Rev. Sarah Buteux
April 9, 2017
Palm Sunday, Year A
If you’ve ever been to London then you’ve probably been to Trafalgar Square and seen the monument to Admiral Nelson, though you might not remember it all that well because when you’re in London there are so many squares full of monuments to dead people it’s kind of hard to keep track.
However Trafalgar Square is special for a couple of reasons. First off, it is right in the center of the city. People tend to think of it as the heart of London, which means, if you want to protest or celebrate or show something off, Trafalgar is the place to do it. And it’s not just full of statues and fountains, it’s full of really big statues and fountains.
In the middle of the square, surrounded by four lions, standing proud upon a giant pillar is Admiral Nelson, who died at sea during the battle of (…you all get one guess here) Trafalgar. Very good. Next Sunday I’ll be sure to have Todd ask you who was buried in Grant’s tomb. Actually, he’ll probably be talking about the guy who was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but that’s another story.
Anyway, the admiral and his lions are in turn surrounded by four shorter columns called plinths, three of which support long dead heroes of old England you’ve probably never heard of, looking especially fearsome astride giant war horses.
But the fourth plinth was always empty. Empty for 158 years in fact, due I believe to a lack of funding, until 1995 when the Royal Society of Arts was given permission to come up with a suitable subject or object to balance out the square.
Initially, many suggestions were offered up: everything from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to Winnie the Pooh, but ultimately it was decided to use the fourth plinth to display a rotating cast of contemporary sculptures.
Since that time the plinth has been occupied by, among other things, the skeleton of a horse, a giant blue rooster, a human head inside a book being squeezed under the roots of a tree (this is art after all), an upended mirror image of the plinth itself, and a replica of Nelson’s ship, the H.M.S. Victory placed rather cheekily inside a glass bottle. Currently there is a giant thumb’s up on the plinth which will soon be replaced by a very large swirl of whipped cream with a cherry on top.
But perhaps the most confounding piece ever displayed was the very first statue. It was called “ecce homo,” Latin for “behold the man,” and it was a life size sculpture of Jesus Christ by the artist Mark Wallinger.
“Behold the man,” you may remember, is what Pilate said to the crowds when he presented Jesus to them after his trial- Jesus stripped and beaten, a crown of thorns upon his head – and this statue was indeed stripped down to nothing but a loin cloth, a thin crown of golden thorns the only splash of color on his alabaster body.
Now if you’ve been to Europe, you know that there are no shortage of sculptures, sketches, crucifixes, rood screens, mosaics, or paintings of Jesus Christ: Jesus preaching, Jesus healing, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, but this one … this one was different.
This one made people stop and stare…stop and stare, because you see nothing else in Trafalgar square is rendered on a human scale. Nelson himself is 18 feet tall upon a column that rises 151 feet in the air. The lions, the men on horses, the plinths themselves are huge.
So huge that this life size sculpture of Jesus looked alarmingly out of place, almost like a child who had climbed up on to something dangerously high in the middle of a public square. Christ up on that column looked so small and vulnerable, so humble, so human, that people couldn’t help but stop, and wonder up at him.
And believe it or not, the predominantly secular public in Britain absolutely loved it. One reporter referred to the piece as “magnetic.”
“In a way it was the reverse of the grand gesture,” he wrote:
Jesus, son of God, is the grand gesture to many. But Wallinger’s Christ was life size, dwarfed by the plinth, standing on its precipice, small, humble, god reduced to human form, head bowed before the people, hands lashed behind his back, biblically awaiting judgment from the masses. A bit like religion in (turn of the century) Britain. There was something heartening and ordinary in this figure. Its largesse was in its ramifications.
Another wrote: “What Wallinger has done (here) is … turn Trafalgar Square into something akin to a vanitas, a meditation on the transience of earthly things, making all other statues in the square look hopelessly pompous.”
