Most folks know Steve Burt writes in many genres — humor, mystery/suspense, horror/dark fiction, inspirational, church leadership, and devotional. He is also a retired pastor/professor who preaches in progressive churches on occasion. Here’s his sermon from April 2, 2017, preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County, FL. In it, Steve looks at Jesus’s Holy Week story through the lens of literature and history, not just theology. Enjoy.
Rev. Dr. Steve Burt
“The Truth of Palm Sunday” preached April 2, 2017
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County (Florida)
(I have included my piece, “A Secret Ballot,” first. It was presented earlier in the service during The Whistle Stop. But since it’s referred to in the sermon, it made sense to print it here.)
“A Secret Ballot” (Whistle Stop message preceding sermon, “The Truth of Palm Sunday”)
One night a week Dad had his meeting at the men’s lodge (Jr. OUAM), a national fraternal organization. All members had to learn the motto: Virtue, Liberty, and Patriotism. They had secret meetings, guarded by officers like Outside Sentinel and Inside Sentinel, and had a slate of officers like Chaplain, Grand Pubah (Councilor) and Vice Grand Pubah (Councilor). There was a secret handshake and a monthly password to get you into the meeting room on Thursday nights. Officers wore ceremonial hats like Shriner hats and started the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance. They supported scholarships for college students and had a themed patriotic essay-writing contest each year for those students applying. Not only did Dad belong, but so did my three uncles, their then late father, and their late grandfather. One uncle was the NY State Pubah (Councilor). You had to be 16 to join, but you could attend the roast beef suppers before you came of age and joined. I could hardly wait.
I should mention that my eagerness wasn’t really about family tradition. It was because my father occasionally took me down to use the wonderfully well-kept 8-foot slate pool tables. After school, during the week, I’d borrow Dad’s key and go learn the basics of pool-sharkery. Oftentimes there’d be a couple of retired men, wise old elders in our community, playing either cards or pool, so I got to interact with many men in their 70s and 80s. You cannot imagine what a big deal the Mechanics Lodge was in our town and my life, how much I looked forward to joining it. I had to memorize the motto and creed, be examined by the elders, and submit letters testifying to my and my family’s character and worthiness. More so than baptism or confirmation or joining the Church or anything else in my limited life, being initiated into the Mechanics Lodge was THE coming-of-age event.
On my 16th birthday recited the oaths and creeds, nervously fumbled my way through the members’ questioning, and left the room while the members voted on me. Dad and the uncles were there. It was nerve-wracking to wait in the dining room until the Outside Sentinel came to get me and lead me back into the room.
Their voting process was secret, and like many organizations like theirs, here’s how they did it: First the sponsor spoke on behalf of the candidate sitting anxiously out in the dining room. If paperwork and references were in order, the Clerk would declare it time to vote. Then every voting member would be given two marbles, one black and one white. In the center of the meeting hall the Clerk stands with a black felt bag with a drawstring at the top. Each lodge member solemnly approaches and, without showing his hand, deposits either the white (Yes) ball or the black (No) ball. It takes only 3 blackballs to reject a candidate. It’s the origin of “blackballing” someone. When every member has voted, the Clerk dramatically shakes up the bag and withdraws one marble at a time (suspense), announcing each marble’s color as he noisily plinks them into a glass bowl on an ornate table. What everyone hopes to hear is: “white” (plink), “white” (plink), “white” (plink), on and on. I’m told all of my votes that night were white marbles. I was thrilled at becoming a member and especially enjoyed playing pool in the men’s leagues. Back to that story in a minute.
Dad and one uncle shut down our dairy farm, bought a couple of backhoe tractors and a dump truck, and cashed in on the 1960s building boom. They pushed out cellar holes, dug footings, graveled driveways, and dug and built cesspools. One of the men who gave them a lot of business was a black man who ran the area’s biggest cesspool construction, replacement, and pumping business. Dad had gone to school with his wife, who was also black. This man was a truly upstanding businessman, was very active in his church, and was heavily involved in civic affairs. His son and daughter were in school with me and my sisters and cousins. His son and I starred on our school’s track team.
Dad proposed this businessman for membership in the Lodge. Although I had never noticed it, the Lodge was 100% white. The paperwork and reference letters went in. The man went through his grilling. Most of the Lodge members knew him from around town. He was intelligent and likeable, and on the night of his candidacy they joked easily with him at supper before the meeting.
