. They had already seen the problems this Jesus of Nazareth caused by his teaching, his acts of healing and forgiving and even giving new life to the poor peasants and lepers and tax collectors and sinners that had gathered around him. They were already planning to manipulate the crowds to turn Jesus over to the Roman form of violent execution.
So instead of a proud horse with armor and swords and weapons and shields, Jesus chooses a donkey. He has to borrow it because he is too poor to own one. He listens as the people shout and proclaim him king and he does not respond to whip up their frenzy. He knows that they will be the same ones, manipulated by the religious leaders until the same ones who were shouting “Hosanna,” that day would be shouting “crucify him” in just a few days.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a silent judgment on what we often call triumph. Jesus didn’t enter into Jerusalem to overthrow Caesar or to storm Pilate’s headquarters to declare Pilate didn’t win the election. He didn’t arm himself and threaten anyone when those religious leaders ordered him to tell his followers to pipe down. He smiled and said, if they were silent the stones themselves would shout God’s glory. In a world that confuses triumph with tragedy and tragedy with triumph Jesus was clear about the nature of his kingdom, the values of his reign, the source of his power.
He knew that those who live by the sword die by the sword. He knew that God valued loving one’s neighbor as oneself, blessing one’s enemy not cursing him, and saving one’s life by giving it. Jesus demonstrated that the source of God’s power was revealed in kneeling down at the feet of others and washing feet as a sign of servanthood. Jesus’ triumph was and is the triumph of love over all the other powers, purposes, and pursuits that even so many of those who claim to believe in him live by. Jesus’ journey was the journey of sacrificial love.
Whenever our journey leads us to a place that seems to be marked by tragedy, some would say that is a sign of God’s judgment, of God’s punishment. The Gospels show us that Jesus entered into tragedy after tragedy and never pronounced those verdicts. Instead, he reached out to touch the untouchable, to lift the suffering person up, to welcome the foreigner, to respect and honor the woman, to mourn when someone died, but also to promise a resurrection that would triumph over even the greatest of tragedies.
As we take this familiar journey from the entry to Jerusalem to the dark night of betrayal, denial, and ultimately the execution of an innocent man, let us ponder the meaning of triumph and tragedy. Jesus reminds us that it would be a greater tragedy for a person to gain the whole world of power, privilege, and profit but lose one’s soul. Would it not be a greater triumph for the world and for God to stand up to injustice and hatred and evil by doing what is just and loving and good even to those who persecute us for that love?
Jesus enacted a great parable with his entry into Jerusalem that day. Like his other parables, his actions challenge the way we think and define ourselves and others. They offer a different perspective for living and a fresh way to understand what faith in God means. The root of it all was the belief that the power of love is greater than all the other powers that people use, greater than death itself. God’s love always triumphs over human tragedies. On our journey let us understand the difference between triumph and tragedy, and let us choose God’s way to triumph. It is the way of the cross. AMEN.