Strangely enough, it was Christians within Britain who were a little more unsure. Seeing their messiah lifted up in such a public way – so small, so naked, so vulnerable, so tiny as to appear almost inconsequential – many of the faithful found that the statue made them intensely uncomfortable.
“As one man commented: ‘You couldn’t put your faith in someone like that, he’s as weak as a kitten.’ In fact, Jesus looked so fragile up there, that a writer for one of the U.K.’s leading Christian Magazines wondered if the sculpture’s air of vulnerability didn’t, “send out all the wrong signals?”
But the artist defended his decision. “I consciously made him life size,” said Wallinger. “We are made in God’s image,” he said, “(Jesus) was made in our image… so to stand in contrast to the overgrown relics of empire was definitely part of the plan.”
A plan, my friends, I do believe Jesus himself would have approved of. In fact, I think Jesus was going for something very similar when he staged his own act of public theater two thousand years earlier on Palm Sunday.
For you see, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey all those years ago, he was very much setting himself up in contrast to the empire, the Roman Empire to be exact, and his actions that day were calculated to show just how over grown, pompous, and ultimately self-destructive the workings of empires always are.
But unlike Wallinger’s display, Jesus publicity stunt was also incredibly dangerous.
For this was the time of the Passover, after all, the feast when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt. And Rome, knowing full well that a people remembering their liberation from one empire might well get it into their heads to liberate themselves from the current one, always made a strong showing in Jerusalem at this time of year.
They sent their number three in command, Pontius Pilate, along with a whole host of soldiers, to keep the peace. And just in case people forgot how peace was kept in Rome, they lined the roads into Jerusalem with crosses and nailed a bunch of unfortunates to them; a living tableau of suffering to remind people of what happens when you step out of line.
The plan was to shock and awe the public into submission, and all in all it was something Rome did well. The Romans believed in peace through victory, and there was no question who the winners were when you looked up at one of those crosses. Rome understood the power of public spectacle and they deployed it to great effect.
Pilate would have arrived astride a war horse. He would have entered Jerusalem surrounded by centurions, their armor gleaming, their weapons glistening. And he would have expected people to let out a cheer for Caesar, the son of God, the savior of the world, as he passed. Let out a cheer…or else.
What he would not have expected, what no one could have expected, was that some Jew from Nazareth of all places, would have had the gall to come riding in through the opposite gate at about the same time – not on a war horse, but on a donkey, not with an army, but with 12 unarmed disciples – and that people, the common people, would have had the guts to celebrate him instead.
Celebrate this man as he openly mocked Pilate and his overlord. And not only celebrate him, but cry out “Hosanna.” “Hosanna” which means (does anybody know?) “save us.”
I always thought it meant something more like “Hallelujah,” but no, it meant “Save us.” And not in a spiritual sense either. No “Hosanna” meant “save us” in a political sense, a military, real world, down to earth, practical sort of sense.
Meaning that “Hosanna” on the lips of those people would have been heard as a provocation, as an insurrectionist cry for liberation, as a big ol’ Trafalgar sized thumb of the nose at Pilate and his minions. And even worse, perhaps most damning of all, as a complete dismissal of the emperor who had already proclaimed himself the savior of the world.
“Save us,” they shouted, not to Caesar, but to Jesus.
“Save us,” they cried, not to the son of Julius, but to the son of David.
“O God in the highest heaven, save us” they sang, as Jesus went trotting over their coats and their palms.
“Who is this?” Pilate would have inquired if he had actually seen Jesus.
“Who is this?” he would have asked, along with everyone else in Jerusalem, when he heard what Jesus had done.
“Who is this?” he would have wondered even as he was already plotting how to dispose of this inconsequential little peasant.
“Who is this?” and how could a man like that ever save people like you?
That’s always been the central question that hovers around Jesus, whether we are talking about Jesus of Nazareth or the Jesus of Trafalgar Square. That is the paradox of palm Sunday, the scandal of the cross. How can a man – so meek and so mild, so gentle and unassuming, so peaceable and forgiving – ever save people like us?
