"Who is this?" they asked, for the whole city was in turmoil as the man on the donkey came riding into Jerusalem. Almost comic, the sight of it. This is no conquering hero on a mighty steed leading a Roman legion in a victory parade. Who is this? If this is an army, it's a strange one indeed. Children, women, men, tax collectors, prostitutes, and others called sinners. Surely, they would have been there, for the man on the donkey kept company with such people. Mary Magdalene was probably there and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph-we'll see them later this week--sitting beside the tomb.
Who is this? That was the question then and still is. As this week passes, we'll hear once again what happened to the man on the donkey. We know his name is Jesus. We probably know something about him even if we haven't been to church in a while. Centuries of tradition have taught us that Jesus died for our sins, a payment we could never make on our own. At times it seems that God had it all planned out, and Jesus had no choice but to follow the script: "Send some disciples to Bethphage. Tell them to untie a donkey and a colt. Recite the ancient prophecy. Ride into Jerusalem..."
Was it all so neatly scripted? Some have dared to raise questions, to wonder aloud about such inevitability. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson speaks for others when she questions the interpretation of Jesus' death as "required by God in repayment for sin." She says, "Such a view is virtually inseparable from an underlying image of God as an angry, bloodthirsty, violent, sadistic father..." She understands the story in a different way:
Jesus' death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human (beings), as sin...This death occurred historically because of Jesus' fidelity to the deepest truth he knew, expressed in his message and behavior, which showed all twisted relationships to be incompatible with God's shalom.
Who is this? Some of the old answers may no longer hold for you or for me. That doesn't mean we've stopped believing; rather, it means that some of our certitudes, our very doctrines, have pinned Jesus down too securely. We need to look again and see what we didn't see before, daring to be surprised by the man on the donkey. Our brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer met a God he had never known while he was confined in Hitler's prison. "God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross," Bonhoeffer said, "and that is the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us...Only a suffering God can help."
Who is this? We ask this question as though for the first time, and in many ways, it is the first time. For we are not the same as we were a year ago on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters a different city this year, a different country, a different world. I see Jesus riding into my hometown, my beloved and broken New York City. It has been several months since the terrorist attack changed our familiar skyline forever. Children who lived nearby at Battery Park City were often told by their parents, "If you ever get lost, just look for the towers, and you can find your way home." It didn't take long after September 11th for a child to ask, "How can I find my way home now?" The child's question has become our own. How can we find our way home? How, after so much that we counted on has collapsed? The simplest things are no longer simple--a goodbye kiss at the airport or an ordinary letter in the mail.
Jesus comes riding into a different city this Palm Sunday. He comes not bound by time nor the turning of calendar pages. On that horrible day in September, Jesus came riding into the rubble, into the cloud that covered everything and turned the morning light into darkness. Jesus came riding into the heart of suffering, and he has not gone away. Only a suffering God can help. It was not God's plan to bring down the towers-though some have sought to explain it that way. This was the work of human hands, of minds set on destruction and death, a macabre message we cannot yet understand. Jesus rides past the shops now closed-tiny stores that once sold tee shirts embroidered with the skyline, postcards with photos of the twin towers. Jesus was there on those nights when the mammoth machines were silenced, when firefighters and steel workers took off their hats and formed an honor guard for one flag-covered stretcher carried from the debris. Jesus was on the boat that moved slowly down the Hudson River from Pier 94 to Ground Zero, where people stood looking out at the only burial ground many of them will ever know, that place where priests and pastors and rabbis have commended the dead to God's eternal care.
Jesus comes riding into my broken life and yours. Only a suffering God can help us. Jesus went where suffering was sure to come for he lived his life within the heart of God. It was not what the world expected. Jesus' words and actions were threatening as often as they were life-giving. So it wasn't surprising that the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" Some followed him into the city because he had brought them out of despair into hope. But others were scared to death at the rumors that preceded him into the city, rumors of what he had been teaching the people who joined this odd parade.
"Blessed are the meek," he said, "for they shall inherit the earth." No, this is crazy-we know the mighty will inherit the earth.
"You have heard it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'" What sort of madness is this against the threat of terrorists?
"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink." Who can live that way?
"For what will it profit you to gain the whole world but forfeit your life?" That is surely no way to get the economy moving again.
"Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant..." Forget it, we say, we're standing tall and we will be greater still.
Living this peculiar, God-shaped life Jesus knew he would not escape suffering. He talked of it along the way, telling his confused disciples not once but three times that he was headed for Jerusalem, where he would surely be arrested, condemned and crucified. Yet, still he rode into the city, drawn there by the heart of God. And he comes riding still.
The streets are quiet today, near the place where the towers stood. That's how it always is on Sunday when the stock market is closed and the shops are shuttered. It's even quieter now, since some who once lived here have moved away. I don't know if the workers will get this Sunday off, if the cranes and the backhoes will stand in silence. But early on, in the first week of careful digging, the workers found something that they took as a sign. A piece of the towers had broken off and had fallen to the ground, a perfect cross-one long I-beam crossed by a shorter piece two-thirds of the way up, with outstretched arms of equal size., riveted together, charred and broken, yet somehow whole. No one knows exactly who organized it, but crane operators lifted the cross and set it upright in the rubble. Some saw it as a sign of God's blessing. For others, it may have been born of superstition more than faith, an omen not to be tossed aside. Perhaps for all of them-Christian or not-it was some kind of assurance that this was holy ground.
It is the sign we need in this broken place and in our broken lives. Only a suffering God can help. Jesus came riding into the heart of suffering and was crucified on a garbage heap outside Jerusalem. In more recent days, his cross has found a place in the ruins of New York City. The God we meet in Jesus is never a spectator standing at a distance. I guess we should have remembered this from the beginning of Matthew's Gospel. Even before Jesus was born, the angel whispered to Joseph in a dream, "You shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us."
Who is this? This is Immanuel, God with us. God with us in the broken places. God with us in the spaces filled with fear. God with us in the very heart of suffering. This promise remains at the very end of Matthew's Gospel. There, on another hillside, Jesus, Immanuel, turns to his disciples and to us wherever we are today:
"Remember," Jesus says, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Even now.
Let us pray.
Blessed Jesus, ride into our city today, into the ruined places, into hearts broken and afraid, come into the midst of all that has changed, assure us that you will be with us, even to the end of the age. Amen.