Texts: Matthew 21:1-11 : Isaiah 50:4-9a : Psalm 31:9-16 : Philippians 2:5-11 : Matthew 26:14-27:66
When you reflect on American history, and you think of the wars we’ve fought together – and against one another – here on our home turf, what do you recall? The American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War all come to mind… but, I wonder, how many of you know the story of the war fought on Floridian soil, in Key West? It is the story of the noble Conch people, a people who in 1982 declared war against the United States and seceded from our nation, naming themselves “the Conch Republic.”
The story goes like this. Back in ’82 the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock and checkpoint in front of The Last Chance Saloon on the only highway connecting the Florida Keys with the mainland. All cars coming and going were stopped and checked for narcotics and illegal immigrants, which was not only a major inconvenience for a community that made most of its money through tourism, but a huge affront to the citizens of Key West who objected that they were being treated like criminals and having their civil rights stomped upon.
Protests by the City Council to the United States Federal Government went unanswered and, knowing that people were getting fed up, a plan was hatched. On April 23, 1982 Mayor Dennis Wardlow declared Key West’s “independence” from the United States, claiming that the United States had already effectively created a false border with their checkpoint. The people of Key West, known as “Conchs” were henceforth to be known as people of the Conch Republic. To drive their point home, the mayor declared war against the United States by breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed as a naval officer.
It may have been the shortest civil war in the history of the planet, as one minute later Mayor Wardlow – now known as Prime Minister Wardlow – surrendered to the same “officer,” recognizing the superior might of the United States armed forces. Immediately thereafter Key West applied for over a billion dollars in foreign aid, as is customary for the losing side in our recent military conflicts.
Say what you will about this tomfoolery, but don’t say it didn’t work. The playful antics of the people of Key West caught the public’s attention, and very shortly after the Conch uprising the roadblock checkpoint was removed. The people of Key West made their point and successfully confronted the collective power of the United States federal government without spilling a drop of blood.
There’s a name for this kind of activity – it’s called creative non-violent resistance. In the case of the Conch Republic, the creativity isn’t hard to identify – their action was clever, even humorous. Assuming the stale loaf of bread did no lasting harm, I think we can say it was non-violent as well. Most importantly, it was resistance. It was a small group of people, hopelessly outnumbered and outmatched, but not outdone. The leadership of Key West tapped into another source of power, moral power, and used that power to creatively draw attention to the abuses they were suffering. They used drama, theater and symbols because they understood that when you play with people’s symbols you play with their reality.
When you play with people’s symbols, you play with their reality.
We see this in today’s gospel readings as well. Having concluded his teaching and healing ministry in the countryside, Jesus finally comes to Jerusalem – to the seat of power. He has been a source of frustration to the religious authorities because his brand of healing and reconciliation does not flow along the lines of power they occupy. But they themselves, these religious authorities and the nation of Israel, are occupied as well. They are a people living under military occupation by the Roman Empire, hopelessly outnumbered and outmatched.
During these times, peasant uprisings weren’t uncommon. There were a series of folk heroes who pumped up the hopes and dreams of the working poor and promised a change to their situation through force. Without exception they were all crushed by the power of the Empire. So, when Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem riding a donkey and being cheered on by the crowds, being called the “Son of David” – Israel’s greatest king – we can understand how some people might have taken his entrance as a signal that he’d arrived to confront the powers that be, which he had… but not in the way that was expected.
When you play with people’s symbols, you play with their reality. Jesus understood this, and his parables clearly show this. Repeatedly he taught his disciples and those who gathered to hear him speak using language full of rich metaphor and symbolism, often in order to break those symbols open and reveal the truth that lies beneath them. Here, Jesus takes that method of teaching one step further.
Jesus sends his disciples to fetch him a donkey for his entry into Jerusalem. Matthew recalls here the prophet Zechariah, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” Jesus enters the city on a donkey, not a war horse. He plays with the people’s symbols as a way of teaching something about God’s reality.
You see, it’s not that a ruler wouldn’t ride a donkey, that there’s something too humble about this animal for a real king, it’s what it meant. When a ruler, a Caesar, entered a town he intended to conquer he would ride in on a war horse. His entrance would make clear his intentions. He intends to claim this land for his own. Afterward, once the land had been subjugated, the emperor would ride in on a donkey – a symbol of peace – making it clear that the war was over and rulership was decided.
How then were the people to understand Jesus’ decision to enter on a donkey? The war wasn’t over. The people were still living under occupation. Was he declaring kingship, as the Son of David? Was he mocking Caesar? What kind of uprising was this?
It was a creative, non-violent one. Non-violent, at least, on Jesus’ part – the one named at his birth as the Prince of Peace. It was creative in the way that only Jesus, the revelation of God, the creator of the universe, could be creative. In this act, and in the acts to follow, Jesus plays so deeply with our symbols that our entire reality – our collective reality – is changed.
God comes to us in the middle of our daily wars and conflicts, into our bullet riddled neighborhoods and our terrorized streets, riding a donkey – not a warhorse. God has not come to conquer us, but to pass the peace. God arrives among a people occupied saying, “peace be with you.”
God comes to us in the middle of all our struggles for power, into our angling and maneuvering for titles and jockeying for position to create a world where we all belong to each other. We have difficulty understanding this new world order. We ask, “are you the King of the Jews” and receive God’s cryptic reply, “you say so.”
God arrives among us, waving our little palm branches – our little trees, and God finds a tree to hold as well, to hold and to hang on. Christ takes the shame of the cross and breaks it open to reveal the surprising meanings that lie beneath – that suffering taken on in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the weighed down, the isolated, the despised can awaken the world and change how we think about ourselves and each other.
This is a part of creative non-violent resistance as well. Like the young men and women who sat down at lunch counters in Wichita, Kansas in 1958, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that organized freedom rides from the north to the south, we discover that even our creative, playful protests come with high costs. Children beaten or hosed, attacked by dogs. A prophet of peace hung on a cross. Playing with symbols, playing with reality, is a dangerous thing – it can change
the world, which is why the world so often doesn’t like it.
We enter now into this Holy Week, a week full of pageant and of play. Some may ask why we go through all these motions. If Christ is already risen, if Easter happened 2000 years ago, then why still tell these stories? Why do we have to go through Maundy Thursday, and especially Good Friday? Why again? Why all this playing around?
Because we know that this is serious play. Hold on to these little trees, these little symbols of our love for a king, a ruler who is changing the world. We are playing with symbols – branches and lineages, foot washings and shared suppers, crosses and darkness and light. Stories from the salvation history. Symbols that God has come for us, is coming for us, and is sending us out as part of the unending song of God’s unknowably deep love for all creation. We are playing with symbols and we are being changed, shaped, by these symbols into people who can more fully represent God to each other and to the world.