The time to vote arrived, so the Outside Sentinel ushered him to the dining room to wait. In the locked meeting room, my father presented the man for membership. The Clerk handed each member a white marble and a black marble and gave the instructions: If a person failed to gain membership on the first vote, there would be discussion and a second vote. If it failed again, discussion and a third vote. No more.
Every member solemnly walked to the center of the room and dropped a ball into the velvet bag. The clerk shook them up, announced the colors as he plinked them into the glass bowl. “White” (plink), “black” (plink), “white” (plink), “white” (plink), “black” (plink), white, white, white, black—then he stopped without finishing. “Three black balls,” he said. Discussion was brief. The revote, much the same. In the discussion following that vote, no one spoke openly about why they might have put in a black ball. My father, I’m told, said something like, “I’ve known you all most of my life. It’s time to do the right thing.”
The Clerk called for the final round of voting. Bag shaken, marbles taken out: “black” (plink), “white” (plink), “white” (plink), “white” (plink), “black” (plink), white, white, white, white, black. The Clerk announce a No Vote for the candidate. Stunned silence for an eternity. Then the Clerk tried to make peace by saying, “Every person had a vote, and it was done by secret ballot in a fair practice.”
My father stood up, walked to the center of the room to face the Clerk, and with everyone watching, removed the Lodge’s fancy lapel membership badge he’d worn to countless meetings. He held it up in one hand, and in the other he held up between his thumb and forefinger the little black marble.
“We’ve been lodge mates and friends, done business together. I’ve delivered milk to almost all of you and extended credit to you when times were tough and winters were long. In 25 years I’ve never cast my blackball. But tonight I’ve decided it’s time. I’m casting it for this Lodge.” And he dropped his silver 25-year lapel badge and the black marble into the bowl with a loud clink. Then, head hung low in shame, he walked out past the Inside and Outside Sentinels, stopping only to collect his coat and his black friend. Two of my uncles dropped their badges and black marbles in the bowl and followed him out.
I was in college then, so I couldn’t join them, but I mailed back my membership card and letter of resignation.
That event, even though I wasn’t present that night, helped shaped my theology and my worldview. When I became a pastor, I always insisted—as do you—that including everyone at table matters deeply. An Open Table is not up for a vote.
“The Truth of Palm Sunday” (sermon)
There’s a difference between factuality and truth. A Native American storyteller starts his people’s Creation Myth with: “I don’t know if this is how it really happened, but I know it’s true.” Too often we discount the non-factual as not true.
If you don’t recall Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps you remember the movie. Gregory Peck plays lawyer Atticus Finch. A black man, Tom Robinson, is charged with raping a white woman who clearly perjures herself. Tom is tried and convicted by an all-white jury that clearly sees he is innocent. After the judge gavels the case decided, the courtroom empties except for a defeated Atticus Finch who gathers his papers into his briefcase. The only other people in the scene are in the balcony: all the powerless black spectators and Atticus Finch’s two children, one of them his daughter Scout. As Atticus turns to walk out, one by one the black spectators rise to their feet, hats over their hearts. One of them pulls Scout to her feet saying, “Stand up, your father’s passing.” It’s one of the most powerful scenes in any book or movie. Let me remind you, this is a novel, an acted-out movie—it’s fiction, not fact. But it’s true, isn’t it? And truth has the power to move some people. I think it’s no accident that our Civil Rights movement really caught fire after that novel came out in 1960 and the movie late 1962. Something doesn’t have to be factual to be true.
Remember this storyline? A roomful of white men in the safety of their protected cultural environment turn a blind eye to facts and evidence and pass judgment on an innocent and deserving black man. Was that To Kill a Mockingbird, or was that my story about my father and uncles at their lodge? Stories of truth like those repeat throughout history.
The folk tale “Stone Soup” is about a time of scarcity following a devastating war. A soldier returning home approaches a town whose losses have left them distrustful and hoarding. He carries a kettle on his back. He seeks food at several doors but is turned away. “Poor harvest.” “Need to keep what we have for winter.” So he lights a fire in the town square, fills his pot with water, and places it over the flames. He drops a large stone from the stream into the pot and waits for it to simmer. The curious villagers slowly gather to see what’s up. The soldier says he’s making the most delicious soup of all, Stone Soup, from a family recipe.” He sips the hot water and muses aloud that it’d be better with a few potatoes. Someone runs to get them. Another sip—needs carrots. Which appear. And meat, which appears. And garnish, so on, with the villagers responding, contributing, sharing. Finally the stone is removed from the pot, tables are brought out, and a delicious soup is enjoyed by all. They break out their fiddles and dance. The soldier later packs his pot, bids them farewell, and moves on. But they’ve learned, they remember, they’ll do this often. Their way of being together and of welcoming the stranger has changed. We get it. It’s not fact, it’s a folk tale. But we know it’s true.
