Luke 19: 37When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38″Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 40″I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
I was at a joyful public event, a demonstration and celebration of sorts last Sunday afternoon. Like Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, it was even in the streets, at the corner of Lake Street and 4th Ave. It was even a celebration of sorts, even though we were gathered to grieve something tragic and senseless: the death that week of a young man, only 20 years old, James King. He had been walking down Lake Street by First Avenue, just the other side of the expressway, with his sister, when someone rode up to him on a bicycle, stopped and shot him several times, point blank. He died almost immediately. King was not a member of any gang, but word on the streets now is that he got into some kind of argument or altercation with a gang member.
Not to let this tragedy go unanswered, to keep the community from simply accepting this and acquiescing to such things, a public vigil was organized for last Sunday, at 4 PM. Being a member of this neighborhood now, I felt the need to show up, stand up, and be counted among those who said, “This is not right! This we cannot simply accept. This we will not remain silent about.”
The chief organizers were MAD DADS and V.J. Smith, who spoke here several weeks ago. Also present were King’s mother, his sisters and other relatives. Plus members and leaders of her church, members and leaders of some other community organizations, members of King’s graduating high school class, former teachers, friends, members of city council and of community agencies, and finally, neighbors who simply wanted to gather, grieve, and to show up, stand up, and be counted in solidarity with James King and his family.
As sad as the occasion was, with friends and family members weeping and holding each other for comfort, there was also a joyful, lively, and life-affirming feeling to the gathering. Most of the people there were African-American, so the speaking and the singing had the robust and joyfully assertive tone of a traditional African-American worship service. Even with secular city officials present, nobody apologized for speaking or praying “in the name of Jesus.” Some spoke who had also lost sons and daughters and friends to senseless street violence. But with time you can heal, and you can overcome the grief, and the desire for vengeance, they said. Another person spoke up who said that he had once belonged to a gang, and had done jail time, but that he had overcome that and left his past, and anyone else there in a gang could, too. Others spoke and urged people in the crowd not to take revenge, but to come forward with any information they might have about the crime and to report it to the police. Pay no attention to the social code against “snitching,” V.J. said. You get targeted, or you end up in jail, and they won’t be there for you the way we’re here for each other now. Almost all of them said they had found the power to overcome their past and to turn their lives around through none other than Jesus Christ. And everyone here can do so too, they asserted.
But I have a confession to make. There stirred within me during this street gathering some questions and criticisms, mostly along the line of, “What good does this serve? How much good does this do, when the people responsible for this kind of tragedy are probably not even here to hear these messages of hope and of challenge? There’s a lot of good preaching here, but all of it to the choir. Who really thinks that the killer is here to even hear the pain of Mrs. King? Who thinks that any gang member who might have information on the crime would even show his face at an event like this? And if they’re not here, then how will events like this stop future gang killings and catch the killer? How will songs and sermons like what I’m hearing now at this corner near the McDonald’s bring back the businesses and the jobs that would give these young men something to aspire to other than status in a gang and money from something other than selling crack?” I confess that such questions ran through my mind. But I’m glad I didn’t voice them. Sometimes, silence is the better part of wisdom.
Because my thoughts soon ran this week to another time when God’s people showed up and stood up in the streets to be counted for Jesus Christ and to assert their faith, hope and love in the face of fear, despair and hatred. And someone did come to Jesus and say out loud, “Stifle your disciples; can it, cool it, and curb your enthusiasm. What good is all this? Who is this really helping? In fact, isn’t this dangerous and needlessly provocative? When the high priest and the religious establishment have not approved this gathering, when they weren’t even consulted or considered? Don’t you know what kind of authority they have to squash you like a bug under their feet? And if that’s not scary enough, have you bothered to look up toward the top of the tower on the Antonia Fortress, overlooking this very gate? Do you not see there the points of Roman spears, the sun glinting off Roman shields and helmets, and the idolatrous, imperial red banners with the golden Roman eagle? Don’t you think they’re watching every move down here? Don’t you think they might even be taking down names?”
Luke tells us it was the Pharisees who challenged Jesus about the propriety of all this allegedly irresponsible noise and celebration, and this party, “takin’ it to the streets.” They were very responsible and restrained people. They always knew the proper thing to do. And celebrating like this was neither a reasonable, realistic, nor responsible thing to do.
To which Jesus could have said, “You know, you have a point there. Sorry about all this noise and this mess. Sorry about all the disruption and disturbance I caused you. Someone will clean up all the palm branches and the coats on the ground, and whatever the donkey dropped along the way, and soon you’ll never know we were even here.”
Instead, Jesus says, “I tell you, that if these people were quiet, the very stones would cry out [for joy].” And that in spite of the fact that the powers and forces of death were looming all around and overhead. Jesus knew that he would be dead within only a few days—he even said so. There was a mother there who would also lose her son: Mary. And some friends who would soon huddle together to hug each other and weep over another promising young life snuffed out in its prime by the biggest, baddest gang around: the Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, within the shadow of the Roman fortress, in the presence of his enemies, with the dragon of death raising its ugly head and baring its teeth, Jesus insisted on celebrating. He evidently thought that celebrating was the reasonable, realistic and responsible thing to do. Twenty centuries later, that’s what lurks in the background and the shadows of today’s Palm Sunday celebration. There’s an aspect of “nevertheless” and “in spite of,” to our celebration and acclamation of Jesus as King, the promised Son of David. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in spite of the forces and powers of death, depression and despair arrayed around him and that jubilant, exuberant crowd. And around us too, in the forms of gangs, whether they’re street gangs like the Bloods, or bigger gangs like Al Qaeda, international drug cartels, or the cartels and political organizations that peddle the most addicting and destructive drugs of all: fear, pornography and weapons.
