ARMED WITH A DREAM
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 28, 2015; Palm Sunday, Year B
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Mark 11:1-11

“Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
Mark 11:9

Several weeks ago, reports of the 50th anniversary were all over the news media. March 7, 1965: the day now known as Bloody Sunday. It was the first voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery.

I was just a kid at the time: 8 years old. I think the event completely escaped my attention. I don’t think the teachers ever mentioned it at school. They didn’t roll the old black-and-white TV into the classroom so we could watch live news coverage, they way they did with rocket launches of the Gemini Space Program. They didn’t build social studies lessons around it, as when Lyndon Johnson went up against Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election, 6 months before.

In later years, I heard people talk about Selma. I knew there had been a big civil-rights march there. I knew the state police had cracked down hard on the demonstrators, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been one of the leaders. It probably wasn’t until I got to seminary that the story of Selma touched my life in any significant way.

Just outside the Campus Center at Princeton Seminary — the building where the dining hall was located — there was a small collection of bronze plaques on the wall. Because they were outside the dining hall, we divinity students walked by them three times a day. Each one was dedicated to the memory of graduates of the seminary who had courageously given their lives on the mission field. Two missionary couples had been shot during a mutiny in India. One couple had been thrown overboard by pirates in the China Sea. Another missionary died during the Boxer Rebellion. Another Princeton grad, William Shedd, died of disease in 1918, while leading a party of Armenian Christians to safety during the Turkish genocide. So desperate was their flight that there was no time even to dig a grave. The refugees covered his body with rocks. His wife had only enough time to say the Lord’s Prayer before they had to move on.

Not all these things happened overseas. There’s a plaque remembering Elijah Parish Lovejoy, lynched by an angry mob in Illinois for running an abolitionist newspaper.

It was sobering to walk by those plaques every day and be reminded that the vocation of Christian discipleship sometimes exacts a heavy price.

One plaque on that wall differed from all the rest. It wasn’t old and tarnished like the others. It did not display the patina of age. This plaque was bright and shiny, its typeface unquestionably modern. It read:

In Memory of James Joseph Reeb, Class of 1953
Fatally Beaten at Selma, Alabama – March 11, 1965
“Greater love has no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
John 15:13

That plaque, in particular, reminded us seminary students that Christian martyrdom does not belong only to ancient times. It happens even in our own day, when the gospel of Jesus Christ runs up against forces bent on perpetuating ignorance and injustice.

I also thought about Selma back in January, when I had the opportunity to see the movie of that name. I recommend it, by the way: it’s a powerful story. Among other people, the film focuses on John Lewis, born the son of sharecroppers but now a member of Congress from Georgia for the past 28 years.

On Bloody Sunday — March 7, 1965 — Lewis was a young man of 25, and a civil-rights activist. He was one of the first protest marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and stand before a wall of Alabama State Troopers. Those officers had orders from Gov. George Wallace to keep that column of protestors from leaving Selma on their way to Montgomery, the state capital. Gov. Wallace did not want to even receive their petition for the right to vote.

Edmund Pettus, by the way — for whom the bridge was named — served not only as a Confederate brigadier general, but also later on as Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. In giving the bridge that name, those who built it wanted every African-American who ever crossed it to think of who it was who truly ruled their lives.

It’s hard for us to believe, today, but in 1965, few African-Americans in the Jim Crow South were allowed to vote — despite what the U.S. Constitution explicitly said. In most counties, they had to pass absurd voter-competency tests, like guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar. The tests — given only to African-Americans — were almost impossible to pass. One Alabama county had more than 80% African-American residents, yet the number of African-Americans on the voting rolls was exactly zero. The number of white voters, on the other hand, was 118% of the white population (they had a little problem in that county with removing dead people’s names from the voting rolls).

The column of marchers was peaceful. They’d all been trained in techniques of non-violence in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. — who in turn had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi of India. When the commander of the Alabama State Troopers ordered the marchers to turn around and go back across the bridge into Selma, the leader of the march asked if they might first kneel and say a prayer. It was then that the troopers pulled their gas masks down over their faces, surged forward and began beating protestors with billy-clubs, tossing tear-gas canisters and releasing their attack dogs.

John Lewis suffered multiple skull fractures and was lying on the ground, bloody and unconscious. If some of his friends had not picked him up and carried him back across the bridge to a hospital, he would not have survived.

In an interview not long ago, a reporter asked Lewis if any of the protestors had been armed. He said certainly not: “We were armed with a dream.”

*****

That expression, “armed with a dream,” comes to my mind as I think about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem long ago. The column of marchers drawing near to Jerusalem’s city gates, led by a man on a donkey, was likewise lacking in weaponry. Most of the marchers that day, if not Jesus himself, saw themselves as protesting an unjust system: both the occupation of the holy city by foreign troops and the web of Temple regulations that fleeced religious pilgrims of their hard-earned shekels.

When the crowds cry out, “Hosanna to the son of David!” they are unmistakably declaring — to the Romans and everyone else — that here is a man who could be the Messiah, the long-awaited heir to David’s throne, the one who will give the Jewish people their country back.

Does Jesus know this is what the crowds are celebrating? He couldn’t have missed it. In fact, there’s a strong likelihood Jesus planned this little protest march with a political goal in mind.

Even his choice of mount — a donkey — is in service to that end. Now, there are differences in the Gospel accounts as to what sort of animal Jesus is riding. Here in Mark, it’s “a colt who has never been ridden.” Elsewhere, it’s a donkey. Because it all ties to a Hebrew prophecy about the messiah “riding on a donkey — on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” it’s pretty much the same thing.