Recall Jesus feeding 5,000 people. In Sunday school we learned Jesus did magic, hocus pocus, multiplying the few loaves and fishes that his disciples had. But it wasn’t just the disciples’ loaves and fishes. Those were simply the stone in the kettle to prime the pump for Stone Soup. I mean, 5000 people and no knapsacks or fanny packs? Come on! It’s the Stone Soup story, except it’s not identified as a folk tale. Enough for all, leftovers to go. Not fact, but it’s true. (Consider the potluck.)
Next Sunday the Christian churches celebrate Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, Jesus’s final week among the living. Jesus will stop and scout out the Temple, leave the city for a night with friends in Bethany, and return to the Temple next day to upset the tables of the money-changers. On Thursday comes the Last Supper, the falling asleep of the drowsy (maybe tipsy) disciples on guard duty, the arrival of armed thugs with Judas Iscariot in the lead so he can betray Jesus with a kiss, the flight of the terrified disciples except for Simon Peter who hangs close but then by the fireside thrice denies even knowing Jesus. Then it’s a kangaroo court for Jesus at the hands of the Jewish religious hierarchy, a whisking off to Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator for the death warrant to be signed, followed by the beating and scourging of Jesus before his crucifixion by the Romans on Friday, ending with an empty tomb on Sunday. It’s a gripping human drama that succeeds without the addition of miracles or supernatural elements. Which is why it resonates for me: no special effects.
That’s where I end it, the same place the earliest Gospel writer, Mark, ends it: the empty tomb. I don’t need the Resurrection and appearance narratives of the later church. I call that post-Easter segment Part 4 in the Jesus story. The Early Church fathers may have needed those for hope or they may have needed them to sell the Jesus story. I’m not sold. The human Jesus isn’t an actor in them; the cosmic rock star created by the early church is the actor. But I love the Holy Week story, which I call Part 3, because he’s the human actor
By the way, Part 1 about the birth is also added by the Early Church decades after Jesus’s death. But they needed a miraculous birth story to compete with Alexander the Great’s, Julius Caesar’s, and Augustus Caesar’s. Miraculous birth stories were a dime a dozen in ancient times. Filled with meaning, yes, but Jesus isn’t an actor in Part 1. Everybody else is; Jesus is a baby.
I like Part 2 (Jesus’s adult life and ministry from his baptism by John the Baptist until Palm Sunday. It’s got a lot of unbelievable stuff that distracts from the human story—miracles like water-walking, calming the storm, turning water into wine. But you can see the person coming out of the countryside to start a reform movement. In that, Jesus is the actor.
So, what I like is some of Part 2 and most of Part 3. Palm Sunday through the Sunday of the empty tomb—that reveals truth for me. That week is like a well-written historical novel or screenplay. Whatever literary form you choose, it’s been edited and smoothed, its dramatic scenes intensified, a few scenes added. It gets tested and tweaked through 40 to 70 years of oral tellings until it’s finally accepted for publication after the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., almost a half a century after Jesus’s death. Along with the Greek tragedies, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Homer’s Iliad and his Odyssey, it’s among the greatest dramatic narratives of antiquity. Its truth moves people to act.
A little background for Palm Sunday. In Part 2 of his story, Jesus gathered disciples to his renewal movement, called The Way (Book of Acts). What he sold was an ideology, suggesting to them that the way to live involved compassion. That meant compassion in one’s own life and compassion in the society, which translates to social and economic justice, which requires a radical restructuring. Jesus has no political, economic, or military power, only persuasive power to get others to sign on to his ideological vision, which he referred to as The Kingdom of God. The Way’s capsule motto or take-away phrase would have made for a crowded bumper sticker: What if a compassionate and just God sat on the present thrones of power?
