April 5, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Imagine the road into Jerusalem packed with people in town for the Passover festival. The crowds press against each other, filling a city the size of Wheeling with nearly ten times that number. Into that flood of humanity wade one man on a donkey, her nursing colt, and his followers. They are intent on making their way to the Temple.
Of course now that scene seems bizarre! We cannot gather in crowds. There is no March Madness, no graduations, no packed concert halls, no St. Patrick’s Day parades. There are no big beach weddings or sanctuaries full of mourners. Even ten people in a meeting room is pushing it!
But even though we are worshipping remotely and waving our palms on video, we will still celebrate Jesus riding into our world.
And what he brought into Jerusalem still has the power to turn the world upside down!
Let me tell you a story. It happened in Leipzig in 1989, when it was still part of East Germany. It happened at St. Nicholas Church, where a small group of people (usually no more than ten) would gather on Monday evenings to pray for peace.1
Government officials took notice. They infiltrated prayer meetings and looked for signs of revolution. The pastor remembers that he was careful to cut the microphone if anyone started to sound “too political.” He didn’t want the church to get fined or the prayer meeting to be shut down.
When some prayer group members applied for permission to relocate to West Germany, officials quickly granted the requests, glad to be rid of potential malcontents. But the plan backfired when word spread that this was a new way to emigrate. Tens and then hundreds and finally more than a thousand people started attending the weekly peace prayer meetings. It became a movement too big to ignore.
So Moscow ordered the prayers stopped. Soldiers from other parts of the country were sent so they would not hesitate to shoot if ordered. Warnings were issued: stay home!
The pastor’s wife begged him to listen. (I have found pastors’ wives to be very wise!)
But the pastor did something different. He asked people to bring … candles.
It seemed like a silly thing to do. Gas masks would have made sense. Or weapons, for self-defense, but candles seemed as crazy as brandishing palm branches.
Katie Hines-Shah writes, “These [branches cut from trees] are no match for the forces arrayed against them. The temple priests have scripture and tradition. The Roman officials have their laws and armies. The centurion soldiers have their breastplates and helmets and, most importantly, their swords and spears. What chance do the people have to stop or sway the powers of the world with only branches in their hands?
They have no chance. Which is perhaps why Matthew writes that they lay their branches down on the ground, along with their garments. [They are exposed, vulnerable, unarmed.] Nothing will protect them but the decency and mercy of other people.”
That’s what the pastor was counting on. “He explained his reasoning: ‘People carrying candles can’t be carrying guns; they can’t run.’ Maybe this would protect them from soldiers looking for an excuse to fire.”
The evening of Monday October 9, 1989 no one knew what to expect. Would anyone slip past the soldiers to attend prayers? Would the government stop the prayers? Would peaceful protests turn into violent clashes? Nobody knew.
The answer came as people started arriving. In twos and threes, in tens and twenties.
Seventy thousand people turned out. They chanted: “We are the people.” “No violence.” “Come join us.”
They might as well have been chanting, “Hosanna” – save us!
They say the army commander called Moscow but got no response. When the people spilled out into the Leipzig streets, candles in hand, the troops unexpectedly stood down. And while the Berlin Wall would fall some weeks later, people say that freedom came to East Germany that night in Leipzig, thanks to some peaceful people carrying nothing more than candles, hoping for nothing more than mercy.
It did not turn out quite that way in Jerusalem. The palms were no more a threat than the candles; the cloaks cast on the ground were just as much a sign of nonviolence and vulnerability; but the authorities chose to see it as disloyalty, as rabble-rousing, as dangerous! It took them a few days, but Jesus was arrested and beaten. He was tried on charges of blasphemy and rebellion. And the sign above his cross mocked, “This is the king of the Jews”.
There are limits to human mercy.
Hines-Shah writes, “The Palm Sunday protestors know that. Their appeal is not to temple priests, Roman officials, or centurion soldiers. They appeal to Jesus, the ‘Son of David,’ to hear their Hosannas and have mercy on them. [And so their cries are answered by a God whose mercy endures forever. Easter is God’s response.] Tree branches and candles [may be] no match for the powers of this world, but the powers of this world are no match for the powers of God.”
In Leipzig, in the square outside St. Nicholas, there is a replica of one of the church’s iconic pillars. On its base is an inscription commemorating the events of October 9, as “The day the church came out into the world.”
We are not likely to ever find ourselves in Leipzig or Jerusalem staring down soldiers. It may be a while before “stay at home” orders are lifted and we gather in person as a church again. But we are always Christ-followers. Whenever we go out into the world; whenever we stand up to the powers; whenever we plead to God, “Save us!” we go with ordinary objects in our hands – palms or candles, cans of food or book bags full of school supplies, packages of toilet paper or containers of hand sanitizer.
What we hold in our hands is no threat, but the one who holds us by the hand, is turning the world upside down, redeeming it, and filling it with hope! Amen
1 here and following from “The church out in the world” by Katie Hines-Shah in The Christian Century, 3/26/20