Notice how carefully Jesus instructs his disciples on where to find the beast. He tells them exactly where the animal will be tied, awaiting them. Clearly, he’s arranged this ahead of time.

But why a young donkey? King David had fought his ancient wars as a sort of guerilla commander. His much smaller military force hid away in the hill country, darting out to annoy and harass the march larger, professional army of his enemies. The mount of choice, for David and his men, were donkeys — sure-footed beasts who could take them where no chariot could ever go. This is why the ancient prophecies speak of the Messiah riding in on a donkey: this true descendant of David will follow the example of his virtuous, God-fearing ancestor in every way.

There’s another reason to think there was a political dimension to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It has to do not so much with what Jesus and his followers are doing, as with what another group of marchers is doing at exactly the same time.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe the scene in their book, The Last Week (a study of the final week of Jesus’ earthly life). Very likely, at about the same time Jesus is bouncing along on his donkey, King-David-style, another column of marchers is riding into the city from the west.

At the head of that procession, on a magnificent war horse, is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. He and his troops have ridden in from the Roman administrative center, Caesarea, located on the seacoast sixty miles to the west. Pilate, like most of his predecessors in that role, stayed out of Jerusalem as much as he could. The magnificent palace at Caesarea was a far more pleasant place for a cultured Roman to spend his time. Standing on his balcony, a cup of excellent wine in hand, looking out over the shimmering Mediterranean towards Rome, Pilate could imagine he was worlds away from the teeming mobs of the dirty, overcrowded holy city of the Jews — the most rebellious of all the foreign nations occupied by the Emperor’s legions.

So Pilate, like all the Roman governors, kept his time in Jerusalem as brief as possible. There were several times of the year, though, when the governor could not afford to stay away — the time of the major Jewish festivals.

On this particular occasion, the festival is Passover, the biggest Jewish holiday of all. Passover happens to be the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from the tyranny of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The similarities to the Emperor of Rome were impossible for any Jew to miss.

Pilate needed to show up in Jerusalem during Passover with an impressive, public display of military force. He did this to remind any Jews with a heart for insurrection that rebellion on their part would be quickly squashed by overwhelming military force: “shock and awe,” Roman-style.

Borg and Crossan picture the scene for us:

“Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”

Along with all this military might, there are displays of what Borg and Crossan describe as “Roman imperial theology.” A little over thirty years earlier, Augustus Caesar had declared himself to be not only the ruler of the Empire, but the son of God. Inscriptions refer to Augustus as not only “son of God,” but also “lord,” “savior” and bringer of “peace on earth.” (Recognize those words?)

The other Emperors since — including the current one, Tiberius — have followed suit. It truly irked the observant Jews of Jerusalem that these blasphemous descriptions of Imperial power were foisted on them during Passover, their most sacred season.

So, imagine the scenario: two columns of marchers entering the city, each using a different gate. Parading through the western gate is Pilate and his legions, row upon row. Coming through the eastern gate is Jesus mounted on his donkey. The ecstatic crowd of his supporters are throwing their cloaks on the ground before him, waving palms (a symbol of Jewish nationalism) and shouting out “Hosanna to the son of David.” Hosanna literally means “save us.”

“Save us, Jesus,” they’re saying. “Save us from our pagan oppressors. Bring this virtuous reformer into our city. Inspire the people to rise up and cast the Romans out!”

Jesus, of course, is not armed. Surely there are some swords and daggers amongst the protestors — we know, for sure, that Peter is packing a sword, the one he’ll use a few days later to cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. But, by and large, the Hosanna-shouters have no illusion that their motley procession is in any way a credible military force.

But that’s not what they’re trying to be. The Jesus-parade is intended to make fun of its imperial counterpart. Some have described the palm procession as “revolutionary street theater” — a battle for the hearts and minds of their fellow Jews, but not by means of weapons. Like the voting-rights protestors coming off the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protestors who surround Jesus are armed only with a dream.

It’s impossible that Pontius Pilate, or the Jewish puppet-king Herod — or the members of the Sanhedrin who serve their interests — fail to notice the commotion happening at the east gate. They know exactly what’s happening. They understand how the hosanna-shouters are trying to publicly tweak their noses. But they’re smart. Rather than over-reacting out of anger, they bide their time.

No doubt, Pilate could have kept his soldiers marching straight into the city until they collided with the column of Jesus’ supporters. It would have been a bloodbath: and a public-relations nightmare for all the Emperor’s men.

Far better to wait a few days, until the excitement dies down. Someone in the Sanhedrin has been cultivating a member of Jesus’ inner circle, a man named Judas. Thirty pieces of silver — a mere pittance, in the world of counter-insurgency — ought to do it. That, and a swift, night-time arrest, in some out-of-the-way place, far from the crowds. Let the Temple police handle it. Keep the governor’s hands clean. Yes, at all costs keep the governor’s hands clean.

*****

There’s one factor the Emperor’s men overlook — and this will bring about the downfall, eventually, of the cult of Emperor-worship. Roman power is all about shields and armor and the tramping feet of warriors. They fail to account for a different power: the power of a dream.

And not just any dream. It’s God’s dream. A dream of justice and peace and plenty, in a kingdom where the only rule is the rule of love. Even now — unbeknownst to the governor, and even the emperor, that kingdom is breaking in. A new day is about to dawn.

How could they possibly know that the first rays of light from that new day will shine forth from a tomb?