The Jesus of history was no doubt a healer, a teacher, a Jewish mystic, and an exorcist—but those things aren’t what got him killed. He was killed because of his persuasiveness in promoting his Kingdom of God ideology from the grassroots level. It threatened the domination systems, the power-that-be: Rome, Herod, the sacrificial system of religion championed by the High Priest and the Temple hierarchy.
The Sunday school picture of Palm Sunday I got was the literal Son of God who had been born of a virgin in a manger was arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey with everyone eagerly awaiting him. Who wouldn’t cheer the arrival of the long-awaited Son of God? The parade route resembled our small town’s Fourth of July parade: fire-departments, school bands, boy and girl scouts, twirlers, veterans in uniform, people on the sidelines yelling hosanna. Palm branches got stripped off trees and waved (don’t poke your eye out). Cloaks thrown down in front of Jesus’s donkey the way Sir Walter Raleigh gallantly laid his cloak across a mud puddle for the Queen of England. Jesus dismounts, walks into the Temple, sees somebody counting money on a card table at a bake sale, and flips over the card table. The message: don’t sell stuff in church. It’s sinful.
But now I view this through the lenses of literature and history, not just secondhand pass-down religion. You can’t see Jesus from the 21st Century (which is the problem 90% of the Church has today); you have to see Jesus in the 1st Century.
It doesn’t start with Jesus, the virgin birth, or a star standing still over a stable. It starts with the Roman Empire. Under Julius Caesar and then under Octavian (known as Augustus Caesar), the known world is conquered by Rome, starint many decades before Jesus’s birth. Palestine, Judea, Jerusalem are crushed and occupied. The Roman-installed King of the Jews is Herod, then upon his death his sons (aka Herod). The Herods are set up because they are brutal local enforcers for Rome. Rome has the world’s best soldiers. Then there’s religion: Jerusalem is dominated by the Temple. The Temple promotes animal sacrifice to atone for one’s sins, with the High Priest and his staff of priests serving as intermediaries between the sinful people and their God.
So the Temple is basically a livestock market that serves a slaughterhouse that reeks of blood and rotting animal flesh. But it’s a lucrative slaughterhouse. Not only do the priests do well, but the bird-sellers and animal-sellers do well. To purchase your bird or animal for slaughter, you have to go through the money exchange to get the correct currency. This is because Jerusalem now has people from everywhere coming in along the recently built Roman roads. So the currency exchange people have an exchange rate and, because they have some control, do pretty well.
The Roman roads brought not only soldiers and newcomers, but also carpetbaggers and exploiters. A country that was for hundreds of years predominantly agriculturally based is suddenly under pressure as people are forced off their lands for lack of taxes and tithes (a triple burden paid to Rome, Herod, and the Temple). The good stuff gets exported via those same roads; the farms, flocks, and vineyards fall into the hands of absentee landlords either from Jerusalem or from outside the country (like losing the family farms to agri-business corporations in America). Unemployment is sky high and many are reduced to either sharecropping what was formerly their land or to begging and homelessness. The available work for some is the building of new Roman commerce cities along the roads. (Think how urban sprawl in America is always accompanied by first one mall, then another, then another on the outskirts, in either empty land or former farm areas.)
Two political institutions, Rome at a distance and King Herod’s court locally, are backed by military might. They are bleeding the populace and changing the country’s ethos, its way of being. About 3-10% of the people participate actively in the domination system that controls the political, military, and economic institutions at the expense of the 90-97%.
Any sign of insurrection or sedition—off with the head or up on the cross. “Messiahs” or “anointed leaders” with visions of overthrow are carved up quickly. One rebellion near Sepphoris that Jesus may have seen as a child results in 2000 crucifixions in one week along the stretch of road leading to Jerusalem. Crucifixion wasn’t as fast as a beheading or a sword in the heart, but it wasn’t meant to be. It was to make an example, and Roman commanders didn’t hesitate to use it.
Besides Rome and Herod being in cahoots, there was the corruption of the religious authorities. The High Priest was approved by Rome. So everybody at the top worked together and did fairly well. Talk about a layered and insurmountable domination system!
Back to Palm Sunday. For Jerusalem, the peak sacrifice season is Passover, when Pilgrims flock to Jerusalem to celebrate (ironically) Israel’s escape from Egypt and Pharaoh’s domination system. It now exists in different forms around them. Normally holding a population of 40,000 people, Jerusalem swells to 200,000 for Passover. (It’s like Black Friday at the malls.)