So what good are celebration, or worship, or gatherings like the one last Sunday in honor of James King, or even this one this morning? Especially when those who need most to hear what we have to say aren’t even around, but who may now be hatching and carrying out their death-dealing schemes? Well, I can think of three things to say, three reasons why it was more helpful to take it to the streets than not, whether it was last week in Minneapolis, or 2,000 years ago outside Jerusalem:
1)It was good for me to be there at Lake and Third. I think of my presence there as self-care, like prayer and physical exercise. At the very least, it felt good to push back against the forces of depression and despair that would keep us hidden in our homes, with our shoulders hunched, for fear of offending the gangsters, whether they’re local gangs or global ones. For as Abraham Lincoln said, “To remain silent when one should protest makes cowards of men.” Becoming repressed, depressed and cowardly would be worse than anything that might happen for showing up, standing up and being counted. On the back of MAD DAD’s truck is a bumper sticker that says, “History is made by people who show up.”
Secondly, I’d like to believe that my showing up helped someone else who was there. Because everyone else who showed up certainly helped me. And we are all worth the good it did us. By our simple presence we helped each other remember and believe that not everyone is either a gangster or a victim. By the simple decency and courage shown by showing up, we helped each other remember and believe that God is still alive and at work cultivating and encouraging love and hope and faith even in the face of fear and evil. We believers may have our struggles and our doubts, wondering why it is, in God’s good world, such things as a senseless murder of an innocent person may happen. Or why the powers- that-were were allowed to lay their bloody hands upon the Prince of Peace. But if I were a gangster, I would have even more trouble and doubt over the fact that so many people find the strength and the decency not to give in to fear and intimidation and just stay at home and hide. If I were a gangster, I would have an even greater crisis of doubt over the fact that a hundred caring and concerned people are willing to gather in the street, to speak out and voice their outrage and their love for one another and their commitment to make this a safer, better community.
Who knows if, by our presence, we prevented someone else in that crowd from joining a gang and either killing or getting killed? Who knows if there wasn’t a young person there who thought to himself, “There really are other people for me, who will have my back when times get tough, people other than the gangsters who are trying to recruit me. These are the kind of people who will be there for me when times are tough, more so than the Bloods or the Crips.” As V. J. said, “Look around you, young people; these are your ‘homeys’ and not the pimps and the dope dealers. Your real ‘homeys’ are the people who ask you, ‘How’re you doin’? And ‘are you stayin’ clean, going to school, doin’ your homework, comin’ home at reasonable hours of the night?” I’d like to think that each of us being there added up to indisputable evidence that what V.J. Smith said was true.
Thirdly, it was good to be there because it was all we could do then and there. And its only by doing what we can do here and now, or at any given moment, that we can affect and improve tomorrow and forever. That’s all we’re capable of; its all we’re responsible for: the little we can do, here and now. I’ve always valued what I read on the plaque of another pastor’s desk, that said, “I will not let the big things I cannot do keep me from doing the little things that I can do.”
And who knows what results will come from the little we can do here and now? In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the story of a wealthy man who left for a trip abroad, after commending parts of his treasure to three of his servants. To one he gave 5 talents of gold; to another 2, and to another 1. When he returned, he found that the one with 5 talents of gold had invested that money and gained another 5, while the one with 2 had gained another 2. To both of them he said, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in the little things; now I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
So it does no good to stay at home and wring our hands about the big changes that we cannot make in the days to come. No, of course we don’t have the power to guarantee that by next Tuesday all drug and gang activity in Minneapolis will end, and that by the following Thursday there will be no more hunger, war or cluster bombs throughout the world. We don’t even know if we’ll have next Tuesday or Thursday. But we do have today, here and now. And we always have opportunities to do something, somewhere, for someone, here and now.
Back to my original question– What good does this gathering, this celebration, do?– let me turn that question around and ask, “If we pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done,’ every week, hopefully every day, and believe that it is being answered, if we believe that God is “making all things new,” that “the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ,” and that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” then who’s really being most reasonable and responsible? Those who cower in fear and despair, or those who show up and stand up to be counted with Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, and with Mrs. King and V.J. Smith and MAD DADS?
We never know the power of doing the little we can, whenever we can, even if it is but to praise, celebrate and affirm. From Nazi-occupied Russia comes the true story of two Jewish women, living in the forests and hiding from the Nazis, who were captured by a Nazi patrol when they were sneaking into a town for food. They were accused of being partisans, guerrilla fighters, and were threatened with execution the next morning. That night, they had what they thought would be their last meal, a bowl of watery soup with a few pieces of fat floating in it. One woman took out one of the pieces of fat and started using it to polish her shoes.
“What are you doing, polishing your shoes at a time like this?” the other woman asked.
She replied, “My father always taught me that, no matter how bad things seem, do something nice to help yourself feel better and look better. At least you’ll have your self-respect, if nothing else.”
So the other woman removed some of the fat from her bowl of soup and began polishing her shoes too. The next morning, they were brought in before a Gestapo officer for interrogation. The officer looked them over and said to his adjutant, “Release these women; they obviously are not partisans, because partisans living in the woods would never have nice, clean, new street shoes.”
Again, “I will not let the big things I cannot do keep me from doing the little things I can do.” Doing what we can, when we can, with what we have at any given moment, regardless of the obstacles arrayed against us, is always the most reasonable, realistic and responsible thing to do. You never know what God may do with it. And if God has the last word on human history, and if that word is Jesus, and if Jesus is God’s yes and amen to all the prayers of the Psalms and the promises of the Prophets, even God’s Yes and Amen to each one of us, then showing up and standing up, to gather, praise and celebrate, to be counted for Jesus, like those worshipers outside the gates of Jerusalem five days before Jesus died, that is reasonable, realistic and responsible, too.