How could a man who, in the words of Isaiah, “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” ever gather enough people to make a difference?
How can this man Jesus, who could have called armies of angels to his side and conquered all the world, but instead willingly endured the cross for the sake of the world, ever convince us to follow in his footsteps?
How could a man like that ever save people like us?
Well in order to answer that question, I think you have to answer another one first. You have to know what it was Jesus came to save us from in the first place.
Back in the first century, the Israelites thought it was Rome. They were waiting for a messiah – man of military might and heavenly power – to come topple Caesar and put a Son of David on the throne instead. What they wanted was a hero, a man of strength and character who could bash the evil ones into submission and free the oppressed to take up their rule.
Only God didn’t comply. God didn’t comply because God is no stranger to human history: a history that bears witness to the fact that those who rise to the top are all to quick to forget what it was like to suffer at the bottom. God knows that it is all to easy for the oppressed of yesterday to become the oppressors of tomorrow.
So God didn’t send them a hero. Instead, what God sent them, was a savior.
Someone with the courage to do things differently. Someone with the audacity to expose the lie that lay at the heart of the Roman empire’s peace and prosperity, indeed the rot that lies at the heart of all empires – even ours:
the lie that prosperity for some necessitates the suffering of others,
the falsehood that security for us can only come at the expense of them,
the deceit that violence is the only path to peace,
the false promise that power can save you.
Riding into Jerusalem on his little donkey, so small, so vulnerable, willing to live and if need be die for the sake of a kingdom so very, very different, Jesus spoke truth to those lies.
He spoke the truth that salvation, security, peace, and prosperity are not what we gain when we finally have the power to crush those who hate us, to subjugate those who would take from us, to exploit those who are weaker than us. Peace and prosperity will only come when we finally make the courageous decision to just stop hating and hurting and oppressing one another at all.
Jesus, in an effort to save us – not from some overly righteous God or overweening devil – but from ourselves, from the world we have made – chose to walk the way of self sacrifice rather than self protection.
He came to show us there is another way to live. Rather than wield his power over others and force them to submit to His will, Jesus poured out His power for the sake of others. He let it spill from him freely, as freely as he let his love and forgiveness flow out and over all those who did him harm.
Like a kitten on a plinth, like a lamb to the slaughter, Jesus walked straight into the center of Jerusalem and laid his neck bare. He called the powers and principalities of this world out into the open and he let them do their worst in the name of “keeping the peace.”
But as he did so, he also exposed the leaders of empire for what they truly were: tyrants, bullies, men so insecure about their hold on power that they would murder a gentle innocent in as cruel and violent a fashion as possible, just to be safe.
High upon the cross, his body broken, his arms and legs nailed down, he exposed the Empire’s peace for the bankrupt bloody sham it had always been and will always be. A peace that is never satisfied. A peace that can never be secured. A peace that will always require more blood, because the cycle of vengeance has no end.
They wouldn’t have seen this of course. At least not at first. Pilate would have thought the whole affair over and done with once they nailed the little dissident from Nazareth to the tree. What Pilate didn’t see coming, what no one did. – was the fact that Jesus’ story was far from over. Friday may have been a good day for the empire, but Friday was not the end of the story.
They may have crucified the man but thanks be to God, they could not contain his message. There on the cross, even as they tried their best to nail him down, his gospel secret broke free…the secret that a new kingdom has drawn near and we don’t have to live this way another day longer.
Friends Jesus came to show us a new way, the way out of Caesar’s empire into God’s kingdom:
a kingdom where humility and compassion reign,
a kingdom of people liberated from violence and united in love,
a kingdom eternally sustainable because in God’s kingdom no one is oppressed or exploited, murdered or marginalized…
a kingdom that truly is good news for all.
That is how a man like that can save people like us.
Thanks be to God.