So enter Jesus, pitching compassionate life and a system that delivers economic justice. Overthrow is futile. He abhors the Temple’s sacrificial system and what it’s become, part of the Roman commerce machine. With the population about to swell five-fold overnight, more Roman legions need to be marched in from the newly-built coastal city of Caesarea Maritima to reinforce the Jerusalem garrison.
Let’s go back in time. We’re standing on the south gate wall. A force of 6000 heavily armed soldiers approaches the west gate to our left. To the east (our right) we see a ragtag bunch of peasants waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks for a guy on a donkey, which everyone assures us is a sign of peace. Nobody cheers the 6000 soldiers clomping along. The commander at the head of the double column is riding not a donkey but a battle steed. The legions send the intended message: don’t even think about acting up. The man on the donkey also sends his intended message: nonviolent confrontation ahead. It’s a visual contrast that Jesus carefully scripted beforehand. This is dramatic political theater. To our left is the brutal Empire with its famous Pax Romana motto (Roman Peace), proclaiming Victory Then Peace. On our right is nonviolent protester Jesus of Nazareth, whose banner, if he had one, might proclaim: Economic Justice Then Peace. [Guards with a vantage point like ours notify the powers-that-be, setting off a Tweet Storm.]
Jesus dismounts (gets off his ass, you might say, because he makes his decision, his commitment) and goes into the reeking, bloody menagerie that is the Temple and scopes out the mall mayhem, the corruption, the slaughter, the desperation of the religious Pilgrims fighting for sacrificial pigeons. “Want your sins forgiven? Step right up, purchase a pigeon, get it slaughtered, and you can see the man behind the curtain. Birds, sheep, buy one get one. BOGO.” Dead and butchered animals, the stench, the floors ankle-deep with bird and sheep blood. And permeating it all is an atmosphere where commerce is king and the cash registers are ringing to beat the band. After taking it all in, Jesus retreats for the night to consider his next action.
Gospel writer Mark (11:15ff) has Jesus spend a night outside the city, then return to the Temple the next day. Jesus has made his decision. He’s committed now: more orchestrated (dangerous) political theater. He purposely sets up his version of the OK Corral or maybe the Edmund Pettis Bridge, a showdown. Mark writes: “Jesus entered the Temple and began driving out those who sold and those who bought in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple.” I think Jesus overturned a great many tables and cages. Mark continues: “And he taught, and said to them, ‘Is it not written: [God’s] house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL the nations? But you have made it into a den of robbers!'” I guess Jesus knew how to draw together an audience. I don’t think those sentences describe how outraged he was. Rome was one thing, and Herod was another: you’d expect domination systems from them. But to have the religious establishment exploiting the faithful!
Who reacts? Mark 11:18ff says “The chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.” Pure political intrigue. Jesus is speaking for the 97%, but it’s the minions of the 3% who react. You smack a hornets nest like it’s a pinada and what do you get? Hornets!
This is real flesh-and-blood defiance, Jesus as an actor in a political-disobedience drama against the triple domination system. It will end badly for him. Speaking truth to power seldom ends well for the pioneers. Mahatma Gandhi died freeing India. Susan B. Anthony in women’s suffrage and Nelson Mandela in the anti-apartheid movement went to jail. Look back on the deaths during and after the Selma March for civil rights. Consider the 97% occupying Central Park, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Standing Rock at the Dakota Access Pipeline. Initially, things end badly for the first wave of leaders challenging domination systems and injustice. But sometimes the ideology lives on beyond them.
Donkey-riding Palm Sunday and table-turning Monday in the Temple are staged political theater, speaking truth to power. Good Friday is power trying to crush truth. Many dramatic scenes will happen between those days. I don’t know if they’re factual—Judas’s betrayal with a kiss and Peter’s three denials seem a bit contrived to me; maybe also the late-night kangaroo court of the Jews; and Pontius Pilate’s wavering about whether to convict Jesus seems highly unlikely, given his reputation for expediency and ruthlessness. But the scenes are masterfully done, and I like the order they’re presented in, the story they tell. It’s powerful. I say about Holy Week what the Native American storyteller said about his story: I don’t know if this is the way it really happened, but I know that it is true.
In closing, if my story “A Secret Ballot” shares a theme with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the folk tale “Stone Soup” echoes “The Feeding of the 5000,” what does this message, “The Truth of Palm Sunday”—about the challenging of domination systems, bring to mind?
More importantly, how are we being called to act?